Motoring Memories: Kaiser Traveler   the first hatchback  motoring memories
1953 Kaiser Traveler. Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

When the hatchback body style began to appear on cars in quantity in the 1970s, its practicality made it very popular, especially in Europe. But like so many automotive features, it wasn’t really new; the hatchback had appeared on Kaiser-Frazer cars approximately a quarter century earlier.

Kaiser-Frazer was an independent automobile company that was formed when super-salesman Joseph Frazer and construction millionaire Henry Kaiser teamed up in 1945 to create the Kaiser-Frazer Corp. In so doing they launched what a leading American auto historian, Richard Langworth, called “The Last Onslaught on Detroit,” the title of his book that chronicles the rise and fall of Kaiser-Frazer.

Frazer had started as a mechanic with the Packard Motor Car Co., and then went into sales. He worked his way up through a number of auto manufacturers, and by the end of the Second World War held controlling interest in the Graham-Paige Motor Corp. Although G-P had been active in military work, it hadn’t built a car since 1940.

Kaiser made his money in construction in locations that read like a who’s who of 1930s mega-projects: the Grand Coulee, Bonneville, and Hoover (now Boulder) dams; the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge; and a third set of locks for the Panama Canal. He also build Liberty ships during the Second World War.

The Kaiser-Frazer Corp. had produced its first prototype car by early 1946. A war surplus bomber plant was obtained in Willow Run near Detroit, Michigan, and by June, 1946, an astonishingly short time, K-F was in production with 1947 models.

The corporation produced both Kaisers and Frazers. Although sharing the same bodies and chassis, the Frazer was dressed up more to compete with such upscale marques as Oldsmobile, Chrysler and Hudson. The Kaiser’s features and price were more modest to keep it closer to the popular priced segment.

Riding the crest of the post-war new car shortage, K-F prospered, producing almost 140,000 cars in 1948. There was no station wagon or utility vehicle, however, which probably contributed to K-F’s development of the hatchback.

Henry Kaiser himself is reputed to have conceived the idea that incorporated the amenities of a sedan with increased cargo space that approached that of a station wagon. He apparently took his staff down to the garage in the Kaiser building and outlined his idea by drawing some lines on the back of a dusty company vehicle. According to author Langworth, Kaiser said: “Why not cut a door in the rear and divide it halfway down the trunk lid? Then hinge it here and here, find some way of folding down the rear seat…”

K-F staff proceeded to develop a vehicle based on Kaiser’s suggestion. A large hatch was created, extending down to the middle of the trunk lid. The roof was reinforced, and the hatch was hinged forward of the rear window. The lower tailgate-like part of the trunk lid was hinged at bumper level. The rear bumper guards were relocated to allow this tailgate to fold out level where it was supported by chains encased in vinyl. A lighted licence plate holder swung down when the tailgate was open.

Motoring Memories: Kaiser Traveler   the first hatchback  motoring memories
Photo: Bill Vance

The rear seat was designed to fold forward, and because there was now no space in the trunk for the spare tire, it was bolted to the inside of the left rear door, which was (usually) welded shut. With the hatch raised, the seat folded, and the tailgate lowered, a long, level cargo platform was available.

Henry’s instincts had been good. The versatile Kaiser Traveler and companion Frazer Vagabond, as the new models were called, were an instant success with the public. Priced at less than $100 above the sedans, and much below competitive station wagons, the Traveler/Vagabond accounted for about one-quarter of all 1949 Kaiser-Frazers produced.

Others tried to imitate K-F’s innovative idea. Chrysler Corp. brought out its “Carryall” Chrysler and DeSoto models in 1949. While intended to match the Traveler/Vagabond’s versatility, they lacked the unique rear hatch. And although they did have a folding seat, they were weak competition.

The Frazer name was dropped in 1951; Joseph Frazer had left the company following a disagreement with Henry Kaiser and his son Edgar. The Kaiser Traveler utility model was continued until 1953. With the stunningly styled new 1951 Kaisers a way was been found to stow the spare tire in the trunk. This added to the Traveler’s appeal by making it a four-door hatchback.

Kaiser-Frazer’s valiant attempt to challenge the established car manufacturers, including the Big Three (GM, Ford and Chrysler), came to an end in 1955, but part of its legacy lives on in the innovative hatchback.

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