Kaiser - Taking On The Big Three

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 1947 - 1955
KAISER made a bold attempt to break into the closely buttoned-up world of the American car industry on a large scale. However, the story might never have happened had it not been for the Ford Motor Company achieving the impossible.

When it became apparent, in 1940, that it was only a matter of time before America became involved in World War 2, the motor industry began organising for munitions production, and the most ambitious programme was that of Ford, which proposed to mass-produce aircraft in unprecedented numbers.

Cast Iron Charlie

Henry Ford claimed that his company could build a thousand aeroplanes a day if allowed a free hand, and his company was awarded a contract to manufacture the Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber. In 1941, 'Cast Iron Charlie' Sorenson, Henry Ford's right-hand-man for 40 years, was put in charge of the construction of a vast new aircraft factory at Willow Run, near Ypsilianti, Michigan.

Sorenson's autocratic manner, plus labour and material troubles, seriously impeded the project and by September 1942, when the factory was still not under way despite America's entry into the hostilities, the Air Force wanted the US Government to take over. However within a few months the plant was in action and in 1944, production figures of 400-500 Liberators a month were being achieved by the Ford mass-production techniques. The fact that the Liberator was a somewhat mediocre aircraft was the Air Force's fault, and certainly not Ford's.

The Willow Run Plant

With victory over Germany and Japan on the ropes, Willow Run ceased production on 15 June 1945. The vast factory was briefly pressed into use as a store for bombers brought home from overseas. Then, in September, came the news that the Government had offered to lease the $100,000,000 factory to Henry J. Kaiser and Joe Frazer, who had joined forces with the intention of going into car production when the war was over.

It was an auspicious partnership: Joseph A. Frazer was the president of the Graham Car Company, which, although now moribund, had been the largest of the independent manufacturers in its heyday, while they were hailing Henry J. Kaiser as the 'second Henry Ford'. This was the result of his spectacular achievements in mass-production in the ship-building industry, although Kaiser, a millionaire Californian, had wide-ranging business interests apart from this.

Kaiser applied prefabrication to ship building, and was thus able to set new output records by making ships by assembly-line techniques (although the idea was not new, as Henry Ford had built the Eagle boats by similar methods during World War 1, as had the medieval Venetian shipwrights of the era of the Doges). Kaiser also introduced steel manufacture to the West Coast of America, so that the industry's traditional concentration of manufacturing plants and methods of nationwide distribution in the East should not prove an Achilles Heel in wartime conditions.

Henry J Kaiser
Henry J Kaiser, the man behind the emipre and often referred to as 'The Second Henry Ford'.

Kaiser-Frazer's rolling off the production line at Willow Run
Kaiser-Frazer's rolling off the production line at Willow Run.

1948 Kaiser Vagabond
1948 Kaiser Vagabond, which featured a twin-tailgate setup.

1954 Kaiser Manhattan
1954 Kaiser Manhattan, which featured a 3.7 liter six-cylinder engine good for 110 bhp.

Henry J Kaiser and the Two Model Programme

That meant that when the Armistice came, Kaiser's was a golden name. If any one man could challenge the might of the Big Three - Ford, General Motors and Chrysler - it was Henry J. Initially, he planned a two-model programme, with the Kaiser car as the economy model and the Frazer as the luxury product. The company was registered under Nevada State laws. As originally mooted, the Kaiser was full of technical interest.

The 1946 prototypes had all-round independent torsion-bar suspension and front-wheel drive, plus a distinctively slab-sided bodyshell. By the time the vehicle reached the market in 1947, though, it had become a mediocre car for middle America, with a totally conventional layout-front engine, rear-wheel drive-and styling by Howard 'Dutch' Darrin, which differed little from any of its contemporaries.

The more expensive Frazer was distinguished only in the details of its specification: both cars were powered by 100 bhp side-valve six-cylinder engines. It was, of course, the ideal time to launch a new car, as the market was desperate to buy after four years starved of new models - and, even second-hand vehicles as well - so that initially it seemed as though the bold Kaiser-Frazer gamble was going to payoff and become the first automotive empire to be created since Waiter Chrysler came on the scene 20 years earlier.

The Traveler and Vagabond

By 1949, the company had scooped 5 per cent of the market and a $44 million loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation; its new models were also beginning to set a style of their own. The Traveler and Vagabond utilities, for instance, were equipped with two-piece tailgates to give the versatility of a station wagon with the styling of a normal saloon car, while heading the range was a $3000 convertible with an electrically-operated hood; the hardtop version of this being another trendsetter.

This, though, was the apogee of the meteoric growth of the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation and, from that point, sales began to fall off. Moreover, having been laid out for aircraft manufacture, the Willow Run factory was far less efficient as a car plant, so that it was costing the corporation more to produce each car than it should have.

The Henry J

The 1950 sales were 144,000 cars, but Kaiser-Frazer still recorded a 513 million loss (Hudson, on the other hand, made a $12 million profit from almost identical sales figures). Ford had, in fact, been offered the Willow Run plant at a knockdown price before Kaiser - and had turned it down. There was a hasty restyling, the 1951 Kaiser and Frazer cars appeared in March 1950; there were five Frazer models, and standard and de luxe Kaiser ranges. There was also a new, smaller economy model, the Henry J.

Although the corporation had by now acquired the Continental plant which supplied its engines, the Henry J had a Willys power unit - either the four-cylinder Jeep power-plant or an in-line six. However, the Henry J was both ugly and overpriced and, although it was later assembled in Mexico, Japan and Israel, it was never a success.

Styling was marginally improved in 1952, by which time you could order a Henry J through the post from the massive Sears Roebuck mail-order house. As the Henry J came in, so the Frazer went out, leaving only its Manhattan model name behind-this was now used for the top-of-the-range Kaiser. The Kaiser empire was by then crumbling fast, and 3000 workers were laid off in May 1952. Ominous, perhaps, was the addition of a 'Penny-Minder' carburetor to the specification of the 1953 Henry J, but the Henry J had only a few months more left in it, and in 1953, Kaiser-Frazer merged with Willys, and the Henry J was dropped in favour of the Willys Aero model.

Merging with Willys

Kaisers, however, became sleeker and more luxurious after the merger, and there was even a fiberglass-bodied Kaiser-Darrin sports car, while a McCulloch supercharger could be specified on the Manhattan models. These were just the final flare-up of the Kaiser meteor, though, before it was extinguished. The company had just begun assembly in Argentina, and it was decided to transfer all car production there. Willow Run had gone already, bought by General Motors to replace its Livonia automatic transmission plant, totally destroyed by fire, and the new Kaiser-Jeep Corporation was based at the old Willys plant at Toledo, Ohio.

Willys, too, soon discontinued the production of their passenger-car range, but this time the reason was the success of the Jeep and its many derivatives, which now monopolised production. Although the Kaiser name had now vanished from the US market, the Industrias Kaiser Argentina SA at Buenos Aires now had all the body dies and tools, and began production of the Carabela, a Kaiser Manhattan with an Argentinean accent, which survived well into the 1960s.

As part of the transaction, Kaiser acquired a 22% interest in AMC, which it later divested. Included in the sale was the General Products Division, which Kaiser had purchased from Studebaker in 1964 as it prepared to leave the auto business itself. AMC renamed the division AM General , which still operates today, and is best known as the manufacturer of the original Hummer, now called the H1, and also manufactures the Hummer H2.

The Kaiser-Frazer story was not a total disaster, but it did show that it was virtually impossible to break big into the American market, the main difficulty being to establish and keep a dealer network. The innate conservatism of the American car-buying public was another factor in the demise of the Kaiser, the Frazer and the Henry J. However, it does not really explain why, within a few years of the withdrawal of the Kaiser from the US market, the makers of small European and Japanese cars were able to make such a successful invasion.

Also see: Kaiser Car Reviews
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