Joe Frazer, Father of the Jeep, Part 2

Joe Frazer, Father of the Jeep, Part 2

con­tin­ued from part 1

JWF cel­e­brat­ing K-F’s 100,000th auto­mo­bile, 25 Sep­tem­ber 1947. (Life Magazine)

See­ing an oppor­tu­ni­ty to run his own com­pa­ny, Fraz­er took con­trol of mori­bund Gra­ham-Paige in 1944, and two years lat­er merged its auto­mo­tive inter­ests with a new cor­po­ra­tion he and Hen­ry Kaiser had formed, leas­ing and then buy­ing the gigan­tic ex-bomber fac­to­ry at Wil­low Run, Michi­gan. Dur­ing Frazer’s 1946-48 pres­i­den­cy, Kaiser-Fraz­er was the fourth largest car pro­duc­er in the world, and ranked eighth in pro­duc­tion by make, ahead of all oth­er inde­pen­dents. He stepped down as an active offi­cer in 1949. The com­pa­ny nev­er again record­ed a profit.

By the 1950s Joe retired to his beloved New­port, from where he had com­mut­ed back and forth to Detroit much of his work­ing life. One of the things he was proud­est of, when I knew him in the late Six­ties and ear­ly Sev­en­ties, was being the only liv­ing man at that time with over 100,000 cars bear­ing his name.

Last and best: the 1951 Fraz­er Man­hat­tan con­vert­ible sedan. Pho­to by Dou­glas Wilkin­son, Mead­ow­brook Con­cours, 2005,

A few of us were for­tu­nate enough to vis­it him in his last years, I main­ly to pre­pare my first book, Kaiser-Fraz­er: Last Onslaught on Detroit. But of all the com­pa­nies he worked for, he spoke most warm­ly of Packard. “It was cat­a­stroph­ic,” he said, “that this grand old com­pa­ny went down the drain the way it did. It shouldn’t have happened—didn’t have to hap­pen. The loss of Packard was one of the great tragedies of the industry.”

Joe Fraz­er had anoth­er char­ac­ter­is­tic prob­a­bly asso­ci­at­ed with his aris­to­crat­ic South­ern upbring­ing: he was a gen­tle­man. He nev­er spoke ill of any­one, even those who had dis­ap­point­ed him bad­ly. His grasp of his­to­ry, his con­tin­ued inter­est in and per­cep­tion of the indus­try even at advanced age, his humor and wit, and most of all his kind­ness us car nuts, to whom he opened his doors as fel­low lovers of the auto­mo­bile, made him, in our eyes, a beloved figure.

There’s an old song about the “Giants of Old.” How for­tu­nate the auto indus­try was to have had men like this in its glo­ry days. Joe’s mem­o­ry lives on with those who knew him, but his favorite apho­rism will serve for all those who did not: “Secu­ri­ty is but an illu­sion; repose is not the des­tiny of man.”

Con­clud­ed in Part 3


In April 2012, Joseph Wash­ing­ton Fraz­er (1892-1971) will be 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 obit­u­ar­ies I wrote for JWF on his death in 1971. For more on Fraz­er, see my book, Kaiser-Fraz­er: Last Onslaught on Detroit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

RML Books

Richard Langworth’s Most Popular Books & eBooks

Links on this page may earn commissions.