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.
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.
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 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
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.