How Kaiser Cars Work


The initial price for the 1947 Kaiser Special was $1868. Postwar inflation quickly boosted it above two grand. See more pictures of Kaiser cars.

Henry J. Kaiser and Joseph W. Frazer literally parted company in 1949, but they'd been at loggerheads once before. In 1942, Kaiser was experimenting with plastic-bodied cars, hinting that he just might sell them for $400-$600 once World War II was over. He also suggested that auto companies announce their postwar plans immediately.

Industry-veteran Frazer was incensed: “I resent a West Coast shipbuilder asking us if we have the courage to plan postwar automobiles when the President has asked us to forego all work which would take away from the war effort.

Kaiser has done a great job as a shipbuilder … but I think his challenge to automobile men is as half-baked as some of his other statements … I think the public is being misled by all these pictures of plastic models with glass tops, done by artists who probably wouldn't want to sit under those tops in the summer and sweat."

This public brouhaha was long forgotten by July 1945, when Henry and Joe joined forces to form Kaiser-Frazer. Both men compromised, and their relationship was amicable, at least for a time. Though Henry discovered that his plastic car for the common man was just wishful thinking, he had high hopes for a more-radical Kaiser than what ultimately emerged.

It would have stemmed from the 1946 K-85 prototype, which looked like the conventional Frazer then already locked up, but employed unit construction on a shorter 117-inch wheelbase. Suspension and the "Packaged Power" drive­train, worked out by engineer Henry C. McCaslin, were very different.

For one thing, an 85-horsepower Continental six drove the front wheels, not the rears. A conventional three-speed transmission sent power via a helical-gear transfer case to a front differential, then to the wheels by U-jointed halfshafts. Equally novel was four-wheel independent "Torsionetic" suspension: a pair of longitudinal torsion bars, each 1.3 inches thick by 44.5 inches long. The steel bars twisted to provide spring action like conventional coils or semi-elliptics.

McCaslin wanted unit construction because "we needed to use more of the operation in the plant. We had the welding equipment but lacked large dies and cranes. It was a compromise to get the car into production."

But the front-drive K-85 didn't have a chance. Aside from exorbitant tooling expense, technical problems such as heavy steering, gear whine, and wheel shimmy proved insurmountable. With so much weight over the front wheels, the K-85 would have needed power steering and that would have added $900 to the retail price.

So in May 1946, K-F decided to abandon this idea for a conventional rear-drive Kaiser priced below the Frazer.

Production for both new makes began that June at Ford's huge wartime bomber plant in Willow Run, Michigan, near Detroit, that K-F had leased from the federal government's Reconstruction Finance Corporation. Like the Frazer, the new Kaiser Special was a 1947 model. Initial price was $1868, though postwar inflation quickly boosted it above $2000.

It was very much like the Frazer, of course: a roomy flush-fender four-door sedan with 123.5-inch wheelbase, styling by the eminent Howard A. "Dutch" Darrin, and a "stroker" six making 100 bhp from 226 cubic inches. The Kaiser wore a multipiece grille that was cheaper to make than the Frazer's because the pieces were smaller. Furnishings were naturally more-basic, in line with the lower price.

Perhaps inevitably, a fancier Kaiser Custom was added late in the model year at about $350 above the Special and $150 more than the standard Frazer, but some $250 less than the top-line Frazer Manhattan.

A bit later, Customs were offered with optional dual intake and exhaust manifolds that boosted bhp to 112. But Kaiser would have no automatic transmission through 1950 (after which proprietary GM Hydra-Matic was offered); only a standard three-speed manual available with overdrive as an $80 option.

Though plans called for building two Kaisers to every Frazer, the 1947 ratio was 1:1 so as to fill initial orders. Both lines were basically unchanged for 1948, when very few Customs were built, though Kaiser volume far outpaced Frazer's. These were outstanding years for what came to called the "postwar wonder company."

Kaiser production totaled more than 70,000 for '47 and nearly 92,000 for '48. All told, K-F made a healthy $30 million profit on 1947-48 volume that put it ninth in production -- the highest independent.

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1949 Kaiser Special Traveler and Kaiser Custom Vagabond

Customers paid $200 more for the 1949 Kaiser Custom Vagabond with leather upholstery than they did for the similar Kaiser Special Traveler.

A scheduled facelift gave the 1949 Kaisers a broader, shinier grille and larger taillights. Custom was retitled DeLuxe, and gained the 112-bhp engine as standard. Four new models arrived. Two were utility sedans, an idea from Henry Kaiser himself. They were much like the standard article save a double-door rear hatch and fold-down back seat.

The economical Special Traveler arrived at $2088, the leather-upholstered Custom Vagabond at $200 more. In effect, these were a cost-saving substitute for a true station wagon, one of many things K-F never would get around to building.

Kaiser's other two '49 newcomers were a four-door convertible and the Virginian four-door hardtop, the first postwar use of those body types. Both were richly appointed DeLuxe offerings with excellent visibility thanks to the lack of steel B-posts, though both retained vestigial pillars with glass panes. The convertible also carried fixed side-window frames and a heavily braced X-member frame for added structural strength.

Unfortunately, the Kaisers cost as much as some Cadillacs -- $3000-$3200 -- so only a handful were produced: an estimated 946 Virginians and just 54 convertible sedans. Those that didn't sell as '49s were given new serial numbers for 1950.

From the first, K-F offered an unusually wide range of paint, trim, and upholstery variations. This was the work of Carleton Spencer, who took some initial cues from research on home interiors done by House & Garden magazine. The results were hues like Indian Ceramic (a vivid pink), Crystal Green, Caribbean Coral, and Arena Yellow.

These and other color names were actually written in chrome script on the front fenders of '49 Kaiser Customs. Detroit, as a whole, listed 218 exterior colors for '49; 37 were K-F's. Of the industry's 150 different 1949 interior fabrics, K-F owned 62.

The original Kaiser dashboard was an inexpensive design with horizontal gauges. For 1949, this gave way to a more-ornate panel with a giant speedometer ahead of the driver and a matching clock on the passenger's side.

DeLuxe dashboards sparkled with chrome, stainless steel, and a massive ivory steering wheel with a big semicircular chrome horn ring. Such flash combined with colorful paint and fashion upholstery did much to doll up what was otherwise an unchanged and surprisingly fast-aging design.

And therein lay the seeds of disaster. Chairman Henry Kaiser boldly tooled up for 1949 volume of 200,000 cars -- against the advice of his marketwise partner. Joe Frazer realized the company couldn't sell nearly that many against all-new 1949 Big Three competition, and had urged a holding action until K-F released its own new models, then scheduled for 1950. But Henry wouldn't have it.

"The Kaisers never retrench," he stormed. By now, Kaiser's people had far more influence in company affairs than Frazer's, so Joe yielded the presidency to Kaiser's son Edgar, remaining on the board only for appearance sake. By year's end, he was gone.

Henry should have listened. Instead, K-F's 1949 calendar-year sales were a fraction of the number planned: only some 58,000. About 20 percent couldn't be sold, and were thus ­recycled with new serial numbers as 1950 models. Though it's impossible to separate model-year "production," 1949 units account for about 84 percent of the total, according to experts.

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1951, 1952, 1953 Kaiser Cars

The 1953 Kaiser Carolina retailed in the $2300 range and featured few changes from earlier models.

Meantime, Dutch Darrin and K-F Styling had prepared a real blockbuster: a slender, beautiful new Kaiser with "Anatomic Design."

Though scheduled for 1950, it didn't arrive until March of that year as a 1951 offering (delayed until those '49 leftovers were cleared). But it sold like no Kaiser before: close to 140,000 for the model year. From 17th in Detroit for '49, Kaiser promptly shot up to 12th.

Looking unlike any other car of its day, the 1951 Kaiser boasted 700 square inches more glass area than its nearest competitor and a lower beltline than any Detroit car offered through 1956.

Though wheelbase slimmed to 118.5 inches, the '51 looked miles sleeker than first-generation Kaisers. Complementing its artful styling was another bewildering array of bright exterior colors and high-fashion interiors by "color engineer" Spencer.

The '51 Kaiser was also the first car that actually sold at least partly on safety features, offering a padded dash, recessed gauges and controls, slim roof pillars for good visibility, and a windshield that popped out if struck with a force of more than 35 pounds per square inch.

Though chief engineers John Widman and Ralph Isbrandt shunned unit construction, they designed a rigid separate body for a strong frame weighing but 200 pounds.

They also provided a low center of gravity that ensured fine handling, and a suspension that delivered a terrific ride despite curb weights averaging only 3100 pounds. Said one Chrysler engineer who later sampled a '51 Kaiser: "It rides like one of our 4500-pound cars."

Still in the lower medium-price field, Kaiser's '51 prices ranged from just under $2000 to a bit over $2400. Special and DeLuxe series returned, each offering regular and utility Traveler sedans with two or four doors, plus the long-deck club coupe; there was also a stripped Special business coupe.

But hardtops, convertibles, and station wagons were conspicuously absent, as was a V-8. Though K-F had plans for all of these, it would never have the money to market them. The old six was lifted to 115 bhp via two-barrel carburetor and dual exhausts, but the missing V-8 would prove an increasing sales liability.

A scheduled 1952 facelift wasn't ready on time, so Virginian models, basically leftover '51s with "Continental kits," were sold in the interim -- about 5500 in all. The "real" '52s arrived with bulbous taillights and a more prominent, heavier-looking grille.

Two-door Travelers and the business coupe departed, Specials became DeLuxes, and previous DeLuxes -- a coupe and two sedans -- were now retitled Manhattan (borrowing the old Frazer name). The "second-series" '52s are fairly rare: only 7500 DeLuxes and 19,000 Manhattans.

Kaiser had pitched the "fashion market" in 1951 with its $125 Dragon trim options: limited-edition four-door sedans available in Golden, Silver, Emerald, and Jade editions. All sported alligator-look "Dragon" vinyl inside and color-keyed exteriors with padded vinyl tops.

This idea was tried again with 1953's "Hardtop" Dragon sedan, the most-luxurious Kaiser of all. It was easily spotted by a gold-plated hood ornament, badges, and even keyhole covers, plus a padded roof usually covered in "bambu" vinyl -- a tough, oriental-style material that also adorned the dash and parts of seats and door panels.

Seat inserts were done in "Laguna" cloth, a fabric with an oblong pattern created by fashion consultant Marie Nichols. Standard amenities were plentiful: tinted glass, Hydra-Matic Drive, whitewalls, twin-speaker radio, and Calpoint custom carpet. The finishing touch was a gold-plated dash plaque engraved with the owner's name.

The Dragon was spectacular, but a high $3924 price -- nearly as much as a Cadillac Coupe de Ville -- limited sales to just 1277, a few of which almost had to be given away.

Otherwise, the '53 Kaisers were little changed. A pair of stripped Carolina sedans was fielded in the $2300 range, an effort to build showroom traffic, but only 1800 were sold. Club coupes were cut, the six was persuaded up to 118 bhp, and power steering bowed late in the season as a $122 option.

But Kaiser sales were falling fast: only 32,000 for '52 and just 28,000 for '53. The compact Henry J had squandered development funds that would have been better spent on new styling, new body types, or a V-8. Cash reserves were further depleted in 1954 when Henry Kaiser decided to buy Willys-Overland, which was no better off.

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1954 Kaiser Cars and the End of Kaiser

The Kaiser company built only 435 units of the 1954 Kaiser Darrin before it ceased production in the U.S.
The Kaiser company built only 435 units of the 1954 Kaiser Darrin before it ceased production in the U.S.

Seeking to slash overhead, Kaiser transferred production from Willow Run to W-O's Toledo, Ohio, facilities, and hoped for a sales miracle with a clever facelift by stylist Arnott "Buzz" Grisinger.

From the front, the '54 Kaisers looked much like the Buick XP-300 show car (a favorite of com­pany president Edgar Kaiser), with a wide concave grille, dummy hood scoop, and headlights "floating" within oval housings. Out back were "Safety-Glo" taillights: the existing units given finned housings and a lighted strip atop the fenders.

Remaining Travelers were canceled for '54, but Manhattans were boosted to a maximum 140 horsepower by bolting on a McCulloch centrifugal supercharger that cut in at full throttle. Also offered that year were unsupercharged Specials in two "series."

The first involved '53 Manhattans warmed over with '54 front ends -- yet another effort to use up leftovers. Second-series Specials were genuine '54s with wrapped rear windows, as on all of that year's Manhattans.

But sales didn't improve, and 1954 Kaiser production was a dismal 8539, including 4110 Manhattans, 3500 "early" Specials, and a paltry 929 "late" Specials. With that, only Manhattans returned for '55, distinguished by a higher fin on the hood scoop and little else. Just 270 were sold.

Another 1021 were exported, most to Argentina, where Kaiser Motors hoped to continue production for South America at a subsidiary plant. It's a tribute to the design's durability that the '55 was built there through 1962 as the little-altered Kaiser Carabella.

A memorable last-gasp U.S. effort was the 1954 Kaiser Darrin sliding-door sports car. Dutch had designed it in late 1952 for the 100-inch-wheelbase Henry J chassis, and talked Henry Kaiser into selling it for $3668. Only 435 were built before Kaiser ceased U.S. production.

The Darrin was beautifully styled, and still looks good today. Besides a then-novel fiberglass body, it boasted unique sliding doors, a patented Darrin idea first tried on an nrelated 1946 prototype.

The DKF-161 (the official designation) also offered a three-position landau convertible top with intermediate half-up position, plus full instrumentation and, usually, a three-speed floorshift transmission with overdrive. This plus the 90 bhp of the Henry J's 161-cid Willys six gave economy of around 30 mpg, but also 0-60 sprints of about 13 seconds and near-100 mph flat out.

But the Kaiser-Darrin affair greatly disappointed Dutch, who bought up about 100 leftovers, fitted many with Cadillac V-8s, and sold them for $4350 apiece at his Los Angeles showroom. The V-8 Darrins were potent indeed, capable of speeds up to 140 mph.

Kaiser came to an end in America during 1955 after 10 years and $100 million in losses. They were usually good cars and often innovative, but they never seemed to make it with the public. Edgar Kaiser liked to say, "Slap a Buick nameplate on it and it would sell like hotcakes." He was probably right.

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