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Hagerty
Hagerty Employee

Kaiser-Frazer's mid-century family cars were true "convertibles"

"Ahead of its time" is a phrase that can sometimes be offered up as an excuse for failure that sweeps away the root cause of the product's demise. The Chrysler Airflow was indeed technologically advanced, but almost 90 years after its introduction, the snub-nosed saloon still looks funny.
https://www.hagerty.com/media/car-profiles/kaiser-frazers-mid-century-family-cars-were-true-converti...
38 REPLIES 38
DUB6
Specialist

I'll admit that when I clicked on this story, I was just hoping there would be some more old illustrated car ads like the cover picture. I wasn't particularly interested in the Kaiser in general or the model featured. But the more I read, the most it pulled me in. I learned more about Henry Kaiser than I'd known before (which I thought was quite a bit) and then about Frazer, the Duncan Dip, Anschuetz, and some automotive history that is new to me.
Well written article and thanks for the history lesson, Ronnie!
Firehawk2K2544
Intermediate Driver

Great Article. My Uncle Pete had a Kaiser back in the day. I guess I was about 5.
Great to learn more about them. I just remember them as slightly odd looking compared to other cars.
Bunka
Detailer

The first car I remember as my Dad's was a 1949 Kaiser. It was used so I must have been 7-8 years old. The thing that struck me was the windshield shade. Like a big wing sitting on top of the windshield. I guess it was a styling cue, Didn't make sense to me. The interior visors worked fine to shade the sun. The other thing was opening the door from the inside. You had to push a big round button to open the door. There was no handle to provide leverage. I couldn't do it. I did not have the finger strength. He finally traded it in on a 1953 Nash and that for a Packard. I guess he didn't care for the big three or he was more of an outsider than I was aware of.
Reinhold_Weege
Instructor

Or he just liked to buy cheap Hoopties.
hunternicholas
Detailer

Exterior windshield shades did somewhat develop into a fashion, but they were actually designed to keep the interior of the car cooler during the hot weather. By blocking direct sunlight there's a noticeable difference.
merlebalke
Advanced Driver

I've always thought these models were cool. I especially liked the Frazer version.

I actually drove a 1954 Kaiser Manhattan as a daily driver for a time in the late 60's.
dchappy
Pit Crew

I worked for Kaiser Aluminum for 17 years. Got to drive the 1950 Vagabond and thought it was great. To bad he didn’t an the Supercharger at that time. Could have become a game changer.
Redhorse1958
Pit Crew

Many thanks for a great article.  K-F cars were truly remarkable and ahead of their time in many ways.  One can only wonder what might have been had Kaiser been able to overcome the financial challenges of the day, which likely underpinned some of the quality control issues and development of a more suitable engine.  

Studenorton
Instructor

After they "moved" to Argentina, they made a number of interesting cars (but not this one), including a version of the Dauphine and an Alfa sedan, until they sold out to Renault in 1975. One downside of being President of Argentina is that your limo was an up-built Rambler Ambassador.
RokemRonnie
Instructor

At least the president of Argentina got to ride in an Ambassador, AMC's top of the line fullsize sedan. The prime minister of Israel got to ride in a stretched Studebaker Lark convertible, stretched coincidentally by Kaiser Frazer Israel, which got a contract to assemble CKD Larks after KF went under.
Studenorton
Instructor

By legend, those economical Israelis used that state car up completely and let it go for scrap -- but if you did happen to come across it, you would immediately become one of the most popular Stude guys in the world.

MustangJim
Technician

What an interesting article! I was aware , as most of us are of Kaisers' , but I did not know the Henry Kaiser story and did not know the WWII info. I also did not know of all of those earlier hatchback, tailgate lowering models. When I was a kid my mothers friend had a Kaiser , being that my mother did not have a car whenever we would go someplace I loved riding in it..but was more intrigued by the womans' husbands car.. a 1958 Olds 98. I often see a Kaiser-Darrin at a cars and coffee event here. Such inovative ideas! Thank you!
Maestro1
Technician

Ronnie, my Uncle had one. It was Blue with a White top if I remember correctly, and it had what was called in those days Anatomic Design: The unusual for its day four door design that made the car stand out anywhere. Many, many years later my buddies and I found one
in a yard in New Mexico, brought it back to the Left Coast and got it running, acceleration a
reminder of my 41 year old Japanese truck we all love and still have, 0-60 in three months.
One of my friends kept it in his garage, he said he would restore it but like the rest of us life
got in the way, and he sold the car. Thank you for this and stay well.
rokky
Intermediate Driver

Great looking cars and so practical for there time.
Now we have ugly SUV's that look like boxes with wheels and are so over priced.
Doubt we will see any classics in the future from todays Plasticmobiles .
DUB6
Specialist

Man ain't it the truth.  I often mention, while stopped in traffic, that if the vehicles around us didn't have some kind of name or badge on them, I not only wouldn't know what kind they are, but sometimes wouldn't even know that they weren't all the same make!  For those of us that saw how automotive designs used to set the brand apart and send imaginations flying, today's autos are by and large a disappointment. 

Tinkerah
Engineer

Not that it helps but I think I can explain why everything looks the same: aerodynamic performance demands the same shapes from every make and model. All we can do now is continue to cherish the vehicles designed and built in a time when style was the top priority, sometimes even at the expense of function.
DUB6
Specialist

@Tinkerah - you are correct on three points:

1) aerodynamics are a much bigger piece of it than in the '40s, '50s, and '60s (as well as other economic factors)

2) we need to continue to cherish ALL KINDS of old art - including auto designs

3) it indeed doesn't help 😢

DaveP
Intermediate Driver

“… I challenge you to find me anything on a 2021 model year automobile that can be traced to the Tucker”.
Challenge accepted!
How about seat belts, padded dashboards and – oh yea – directional – or adaptive” headlights.
From Wikipedia: “The most recognizable feature of the Tucker 48, was a third directional headlamp. Centrally located, it would activate at steering angles of greater than 10 degrees to light the car's path around corners.”
Go to
https://www.autobytel.com/car-buying-guides/features/10-cars-with-adaptive-headlights-131125/
“Adaptive headlights—which turn as you steer to better illuminate bends in the road—are the next big thing in proactive safety measures…”
TonyT
Technician

What is old is new again...
RG440
Instructor

Super Article !!! Super Automobile !!! Another Innovative Henry to impact automotive history….Why hasn’t anyone ever though of a hatchback van? Think of the possibilities..
ctclark99
Pit Crew

Dear Mr. Schreiber;

To your remark about Tuckers and no traceable futuristic attributes. You should review all the features, especially the small brilliant ones, that the Japanese luxury Marks have "inventing" since the mid 80's. a couple of examples, Lexus and the headlights that turn with you. Nissan and side lights that illuminate when turn signals are turned on. Even high end sports cars with front engine and rear transaxle for better weight distribution. The list goes on, and you might just find it fun to see what else you can find.
C. Clark
Disclaimer: I do not nor have I ever owned a Tucker. Mr. Tucker is not a forefather. My ancestors were GM Execs, racing enthusiasts. and real car people.
Otts912
New Driver

Our good friend was the Kaiser-Frazier dealer in Moulton Alabama, I was 12 years old, my dad almost bought one, I though they were real cool as I was a car buff from age 5, he wound up buying a Chevy, not my choice, but I was only 12.These cars were ahead of their time.
janedon
Advanced Driver

there were lots of small Independent companies that just could'nt compete with the big 3 & their dirty tricks to eliminate competition --Even Regional car makers-- But--like today just didn't have the advertising budget to compete--In North America we are suckers for slick advertising--Quality of products matter less than the quality & Quantity of the advertising--
ctclark99
Pit Crew

A little more info on the "48 Tucker Torpedo; I had some fun learning about this one, you might too. Sorry the beautiful picture did not copy.
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<b>1948 Tucker 48</b><br />Chassis no. 1028<br />Engine no. 335-35
LOT 491
1948 TUCKER 48
Design by Alex S. Tremulis
Sold for US$ 1,985,000 inc. premium
FOLLOW
The Tupelo Automobile Museum Auction
27 Apr 2019, 10:00 CDT
The Tupelo Automobile Museum
1948 TUCKER 48
DESIGN BY ALEX S. TREMULIS
CHASSIS NO. 1028
ENGINE NO. 335-35

335ci SOHC 6-Cylinder Engine
Single Stromberg Downdraft Carburetor
166bhp at 3,200 RPM
4-Speed Manual Transmission with Bendix Vacuum-Electric Preselector
Front and Rear Independent Torsilastic Suspension
4-Wheel Drum Brakes

*One of the seven Tuckers to undergo endurance testing at the Indianapolis *Motor Speedway
*Mechanically prepared by Tucker expert Richard E. Jones
*Carefully maintained since complete restoration in the 1980s
*Featured in the company's film Tucker the Man and the Car

PRESTON TUCKER'S DREAM

Of all the stories of those who have dared to challenge the Detroit automotive establishment, none has been more romanticized than that of Preston Thomas Tucker. More than 70 years later, his David vs. Goliath tale continues to captivate new generations, helped by the 1988 Francis Ford Coppola film "Tucker: The Man and His Dream," and the opening of a permanent, 5,200-square-foot Tucker exhibit at the Antique Automobile Club of America Museum in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Tucker's infatuation with automobiles began at an early age. As a teenager, he became an office boy at Cadillac, and then got a job as a police officer, so that he could drive fast cars. He sold Pierce-Arrows, Stutzes, Studebakers, Chryslers, Dodges and Packards, gaining a reputation as one of Detroit's best car salesmen.

When he was 26, Tucker met race car designer and builder Harry Miller, and the two hit it off immediately. They went into business as Miller-Tucker, the personable and persuasive Tucker being the perfect complement to the retiring Miller. With World War II on the horizon, Tucker developed the "Tucker Combat Car," a fast, maneuverable vehicle with a powered, rotating gun turret. The U.S. military had no need for such a car, but showed more interest in the turret.

The dream of building his own production car had been on Tucker's mind during the war; his plan was to partner with Miller, who would be chief engineer. When Miller died of cancer in 1943, Tucker pressed ahead, announcing in December 1945 that he was ready to take on the Big Three with his "Car of the Future." The Tucker Torpedo, later renamed the 48, was promoted as "the first completely new car in 50 years." While the big automakers were offering the public warmed-over pre-war models, Tucker had correctly judged the public's keen appetite for something radically different.

The unorthodox layout of the Tucker automobile, with a six-cylinder engine mounted in the rear of the chassis, had already been agreed upon by Miller and Tucker. The intended engine was a massive, 589-cu.in. horizontally-opposed six with hemispherical combustion chambers, fuel injection, and valve actuation by hydraulic pressure. Tucker's original plan was to mount the engine crossways in the chassis, with torque converters at either end of the crankshaft driving the rear wheels through short half-shafts. The concept included four-wheel independent suspension with bonded rubber taking the place of metal springs, and four-wheel disc brakes.

Tucker brought in Alex Tremulis, the former chief stylist at Auburn Cord Duesenberg and the author of the landmark Cord 810/812, to complete the body design. In just 100 days, he and a small team constructed the prototype that became known as the "Tin Goose." This incorporated some of Tucker's safety features, such as a "safety chamber" where the right front passenger could take shelter in the event of an impending crash, a pop-out windshield, a padded dashboard, and a third headlight that turned with the front wheels, to better illuminate corners. The doors were cut into the roof, to give better head clearance while getting in or out of the car. With three headlights and six exhaust tips, the new Tucker would be unmistakable, coming or going.

The prototype was built at the Tucker family's Ypsilanti Machine and Tool Company in Michigan, but Tucker needed much more space to put his dream car into production. He found it in the form of a decommissioned Dodge B-29 engine factory in Chicago, an enormous building that contained more than enough machinery for an automotive assembly line. In typical fashion, he obtained the factory with no money down, persuading the War Assets Administration that he would be a better tenant than the two non-automotive manufacturers that were also after it.

The prototype debuted on June 19, 1947 to a gathering of some 3,000 dealers, news reporters, shareholders, employees, members of the Tucker family, and friends at the Chicago factory. Although the car had a number of mechanical problems – Tucker instructed that the engine be left running, fearing that it would be impossible to restart – it received an enthusiastic reception. (The Tin Goose still exists, and is the fifth car to be inducted into the National Historic Vehicle Register.)

Development of the chassis, however, was not going smoothly. The novel engine was problematic, as was the twin torque-converter drive. An air-cooled, horizontally opposed Franklin six designed for helicopters turned out to be an acceptable alternative, and so Tucker bought the company that produced it, Air-Cooled Motors of Syracuse, New York. A team led by Indy car builder Eddie Offutt revamped the engine for water cooling. Engineers adapted the vacuum-electric shift gearbox from the front-wheel drive Cord, combing junkyards for the units before Ypsilanti Machine and Tool began turning out Tucker's own similar, but improved Y-1 transmission.

As plans for the car were coming together, trouble was brewing in Washington. The federal Securities and Exchange Commission delayed Tucker's $20 million stock offering, finding that Tucker had falsified some entries, either deliberately or innocently, and had engaged in some misleading advertising. The sale was finally approved, but with strings attached.

In Chicago, the production staff began assembling what would eventually become a fleet of 50 handmade prototypes. In September 1948, Preston Tucker had seven of his cars – #1028 among them – driven to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for endurance testing. One of the cars, #1027, went out of control at 95 mph, rolling three times. The driver, Offutt, walked away from the crash, and the car could still be driven, needing only one new tire. Although it was a highly effective demonstration of the Tucker's safety features, the episode resulted in some bad press.

With demand for new cars running at a fever pitch, Tucker hit upon a novel idea: He offered prospective buyers an opportunity to secure their place on a waiting list by buying one of the car's accessories – a radio, seat covers, or a set of luggage. This netted the company nearly $2 million in badly needed revenue, though it raised some red flags with federal regulators.

Then came a bombshell: Journalist Drew Pearson made the unsubstantiated claim on his nationally syndicated radio program, Drew Pearson Comments, that federal investigators were about to launch a major investigation that would bring down the Tucker Corporation. The company's stock nosedived from a high of $5 to just over $2 overnight, and sources of credit evaporated. In 1949, the SEC took Preston Tucker and his associates to court on mail-fraud and conspiracy charges.

Although Tucker was found innocent, his dream was over. The Tucker Corporation was placed into receivership. In October 1950, all of the assets of the corporation, including 23 Tuckers, were sold at auction. The example on offer was among them.

Tucker went to Brazil, where he tried to launch the production of a sports car, the Carioca. All that remains of that effort are some tantalizing artist's sketches. Soon afterward, Tucker was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died in Michigan in 1956, leaving his wife and five children.

In 1999, Tucker was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame. "Preston Tucker was a gifted entrepreneur and technological visionary who challenged the automotive establishment," the Hall declared. "Despite his company's failure, Tucker will always be remembered as one of the great revolutionaries of the automobile industry."

Perhaps the last word should go to Tremulis, who had this to say about his former employer in 1973: "The $28 million it took to design the car, nurture the design through its development program, tool it for mass production, purchase the facilities to build and test it, organize a dealer network ... and to reach a point of starting mass production within five weeks ... was one of the financial miracles of the automotive world. Ford, General Motors and the Chrysler Corporation could not, in my professional opinion, have done as well with an expenditure of $100 million apiece."

THE MOTORCAR OFFERED

Tucker #1028 was one of 51 cars assembled, 47 of which survive. Factory records show that it was completed on September 19, 1948 with engine number 335-35, which it has to this day. It was the third car built after the relocation of the gasoline tank from the rear of the car to the front, a change necessitated by the installation of an automatic transmission, the Tuckermatic, in car #1026.

It was one of seven cars brought by Tucker to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for endurance testing. Between September 19 and October 6, 1948, #1028 accumulated 2,931 miles at the hallowed Brickyard.

The ownership of Tucker #1028 can be traced back to the early 1950s, when it was one of six Tuckers owned by Robert J. "Bob" Turner of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Given the year and the number of cars, it seems plausible that he may have purchased them when the company's assets were liquidated in October 1950.

At some point, Turner sold the Tucker to Thomas Goff of Utica, Michigan, who had an interest in collecting postwar luxury and special interest cars. In September 1984, Goff sold the car to Dr. Charles Lehnen, who had located it through Tucker collector Allan Reinert of Burlington, Wisconsin. Lehnen hired Car Craft Inc. of Hartland, Wisconsin, to undertake a complete restoration of the car. It was refinished in its original color, Beige.

Lehnen moved from Wisconsin to Florida, and brought the Tucker with him. He had driven the car little since its restoration, and entrusted Richard E. Jones of Orange Grove, Florida, with the task of putting the car into excellent running condition. Jones, a Tucker collector and authority, had helped to found the Tucker Automobile Club of America in the early 1970s, and was a highly knowledgeable advocate for the marque.

Over the course of six months, Jones tended to the car's needs. He replaced a gear in the Tucker Y-1 transmission to quiet its operation, and diagnosed to a cold-running condition before pronouncing the car in good mechanical health and returning it to its owner.

It was during Lehnen's ownership of the Tucker that it was featured in a photo shoot for the 1993 Snap-On Tool calendar, pictured with Brittney York, also known as Alison Armitage, a model an actress who later appeared in the television series Acapulco Heat.

In September 1996, Frank Spain purchased the Tucker through Vintage Wholesale of Sarasota, Florida, and had it shipped to his new Tupelo Automotive Museum in Tupelo, Mississippi, where it became a headline attraction.

The Tucker is accompanied by an original company stock certificate, a set of fitted luggage, original sales brochures and a photo album illustrating the restoration process.

Each Tucker automobile is the hand-built manifestation of one man's soaring dream. This represents a rare opportunity to become part of this uniquely American story.
Saleroom notices
Please note, this vehicle is titled under chassis no. 1028DOR.
Rupert Banner
Rupert Banner
Specialist - Motor Cars
New York, United States
Tel: +1 212 461 6515
Rupert.Banner@bonhams.com

Wonder what made the Govt. go after Mr. Tucker.



DFC
Pit Crew

Research of this article is greatly appreciated. Well done.
coop
Intermediate Driver

At $ 2088 in 1949-1953 for a Traveler, I'm wondering who could afford it, besides residents of Newport, RI and Fairlane in Dearborn.
coop
Intermediate Driver

Well, I should have researched first - this price not that different from the average new car in 1950. But the median family income was just $3,319 a year.
AG1962
Instructor

Good point about median family income, There was huge demand, but most new cars were still luxury good in 1949-50! America rapidly shifted from rail-based to road-based transportation after WWII. Eisenhower-era interstate construction locked the shift in over the course of the 1950s, and the relative cost of cars vs. income dropped quickly.
Gary_Bechtold
Specialist

I really like these cars. They have look great especially in that dark green and the blue color.
MR
Intermediate Driver

We own a 2005 GMC Envoy XUV. It was their last year of production. The retractable roof and folding mid-gate convert it to a roomy and capable pickup.
I suppose the XUV lineage is closer to the Studebaker Waggonair. I wasn't familiar with Kaiser-Frazer's contribution to the "convertibles" Very interesting article. Thanks!
DFC
Pit Crew

Great article about the creativity, imagination and perseverance of Henry Kaiser and all too typical of other such great car industry independents like Studebaker, Packard, Hudson, Nash, their progeny AMC, Duesenberg, Auburn and Cord. But to suggest that Kaiser had a major role in the Allied victory in WW2 is to engage in a bit of good old-fashioned distortion of reality that is worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. At the end of WW2, Canada had the 4th largest air force in the world and the 5th largest navy. All from such a relatively small country, but a giant in determination when push comes to shove.

Readers might be interested in knowing who built many of Germanys trucks during WW2. Industry works in mysterious ways occasionally.
Reinhold_Weege
Instructor

Mercedes!

 

Bastards!

DFC
Pit Crew

Think outside of German manufacturers operating in Germany.

SAG
Technician

Kaiser - Frazer
My shop in the early '80s was next to a 'original Kaiser-Frazer shop'
in Palmer Lake, Co.
Ha
Did a 'resto' on a Darren later [mid 80's]
dhaugh
Detailer

Interesting note about license plate visibility. A great article with some very interesting stuff about the man behind the machine.
DUB6
Specialist

I thought so too.  That was a good solution to the drop-gate/plate display problem.  Along the same lines, when a lot of todays vehicles drop their tailgates, plates mounted either on the gate or imbedded in the bumper are hidden.  On many others, there is so much tow hitch hardware that reading a plate is nearly impossible.  Funny that these days, people put tinted covers over plates so you can barely see them if at all, and "mudder" 4WD pickups run around with plates obscured.  So apparently the genius of the dropdown plate holder is no longer needed...

Reinhold_Weege
Instructor

Nothing like an interesting article on post-WWII auto manufacturers to bring the tin-foil hats out of the closet.

brb
Instructor

Great article. I'd like to see the split hatch with a tailgate, or tailgate with a roll-down window come back. The tailgate always made a great seat for outdoor activities. I miss it on the Jeep Wrangler as well.