Kaiser-Frazer and the Making of Automotive History, Part 2

Kaiser-Frazer and the Making of Automotive History, Part 2

Transcript of a speech to the Kaiser-Frazer Owners Club, 30 July 2015. Continued from Part 1.

Delving in

While I received no extra pay for writ­ing the Kaiser-Fraz­er book, I did have the use of an expense account for trav­el. That was where Bill Tilden came through again. He helped me track down and inter­view many of peo­ple respon­si­ble for the cars Kaiser-Fraz­er built. Oth­ers were locat­ed through the deep ten­ta­cles of Auto­mo­bile Quar­ter­ly, its many con­tacts in the indus­try. We also searched for archives, large and small.

Kaiser-FrazerOur great­est archival find was at Kaiser Indus­tries in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia: the Kaiser-Fraz­er pho­to files, placed on loan for AQ’s use. They doc­u­ment­ed vir­tu­al­ly every design draw­ing, clay mod­el and pro­to­type the com­pa­ny built. Bill and I pored over them for sev­er­al days, bleary-eyed as the secrets of the com­pa­ny came to life. For­tu­nate­ly we were able to repro­duce many in the book.

There were so many, it was hard to choose. Toward the end of the sec­ond day I picked a pho­to up, say­ing, “Ever see one like that before?” And Bill said, “I think we’ve seen a dozen like that, but let’s use it. It has a good look­ing tailpipe.” Lat­er the archive dis­ap­peared. I don’t know if it ever resur­faced. I hope it’s in good hands.

“You know,” I said to Bill after Oak­land, “this is going to be one hel­lu­va book. We’ve found this mas­sive archive, and all these peo­ple to inter­view. All con­cen­trat­ed with­in ten years. I have a chance to go into far more detail than if I were writ­ing a his­to­ry of, say, Gen­er­al Motors.” So it proved.

Kaiser-Frazer people

As his­to­ri­ans, as we opti­misti­cal­ly called our­selves, we were just in time. Many of the prin­ci­pals, includ­ing Hen­ry J. Kaiser, were dead. His son Edgar didn’t want to go on record, though for­tu­nate­ly oth­er Kaiser peo­ple did. Many were aging or infirm, but hap­py to rem­i­nisce. The book made good its claim to be “An Inti­mate Behind the Scenes Study of the Post­war Amer­i­can Car Indus­try,” because we were able to locate and talk to so many key peo­ple.

One night in south Geor­gia we found Hen­ry C. McCaslin, chief engi­neer of the still­born front-wheel-dri­ve Kaiser. Mac drank too much ear­ly in life and wasn’t long for this world. He told us what he knew, tes­ti­fy­ing to Hen­ry Kaiser’s zest for clean-slate think­ing. “I loved that old guy,” he said. He was sad that the front-wheel-dri­ve car Kaiser want­ed to build didn’t work out. “We built two pro­to­types,” he said. (I have since heard the fig­ure six, but Mac was there at the time; none has ever sur­faced.) “But Hen­ry and Joe Fraz­er need­ed pro­duc­tion more than inno­va­tion. So they spent their mon­ey gear­ing up Wil­low Run.”

Wil­low Run was Hen­ry Ford’s immense ex-bomber fac­to­ry out­side of Detroit. It was a mile long—at the time the longest car plant under one roof. Hick­man Price signed the lease in 1945. Lat­er, Kaiser-Fraz­er bought it from the War Assets Admin­is­tra­tion. Just two years lat­er, K-F was the lead­ing inde­pen­dent car producer—out-producing Stude­bak­er, Nash, Packard, Hud­son and Willys.

K-F’s inspired engineers

We were lucky to find Ralph Isbrandt, chief engi­neer on the ground­break­ing ’51 Kaiser project. The poor guy was dying of can­cer, but he spent many hours with me and was a lead­ing source of engi­neer­ing back­ground.

Ralph was hired in 1948 by Kaiser’s engi­neer­ing vice-pres­i­dent Dean Ham­mond, who told him to ignore the orga­ni­za­tion chart and deal with him direct. “Ham­mond was not one of the Kaiser’s Cal­i­for­nia ‘orange juicers’ we Detroit hands joked about,” Ralph remem­bered. “He had a good staff.

“John Wid­man was chief body engineer—his father had found­ed the Wid­man Body Com­pa­ny, lat­er bought by Brig­gs. He had the idea for the ultra-thin A-pil­lars, cre­at­ed by turn­ing them on their sides. The exper­i­men­tal engi­neers were West coast guys, George Har­bert and Ben Edmon­ston, bright and help­ful. Fraz­er recruits were George Hen­ry, lat­er motor engi­neer for Amer­i­can Motors; and Les Klauser from Chrysler, who ran K-F’s engine fac­to­ry.” It was a true team effort, Detroit and Cal­i­for­nia guys, Isbrandt told me. “If only the two sides had main­tained that rela­tion­ship, things might have been dif­fer­ent.”

Roadability in the Fifties

From ear­ly 1948, the engi­neers turned entire­ly to the ‘51 Kaiser. Isbrandt con­tin­ued:

We want­ed a low cen­ter of grav­i­ty and a unit body. We took a Nash apart, but decid­ed that Nash had just put a con­ven­tion­al frame on a stan­dard body. John Wid­man said we could get close to uni­tized con­struc­tion in stiff­ness and rigid­i­ty. That’s why we used a great many body mounts, each care­ful­ly locat­ed. The result was an extreme­ly rigid car, yet a con­ven­tion­al body and frame, eas­i­er to work on, less sus­cep­ti­ble to rust. Our pro­duc­tion pro­to­type weighed only 3200 pounds. Nobody in the indus­try was with­in 400 pounds of us.

Kaiser-Frazer
McC­ahill dri­ves an ear­ly pro­to­type, which looks like it has a sun­roof.

Ralph bun­dled Tom McC­ahill, the col­or­ful Mechanix Illus­trat­ed road tester, into a pre-pro­duc­tion pro­to­type. They drove out on the Wil­low Run air­port runway—in between planes tak­ing off! That was their “test track” in those days. Ralph wound the car up to 60 and threw the wheel hard over. It skid­ded but remained flat and con­trol­lable. “I scared the hell out of him,” Ralph laughed. “He near­ly jumped out! But I knew what this car could do.” If only they’d made a V-8, to go with that fine han­dling.

Uncle Tom had a way with words. He wasn’t big on Kaiser’s com­pact, the Hen­ry J: “It looks like a Cadil­lac that start­ed smok­ing too young.” But he loved the ’51 Kaiser. “It has more cre­ative think­ing since Gen. Grant got his last shave.” Of the ’53 Man­hat­tan he wrote, “It rides like a wheel­chair uphol­stered in cream puffs.”

So if and when you see one of those Kaisers on the road, think about Ralph and George and John and Dean and Les and Ben, who togeth­er engi­neered one of the best han­dling full-size Amer­i­can cars of its day.

K-F’s fabulous styling

Of course the thing that attracts us to these cars is not so much under the skin but their fab­u­lous styling, so far ahead of its time. That began, as so many things did, with Dutch Dar­rin. With­out Dutch, they wouldn’t have been the same. But with­out the team, the cars might nev­er have been as good as they were. The ’51 and its suc­ces­sors were tes­ti­mo­ny to tal­ent and team­work. (For the com­plete design sto­ry, see “Kaiser Capers, Part 3.”)

Kaiser-Frazer
“Con­stel­la­tion”: Darrin’s orig­i­nal full-scale air­brush pro­pos­al for the 1951 Kaiser.

Dutch was a vision­ary, a roman­tic, very much his own man, not inclined to tol­er­ate the ideas of oth­ers. He was utter­ly unable hide his light under a bushel. Joe Fraz­er had hired him to design the first gen­er­a­tion cars of 1947-50. When he heard a redesign was afoot he rushed to Wil­low Run. There, at a famous review, Hen­ry Kaiser per­son­al­ly chose Dutch’s full-size air­brush ren­der­ing, the “Con­stel­la­tion,” over com­pet­ing designs by his own styl­ists and Brooks Stevens Asso­ciates.

Brooks Stevens, the oth­er out­sider, had a dis­tin­guished his­to­ry in indus­tri­al design suc­cess­es, from Miller beer bot­tle to the civil­ian Jeeps. Although his basic shape was not cho­sen, he con­tributed many detail ideas, includ­ing the idea of a “wrap-around bumper” and a com­bi­na­tion bumper-grille. (I called Brooks, to his great delight, “The Seer who Made Mil­wau­kee famous.“)

Dun­can McRae, who was Dutch’s assis­tant then, told me of the famous design selec­tion:

The oth­er design­ers lined up in front of our draw­ing, hop­ing Mr. Kaiser wouldn’t see it. Dutch was infu­ri­at­ed. “Watch this,” he said. Then he loos­ened his belt, got up, called for both Hen­ry and Edgar Kaiser, and as he walked towards them his pants fell to the floor. After the laugh­ter sub­sided, he held their com­plete atten­tion. And of course he did a beau­ti­ful sell­ing job. Min­utes lat­er, Mr. Kaiser said, “Well, this is it!” Seems incred­i­ble by today’s stan­dards, but that’s how cars were shaped in the Fifties.

Devils in the details

Once a design has been accept­ed, it has to be made into a viable pro­duc­tion car. That always involves com­pro­mis­es, and Dutch was no diplo­mat. So in assign­ing cred­it for the ’51 Kaiser, we have to acknowl­edge all those who fol­lowed Dutch and saw it into pro­duc­tion.

Kaiser-Frazer
Sun God­dess hard­top pro­to­type by Alex Tremulis. They should have put this into pro­duc­tion, cap­i­tal­iz­ing on the hard­top craze.

Alex Tremulis, who had designed the Tuck­er, head­ed K-F Advanced Styling, It was he who styled a hard­top pro­to­type which he called the Sun God­dess, “after an Egypt­ian gal I used to know.” Alex told me about the company’s great in-house design­ers:

Herb Weissinger, who devel­oped the pro­duc­tion shape, was one of the most tal­ent­ed in the pro­fes­sion: a mae­stro in the exe­cu­tion of a line on a sur­face. His chrome appliqués were done with the per­fec­tion of a Celli­ni. He nev­er received the plau­dits of pro­fes­sion, but he was one of the great­est.

Arnott “Buzz” Grisinger was the great­est sculp­tur­al design mod­el­er I ever met. He did lit­tle on paper, usu­al­ly a quick sketch of a beau­ti­ful car float­ing in space with­out wheels. This was all he need­ed to attack a full-size clay mod­el. A mas­ter of sim­plic­i­ty, his mod­els were exam­ples of sheer ele­gance. Engi­neer­ing drafts­men told me they nev­er had to sur­face-devel­op any irreg­u­lar­i­ties. They just took tem­plates off the clay and used the lines ver­ba­tim.

Bob Robil­lard, “Robil­lar­do,” was indis­pens­able when it came to refin­ing and work­ing out end­less details for pro­duc­tion. Like Buzz he was hap­pi­est work­ing alone. I remem­ber Bob sit­ting in the front seat of a Kaiser sedan for weeks on end, per­son­al­ly mod­el­ing the ’54 instru­ment pan­el. A real purist, he said that in order prop­er­ly to design it, one had to live behind it. He was worth ten of his peers.

Team effort

Kaiser-Frazer
The design team after the ’51 Kaiser received the Grand Prix d’Honneur at Monte Car­lo. L-R: Bob Robil­lard, Clyde Trombly, Buzz Grisinger, E.H. Daniels, Car­leton Spencer, H.V. Lind­bergh, Howard Dar­rin and Herb Weissinger.

Dun­can McRae and Herb Weissinger were main­ly respon­si­ble for final­iz­ing the ’51 Kaiser. Poor Dutch was eter­nal­ly frus­trat­ed, and even­tu­al­ly left, and the com­pa­ny ungrate­ful­ly took his name off the cars in 1952. “I remem­ber com­ing into the stu­dio one morn­ing after Dutch had walked out,” said Bob Robil­lard. And there was his beau­ti­ful clay mod­el, with a sculpt­ing tool buried to the hilt in the hood. You could have enti­tled the scene ‘Frus­tra­tion.’”

We don’t want to under-cred­it any of these peo­ple, because they were a team. And look at what they gave us. The ’51-’55 cars were low­er, with more glass, than any Detroit cars on the road—the work of Dutch, Brooks, Herb and Dunc. Grisinger styled the famous 1954 facelift, Bob Robil­lard did the instru­ment pan­els. Car­leton Spencer gave us the Kaiser Drag­ons, and a host of fab­rics and col­ors nev­er seen in cars before. The entire indus­try ben­e­fit­ted from their work.

In life, nature and nurture do not suffice…

…Suc­cess requires they be joined, and their con­ver­gence is due to a third ingre­di­ent called luck. That is, being in the right place at the right time. Kaiser-Fraz­er was supreme­ly lucky to have arrived when it did, and to recruit such supreme­ly tal­ent­ed peo­ple. One of the most charm­ing things about them, from Joe Fraz­er down to the low­est engi­neer on the totem pole, is that they nev­er ceased say­ing so.

Kaiser-Frazer’s achieve­ment, then, was not just the com­pul­sive appli­ca­tion of mas­sive tal­ent, but of a series of events at a unique time. “Luck” means, then, the innu­mer­able things that hap­pen which ini­tial­ly have lit­tle to do with tal­ent or striv­ing. In oth­er words, we are fas­ci­nat­ed by the K-F phe­nom­e­non in part because it is filled with inci­dents that, were they part of a nov­el, would cause dis­be­liev­ers to dis­miss them as poet­ic license.

A story like a novel

Imag­ine, then, a nov­el about a fic­tion­al com­pa­ny called Kaiser-Fraz­er. Its sto­ry of course must be ten years long—what used to be called a Vic­to­ri­an triple-deck­er. Indeed, the first melo­dra­mat­ic detail that strikes the read­er is just how long it last­ed. It faced tru­ly for­mi­da­ble odds: the com­bined might of a major indus­try dur­ing the great­est peri­od of eco­nom­ic expan­sion in Amer­i­can his­to­ry. Except that it was not a nov­el. It was the Last Onslaught on Detroit.

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