Joe Frazer, Father of the Jeep, Part 1

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….

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