1953 Kaiser Manhattan
1953 Kaiser Manhattan. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Several entrepreneurs tried to enter the automobile building business in North America following the Second World War. The one that survived the longest was Kaiser-Frazer, although its flight lasted only a decade. Henry J. Kaiser, a west coast construction and ship building magnate, and experienced auto industry executive Joseph W. Frazer, president of Graham-Paige Motors, teamed up to form the Kaiser-Frazer Corp. in 1945.

Graham-Page hadn’t built an automobile since 1940, but had been active in war production. Kaiser-Frazer was able to acquire a giant war surplus bomber plant in Willow Run, Michigan, near Detroit, on very favourable terms, and converted it into the world’s largest automobile factory.

After experimenting with such advanced ideas as front-wheel drive, torsion bar springing, unit construction, and all-independent suspension, Kaiser-Frazer settled on a conventional front engine, rear drive, body-on-frame sedan with integrated fenders, and full envelope styling.

Because it was not a pre-war holdover, its style was quite advanced compared with the other manufacturers, except Studebaker whose new models arrived in the spring of 1946. The K-F’s long 3,137 mm (123.5 in.) wheelbase gave a spacious interior and between-the-axles seating.

To avoid the time and cost of developing their own engine, K-F used a 3.7 litre, side-valve, “Red Seal” Continental inline six-cylinder industrial engine converted for automobile use. It developed 100 horsepower, with 112 optional. When some problems developed with the engines, K-F would take over their production under licence in 1947.

The popularly priced Kaiser and the more upscale Frazer were announced on January 1946. Production began in June, and they were launched in October as 1947 models. It was a euphoric time for the automobile business. The Depression and the Second World’s 3-1/2 year car-building hiatus had created a pent-up demand for cars. It was truly a seller’s market, and in this artificial environment K-F sold 70,474 Kaisers and 68,775 Frazers in the 1947 model year.

Prosperity continued in 1948, with almost 140,000 cars sold, but by 1949 conditions began to change. The new car demand had been satisfied, and the Big Three and smaller independent manufacturers had all-new post-war models available.

In this new environment Kaiser sales slipped from 91,851 1948 models, to a combined 1949-50 model year total of 94,750. And in spite of the introduction of its pioneering 1949 Traveller hatchback, Frazer sales slid from 48,071 ’48s, to only 24,720 ’49s and ’50s combined. It was clear that something was needed to rejuvenate K-F’s fortunes.

This something was the stunning 1951 Kaiser. The Frazer had to make do with re-jigged 1950 styling, but it was near the end of the line anyway, departing the scene early in 1951 due to low sales, and Joe Frazer’s disagreement with the management of Henry Kaiser and his son Edgar, K-F’s general manager. With the Frazer Manhattan gone, the Manhattan name was given to the new top-of-the-line Kaiser.

Kaiser-Frazer stylist Howard “Dutch” Darrin and associates did a remarkable job of styling the ’51 Kaiser, considered by many to be one of the most beautiful of the early post-war American designs. The straight-line boxiness was replaced by a fender line that curved gently front to rear, and was relieved by a slight dip under the rear side window. This was echoed by one in the middle of the windshield, which became known as the “Darrin Dip.” The low, horizontal grille gave the Kaiser a “road hugging” look.

With the new styling, Kaiser sales rebounded to 149,000 for 1951, including 1,360 cars built in K-F’s Toronto plant, where production ceased in 1952. Also in 1951, the full size Kaiser was joined by the compact Henry J to compete with Nash’s Rambler.

Unfortunately for K-F, the public’s ardor cooled quickly, and in spite of the Manhattan name, only 26,500 1952 Kaisers were sold. Much of the reason was that the little six lacked the power and smoothness of a V8, which most of the competition now had. Although K-F had engineered an overhead valve V8, they couldn’t afford to tool up to build it. Another factor no doubt was that buyers may have smelled failure, and didn’t want to be left with an orphan.

The lovely Manhattan limped through 1953 with sales of only 29,327. To diversify and expand its line, K-F acquired Willys-Overland Inc., manufacturer of the famous Jeep. The name was changed to Willys Motors Inc. The Willow Run plant was sold to General Motors and the whole K-F operation was consolidated in Toledo, Ohio.

To compensate for its lack of a V8, the 1954 Manhattan’s “Supersonic” six was fitted with a belt-driven McCulloch centrifugal supercharger. This boosted power from 118 to 140, which improved performance almost to V8 levels, but it wasn’t enough to save the Manhattan. Production ceased in 1955 after just under 1,300 Kaisers were built. Car building was moved to Argentina and Brazil. “The Last Onslaught on Detroit,” as author Richard Langworth named his definitive book on Kaiser-Frazer, was over.

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