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. 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.
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.
Base 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.
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).
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.
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.)
- 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.
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