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Kaiser Henry J

The ill-fated Hudson Jet has been called "The Car That Torpedoed Hudson." However, it's not the only car from the 1950s that can legitimately be charged with patricide against its manufacturer. There's a fair case to be made that the "Henry J" compact of 1951-54, intended to be the Model T of its day, was a major contributor to Kaiser exiting the passenger car business in North America.

Henry J ad

Henry J. Kaiser, the flamboyant shipbuilding and steel magnate who went into the car business after the war, had fair success in the first few years building the Kaiser and Frazer, which were full-size sedans. Good old Henry J. had always dreamed of producing an inexpensive entry-level "people's car," a Model T for the postwar world. In 1949 he secured a $44 million loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a government agency, on the condition that some of the loan funds would go to the development costs of a new small car. The loan agreement required that the car be introduced in the fall of 1950, that it should have room for six adult passengers, and that it sell for no more than $1,300.

The new small car--the name "Henry J" did not get hung on it until just before it was introduced--was built on a 100-inch wheelbase. The powertrain was a Willys 68-horsepower, four-cylinder L-head Jeep engine mated to a "three on the tree" transmission. An 80-horsepower, L-head straight six was optional. The basic engineering was competently done, the chassis had no vices, and the car had a sufficient power-to-weight ratio for its day, even with the four-cylinder engine.

AMP Prototype of the Henry J The prototype body was built by American Metal Products, and looked rather like something Fiat or VW or even Austin might have come up with. (Thought to have been lost, the prototype was found in a barn in Michigan in 1998 and has been restored. It's now in the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum.) Kaiser stylists dressed up the design with tail fins, a "Darrin dip" in the rear fender line, a "faster" fastback roofline, and a fancier grille. The front-end sheet metal was raked back below the headlights, making the car look like it had an overbite. The end result wasn't bad--I'm not particularly a fan of the styling, but it was certainly within the range of acceptable public tastes, and from some angles it's almost cute.

Kaiser faced the same problem with its Henry J that Hudson later did with the Jet: as a smaller company unable to take advantage of economies of scale like the big boys, and unable to cross-subsidize the project with cash generated by other parts of a vast empire, how could it produce and sell a small car at a price the market would accept and still make money? In Hudson's case, it brought the well-appointed, superbly engineered Jet to market at too high a price point and lost sales as a result. Kaiser couldn't overshoot the price point or it would cause a default on the government loan, so it came at the problem from the other direction--it de-contented the car to keep the price down. The plan was to introduce the base model first, and then roll out the upscale trim levels later.

1951 Henry J no trunkBase model it certainly was. The 1951 Henry Js are often described as Spartan. You could also describe them as minimalist ... austere ... ascetic ... or even "looking like they were stripped bare by a swarm of locusts."

The dashboard was just big enough to hold the speedometer and a few switches. There was no dome light, cigar lighter, horn, turn signal lever, or passenger side sun visor. There were no armrests. There was no glove compartment. The triangular "vent windows" on the doors didn't open. The rear windows didn't roll down or open in any way. In fact, there was no cabin ventilation system at all, not even fresh air ducts.

Most astonishingly, there was no trunk lid. You accessed the trunk--like, say, when you needed the jack and the spare tire, or wanted to get out your suitcases or put away the groceries--by folding down the rear seat.

Spartan? This was madness!

The idea of a small, economical car with a low price was quite appealing to the postwar American consumer--as Nash was finding out to its delight with the Rambler. However, the Rambler, even in its most basic base model, was a vehicle with all the amenities of a full-sized car. The Henry J lacked amenities in keeping with the concept of it as a Model T for the modern era. In thinking of the Henry J as "Model T Version 2.0," and (un)equipping it as such, Kaiser forgot the real reason why the Model T didn't have minor amenities such as dome lights and heaters--when the Model T came out, those amenities largely hadn't been invented yet. After 40 years of technological progress, it seemed inexcusable to leave them off even an entry-level car.

In comparison to the economical but well-trimmed Rambler, the Henry J looked cheap--and problems with build quality only added to the negative perception. At this price point, it wasn't so much competing with the Rambler and other new cars as it was with late-model used cars with a full (or at least fuller) feature set. As a result, the cheapskate Henry J didn't sell nearly as well as Kaiser had been hoping.

1952 Henry J Vagabond In December of 1950, Kaiser had an opportunity to export Henry Js to the Netherlands, but the Dutch made it clear that they would not accept a car with no trunk lid. In great haste, Kaiser's boffins concocted a working trunk lid and the factory assembled the Dutch export order. The very existence of a batch of Henry Js with functioning trunk lids was kept a closely-guarded secret because Kaiser didn't want its dealers, who were struggling to move Henry Js with no trunk lids, to complain that the foreigners were getting better product than they were. Realizing at last that the lack of basic amenities was a net disadvantage, Kaiser started cataloging an optional accessory group for the Henry J which consisted of a trunk lid, working vent windows, heater, and other little odds and ends that had been left off the original.

For the 1952 model year, the grille and front bumper were restyled, the tail lights moved out onto the tail fins, and the interior added a glove compartment and new plaid upholstery along with other amenities. However, because sales had been slow, Kaiser still had 7,000 unsold 1951s lying about, including quite a few of the pre-accessory group version with no trunk lid. The leftover '51s were given new serial numbers, jazzy "Continental kit" spare tires, and a revised hood ornament, and sold as the "1952 Henry J Vagabond." When the true 1952s were introduced, they were tagged as the "Corsair" (4-cylinder) and "Corsair Deluxe" (6-cylinder).

1953 Allstate The 1952 version also appeared at Sears stores as the "Sears Allstate." An Allstate was a Henry J which came with Sears' "Allstate"-branded tires and battery and accessories. Otherwise, except for the badging, the Allstate was a box-stock Henry J. Only a little over 2,000 Allstates were sold in 1952 and 1953, after which Sears gave up on the idea of selling cars and went back to tires, batteries, and oil changes.

The Henry J continued in production through 1953, with the last leftover '53s being re-serialed and sold in the 1954 model year. There had been a few more minor improvements made for the 1953 model year, and by the end of its run the Henry J was actually a pretty decent small car. Unfortunately for Kaiser, the later upgrades failed to overcome the car's skinflint reputation, and sales had declined every year that it was in production--to a mere 1,125 in the disappointing '54 model year. After a halfhearted attempt to sell some full-sized 1955 Manhattans, Kaiser bailed out of the U.S. passenger car market completely and moved its production operations to Argentina.

Edgar Kaiser's 1951 The Henry J did not do the sort of massive damage to Kaiser's balance sheet that the Jet did to Hudson's, but the resources that went into the Henry J project likely could have been put to better use elsewhere. Kaiser's full-sized cars, after their 1950 restyling, were attractive, with good lightweight engineering beneath the sheet metal, but they were put at a competitive disadvantage by their L-head straight-six engines. Kaiser had a V-8 engine under development for a while, but it never reached production, largely due to budget constraints. Had the latter-day Manhattan sedan been available with a modern V-8, and had the brand equity of Kaiser's products not been tarnished by the el cheapo nature of the first Henry Js, perhaps Kaiser could have stayed in the passenger car business longer.

It's sometimes said that the Henry J was a car ahead of its time--not because it was too advanced or too radical for its day, but because it was released in the relatively prosperous year of 1950. 1950's buyers were looking for bigger, more powerful, more feature-laden cars, so there was only so much market share out there for economical compacts. Had the Henry J made its debut in the 1957-58 recession, it would have done a lot better--in 1958, Rambler was the only U.S. make that increased sales, and ailing Studebaker was pleasantly surprised by demand for its "Scotsman" line of de-contented sedans.

A few more fun things to note about the Henry J:

  • Unadorned 1951s are hard to find, largely because so few have survived in their original state. The basic design of the Henry J did not change over the course of its existence, and parts from the 1952 and 1953 model years--including the many amenities the 1951s lacked--will bolt right in. Many owners of 1951s accessorized their cars in this fashion.
  • If you want to restore a Henry J, and fit it with a modern engine, transmission, and running gear, you're in luck. By a happy coincidence, a Henry J body will fit nicely on a Chevrolet S-10 pickup frame. The car below, which belongs to Kaiser-Frazer expert "Kaiser Bill" Brown, was restored in this fashion. (There's a slideshow of the project from start to finish on Bill's website here, from which the photo here came.)

Kaiser Bill's Henry J

  • Henry Js are popular with hot-rodders and drag racers. The engine bay was sized to accommodate a big straight six, and therefore can easily hold the V-8 of your choice--allowing you to stuff an insane amount of horsepower in a small, light car. The fire-breathing Henry below belongs to Robert W. Carpenter, and is powered by a 392 Hemi.

Terror of the Dragstrip

Henry J dragsters and hot rods are so popular that replica Henry J bodies are made in fiberglass. In fact, if you're so inclined, you can combine a new fiberglass body, a set of replica bumpers, and an S-10 frame and running gear and build yourself a nice, new 21st-century Henry J. Yours can even be equipped with 21st-century amenities like armrests, turn signals, a heater, a dome light, and a trunk lid.

The light yellow Henry J in the middle of the page once belonged to Edgar Kaiser, Henry's son, and the photo came from the website of its current owner, L.J. Fideler. Mr. Fideler's website is probably the best single source of historical Henry J information on the 'Net. The Henry J dragster is from the "Henry J Cars" website, which features a lot of hot rod and dragster projects. The photo of the AMP prototype came from the photo gallery documenting its restoration. The rest of the illustrations came from John's Old Car and Truck Pictures.

--Cookie the Dog's Owner

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It kills me that trunk lids were considered an "accessory" during that time - the Nash Metropolitan went sans-trunk lid as well. It's almost like a reverse hatchback... very strange.

Is it me, or does that yellow car with the overbite look like this guy?:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBJY5w_VoB8

I just finished reading EVERY POST. The is definitely my favorite site. It took my a few weeks to read it all but it was worth it.

Thanks Eric, we appreciate that!

I remember seeing one of these in a used car lot in the "Ohio City" section of Cleveland in around '86/'87. It was silver, and man I wanted that car. I think they were asking in the vicinity of either $800 or $1300.

Wow, the father of a friend of mine growing up had restored a Henry J. It was a beautiful car.

If you're gonna hot rod this classic a 392 hemi won't take much from the mood. And Bill Brown's for a sunny day driver. Another pleasant read.

My very first car might have been a Kaiser J had it not been for the fact that the rear passenger window had been broken out and it was parked with that side so close the the gypsy fortune teller's "house" that I could bearly see that side of the car, and the: "they" wouldn't move it so I could inspect that side.
1967 as I recall.
I miss that car.

Don't forget the paper upholstry. According to an article in the old Hemmings Special Interest Autos magazine, to save money over "high cost" vinyl, some Henry Js (and Allstates), featured paper seatcovers that had a thin layer of plastic on top.
I imagine its sort of like the stuff old book covers (and newer dog food bags) were made from, where after awhile the you could peel off large sections of the clear plastic leaving the printed design underneath.

Edgar's J (the yellow car above) is owned by L.J.'s and my father, Ervin Fideler. My husband Aaron and I now own my dad's 1951 Kaiser Special (refurbished by my father)and since owning the car, Aaron has become almost as knowledgeable about Kaisers as L.J.! Aaron recently designed several t-shirts with likenesses of both Kaiser and Frazer. Visit the url above if you're interested in a Kaiser or Frazer tee.

Speaking of LJ, here I am. The first paragraph of this article sounds typical of what a lot of people think - the Henry J killed Kaiser. That is not true. I, and many others, would argue that Kaiser killed Kaiser. Kaiser-Frazer had two great years in 1947 and 1948 but Joseph Frazer was from the auto industry and unlike Henry J Kaiser, he understood the car buying public. When Henry J Kaiser wanted to gear up to produce 100,000+ cars in 1949, Frazer warned him against it and said it would not be possible as the post-war seller's market had dried up by then. Henry brushed him off and as it turns out, Frazer was right and Kaiser was hurting big time at the end of 1949 due to over-producing. They had overproduced to the point that they did not have a 1950 year model as all they could do was re-tag all the 1949s, that were sitting on the lot unsold, as 1950s. Kaiser lost his shorts in 1949 and was way in debt. The only way to keep the company going was borrow money and the only organzation that would lend Kaiser 40 million was the Reconstruction Finance Corp in Washington DC. Everyone knows that government loans come with strings attached and part of the agreement for the money was that Kaiser must produce a 'People's Car' that could be sold for $1300 - hence the Henry J. The Henry J did not cause Kaiser's downfall, it kept Kaiser going for 4 more years. If there was no Henry J, there would be no 1951 - 55 Kaiser cars either.

LJ and Leslie, thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts on the Henry J with us. As I said in the article, your website was very helpful to me in putting this article together.

I would agree, LJ, that Henry Kaiser's poor judgment calls had a lot more to do with the failure of Kaiser-Frazer than the Henry J--but the Henry J itself was a bit of a miscalculation, and I still think they'd have been better off engineering a modern V-8 for the full-size cars instead of trying for Model T 2.0.

That said, Henry Js (and Kaiser-Frazers in general) are still interesting cars, and I thank you and the other K-F enthusiasts for doing so much to preserve them and tell their stories.

My wife told me she ran across this article, so I had to check it out. Good job on the t-shirt plug there, honey. (www.printfection.com/weaztees) Also, I am in no way as knowledgeable as my esteemed brother-in-law. I am, however, passionate about these K-F cars!

I too have wondered what if. What if they had put there money behind a nice modern V-8? I think 'ol Henry would have run them into non-existence just the same. I won't rehash what's already been said, but I do have an interesting point. I think the killing off of the Frazer brand did irreparable damage to the good name of the company. Who want's to buy from a company that can't keep itself together?

That brings us to today. Will the killing off of certain brands, in the end, kill off the parent auto manufacturer? Are our current auto makers heading for the same end (albeit by somewhat different means) as Kaiser-Frazer?

Just something to think about.

On the day I got my drivers license, I was hitching a ride home when a Henry J stopped to give me a ride, he asked where I was coming from, and I told him I just got my drivers license, well he pulled right over and let me drive his Henry J right to my house, I will never forget that day. He still has that car and that was back in 1967 when it all took place. When My father found out about the car he went right over and offer his services if needed to keep the car running and we all became good friends over the years, sadly , Dad passed last October. But all the memories will live on.

My father has a 1952 Kaiser Frazer that has been parked in his garage for 30 years. He now wants to sell it and Im having a really hard time trying to find out what this car is actually worth. You would think with the internet I could find something and I cant. I posted it on ebay today and afraid I have priced it to low or to high. Do you have any idea on how I could estimate the worth?
Thanks

I grew up driving a 1952 Henry J to high school. I still have it
at my home place in Nebraska. Anyone interested?

Purchased a '52 H J on my return from Korea - Drove it all thru college and until we were in an accident in downtowm Mpls on Thanksgiving Day - was hit by a '38 Nash - during a snow storm - car
never really ran straight after that. Up till then it was a perfect car for a vet in college. Wish I could buy one now to restore.

I will always see the Henry J as the dented yellow Yakasaki Pigeon that Mr. Weatherbee had in the '70s Archie comic books...

It was great to see my Hemi j on you site, I love driving her around town(Alb. NM) and going to car shows. Thanks again. Bob

Two of my Henry J. Kaiser corsairs deluxe 1953 / 1954 as showd on
www.goldtimer-cars.nl

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