1953 Kaiser Golden Dragon
1953 Kaiser Golden Dragon
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

When Henry Kaiser and Joe Frazer teamed up after World War II to form a car-building enterprise called the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation, both were already successful entrepreneurs. Kaiser’s fame came from construction. His company participated in building the mighty Hoover Dam, and built Liberty Ships during the war.

Frazer had worked his way up from Packard mechanic to the presidency of Willys-Overland and then Graham-Paige. When K-F was formed, he controlled Graham-Paige Motor Corp., which had been active in war work but hadn’t built a car since 1940.

They formed Kaiser-Frazer in July, 1945, to challenge the established auto manufacturers who had managed to survive the Depression. These were the Big Three (General Motors, Ford and Chrysler) and the Little Four (Nash, Hudson, Studebaker and Packard). Crosley was also present with its tiny cars and small production.

With no pre-war models to lean on, K-F had to design its cars from the ground up. There would be two nameplates for virtually identical cars: the popular-priced Kaiser and the upscale Frazer.

After testing such advanced features as front-wheel drive, torsion bar suspension and unit construction, K-F settled on a conventional body-on-frame, front-engine, rear drive car. Stylist Howard “Dutch” Darrin produced a full envelope, slab-sided design whose fender line ran straight and level from front to rear. With a long 3137 mm (123.5 in.) wheelbase, the K-F provided between- the-axles seating, which gave ample legroom and a good ride.

To speed development and save money, the firm used a modified Continental industrial 3.7 litre (260 cu in.) engine. This side-valve six developed 100 horsepower, and following some initial quality problems, K-F began manufacturing them itself under licence in 1947.

The K-F crew had its first two cars ready to show by January, 1946. They were well received, and K-F acquired the huge Willow Run bomber plant near Detroit, Michigan. Production was under way by June of 1946, and the cars were introduced as ’47 models.

It was a real seller’s market right after the Second World War. The war had shut down auto production from 1942 to ’45, resulting in a huge pent-up demand for new cars. Kaiser-Frazer couldn’t have started selling their very similar Kaisers and Frazers – the grille was the main difference – at a better time.

Things got off to a good start with total sales of more than 139,000 of the 1947 Kaiser and Frazer models. The 1948 cars saw few changes, and sales held at about the same level.

But competition was increasing. There was the all-new Raymond Loewy-designed ’47 Studebaker, followed by the ’48 “Step Down” Hudson. Then in 1949, the transition to post-war designs was complete with the Big Three’s all-new styling and Nash’s redesigned “Airflyte” series.

With the change to a buyer’s market the combined sales of the 1949-50 Kaiser-Frazers, still little changed, fell to just over 120,000 cars. Something had to be done, and stylist Darrin, who had left the company and then returned, was able to accomplish it. With the assistance of stylist Duncan McRae, he created the 1951 K-F line, coming up with one of the most beautiful designs of the ’50s.

Gone were the former boxiness and straight fenders. They were replaced by a low beltline with a gentle dip at the rear door, which followed the motif of the “Darrin Dip” at the top of the windshield. A particularly glamorous model was the Golden Dragon.

Large windows, a nicely integrated grille, and imaginative interior-exterior styling made the ’51 Kaiser a winner. There was a ’51 Frazer too, but few were sold. After a disagreement with Henry Kaiser, Joe Frazer had left the company and the Frazer nameplate would soon disappear. With its new styling and the addition of a compact car called the Henry J, K-F sales jumped to 231,608 for 1951.

The Kaiser had one serious disadvantage, however: the lack of a V-8 engine. The old side-valve cubic inch six just couldn’t match the performance and smoothness of its eight-cylinder competition.

Nineteen fifty-two was the beginning of the end for K-F’s car building efforts in North America, which included assembling cars in Toronto in 1950-51, when sales dropped to 57,265. The following year they would be down to 46,398.

Despite the addition of supercharging for the six in 1954, which raised horsepower to 140 from 118, just 10,097 were sold. A stylish fibreglass-bodied, sliding-door sports car, the Kaiser Darrin, was also offered, although few found buyers.

Only a handful of ’55 models were built before production ceased and Henry Kaiser shipped the dies to Argentina where they were used to build a car called the Kaiser Carabela.

Kaiser-Frazer’s demise as a North American car builder marked the end of the last and bravest attempt by a new, home-grown company to crack Fortress Detroit. Many mourned its passing.

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