Looking back at the Kaiser-Frazer story I still find it incomprehensible that such a huge automobile manufacturing company could suddenly be shut down. At one point K-F was the largest independent car manufacturer in America and the fourth largest overall. It produced millions of automobiles between 1946 and 1953, had thousands of employees and vast factory complexes. The second generation cars are on my personal list of the most attractive American production cars of all time. So how could it happen? Inasmuch as I've no head for business, I'm probably not the one to ask. Nevertheless it's fascinating to look back and shed a tear or two.
The history of Kaiser-Frazer's beginning is well known, the result of a conversation between wealthy industrialist Henry Kaiser and Joseph Frazer, head of Graham-Paige, an auto manufacturer whose star had been fading in the years leading up to WW2. With Graham-Paige as a foundation it was much easier for the men to start a new car company than for, say, Tucker, who did not have Frazer's auto manufacturing background. The demand for cars following the war would be huge, the public was anxious for a new, postwar kind of styling. Together they made a deal to lease Ford's massive government-owned Willow Run factory (Canadians may not remember but there was also an assembly plant in Leaside, Ontario) and with a substantial input of funds, put an engineering and design team together to create two new sedans, the mid-price Kaiser and its upmarket derivative, the Frazer.
The prototypes were first shown in 1946, with the Kaiser as an advanced front-drive vehicle and the Frazer a more conventional rear-drive car. Realities of cost and time made the first impossible so it was decided that the two cars would share the same chassis and similar bodies. No one could claim those cars were beautiful, for they featured a well-rounded nose and rear end with pontoon fenders, resulting in a look somewhat similar to Nash's "upside down bathtub," though without the enclosed front wheels. We could be critical of the styling but to do so would be to ignore the way cars were viewed in that period. The Kaiser/Frazer duo, designed by Howard "Dutch" Darrin, was considered streamlined and modern.
There was nothing unique about the engineering and rather than go to the expense of designing an engine from scratch the company purchased its 6-cylinder power plant from Continental, which had been supplying automobile and aircraft engines for many years (and still manufactures air-cooled engines for light aircraft). This may have been the car's Achilles Heel, for the rest of the industry was moving towards V-8 engines and K-F, which couldn't afford to develop its own, found itself losing the horsepower race, although a supercharged version announced in 1954 helped for a while. As did the stunning second-generation Kaiser, also a Darrin design.
Unfortunately attempts at enlarging the lineup turned into expensive failures. The compact Henry J was never a success, not even when sold through Sears under its own brand name. A 2-seater sports car by Darrin, featuring sliding doors and fiberglass bodywork, was a sensation at the auto shows but couldn't make money for the company. Only 435 Kaiser-Darrins were manufactured and sold.
But if there's one thing for which Kaiser-Frazer deserves credit, it is America's first hatchbacks, the Kaiser Traveler and Vagabond. Mind you, the term "hatchback" didn't exist when those cars were introduced, but the principle is the same. The engineers took a normal Kaiser sedan and opened up the entire trunk and rear window area, replacing it with two pieces, a trunk lid and an upper hatch containing the window. The rear seatback was designed to fold flat and with the hard-lined floor, a capacious load space was formed that could carry large objects, be made into a bed for camping, or even a platform for picnics. It was versatile enough to appeal to small business operators and traveling salesmen as well as families. Okay, it wasn't a hatchback as we know it but I'll still credit the company for innovation. Both 2-door and 4-door versions were made and thankfully the Traveler hatchback did make it into the second generation 4-door Kaiser Manhattan.
This being a blog and by necessity brief I'm not going into the details of Kaiser's demise, other than to mention that in 1953 it had bought Willys Overland and merged the two corporations. Out of this came Kaiser-Jeep, which was sold to American Motors, which ended up owned by Chrysler and, well, you're familiar with the rest. All I know is that whenever I see a second generation Kaiser I can't help but wonder how something so beautiful could have had such a sad ending. Ah well, such is life for us romantics.