Kaiser-Frazer and the Making of Automotive History, Part 1

Kaiser-Frazer and the Making of Automotive History, Part 1

Two kids hooked by the ’54 Kaiser

Joe Ligo of Auto­Mo­ments, who pro­duces high­ly pro­fes­sion­al YouTube videos on vin­tage cars, has pub­lished an excel­lent video on the 1954 Kaiser Spe­cial he’s admired since high school. No soon­er did I start watch­ing than I heard Joe say his lik­ing for the ’54 Kaiser was bol­stered by my book: “My ninth grade self thought it was beau­ti­ful…. In per­son, I still think the design is drop-dead gorgeous.”

Kaiser-FrazerWell, I too was in the ninth grade when a ’54 Kaiser (on the street, in 1957!) swept me off my feet. It lit a fire that I only put out twen­ty years lat­er with my first, and per­haps my best, car book.

Kaiser-Fraz­er: Last Onslaught on Detroit (1975, reprint­ed 1980) was based on dozens of inter­views with com­pa­ny engi­neers, styl­ists and exec­u­tives, and packed with rare pho­tos from pro­to­types to per­son­al­i­ties. In 1975 it won both the Antique Auto­mo­bile Club of Amer­ica McK­ean Tro­phy and the Soci­ety of Auto­mo­tive His­to­ri­ans Cug­not Award. It won, I think, because of the pletho­ra of pri­ma­ry sources. They all were still alive! They had vivid mem­o­ries, strong opin­ions, and scores of inside stories.

It was my plea­sure to speak on the writ­ing of that book at the Kaiser-Fraz­er Own­ers Club 2015 Nation­al Meet in Get­tys­burg. Here is the tran­script, inspired by Joe and Auto­Mo­ments. By the way, Joe also offers a thought­ful video com­men­tary on the 1954 Kaiser brochure.

Kaiser-Frazer, Part 1: “The Venture”

Get­tys­burg, 30 July 2015— I am grate­ful for your invi­ta­tion, but to tell you the truth I have stum­bled over what I might say to you. It’s forty years since Last Onslaught on Detroit was pub­lished. The body of his­tor­i­cal knowl­edge about what Edgar F. Kaiser always called “The Ven­ture” has increased con­sid­er­ably. Here in 2015, I am inclined to think that I may well have the least claim of any­one to address the sub­ject with any author­i­ty at all. Were it not for the feel­ing of being among friends, I might turn tail and run. The obvi­ous thing to talk about is the book, how it came to be writ­ten, and what we learned that didn’t get into print.

Last Onslaught [Up Until Then] on Detroit was nev­er planned, nev­er out­lined in advance. Indeed were it not for two peo­ple who are here tonight, and a third who can­not be, it nev­er would have dawned on me that there was a sto­ry beyond just anoth­er Michi­gan car com­pa­ny. And the scores of peo­ple who wrote that sto­ry would not have been heard from.

Artie and the Dragon

Unknow­ing­ly, I had acquired and then junked a spe­cial-order one-off built to match the 1953 Kaiser Drag­on brochure.

Artie Sed­mont owned the 1953 Kaiser Drag­on that caught my eye in a scruffy fill­ing sta­tion near Free­hold, New Jer­sey. I was com­mut­ing between Philadel­phia, where I was sta­tioned with the Coast Guard, and Stat­en Island, where my future wife lived. I knew that K-F had built inter­est­ing cars. Actu­al­ly I’d already writ­ten an essay about them for my high school Eng­lish class. Imag­ine the shock of my teacher, Mr. Quinn, when he received an inscribed copy of Last Onslaught near­ly two decades later!

Artie sold me the Drag­on. It was odd car, as I learned after join­ing the Kaiser-Fraz­er club in 1966. It ran rough and had rust, but the inte­ri­or was fabulous—Kaiser’s green “bam­bu vinyl” with green bouclé vinyl inserts. There was a green and white option, but nobody I asked had ever seen all-green before. (Anoth­er exam­ple has since surfaced.)

Even more odd­ly, its ser­i­al num­ber was for a low-line Kaiser Deluxe: K531-007372. It also bore a small fire­wall plaque that meant noth­ing to me at the time, labeled “SPEC-FO” with a four-dig­it num­ber pre­ced­ed by a “K.”

We thought we could fix it up, but it threw a rod on the New Jer­sey Turn­pike. Couldn’t afford a rebuilt engine, but for only $250, a friend offered a nice ‘54 Kaiser Man­hat­tan. I repaint­ed it and installed the Dragon’s spe­cial inte­ri­or. I offered the Dragon’s remains free to any­one who would take it away, and a fel­low did.  Five years lat­er I learned I had com­mit­ted sacrilege.

Junking a one-off

In Detroit I was inter­view­ing Car­leton Spencer, the great fab­ric and col­or spe­cial­ist who cre­at­ed most of the fine Kaiser-Fraz­er inte­ri­ors and paints, from the first Fraz­er Man­hat­tan to the last ’55s. I described the odd­ball Drag­on to Carl. “I know that car!” he said:

We had fin­ished the Drag­on run when a late order came in. A cus­tomer want­ed one like the car in the brochure—ivory with a green top. But he want­ed all-green vinyl seats—a com­bi­na­tion we didn’t offer. Well, of course we fixed him up. In 1953 we’d build any­thing you want­ed. We pulled a Deluxe out of the body bank and built it to order. The SPEC-FO plaque stood for ‘Spe­cial Fac­to­ry Order.’ You junked a one-of-a-kind automobile!

Drag­on brochure by Paul Rand (cir­cled, bot­tom), signed by inte­ri­or and col­or spe­cial­ist Car­leton Spencer.

A Drag­on fly­er was the first thing I received when as a boy I wrote to K-F in Wil­low Run, Michi­gan, ask­ing for sales brochures. Years lat­er Carl Spencer signed it, as you see, but there’s always more to a sto­ry. Look down at the bot­tom and you’ll see the print­ed sig­na­ture “Paul Rand.” It’s on a num­ber of Kaiser-Fraz­er brochures.

Paul Rand, born Peretz Rosen­baum (1914-1996), was a promi­nent graph­ic design­er. He cre­at­ed logos we see every day: UPS, IBM, ABC, West­ing­house. His work is world famous. He taught design at Yale, and in 1974 was induct­ed into the New York Art Direc­tors Club Hall of Fame. As usu­al, when shop­ping for tal­ent, Hen­ry Kaiser’s and Joe Fraz­er’s tastes were very sim­ple: they were quite eas­i­ly sat­is­fied with the best of everything.

Bill Tilden

The sec­ond key per­son in the book’s sto­ry was Bill Tilden, whom we sad­ly lost in 2013.  One spring evening I was the duty offi­cer at the Coast Guard base when the phone rang: “Sir, there’s a civil­ian here ask­ing for you. He’s dri­ving the weird­est car I’ve ever seen.”

It was Bill, of course. We clicked from the start. With­in a week he hied me off to north Philadel­phia, to help strip the attrac­tive, mock lizard skin uphol­stery out of a rusty old Kaiser. Anoth­er bad mis­take! We’d junked an ultra-rare 1951 Emer­ald Drag­on. If they built a dozen of those, it was a lot. That made three Kaisers I’d either fool­ish­ly scrapped or mod­i­fied out of recog­ni­tion. Those three were the last!

After the Coast Guard I drove my ’54 Man­hat­tan with its Drag­on seats to Penn­syl­va­nia and went to work for the State Health Depart­ment in Har­ris­burg. I even­tu­al­ly sold it to a man from Illi­nois named Al Mobeck. I don’t know if it sur­vived. Maybe some­one knows? It was paint­ed sol­id Palm Beach Ivory. Its green inte­ri­or was spectacular.

Bill Miller

I thought then that I was done with Kaiser-Fraz­er, but sud­den­ly, blocks away from my apart­ment, I saw this beau­ti­ful maroon ‘53 Hen­ry J parked in somebody’s dri­ve­way. Meet the third play­er in the dra­ma: Bill Miller, who became co-founder of Carlisle Events and the famous Carlisle swap meets and auctions.

Bill was a sales­man at a local Chevy deal­er, so he had a coat and tie. He would show up at my office at the Health Depart­ment, intro­duced as Dr. Miller. I would say we had an urgent appoint­ment. Togeth­er we’d tod­dle off, change clothes, and spend the day junk­yard­ing. We found all sorts of stuff, includ­ing a rare ’49 Kaiser Vir­gin­ian with a can­vas roof on top of a hill near Read­ing. It didn’t run and had no brakes. The junky, Mr. Ket­tner, in between four-let­ter words, coast­ed it down using reverse gear as a brak­ing device. We towed it home, and Bill “tried” to restore it. I do hope he flipped it!

Bar­bara Lang­worth and our Cerulean blue ’53 Kaiser Deluxe, 1968.

Bill helped get me into my next Kaiser, a 1953 Deluxe paint­ed Cerulean blue. This is a col­or like the bot­tom of a swim­ming pool. It had a sweet man­u­al shift and drove like a song.

When I need­ed parts he floored me by say­ing, “You can get any­thing you need at a Kaiser deal­er I know.” What? This was 1968, remember—14 years after the last Kaisers left Toledo.

A Surviving dealer with a brand new Kaiser

Bill intro­duced me to Frank R. Bobb of Mt. Hol­ly Springs, Penn­syl­va­nia. Bobb’s Garage was a ram­shackle brick manse which hadn’t been cleaned in a decade, guard­ed by a hound anchored near Frank’s cus­pi­dor with a chain that could have held the Queen Mary. We walked in and Bill said: “Mr. Bobb, I brought a friend to see your brand new Kaiser.”

With a well-aimed pitooy past the ear of the doz­ing mutt, Frank led us “out back.” There we beheld a pearl grey ‘53 Man­hat­tan with 3500 miles on the odome­ter. It was so new the uphol­stery still squeaked when you sat in it.

That car is still around and maybe some of you have seen it. The paint job was cus­tom. It was pre­sent­ed to Frank for sell­ing the most Kaiser-Fraz­er cars in his sales area—which in rur­al Penn­syl­va­nia couldn’t have been easy.

More aston­ish­ing was Frank’s parts depart­ment. He had stuff you wouldn’t believe. How about a 1951 Fraz­er grille medal­lion, brand new in the box? Or a chrome and black plas­tic ’52 Vir­gin­ian hood orna­ment? Or block “K” emblems for the ’53 hood or deck? When it came to price, there was no hag­gling. Frank would look it up in his offi­cial price list and charge you full 1953 deal­er retail. I think those Fraz­er medal­lions cost us all of $3.73 each.

Historical discovery

Mr. Bobb had some­thing else: a com­plete set of deal­er cor­re­spon­dence, sales, ser­vice and con­fi­den­tial bul­letins, from the time he bought the fran­chise short­ly after the war to the end—which he gave or sold me. Sud­den­ly I was thumb­ing through hun­dreds of doc­u­ments that, sequen­tial­ly, gave a com­plete pic­ture, from a dealer’s stand­point, of the rise and fall of Kaiser-Fraz­er and its suc­ces­sor, Kaiser-Willys.

This stirred my his­tor­i­cal instincts. By then I was edi­tor of the Kaiser-Fraz­er club quar­ter­ly, which had arrived on my doorstep unso­licit­ed, from dear Tom Wil­son in Michi­gan, the pre­vi­ous edi­tor, who just got tired of it. The club told me to go ahead and pro­duce some­thing, so I did. It was embar­rass­ing­ly ama­teur­ish, but every­body was very kind.

Fired up, I wrote to our chief hon­orary mem­ber, Joseph W. Fraz­er, and asked for an inter­view. What the heck, right? He floored me when he said sure—come out and see him at “High Tide,” his French-style chateau on the coast in New­port, Rhode Island. Unique among Detroit auto exec­u­tives, he had com­mut­ed week­ly to and from New­port. Years lat­er, I named our house in the Bahamas “High Tide” in Joe’s memory.

Off we went, Bill Tilden and me, to record for the club mag­a­zine the first words Fraz­er had said pub­licly about Kaiser-Fraz­er since he left the board of direc­tors in 1953. We pub­lished the tran­script in the sum­mer 1969 issue, as I remem­ber. I don’t have it. All my print archives were destroyed in a fire that burned my antique barns in 2003.

Joe Frazer and Hickman Price

Mr. Frazer’s nephew, Hick­man Price, was present for the inter­view. Joe was wid­owed now, liv­ing in a small wing of this beau­ti­ful house. Hick­man was redec­o­rat­ing the rest. Bill and I gath­ered that he was the old man’s watch­ful pro­tec­tor. We drank Ten­nessee bour­bon and branch water, and they both loos­ened up.

Mr. Fraz­er was very care­ful not to crit­i­cize any­body, but it was clear that he’d been heart­bro­ken over the fail­ure of the com­pa­ny. The two things he was most proud of said a lot about him. The first was that at peak, they had 20,000 peo­ple work­ing. The sec­ond was that 100,000 cars bore his name. He also said some­thing about the auto indus­try I will nev­er for­get: “There’s so much mon­ey going out the win­dow every day in this busi­ness, that if you’re not care­ful you’ll lose your shirt.” That, of course, is exact­ly what hap­pened to Kaiser-Frazer.

As we left, Hick­man Price made me an offer: “If you ever decide to write a book, come back and see me. I will tell you a thing or two about that benight­ed com­pa­ny nobody else will.” He proved to be as good as his word.

“You’re going to pay me to write about cars?!”

Pos­sessed now of just enough knowl­edge to be cocky, I wrote an arti­cle about Kaiser-Fraz­er and sent it unso­licit­ed to Auto­mo­bile Quar­ter­ly in New York City. Not only did they buy it; they asked if I’d like to come to work as asso­ciate edi­tor. I said I’d grown up in New York and had vowed nev­er to return, I was a coun­try boy. “But wait—did you say you’re going to pay me to write about cars?” The deci­sion was inevitable.

What luck! Auto­mo­bile Quar­ter­ly then, 1970-75, was in its gold­en age. Its edi­tors were twin genius­es, Don Vor­der­man and Bev­er­ly Rae Kimes. They taught me things I would always remem­ber and use to my ben­e­fit. Don remind­ed me about brevi­ty: “A bore is some­body who tells every­thing.” Beverly’s advice was more per­son­al, and impor­tant: “Nev­er fail at any­thing.”

Auto­mo­bile Quar­ter­ly had great art direc­tors and a range of writ­ers, artists and pho­tog­ra­phers. From Ken Pur­dy to Karl Lud­vigsen, Peter Hel­ck to Wal­ter Gotschke they were the best in the game. They actu­al­ly paid me to hang around and learn from these people.

I was hired to edit a series of books, the first of which was The Amer­i­can Car Since 1775. The last was the mul­ti-author Packard: A His­to­ry of the Motor­car and the Com­pa­ny. Along the way I asked shy­ly if I might write a book about Kaiser–Frazer.

“It won’t sell,” the boss said. “But go ahead. Take as long as you like.” We were all aston­ished when it sold 20,000 copies in two printings.

Part 2: The Making of an Award Winning Book…

2 thoughts on “Kaiser-Frazer and the Making of Automotive History, Part 1

  1. A most enjoy­able read on this over­looked mar­que! I’ll watch for Part II!

    Thank you for link­ing to my blog post about Car­leton Spencer. (Any quotes from your book in the blog post with­out attri­bu­tion were unintentional!)

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