Henry J Kaiser (1882-1967)
After the 1935 Auto Show in Berlin, a curious 3-wheeled, one-cylinder car was exhibited. Passers by were stunned by the odd little car. Not only was it weird, but it came from Henry J. Kaiser, an industrialist well-known for building roads, bridges, and dams, but certainly not automobiles.
As WWII began, Kaiser knew postwar America would be new car hungry. Joe Frazer of Graham-Paige denounced this as “half-baked…stupid bushwah.” But ten years later, the two would reconcile, forming Kaiser-Frazer, in 1943, Henry J. said that if nobody else produced “lightweight, cheaper automobiles”, he would. The robust American car industry welcomed, even dared him to follow through.
He planned to build small, cheap cars to satisfy a market niche overlooked by Detroit. The cars were to be sold alongside accessories, through service stations instead of dealerships. But the company proceeded with full-sized vehicles, foolishly risking competition with the already established Big Three.
To generate publicity, Kaiser-Frazer hosted an auto show at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, inviting the press and Hollywood celebrities to attend. Over four days 156,000 prospective buyers stood in line to witness the new cars.
After a wobbly start, Kaiser-Frazer celebrated its 100,000th car in 1947 from the former Ford plant at Willow Run. But locating steel was a big problem. Suppliers resented Kaiser’s 1942 foray info their industry, and with the larger companies scrambling for materials, newcomer K-F was no high priority.
Sales peaked in 1947 and 1948, but by 1949, many dealers had dropped out. In 1950, K-F finally unveiled their small car. The Henry J was good for 82,000 copies in 1951, but only 23,568 the following year. Sears sold 2600 more through their catalog and retail stores, under the brand name “Allstate.’‘
But Americans wanted flash, not 34 mpg. In 1953, the Kaiser Darrin sports car and the acquisition of Willys-Overlarnd of Toledo did little to revive the independent manufacturer. A major fire at GM prompted the sale of Kaiser-Frazer’s Willow Run facility to the industry giant for $26 million. Production shifted to Toledo, and continued for a variety of overseas markets in Europe and the Middle East.
At the time of Henry’s death in 1967, the Kaiser Jeep Corporation was building more than 50,000 four-wheel-drive vehicles and military trucks annually, but the cars were long gone. Ironically, as that chapter of his career closed, his other businesses were prospering. His automotive venture was the only real fiasco among a host of successes. Henry J. Kaiser couldn’t afford to look back. There was just too much to do.