by Johanna Patterson
Referred to by Frank Zappa as the “ironing board from hell” (after experiencing the back seat while doing a cross-country tour) the Henry-J was naturally enough the brainchild of Henry J Kaiser, chairman of Kaiser-Frazer Corporation, who thought that by adding a car that could be built inexpensively he would be able to emulate the success that Henry Ford had with the Model-T
The Henry-J started its production in 1950
, the very first iterations being fitted with a 4 cylinder engine, with six cylinder production commencing shortly after the cars initial release in September of that year. The project included a fair amount of “design and compliance”, given the US government were effectively bank-rolling the project by providing Kaiser-Fraser with much need funds.
Foremost of these was the requirement that the Henry-J retail for less than US$1,300, or risk being in violation of its loan agreement. Stipulation was also made that the cars could seat at least 5 adults, had to be available for sale by the end of September 30th 1950
, and had to be able to sustain speeds of at least 50 miles per hour for a sustained period of time.
The latter requirement was a tough ask of a car equipped with an underwhelming 60 odd horsepower engine. The design team naturally sought to use the fewest possible components - they needed to keep the weight to a minimum, and a hoped side effect would be that the car would also be inexpensive to maintain. It was a big ask to manufacture a car to meet the criteria, and in every respect the Henry-J failed.
For example, the early Henry-J’s had cost/weight saving measures such as no trunk (boot) lids, owners having to access the trunk by folding down the rear seat, plus the car was offered only as a two door sedan with rear windows that were fixed. Gloveboxes, armrests, passenger sun visor and flow through ventilation were also missing. This should sound all too familiar with those that have already read our articles on the Lightburn Zeta
and Lightburn Zeta Sports
The initial engine used was the 68 bhp four cylinder unit borrowed from the CJ-3 series Jeep, albiet with some minor modifications. Simply put, the little bugger struggled, and Kaiser-Frazer new it from the get-go, however it did keep costs low and help keep the Henry-J within the stipulated retail price requirement. Always intended and the much better option was the L-head six cylinder Willys-Overland unit.
Without the well established dealer network of its rivals, and in keeping with the "cheap and cheerful" concept of the Henry-J, the Kaiser organization began rebadging the cars as Allstate and selling them through Sears. These were nearly identical to Henry-J’s, save for the grill, hood ornament, hubcaps, identification badges, interior trim, tires and batteries. There may have been merit in a car being retailed via department stores, but the public literally "didn't buy it". In fact, sales were so disappointing that after only two years Sears would drop the car.
Ultimately the Henry-J proved a disappointment for Kaiser. Sure, it was cheap, but for not much more you could get a Chevrolet 150, a car that included rear windows AND a trunk lid - and of course many preferred to buy something more substantial on the second hand market. Ultimately the Chevy 150 would get the punters into the showrooms, where a savvy salesman would inevitably upsell to a larger car with more interior room. To help it compete, Kaiser-Frazer introduced an "Accessory Group" which included the much needed deck lid, along with other dress up items. Alas it had about as much impact as a mosquito flying into a 747.
When you make something with an emphasis on low buy price, you have to sell plenty, and the Henry-J missed the mark entirely. It's manufacturing and labour costs were high, and the pitiful sales volumes pretty much negated any hope the organization had of making a profit through volume. Kaiser-Frazer acquired Willys Overland’s vehicle operations in early 1953
, changing its name to Willys Motors Incorporated, and making the inevitable decision to discontinue the Henry-J. An abbreviated run of Henry-J’s to Kaiser Motors (Kaiser-Frazer got a corporate name change in May of 1953) as 1954 models was done so that the company could use up the incomplete 1953
models scattered around the Willow Run, Michagan factory. These were almost impossible to sell, which was no great surprise.
It is worth mentioning that,
, the Henry-J was available in Japan. Kaiser-Frazer established a deal with East Japan Heavy-Industries, part of the Mitsubishi group, for their manufacture. And why give the Henry-J 4 starts for collectability? Just try and buy one and you will find out. Cars do not have to be good to be collectable, and the Henry-J certainly is a part of US automotive history. Just as the Model-T was a stellar success, the collectability of a car at the other end of the spectrum remains.