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Kaiser Cars, 1947-1955

1951 Kaiser Deluxe

Thanks, Jerry Mueller, Randy Knox, and the Kaiser-Frazer Owners Club for information and corrections; and to Bill Watson for corrections

After World War II, with the great need for transportation, many newcomers entered the automobile industry looking for success. Henry J. Kaiser, a shipbuilder during the war, was looking forward to the postwar period. He anticipated the needs for houses, medical care, and automobiles; and “built” all three. For his automobile work, he took on a partner; the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation was created in 1945 as a joint venture between the Henry J. Kaiser Corporation and Graham-Paige Motors, whose CEO, Joseph W. Frazer, also became president of Kaiser-Frazer.

Henry Kaiser is perhaps most famous today for anticipating the needs for medical care; he set up a kind of HMO for his employees during the 1940s, and when other, smaller West Coast companies asked about participating in it, the ground-breaking Kaiser Permanente was created.

Henry Kaiser had worked from a modest beginning to build an empire of shipbuilding, steel, and cement production, earning the title “the Miracle Man” by building remarkable numbers of ships during World War II.

Joseph Frazer worked his way up in Packard, rising from manual labor to the executive ranks. Frazer moved to General Motors, then to Chrysler Corporation; while at Chrysler, Frazer set up the sales program for DeSoto and coined the “Plymouth” name for the corporation’s base-line make. In 1938, Frazer left Chrysler to become President of Willys-Overland until 1943. In 1945, Frazer and his associates ended up in control of Graham-Paige.

Ray, Robert, and Joseph Graham created Graham Brothers in 1916 to build truck bodies; in 1921, they started using Dodge Bros. powertrains to make full trucks, sold through Dodge dealers. Dodge Bros. bought tthe company in 1925-26; in 1930, after Chrysler purchased Dodge Brothers, the Graham name was dropped from the trucks. The Graham Brothers had already moved on, buying Paige Motor Company in 1927 and making Graham-Paige automobiles starting in 1928.

Kaiser and Frazer met for the first time in 1945 (according to Jack Mueller) and agreed to have associates meet to judge the feasibility of a joint venture. By working quickly, they were able to lease Ford’s Willow Run plant from the WAA and build a full 7,000 Kaiser cars in 1946, before the big Detroit automakers could get going (along with 4,000 Frazers). According to Jack Mueller, the Kaiser-Frazer company made Kaisers for the company to sell, and Frazers to sell, at cost, to Graham-Paige for their benefit.

In January 1946, two well-kept secrets were revealed to the public in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City: non-running prototypes of the new Frazer and the revolutionary Kaiser K85 family car with front-wheel drive. While there ultimately was a running front wheel drive Kaiser (even driven by Tom McCahill in 1946), the development time was too short to bring it to production, and there were problems with the Packaged Power front wheel drive unit; the final decision was to use the same body and drivetrain for both the Frazer and Kaiser.

Jerry Mueller wrote that the company engineers could not work out transmission issues, and the setup required power-assisted steering, which would have marked up the cost to over $3,200; the Kaiser was intended, though, to sell for less than the Frazer, which was coming out at around $2,000. The Kaiser K85, with its advanced unit-body construction, would never be built, and all Kaiser cars would have body and frame construction.

kaiser and frazer in 1947

Kaiser-Frazer Corporation’s first car was launched for the 1947 model year. Known as the Kaiser Special, it was a four door sedan with a six cylinder engine. Kaiser and Frazer cars had the first true postwar sheet metal, with enveloped bodies and fender lines that ran front to rear in an unbroken contour; the bodies had welded steel construction.

The Kaiser boasted between-the-wheel seating, wide wheel rims, a low center of gravity, a large luggage compartment, curved wraparound bumpers, dual horns, twin sun visors, automatic dome lights, and large, hydraulic self-centering brakes. The Kaiser radiator grille was a mixture of vertical and horizontal blades (not unusual for the period) with rectangular parking lamps placed outside the grille work, under the headlamps; the Frazer had a similar front, but with just horizontal blades and other changes, keeping the wraparound bumpers.

Modern features included aluminum alloy pistons, an automatic choke, double-acting hydraulic brakes, independent suspension, curved rear window, and fresh-air heater. The manual choke would, in time, be replaced with an automatic “climate control.” 

The Kaiser Custom was a higher trim. Custom interiors were keyed to harmonize with the exterior paint such as Onyx; Linden Green; Clay Pipe Gray; Coral Sand; Horizon Blue and Hickory Brown Metallic. Options included were the defroster and heater, radio, radio antenna, stainless steel wheel trim rings, tailpipe extension, full wheel discs, outside rear view mirror, external sun visor, traffic light viewer, spot lights, fog lamps, plastic white sidewall discs, front and rear bumper guards, and white sidewall tires.

Kaiser-Frazer sold 66,801 Kaiser Specials and 5,421 Customs in 1947. They also acquired the automotive operations of Graham-Paige, including the Frazer.

The 1948 Kaiser line was similar to the 1947, except for the use of leather upholstery on the four-door sedan for the first and only time (leather would be optional on 1949-50 Vagabonds, Kaiser Virginian hardtops, and Deluxe convertibles, and was otherwise special-order only). There were four body types; the standard series had the four-door sedan and Vagabond hatchbacks, while Frazer Manhattan continued from 1947 with four-door hardtops and four-door convertibles.

Production of the Kaiser Special rose considerably, passing 90,000 cars, while production of the more expensive Kaiser Custom fell to just over a thousand. The 1948 Frazer added nearly 50,000 more cars to the list. The company declared a $19 million profit.

1949-1950: Kaiser Custom and Kaiser Special

1949 kaiser cars

Kaiser-Frazer Corporation had, according to press releasees, spent $10 million to revamp the 1949 models to make them look longer, lower, and more modern; the Custom model was also replaced by the Deluxe series. The wheelbase was extended to 123.5 inches, with the overall length growing by nearly ten inches to 206.5 inches.

Jack Mueller wrote, “The Kaiser body shell for the 1949-50 model run was, in four-door sedan form, the same basic shell as 1947-48; overall length changes reflect [the revised] design of front and rear bumpers and bumper guards to get a couple of inches here, a couple there, that sort of thing. The problem was that, in 1949, most other car companies either rolled out a new body platform for the model year (Big Three and Nash), or a good facelift of a recently released design. Additionally, Kaiser-Frazer had too many smaller dealers that could not or would not start selling the way the Big Three stores started doing that year. [Another] big problem is that Frazer turned in his resignation as president at the end of 1948. Frazer saw that the information from dealers showing 60,000 orders in hand, as of October 10, 1948, were made up of mostly bogus orders. That story is almost a chapter in itself.”

Joseph W. Frazer was replaced as president by Henry J. Kaiser’s son, Edgar F. Frazer.

1949 storage

Nine new body colors and four fabrics were available in the Kaiser Special, while the Kaiser Deluxe offered seventeen colors and nine fabrics (and, for convertibles, leather, in three colors). The Kaiser Special had a 100 horsepower six, while the Deluxe was boosted to 112 horsepower with a dual manifold setup. The Deluxe now had the name of the car’s exterior paint on the fenders (for four-door sedans and convertibles — as shown in the illustration above), “Vagabond” on the Vagabond utility models, and “Virginian” on production hardtops; pre-production cars were painted with the legend “Hardtop” instead.

The Kaiser Special had a new four door hatchback, known as the Traveler, costing $2088. In the Deluxe series, the four-door convertible; the four-door Hardtop sedan, known as the Virginian; and the four-door Utility sedan, known as the Vagabond were new. New convenience options were also introduced, including directionals and a rear cigar lighter. Kaiser bragged that the Traveler and the Vagabond led a double life: they were easily converted from a family sedan to a pick-up van in just ten seconds, thanks to an early hatchback design.

Jack Mueller added, “As of April 1949, the MSRP [list price] ranged from $1,995 for Special and $2,088 for Travelers, up to $2,995 for the Virginian and $3,295 for the Deluxe Convertible. Prices include federal tax and delivery preparation by the Courtesy Garage at the factory in Willow Run, Michigan, for cars picked up by retail customers at the Willow Cottage customer delivery facility. The heater, radio, and other options were not included in the listed price. Special offerings also included a stand-alone four-door taxi model. This was the only 1949-50 model year Special that offered the 112 bhp dual-manifold 6 as standard.”

1949 Kaiser interiorWhen the results were in, 80,000 1949 Kaisers had been sold, for a loss of $31 million. Frazer dropped to around 25,000 cars.

Some sources claim that the Kaiser had planned to sell another facelifted line of cars for 1950 (and that sale agents were told not to represent these cars as different from the previous product). Jack Mueller wrote:

Kaiser-Frazer never planned the 1950 models to be facelifts; they were [always] to be the car that ended up rolling out as the 1951 Kaiser. The Frazer car was supposed to be dropped due to its sliding performance (72,000 or so 1947s, around 48,000 1948s, and less than 26,000 1949s — figures are all models for each model year).

In a last ditch effort to stay in business, Kaiser-Frazer landed two loans from the Recovery Finance Corporation: around $34 million to re-capitalize the business, and around $10 million to the Kaiser-Frazer Sales Corporation division to finance purchase of new cars from Kaiser-Frazer itself and to maintain an inventory that dealers and distributors could order from. In the case of the latter loan, part of the collateral was the inventory of unsold 1949 models in factory hands and factory storage sites. The factory and dealers would take a perhaps lethal financial loss if their value had to be written down [just] because they were no longer the current model year.

With approval of the RFC, all finished 1949 model year cars got 1950 model year serial numbers and paperwork; so cars built out between November 4, 1949 and March 15, 1950 were 1949 look-alikes with 1950 model year tags. The final total (re-tagged finished cars included) is not known at present, but it can be documented that the last 3,573 built at Willow Run and a small number of cars assembled at the Long Beach, California, assembly plant (for West Coast sale), and another small number of cars built at the Rotterdam, Holland facility for sale outside the USA were the only 1950 tagged cars actually built during the 1950 model year period. The statement about sales people presenting the 1950 cars same as 1949’s is correct.

1951-1955 Kaiser cars: Anatomic Design, Henry J.

The 1951 models introduced the basic structure as would remain until the end of Kaiser production in 1955. The shape was changed, less boxy with an increased area of glass — a sleek, modern-looking automobile, in Jack Mueller’s words. A padded dashboard was added to Deluxe, for protection in an accident. The old-pontoon shape was gone as well, as the bull-nosed frontal appearance. The Kaiser now had the highest-horsepower standard six-cylinder engine of any American car except Hudson, launched at the lowest prices ever offered for the car.

The 1951 model year ran from March 15, 1950 through November 4, 1951. Frazer production began in volume during March 1950, Kaiser production in volume began in April 1950, and Henry J production began in August 1950 (6 cyl) or September 1950 (4 cylinder).

Sales were complicated by the Korean war and government restrictions, but around 145,000 model-year-1951 Kaisers found new homes, showing them to be a rousing success at launch (admittedly, that includes 1951 model-year Kaisers that were repainted and re-tagged as 1952 in the Kaiser Virginian program, to move out older models before the regular 1952 arrived; a corrected figure would be 137,000 1951s sold and licensed as 1951s.)

1951 Kaiser Deluxe cars

The Kaiser Deluxe shared bodies with the Kaiser Special, but had a richer appearance and more standard equipment. Kaiser bragged about their cars’ new “Anatomic Design” made to fit the human anatomy, including a pistol-grip handbrake and two-spoke steering wheel. Both the Special and the Deluxe had more spacious interiors and four models and body styles – four door sedans, two door sedans, club coupes, business coupe, and two and four door Traveler sedans. The tire well was now below the trunk floor, for more convenient cargo carrying.

1951 Kaiser cars

Also introduced in 1951 was the Henry J, named for Henry Kaiser. The Henry J was low-priced compact economy car designed to boost Kaiser’s falling sales; it had a choice of a four or six cylinder engine, twice the carrying space, a rugged chassis, and long, low handsome design; engines were supplied by Willys (the four cylinder was the Jeep flathead 134, or 2.2 liters, while the six was Willys’ flathead 161, or 2.6 liters.) In its first year, the Henry J. flew out of the showrooms; around 82,000 were made. This would, unfortunately, not be a trend.

A similar model, called the Allstate, was made for Sears, Roebuck for the 1952 and 1953 model years; under 1,600 of the 1952 were made, and fewer than 800 of the 1953 run left the assembly line. The Henry J. was a far more resounding success.

1952 "Safety Interior"

1951 was not a bad sales year, but Kaiser sales had fallen and the company had overproduced, so there was inventory left over at the end of the model year. Kaiser-Frazer delayed the introduction of the restyled 1952 Manhattan, DeLuxe, and Henry J, instead making minor trim changes, including a rear continental tire mount, to the remaining 1951s. These were rechristened the 1952 Kaiser Virginian Special and Kaiser Virginian Deluxe (for Manhattan and DeLuxe), and Vagabond (for Henry J).

By the end of February 1952, the leftover 1951 inventory was gone, and the new series of Kaiser Deluxe and Kaiser Manhattan was introduced. (In 1952, Kasier sold 44,570 Kaisers, and 30,543 Henry Js.)

1952 Virginian

The new 1952 Henry J Corsair was identified by the double bar grille; a grille molding that curved downwards, at either side, to meet the horizontal bar; a bronze K medallion at the center of the grille; built-in parking lights; series designation script on front fenders; and a slightly more V-shaped bumper. Only around 23,000 1952 Henry Js were made, including both Vagabond and Corsair.

The wheelbase of the Kaiser Special and Deluxe was 118.5 inches – just a little longer than the first postwar Kaisers, and far shorter than the prior year – while length increased to 208.5 inches for the Special and 210 3/8 inches for the Deluxe.

1953 - 1955: car production winds down despite the revolutionary Darrin-161

Kaiser’s passenger car business was falling, and the overproduction of 1951 and resulting issues in calendar-year 1952 hurt finances so that the changes between the 1952 Kaiser line and the 1953 line were mechanical upgrades and minor trim changes that had minimum cost, such as adding chrome strips to the tops of rear fenders to create miniature tailfins. The same factors that were slowing business for Kaiser were also hitting small automakers such as Hudson and Nash (which merged into AMC in 1954), Studebaker, and Packard.

Jack Mueller added,

The accumulated losses in 1950 and 1951 were over $30 million; 1952 still had a loss, but the gap was significantly lower than the prior years. The result of the decision to defer new body tooling put the company in a position where the 1953 models could be sold for the same or less money than their 1952 model year counterparts, which helped increase sales during the portion of 1952 when 1953s were available.

The major problem in the 1953 model year was the sales war launched by Ford Motor Company to become the dominant American car maker; General Motors fought back, Chrysler borrowed over $100 million to get into the game with “the Forward Look” in 1955. The effect was to squeeze the independents out of the marketplace or into special niches the Big Three were not interested in.

Kaiser claimed that the 1953 Deluxe was America’s first “safety-first car,” based on the pop-out windshield and heavily padded dash and seat back. The 1952 Kaiser Manhattan, however, had been billed as having the “World’s Safest Front Seat,” and had those attributes. However, as Jack Mueller wrote, safety didn’t sell, as Nash found out with its 1949-51 seat-belt-optional Airflytes, Ford with Lifeguard Design, and for that matter Chrysler when it had done a padded dashboard in 1949.

The Kaiser Traveler, a four door utility sedan, was advertised as a luxurious sedan that could be converted to a light duty van in just ten seconds.

1953 kaiser chassis

The Kaiser Manhattan had basically the same styling refinements as the Kaiser Deluxe, while a Manhattan Traveler was shown in the full-line brochure, though there are no records of its production. The Manhattan series was also advertised as being the safest car on the road.

The Kaiser Dragon, a 6-cylinder four-door car, was introduced in 1953. The 1,200 Dragons made by Kaiser were sedans with a padded top to imitate hardtops; they had a top-grade interior, upholstered trunks, and gold plated exterior trim.

The Kaiser Carolina was also introduced. The Carolinas were the opposite of the Dragons – sedan and club sedan, a stripped economy car with less chrome, plainer upholstery, and fewer standard equipment features.

The Henry J continued; Kaiser claimed it was the easiest car on the road to drive, handle, park, service, run, maintain, and to pay for. The basic 1953 Henry J Corsair had a list price of $1,499, delivered at the factory, with Federal tax paid. Options (including things like deck lid and interior vents) were extra. The Corsair Deluxe included a six cylinder engine; the standard Corsair was a four cylinder. While the Henry J was easy for customers to buy and own, it was not quite as economical for Kaiser; production fell to around 17,500 in 1953 and just over a thousand in its final year, 1954. Minor improvements were made to the 1953 cars, but management understood early on that the car didn’t work; late in 1952, the Kaiser Manufacturing Corporation division of Kaiser-Frazer began negotiations to acquire the automotive part of Willys-Overland (which changed its name to Overland Investment Corporation after the sale). Kaiser Manufacturing handled the defense contract work, though it dried up abruptly weeks after the sale was completed.

The standard Kaiser cars had relatively few changes, but gained a redesigned intake manifold and a new carburetor; the result gave it more standard power than Ford, Pontiac, DeSoto, and other six-cylinder cars. The three-tooth gear steering with center point control had a 38 foot turning circle.

power steering demonstration

A new power steering system was introduced for 1953, supplied by Monroe and selling for $131, versus $199 for a Gemmer unit on Chrysler and DeSoto in the same year. According to Jack Mueller, Nash was apparently looking at switching from Bendix to Monroe, and Ford was looking at the Monroe for the 1954 Ford and Mercury.

The end of the Kaiser car lines

The end of the Kaiser car lines came from three major forces. The first was competitive pressure from other automakers, who had brought out their revised lines after World War II. Kaiser was the first but they did not gain a large enough following to gain dominance, and with sliding sales after 1948, there was a concern that Kaiser-Frazer would close its doors and its owners would be stuck with orphans. There was also the problem of GM and Ford overproducing and dumping cars on dealers, who often had to sell them at a loss; their large dealer bodies could do that, while Kaiser and, for that matter, Plymouth could not.

The second force was Kaiser’s timely purchase of Willys-Overland, for $63 million. Willys was known for its Jeeps, which had no real competitors outside of International Harvester in the United States, but maintained a thriving export and international licensing business (India’s Mahindra, which still produces SUVs that look like the Jeep CJ, was one licensee; Mitsubishi was another). Kaiser may well have compared Jeep’s relatively unique position to the increasing competition from GM, Ford, and Chrysler, and assumed it would provide a good fallback and source of cash.

Thus, after buying the company and renaming it to Willys Motors, Kaiser combined its production and sales organizations. Willys lost $35 million in 1954, but would be rapidly turned around by the skilled engineers and marketers of Kaiser.

The final force in play was a fire that destroyed GM’s automatic transmission plant in Livonia; relying on that factory not only for its own cars but also for external sales, GM made Kaiser an offer it could not refuse for the big Willow Run plant.

Kaiser consolidated its production at Toledo’s Jeep plant, leasing Willow Run to GM (selling it outright in 1954 for $26 million). Henry J production ended at this point, never moving to Toledo. According to Jack Mueller, Kaiser had already been moving operations to Toledo months before the fire; GM first moved into the floor space set aside for defense work, including cargo planes, and in late 1953 offered to buy the whole facility. The proceeds were turned over to the Recovery Finance Corporation to lower the principal on Kaiser’s debt.

1953 was another year when more cars were produced than sold, with 3,5000 Manhattans, DeLuxe, and Carolinas still in inventory after the close of the model year; overproduction was hardly surprising when calendar-year sales fell from around 100,000 combined to 14,313 Kaisers and 7,459 Henry Js. More will be told on the fate of these cars later...

1954 kaiser manhattan outside toledo plant

The company continued to make an effort, moving into new territory in a final attempt to garner attention and sales. The 1954 Kaiser Special and Manhattan had many styling changes, inspired by Buick’s XP-300 show car. The Kaiser Special was an economy car, roomier than some of the most expensive cars but maintaining a luxurious interior and exterior.

Kaiser cars were now available with a McCulloch (now Paxton) centrifugal supercharger, standard on the Manhattan; it took the old 226 cid “Super Sonic Six” into new territory with 140 horsepower, a very impressive number for the time — one which matched the 1954 Dodge “Red Ram” V8.

While the supercharged engine must have turned some heads, Kaiser was now in the medium/upper price range, which was rapidly losing its share of the market, dropping from around 20% in the early 1950s to under 5% in 1958. DeSoto, in the same segment, was also feeling the effects.

1954 Kaiser cars

The facelift for the 1954 model was especially impressive when one considers the shoestring budget and the use of the body through from 1951. Designers Herb Weissinger and Arnott “Buzz” Grisinger created an attractive car with new front end sheet metal, a new dash, larger rear window, and new tail lights.

Kaiser took the leftover 1953 Manhattans, replaced the front end sheet metal and the tail light assemblies, repainted them, and marketed them as the 1954 Special — a Manhattan at the price of a Special, though not as attractive as the hot new 1954s.

Once the 3,500 leftover 1953 cars (now referred to as Early Specials) were sold, Kaiser began using the 1954 body to make Specials (aka, “Late Specials”) and produced 929 units before the end of the model year. In total, 5,440 1954 Manhattans were sold in that model year.

Jack Mueller added:

Dealers were ordering tens of thousands of the 1954 Manhattan and getting practically nothing, as top management ordered the tooling to be conserved. The Letter of Intent to move the Kaiser car down to Argentina had already been signed in the spring of 1954, and the operation down there—Industrias Kaiser Argentina (IKA)—had purchased the Kaiser car tooling at a seven figure number, compared to what it would be worth if every 1954 Kaiser dealer order for a Manhattan was filled. After all, door and trunk stampings were starting to show wear and nobody wanted to spend the cash needed for new stamping dies.

Kaiser Darrin-161

darrin-161 cars

Aiding the attempted conversion to a sportier image was the Kaiser Darrin-161 sports car, named for its designer Howard Darrin. Handcrafted of Fiberglass, the Darrin weighed only 2,175 pounds and had the lowest center of gravity of any American production car. Its weight-to-power advantage and precision of balance assured split-second response at all speeds and excellent stability on turns, while sliding pocket doors and a three-position convertible top were unique body features.

To quote Jack Mueller:

As with the Edsel, when the commitment to production on the Darrin was made, there was a good potential market for a limited production sports car and the company’s overall business plan supported the car.

By the time the final details of the car were locked up, however, management had changed their plans, aiming for Jeeps and related vehicles as the centerpiece of production and cars at a sideline. By the time the Darrin was actually in production, most of the dealers were Jeep men and women and preferred not to have a car to sell. That plus the price tag—almost $1,000 over what was originally expected—helped quash the demand. Only 435 of the Kaiser-Darrin Sports Cars were produced.

Cars move to Argentina; Kaiser Jeep

kaiser darrin

Although Kaiser had decided to end passenger car production and focus on Jeep in early 1954, a 1955 model year was already in planning, the company had obligations to its franchises, and had agreed to supply Argentina with cars made in Toledo while the new factory was under construction in Santa Isabel, Cordoba.

Toledo production therefore resumed in January 1955 after a six month hiatus, with over 200 domestic Manhattans being produced first. These were essentially 1954 Kaiser Manhattans with a small styling change in the hood scoop (the photo below shows a 1955 model with the 1954 scoop — the new scoops were delivered to dealers to replace on the cars that left the factory before the 1955 scoops were ready).

The next batch was around 1,002 cars for Argentina and another 19 or so for the US. Exactly one thousand were sold in Argentina for US$6,000 each (plus shipping, duties, etc.), providing seed money for IKA; the other two cars were left with the IKA operation.

As for the “domestic 19,” most were used for engineering and testing, but one was presented by Henry J. Kaiser to the Mayor of New Orleans, Louisiana, for his role in helping with the IKA deal. Brook Stevens, still an external styling consultant, asked for another car from the last batch, and still had it when he died in the 1980s.

Thus, in their final year in America, Kaiser made around 1,200 cars; Willys, in their final year as a maker of cars, made 4,778 cars (along with Jeeps).

1955 Kaiser

Production began in Argentina in 1958 on the Kaiser Manhattan, now renamed the Kaiser Carabela (after a type of Spanish sailing ship); it continued through 1962, with an estimated 15,000 Kaiser Carabelas built. The Carabela had some stablemates in 1960-62 in the form of an Alfa Romeo 1900 sedan derivative named the Bergantin (another type of Spanish sailing ship) and an Argentine-manufactured Renault Dauphine (badged IKA Dauphine). In 1962, Rambler variants licensed from AMC would replace all of these. The final form of the AMC variants was the potent Torino, which saw a lot of racing on international circuits.

Back in the United States, Willys Motors was profitable by 1956, allowing for product line expansion. In 1962, the corporate name was changed to the Kaiser Jeep Corporation. To quote Bill Watson, after 1955, “Willys Motors never looked back, becoming a nice little source of income for the Kaisers.”

On March 3, 1964, Kaiser Jeep took over Studebaker’s military vehicle contracts as Studebaker shut down its operations, acquiring Studebaker’s Chippewa Avenue Plant as part of the deal.

In 1970, American Motors bought the U.S. operations of Kaiser Jeep and, on March 31, 1971, spun the military vehicle operations off into a wholly-owned entity named AM General Corporation which still builds military vehicles. IKA was sold to Renault in 1970, and the AMC-based IKA Torino and IKA Ambassador were built into the mid-1970s.

1954 Darrin production - fiberglass car

Kaiser-Frazer U.S. market share by vehicle registrations

1946194719481949195019511952195319541955
0.4%4.1%5.4%2.1%2.3%2.6%2.7%1.3%0.5%0.1%

Kaiser cars: specifications and design features

We do not have a full listing at this time. Information is from Kaiser brochures and may not be completely accurate.

1946 prototype / 1947 production car

  • Front-wheel drive with engine, clutch, transmission, and final drive built as a unit
  • An early 1947 Kaiser Special brochure declared that the car had a 226 cid L-head straight-six engine with 100 horsepower. However, according to Jack Mueller, production cars had 85 horsepower (hence the K-85 designation).
  • Drop-forged counter-weighted crankshaft with 4 main bearings, rubber engine mounts, manual choke (automatic choke listed on 1947 Special brochure).
  • Rifle-drilled connecting rods and aluminum alloy pistons; gear shift under steering wheel
  • Weather-protected hydraulic brakes with mechanical parking brake
  •  “Torsionetic” independent torsion-bar front and rear suspension, unit-type steel chassis integral with body.
  • Safety glass throughout; large curved glass rear window
  • Large-capacity luggage compartment in rear held the spare tire
  • Heater took fresh air from the front grille
  • Length 197”; Height 63 ½”; Wheelbase 117”; Width 72 ⅞”; Tires 15 x 5.50

1949-50

Engine

  • 6-cylinder, L-head 226 cubic inch engine
  • Bore x stroke: 3 5/16” x 4  ⅜”; compression ratio 7.3:1
  • Brake horsepower, Kaiser Special Sedan and Traveler: 100 @ 3600 R.P.M. (all others, 112 @ 3600R.P.M.). Special K4916/K5016 Taxi used the 112 hp version.
  • 100 hp engine, single-barrel carb; 112 hp engine, dual intake manifold with twin downdraft 1 ¼” carburetors (all subsequent Kaisers had a two-barrel carburetor on the 226)
  • 21-gallon gasoline tank
  • Sealed cooling system with thermostatic temperature control

Chassis

  • Wide-rim disc wheels with individual tire chain slots; 7.10 x 15, extra low pressure, 4-ply cord tires
  • Single dry-plate clutch, 9 ¼” diameter, 9 springs (ball throw-out bearing permanently lubricated)
  • Synchronized, carburized, helically-cut gears
  • Main and counter-shaft mounted on anti-friction bearings
  • Steering column gear shift
  • Frame: Rigid, double-channel welded box section with six cross members – three box section, two channel, and one “Z” bar cross member
  • Front: 2-way, direct-acting, airplane-type shock absorbers inside coil springs; directly connect front stabilizer bar
  • Rear: 2-way, direct-acting, airplane-type shock absorbers as an inverted “V” for sidewise control; Semi-elliptic spring – 53 x 1 ¾”
  • Steering: 3-tooth worm and sector gear with worm mounted on dual tapered roller bearings, and sector mounted on needle roller bearings.
  • 20’ turning radius

Drive

  • Hotchkiss drive with three universal joints; 2-piece propeller shaft
  • Midship mounting equipped with ball bearing; No rear floor tunnel

Brakes

  • Self-centering, floating-shoe type; hydraulic brakes on all four wheels
  • Mechanical handbrake operates rear-wheel brake shoes
  • Centrifuse brake drums with cast iron braking surfaces

Electrical System

  • Shunt-wound, air-cooled generator with automatic voltage and current control
  • 15-plate battery with 100 ampere hour capacity
  • Vacuum spark advance on distributor
  • Sealed-Beam headlights

Body

  • All-steel, welded construction
  • Special insulation against heat, cold, and noise
  • Safety glass throughout
  • Pull-type exterior door handles; push-button interior door controls
  • Spring balanced trunk lid

Instrument Panel

  • Instruments grouped in front of driver for easy visibility
  • Finished in metallic enamel colors to blend with color tone of upholstery
  • Plastic trim on Kaiser Special, chrome trim with plastic knobs on all other Kaiser models
  • Indirect lighting

Standard Equipment

  • Bumper jack and tool equipment
  • Dual sea-shell horns
  • Two sun visors
  • Dual windshield wipers with auxiliary vacuum pump
  • Tilt-type, no-glare, rear-view mirror on all models except the Kaiser Special
  • Turn indicator lights optional on Kaiser Special, standard on all other models
  • Spare wheel
  • Bumper guards

1952 Kaiser Deluxe

Engine

  • High-torque 6-cylinder L-head  engine
  • 115 brake horsepower at 3,650 rpm; 200 lbs./ft. at 1800 R.P.M.
  • Bore x stroke: 3 5/16” x 4 ⅜”; 226 cubic inches; 7.3:1 compression
  • Aluminum alloy pistons
  • Two compression and two oil control rings
  • Removable, precision-type bearings
  • Pressure lubrication to all bearings
  • Positive lubrication to timing chain and valve tappets
  • Three point engine mountings

Fuel System

  • Downdraft, dual-throat carburetor with dual-plane intake manifold
  • Automatic choke and manifold heat control
  • Air cleaner
  • Mechanical fuel pump
  • Vacuum booster fuel pump used with vacuum wiper systems; single-stage manual fuel pump on Manhattans, with electric wiper motor
  • Electrical gauge
  • 17-gallon tank

Cooling System

  • Sealed cooling system, thermostatically controlled
  • Pressure-sealed radiator cap
  • Cellular-type 13-quart radiator core
  • Full length water jackets
  • Ball-bearing, permanently sealed and lubricated pump

Transmission

  • Single dry-plate 9 ¼” clutch; ball throw-out bearing permanently lubricated
  • Helically cut gears
  • Anti-friction bearings
  • Steering column gear shift
  • Hotchkiss drive with two needle-bearing unviersal joints, 2 3/8 inch prop shaft
  • Optional overdrive
  • Optional GM Hydra-Matic automatic transmisssion

Chassis

  • Rigid, X-member type frame with five cross members
  • Independent front wheel suspension with stabilizer bar
  • Front airplane type shock absorbers inside coil springs
  • Rear semi-elliptic (leaf) springs – 6 leaves 51 x 2 inches
  • Rubber bushed brackets and shackles
  • Rear heavy-duty airplane type shock absorbers “V” mounted to control sidesway

Electrical System

  • Air-cooled generator with voltage and current control
  • 15 plate battery with 100 ampere hour capacity
  • Sealed Beam headlights

Brakes

  • Hydraulic, self-centering, floating-shoe type
  • Mechanical handbrake
  • Cast iron braking surface

Steering System

  • 3 tooth gear – center point control
  • Turning circle 38.2’

Wheels and Tires

  • Disc wheels with 5-in. rims
  • Tires 6.70 x 15 inches
  • Low pressure 4-ply cord

Body

  • All steel, welded construction
  • Safety glass throughout
  • Pull-type exterior, turn-type interior door handles
  • Choice of upholstery and exterior colors
  • Front and rear door arm rests
  • Large trunk with tuck-away tire well below floor level
  • Large glass area, windshield 1098.6 sq. in. total glass area 3647.1 sq. in.

Instrument Panel

  • Speedometer and gauges grouped in hooded cluster in front of the driver
  • Padded vinyl over upper portion on Manhattan and late-production DeLuxe
  • Bin-type glove compartment
  • Pistol grip hand brake
  • Two-spoke steering wheel

1954 Kaiser

Engine: Unchanged.

Starter: Ignition key turn, solenoid switch
Transmission:

  • Flexible, dry, single plate 9.25 inch Auburn clutch
  • 3 speeds forward and one reverse, with synchromesh engagement of all gears
  • Capacity 2.5 U.S. pints
  • Automatic overdrive
  • Dual-Range (Hydra-Matic) automatic transmission available at extra cost

Rear Axle: Semi-floating hypoid rear axle; 2.5 pints capacity

Overall Gear Ratios: Conventional 3.91:1; Overdrive 4.55:1; Dual-Range (Hydra-Matic) 3.31:1

Steering: Mechanical worm and roller; Ratio 25:1; Power steering optional

darrin prototype

Suspension

  • Front: Independent coil spring controlled by direct acting hydraulic shock absorbers
  • Rear: Conventional semi-elliptic leaf springs controlled by direct acting hydraulic shock absorbers

Brakes: Bendix floating shoe hydraulic brakes, 11 inch drums, 176 square inches of total braking area

Wheels and Tires: Steel disc wheels, wire optional; 6.70 x 15 (4 ply) tires

Dimensions

  • Wheelbase 118.5 inches
  • Overall length 215.62 inches
  • Front tread 58 inches
  • Rear tread 58.75 inches
  • Overall width 74.875 inches
  • Height 60.25 inches
  • Ground clearance 7 inches
  • Turning diameter 38 feet
  • Approximate shipping weight 3315 pounds

kaiser photo in 2008
The building in the photo of John Frazer and Edgar Kaiser was the University of Michigan Literature, Science, and Arts Building
in Ann Arbor, Michigan, according to Lawrence Jones. Here’s a current photo of the building by his co-worker.

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