Joe Frazer, Father of the Jeep, Part 1
In 2011, Joseph Washington Frazer (1892-1971) was inducted, belatedly, into the Automotive Hall of Fame, with his erstwhile partner, Henry J. Kaiser, co-founders of the world’s fourth-largest auto manufacturer during 1946-48. This article is updated from the remembrance I wrote of JWF, creator of the Jeep. For more on Frazer, see my book, Kaiser-Frazer: Last Onslaught on Detroit.
On August 7th, 1971, the auto industry lost a cherished son. Joe Frazer—mechanic, instructor, financier, salesman, president and board chairman in a half dozen companies, one of the few remaining giants of the classic era of American car-building, passed away from cancer at his home, “High Tide,” in Newport, Rhode Island, aged 79.
Packard was the name Joe Frazer began with when he spoke of his life, because he had started his career there, and frankly admitted he had begun with the best. The son of wealthy parents, he didn’t have to work for a living. But he determined in 1912 to make his own way in the world by choosing the best company he could find. He had the luck to find Packard in the heyday of its mighty Six, “the Soft-Spoken Boss of the Road” from 1912 to 1915.
Frazer began as a mechanic’s helper at 16 cents an hour, but rapidly rose to supervisory capacity and taught in the industry’s first technical schools, which were, typically, a Packard innovation. Later he went on to General Motors, where he instituted GMAC, the first automobile credit plan. GM loaned him to Pierce-Arrow to set up their own credit department. Then he joined his friend Walter Chrysler, who had set out to build a multi-line company. As Chrysler’s vice-president for sales, Joe christened the Plymouth and DeSoto, nursed Chrysler through the Depression, and worked there for the greater part of fifteen years.
Succeeding to the presidency of Ward Canaday’s Willys-Overland in 1939, Joe directed the development of the low-priced Americar and the wartime Jeep, two products that saved that company. Those names were his own, too; though Bantam and Ford also built Jeeps, Frazer almost single-handedly sold the concept to the Army. In his home hung an oil painting of a Kentucky thoroughbred, bearing a plaque of appreciation: “To Joseph W. ‘Jeeps’ Frazer, from the Employees of Willys-Overland.”
Continued in Part 2….