Note: It has come to my attention via my network of loyal spies that a certain perpetually angry blogger likes to give the impression that I continue to write for his slowly submerging, bile-filled, increasingly histrionic site. I do not. I have, in fact, had nothing to do with a certain website since the end of The Year Of Our Lord 2014. Yet he persists in re-running posts I wrote “over there” between 2011-2014, perhaps in a delusional attempt to bring credibility to his site. Or perhaps it is just laziness and incompetence. So! I believe I will be revising and posting some of those right here on the ONLY website I have provided NEW! content for since Christmas 2014: Riverside Green. So sit back, grab a sandwich or your favorite beverage, and enjoy another Klockau Classic, right here on Riverside Green! -TK
1951 was the year Kaiser-Frazer should have made it. A thoroughly restyled–and beautiful–Kaiser, a facelifted swan-song Frazer, and the all-new compact Henry J meant that Kaiser had spent ample time and money in rejuvenating their lineup. Never again would the company have such a modern and diverse lineup. Unfortunately, Henry Kaiser’s ego – “The Kaisers NEVER retrench!” – was a favorite saying of Mr. Kaiser’s, the lack of a V8 option when V8s were all the rage, and other myriad factors made 1951 the beginning of the end for K-F in the U.S.
It seems to me that K-F had two big problems from the first: Pricing and lack of a V8 engine. Kaisers were too expensive when compared to the low-priced three triad of Chevrolet, Ford and Plymouth. At the same time, they were not really prestigious enough when shopped against an Oldsmobile 88 or Buick Super. Initially, exclusively six-cylinder power wasn’t a deal breaker. But once Cadillac and Oldsmobile’s compact V8s came on the scene for model year 1949, all bets were off for K-F’s success. So what did they do? Debut a V8 engine? Nope. They introduced a compact car.
One of the problems with the K-F experiment was Henry J. Kaiser’s ego. Perhaps his “my way or the highway” management style worked when his California shipyards were stamping out umpteen Liberty ships a day, but the car biz was a whole different story. So, instead of an updated full-size Kaiser, or perhaps much-needed V8 power, U.S. buyers got the Henry J. Arguably the most egotistically-named automobile in history.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I think the Henry J is a cool little car, even though it bombed in the marketplace. And I’m a fan of the big Kaisers too, especially the ’51-55 Dragons and Manhattans. But the campaign to name the new little K-F product always rubbed me the wrong way. A contest was announced, giving the public the opportunity to suggest a name. But after it was all said and done, Kaiser said “April fool!” and named the car after himself. Not cool, Henry.
So what was a Henry J? It was part of the early ’50s compact car craze in the U.S. One by one they debuted–Hudson Jet, Aero-Willys, and the one bright spot in this new niche–the Nash Rambler. Only the Rambler would live to see its fifth birthday–and beyond.
The Rambler did well because George Mason realized a cheap, bare-bones compact wasn’t going to fly with customers. Especially not when the independents’ smaller wares were about the same price–or more– than a full size Chevy or Ford. Thus, Ramblers were marketed as mini-luxury cars. And sold much better than the Jet, Aero-Willys…and the Henry J.
K-F took the opposite route, trying to sell on price. At their peril. The Henry J on introduction was a car only a true-blue skinflint could love: no glove box, no trunk lid (!) and an interior only slightly more deluxe than the cardboard box your Super Zenith console TV came in. Yes, if you needed the spare tire, you had to open the door and wrestle it out from behind the rear seat. Fun times! A radio and even turn signals were optional. And it was still expensive when compare to base Chevrolets, Fords and Plymouths.
A ’51 model was $1363 with the four and $1499 with the flathead six, when a Chevy Styleline Special two-door sedan was $1403. The Henry J boasted modern styling, mini-Cadillac rear fins, and a 100″ wheelbase. The 68-hp four and 80-hp six-cylinder engines were supplied by Willys-Overland. Sales for ’51 were rather inauspicious, with 38,500 fours and 43,400 sixes built.
Would it get better? Nope! For the 1952 model year the 4-cyl. was renamed Vagabond and the six was temporarily discontinued. In Feb. 1952 the six-powered version returned as the Corsair, and received a new grille, grille molding, built-in parking lights, “Corsair” emblems on the front fenders, revised taillights and a slightly more plush interior. The four-cylinder model became a Corsair as well, but kept the cheaper interior of the previous Vagabond.
All the fussy little changes didn’t help. The year saw 3000 Vagabonds and 7600 Corsairs made. The supposed compact car “wave” never really crested, and the Henry J suffered right alongside the Hudson Jet and Willys Aero.
1953s received minor changes, most prominently a new rocket-shaped hood ornament, chrome wheel covers and a wraparound rear bumper. As in ’52, the four cylinder Corsair was plainer, while the six-powered Corsair de Luxe added chrome windshield trim, dome lights with door-mounted switches, an ash tray (fancy!) and nicer interior upholstery and door panels. Our featured car is one of the 8,172 de Luxes built that year.
They look good today, and have one of the coolest hood ornaments I’ve ever seen, but in ’53, K-F dealers might have had trouble selling them even if they weren’t $100 more than a big Chevy on average. Inside, 1953 models added a padded dash and a “dustproof” instrument cluster.
The year saw the aforementioned 8,172 de Luxes and 9,333 Corsairs built. As in the beginning, all Henry Js were built at K-F’s massive Willow Run factory. That same year, the Henry J won the Mobilgas Economy Run, but it didn’t matter. It was simply too little, too late. In fact, Kaiser-Frazer was just about ready to close down its automotive division in the U.S. and concentrate on Jeeps, as they had purchased Willys-Overland on April 28, 1953.
But for 800 Corsairs and 325 Corsair de Luxes, the Henry J’s short life was over, though the big Kaiser would survive all the way up to 1962 as the luxury Carabella sedan–but in Argentina, not the USA, which was abandoned after a short 1955 model year. Even the swan-song ’62 Carabellas were not significantly different from the US-market 1954-44 Manhattan.
Henry Js are quite rare these days. First of all, not many were made in the first place. Secondly, they were popular as drag cars and ‘gassers’ in the late ’50s and Sixties. So I was very happy to see this beautiful sapphire-blue one at the Galesburg car show back in September of 2012. And with the exception of seeing one of those aforementioned hot rodded drag cars at a show at the Dairy Queen in Morrison, Illinois, I haven’t seen one since!