8 December 2005

Collectible Classic: 1951-55 Kaiser

When auto production started after the cessation of World War II hostilities, major manufacturers simply picked up where they left off after Pearl Harbor by introducing 1942 lines as 1946s. Nobody was fooled but it didn’t matter, as demand far outstripped supply. Henry J. Kaiser, steel and ship building magnate, entered the fray with an advantage: a clean slate. Kaisers were truly all-new when introduced as ’47s and sales soared. Kaiser (with sister marque, Frazer) outsold such established names as Studebaker, Nash, Hudson, Mercury and Chrysler.

When the majors finally got around to introducing new designs, the bloom was off Kaiser’s rose. A massive infusion of cash from a government loan, coupled with a new body designed by Howard “Dutch” Darrin of Packard fame, made 1951 a pivotal year for Kaiser. While the Big Three and some of independents were offering 8-cylinders, Kaiser was stuck with an anemic 6, built by Continental, a Kaiser subsidiary. With only 115 horsepower, Kaiser’s strong suite, even without the pillarless hardtop, was “show” rather than “go.”

The design is still breathtaking today, though it didn’t do much to turn Kaiser’s fortunes around. It was a beautiful loser, a sleek groundbreaking design with a “Darrin dip” in the rear fender line, and the trademark sweetheart window and backlight treatment, another iconic example of the “Dutch touch.”  Kaiser also offered a number of features that underscored the company’s spirit of independent innovation. The hatchback Traveler model was a midway step between a sedan and station wagon and was offered in both two- and four-door iterations. Crossover, anybody? Kaiser individuality was also seen in interior materials that included mock bamboo and the reptilian line-topping Dragon, with a scaly upholstery and a padded roof for a distinguished, yet primeval look.

Today, Kaisers are rarely seen and that’s part of their appeal. Kaiser is remnant of a time when it seemed that, having vanquished that era’s “axis of evil,” Americans could do anything, including start a car company from scratch. Sadly, Kaisers were only built here – an Argentine subsidiary continued to thrive into the next decade – through the ’55 model year. While there seemed always to be hope for a turnaround, overproduction meant that early ‘52’s were really renumbered 1951’s with this model-year shell game played more than once. The “go” problem was ultimately solved with a McCulloch blower offered in ’54 and standard in ’55. It was too little, too late; but in design terms, the second and last generation of Kaisers is still making waves.

WHAT TO PAY: $5000–$15,000. Dragons, literally gilded with gold plating, command a significant premium but a Kaiser Manhattan or Virginian has the same “swank” look.

BODY STYLE: Four-door sedans; two-door sedans are much more rare. Both were offered as hatchback Traveler variants. The Dragon was designated “hardtop” but was actually the sedan body style with a padded roof.

PRODUCTION: 215,048 (there’s a small debate on this, as earlier cars may have been counted twice as they were subject to being retitled and sold in the succeeding model year. 1,277 were ultra luxe 53 Dragons and only 210 true ’55 Kaisers were produced for domestic consumption.

WATCH OUT FOR: Rocker panel rust, hypersensitive power steering, engines tend to overheat. Good luck matching exotic interior and padded top materials.

READ MORE: Kaiser-Frazer The Last Onslaught on Detroit, by Richard Langworth, (Automobile Quarterly Publications); Kaiser Frazer 1946-1955 Road Test Limited Edition, by R.M. Clarke, (Brooklands).

CLUBS: Kaiser Frazer Owners Club International, Box 1014, Stroudsburg, PA 18360 www.kfclub.com

SPARES: Kaiser-Willys Auto Supply, Aiken, SC 803-648-492, www.kaiserwillys.com; Fred Walker, Peyton, CO 719-749-2668

 

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