Whatever Happened To…Frazer

Glenn Arlt

December 10, 2013

In the fourth installment of a series examining short-lived automotive marques and models, Glenn Arlt looks at the last American man (and car) to mount a real challenge to Detroit’s Big Three. 

Joseph Frazer

Born the son of a prominent Tennessee attorney and judge in 1894, a graduate of the elite Hotchkiss prep school and Yale’s Sheffield School of Science, Joseph Frazer had both the old family money and social connections necessary to succeed in nearly any field. Frazer just happened to love cars.  

Starting his career as a salesman at a Packard franchise in New York City, Frazer soon moved to Cleveland to operate a small dealership for the Michigan-built Saxon. Frazer’s success in sales and management eventually led him to an executive role under Walter Chrysler in 1923. When Chrysler wanted to challenge Ford and GM with a new, low-priced car, it was Frazer who convinced his boss at a board meeting to name the new car “Plymouth.” Plymouth was the name of a then common type of agricultural twine, and Frazer believed that farming connection would resonate with buyers. It did, and by 1931 Plymouth ranked third in U.S. car sales.

Frazer continued moving up the corporate ladder by becoming President of Willys-Overland in 1939. Under his leadership, Willys unveiled a new military vehicle that would become one of the most iconic vehicles now associated with World War II. He had the foresight to trademark the term "Jeep," another career milestone that eventually led him to take a controlling interest in Graham-Paige where the dream of producing his own brand of car began to take root.

Frazer

In 1944, hostilities in Europe and the South Pacific were coming to a close, and Frazer was not the only automotive leader who suspected there would follow a boon in auto sales once returning GIs came home. The greatest profits would naturally come to the one who came first to the market with something new and exciting. So Frazer hired Howard “Dutch” Darrin — the visionary designer responsible for the gorgeous and highly regarded Packard-Darrin custom cars of the early 1940s — to come up with a concept vehicle he could begin pre-selling to dealers.       

Darrin’s new design was a roomy, smooth-flanked “fenderless” automobile; a style that would prove 10 years ahead of its time. Looking like nothing else other automakers were proposing for post-war production, the car proved an easy pitch for Frazer who had over 3,000 dealers lined up to sell it even before he had figured out exactly how he would fund the car’s engineering and production.

The Kaiser Connection

In the summer of 1945, Amadeo P. Giannini, a friend of Frazer’s and the founder and president of Bank of America, suggested a meeting with Henry J. Kaiser. An industrialist now regarded as the father of modern American shipbuilding, Kaiser had become one of the most famous men in America during the war. Hoping to expand his empire into the world of cars, Kaiser had a car design of his own but lacked the marketing savvy and insider’s knowledge of the industry.

A seemingly perfect match, Frazer and Kaiser hammered out a partnership agreement in just eight days. A month later, the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation obtained an option to lease (then purchase) Detroit’s massive 1,878 acre Willow Run industrial complex where they would scramble to produce their new brand of cars.

Roughly a year later, as the Big Three were still marketing their pre-war car designs, Kaiser-Frazer displayed prototypes of their two new models at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The Kaiser featured an advanced front-wheel drive design, while the Frazer’s design was an upscale, conventional rear-wheel drive car based largely on original Darrin design.

Frazer ad

Frazer cars, sold only as four-door sedans, would eventually outsell Cadillac, Packard and Lincoln in 1947. Initially, the 100-horsepower, six-cylinder ’47 Frazer Standard sold for $2,295, and the 112-horsepower, six-cylinder ’47 Frazer Manhattan sold for $2,712.

Frazer was priced up against well-established brands, cars that also offered more horsepower at a similar cost. For example, Cadillac’s 150 horsepower, eight-cylinder Series 61 sold for $2,324, and the fancier Series 62 at $2,523. Packard’s 125 horsepower, eight-cylinder Clipper Deluxe was priced at $2,149 and Super Clipper cost $2,772.

But in addition to trumping the competition with a car design that was totally new, one factor that helped Frazer sales was the immediate availability of the cars. During this “seller’s market” other dealers accepted deposits and their would-be customers then waited months for delivery. With a Kaiser-Frazer, buyers could walk into the dealership and drive away in a new car that day.

End of the Boon 

Frazer Vagabond

But in two short years, supply would catch up with buyer demand. By 1949, the Big Three was finally coming out with cars featuring larger and more modern engines and revolutionary new body styles including two-door hardtop-convertibles. In contrast, Frazer’s Manhattan new convertible sedan (while highly prized and collectible now) was a market failure, selling some 70 units in 1949-1950 and only 131 cars in 1951.

Frazer foresaw the coming disaster and warned Henry Kaiser that going up against the all-new cars of their competitors with 200,000 largely unchanged cars in 1949 would be a disaster. And he was right; the red ink flowed and Frazer ultimately resigned in disgust.

The company would stagger on and is now credited with inventing the popular “hatchback” body design with the 1951 Frazer Vagabond. This was an attempt to capture some of the high-end station wagon clientele with a very practical sedan; unfortunately, the public failed to respond and only around 3,000 Vagabonds were actually built.

By 1951, Frazer’s namesake cars were pulled from the market by his old partner, thus ending one of the most significant “what could have been” stories in the automotive world. Current values of Frazer convertibles in Number 1 concours condition are an eye-popping $87,600, according the Hagerty Price Guide. By contrast, early production 1947 Frazer Standards with the “Designed by Darrin” badges in Number 3/good condition can be had for about $9,800.  A Vagabond in Number 2/excellent condition is valued at $17,250.  

Comments

  1. Ralph Cooper Marion,Michigan

    Owned-a-1947-or-so-Frazer-purchased-in-1953,it-had-overdrive-and-good-gas-mileage.I-drove-it-for-two-years.It-was-a-very-nice-car.Once-a-month-I-would-drive-it-from-Marion-Indiana-to-Marion-Michigan-to-visit-my-parents.A-friend-of-mine-wanted-to-visit-a-friend-and-it-ran-low-on-oil,drove-too-fast-at-high-speed.OOPS!

  2. Bob Brown Michigan

    In retrospect, the first models of Kaiser and Frazier sold well because of the built up market demand and not because of their butt ugly slabside design By contrast, the last models 1953-4 were very much the opposite and had many eye-appealing features. The major hold back to sales seems to have been the lack of choice of engines, body styles and of course price competition. Several years ago I ran across and early (49) Kaiser setting in a barnyard, in mud up to the hubs for ten years, but with a front bumper with the chrome plating looking as new. An assurance of built in quality.

  3. Gary Glenn Abilene TX

    Raised across Michigan AVE in Ypsilanti from the plant. We saw a lot of these white elephants in the 50's and 60's. Not to mention Corvairs and I had a neighbor we use to tease about his work car, a Tucker. Wouldn't I like to have some of these white elephants today. Do have a Corvair

  4. clint Oklahoma

    I was about 12 yrs old when my granddad bought a new dark blue Kaiser. It was a1949 or 1950 model . It was a 4 door sedan with a large button you pushed to open the door from the inside. I do not remember what kind of eng. it has other than a big , flat head six. I rode in it a lot. Still have a pic of it ,gramps and me. Clint.

  5. John Stauffer Lancaster Co.,PA

    When I was 20 (1956) I bought and drove a '47 Kaiser, that I bought for the astronomical sum of $50.00! One of the few cars,of many, that I don't recall what ever I did with it! Gonna call my friend and ask him, as his father was a K-F dealer and the lat one, a '51 Frazer Vagabound.

  6. charlie scozzari staten isl. n.y.

    as a kid in the mid 1950s a buddy of mine who's pop was a plumber had a Kaiser that he used for work and if I remember correctly it had a false rear door that had the spare tire mounted to it. doe's anyone know of that being the case or have I totally lost it ????

  7. John mintier Lake Geneva, WI

    Nothing about the HenryJ? Didn't Kaiser or Frazier build those as well?

  8. John-Rafferty Wyandotte,Michigan

    Learned-to-drive-in-a-1948-Frazier-when-I-was-15-years-old.-Took-my-road-test-in-it-in-1954.-It's-an-expierence-I-will-never-forget.-It-was-my-parents-first-car.

  9. Bill Carlson Plainfield, IL

    Answering John Minter from Wisconsin. Yes, K-F did make the Henry J. It was really the first compact car. It would get 25 miles per gallon, and since gas at the time was 25c per gallon, they advertised that you could drive it for a penny a mile! My brother's and I were almost killed in a Kaiser sedan in April, 1050, and the police said that any other car we would have been dead meat, but since the Kaiser was built like a tank, we all survived, although by older brother, who was driving, had a 4 month stay in the hospital due to a badly fractured leg.

  10. Beverly Hausauer Wilton, ND

    I have a 1947 Frazer that my dad bought new. It has been completely restored and works very well. I am wondering if anyone knows what the value of this car might be.

  11. John Martin Spring City TN.

    You said nothing about the 2 door Kaiser Darrin 2 door sports car. it was a 1954 model. The doors went up into the Fenders. Have only saw one of them in Daytona at the Turkey Rod Run years ago.

  12. Bud Goodaker Michigan

    About 1948 I was lucky to be one of a group of "safety boys" in our grade school who were taken on a tour of the Kaiser/Frazer plant at Willow Run Michigan. I thought then that they were the best looking cars on the road. I still think they look great.

  13. roger mishler Spring Hill, Fl.

    Someone please save this local Frazer before it's too late! http://tampa.craigslist.org/psc/cto/4239240317.html It's cheap and he has extra parts I think. if someone wants to save it and needs me to go take a look or get some pics contact me via email rogermishler@yahoo.com

  14. Clancy Gordon Bowling Green, Ohio

    I remember when I was 5 my Dad bought a used !949 Frazer. It was dark blue with a nice plush interior. I do remember the car had some issues: When Mom drove it uptown about a mile away and parked it for a half hour or so, she would have a real hard time getting it started. Had the push button starter on the left side of the dash. I remember Dad telling her when that happens, hold the gas pedal all the way to the floor while cranking it. She didn't want to do that though she was afraid of flooding it. He finally decided to get rid of it because it seemed there was always something going wrong with it. Knowing what I know now, the problem she had getting it started was because it was one of the early cars that had an automatic choke. Those were notorious for causing starting problems. But I've always remembered the old Frazer and how nice it rode when going on vacations, etc.

  15. HOWARD Cle Elum , Wa

    I remember riding in a Frazer around Westfield , Mass in 1951 and the column shift would not work right .---- 2 brothers in Seattle put a hot -rodded Pontiac v8 engine in a Henry J in about 1959? and it was a wild car ! There was a KAISER Darrin sports car at a small car show at Lake Chelan , Wa. last October and it was very good looking .car .

  16. sheldon fisher richardton n d

    797qf have 55 Kaiser and 51 frazer

  17. Joe Smedley Arcadia, FL

    In reply to Charlie Scozzari. Yes, the left rear door did not open on the Kaiser Traveler, The spare tire mounted vertically next to a shortened rear seat which folded down like a station wagon rear seat.. My dad had a black 1949 Traveler with red "leather" interior. From the exterior, the left side appeared to be a normal 4 door. The rear opening had a tail gate and upper rear glass similar to the station wagons of the same era. Assume this was the same on the Frazer.

  18. daryl judd spokane, washington

    These were never much to look at in my humble opinion. My dad had a Packard at that time & they were not very attractive either but those two and Studebaker had the big three beat until the UAW strikes and the post war favoritism for steel & other materials necessary to build cars killed the independents. Those companies had a major role in winning WW2 and after the war the Federal Government abandoned them when they needed help the most. Henry Kaiser was a pompous egomaniac and if he had the sense to listen to his partners who knows what might have transpired. It was my dad's Packard that I loved so much as a small boy that lead me to begin restoring cars as a young adult. While I never had a Fraiser I still hold much regard for those who had dreams and at least for a while saw them come to fruition.

  19. P.Johnson Rochester Hills Michigan

    How about the Allstate, made by Kiaser/Frazer for Sears Roebuck & Company...it was a natural for K-F as they already made the Kelvinator Refrigertors that were sold a couple of departments over from the cars sitting off the main aisle. The Cars were a bit spiffed up, with fancy seat covers,floor mats and a radio, also sold at Sears. A very rare find today, they had the exact body of the Henry J, a little different Grill and the outline of the united states with ALLSTATE letters over the map. Think it did about 50 mph down hill with a stiff breeze behind it. Great milage, but who cared with gas at 15 cents a gallon

  20. "Pat" Jacobs Snohomish, WA

    I well remember the introduction of the Kaiser/Frazier cars. They were UGLY, then and now. The last iteration was much better looking, but still, sort of weird. The only reason they sold well for about 3-4years, was the buyers market. My brother in-law returned from the Philipines in '46 or '47, (Army officer) and purchased a Frazier, as he could get one at once. What a lemon it turned out to be! When leave was winding down, drove from his hometown of Buffalo to Albuquerque, his next duty station. On the way there, had to find one of those rare dealers to replace the rear main seal, but was unable to get the door latches repaired. They began to fail, one after the other. By the time he reached N.M., the only one that worked from outside was the right rear, so had to climb over seat to get in! He did not keep long. The replacement was a '37 Cord Sport Phaeton, but that is another story.

  21. George Madsen Northern Illinois

    In '58, I wrecked my '48 Chevy and needed a replacement fast. My then girlfriend (later wife) and I walked to the used car lot of Van Hattem Motors a Nash dealer in Roseland on Chicagos' south side. The only car the dealer had that looked as though it had been well cared for by its' previous owner was a blue '48 Frazer. Bought it right and grew to like it over the years. My dad loved to drive it and took numerous trips to SIU in Carbondale, Illinois to visit my brother and sister who were students there. He liked the Continental engine with the six speed transmission, it got great gas mileage ( the O.D. solenoid broke and I put a switch on the dash, had O.D. in every gear). A worn out midship bearing caused its' demise....coulda/shoulda repaired it..

  •  
  •   
  •  
  •