Welcome to a new series of articles here on Autoblog taking you through a time warp of classic (and not so classic) cars that you may know and some you may have never heard of before. We're reaching way back into the archives for this one.
What would you do if you just borrowed $44 million to build an affordable small car and your partner skipped out on you? If you were Henry J. Kaiser you'd deliver the goods – the 1951 Henry J.
The Henry J has been a favorite of mine since I was a kid. I remember building a 1/24 plastic model of one and loving it. It?s a car that almost looks like many other cars in the 50?s but when you really study it appears much different. The Henry J was one of Henry J. Kaiser?s big ideas that helped usher in the end of Kaiser Auto.
Kaiser?s partner of four years, Joseph W. Frazer left the company after Kaiser-Frazer sales plummeted in 1949. GM, Ford and Chrysler introduced their all-new post-war designs while K-F only performed a mild facelift on their models. Poor sales caused a need for an infusion of money to fund a new small car for the American masses.
Designer Howard ?Dutch? Darrin reluctantly reworked a strange little two-door fastback prototype that Kaiser had seen. He added the ?Darrin-swoop? in the rear fender and little tail fins. Those little changes created a successfully different design that awarded the Henry J and Darrin the ?Fashion Car of the Year? for 1951 by the NY Fashion Academy.
Mainstream cars in the early 50?s were large, hulking vehicles and the Henry J tried to change all that. The coupe measured in at a foot and a half shorter than the bread and butter Chevy and cost $200 less. Even with a smaller size, the Henry J could swallow plenty of luggage, which was a theme in some of the advertising at the time.
With the optional 161 cubic inch L-head 6 cylinder in the Corsair DeLuxe, the 2300-pound two-door was able to ?zoom? to 60 mph in 14 seconds which was considered good at the time. The standard engine was an L-head 4 making 68 horsepower.
People just had to have the newest cars after WWII and the first year of Henry J production in 1951 proved very successful, selling 81,942 units beating out the Nash Rambler, Kaiser?s main competitor in the segment. Then the reality of a cost-conscious car settled in. Kaiser?s plan was to start with the bare bones model and then introduce more expensive sedans and convertibles later. That plan backfired, as the Henry J lost sales over complaints about cost-saving items like no gloveboxes, trunklids and other features that consumers had gotten used to.
Kaiser made the changes (gloveboxes and trunklids) to the 1952 and 53 model years along with new grills and taillights, but sales continued to fall. In 1952 a Vagabon edition was available complete with rear-mounted continental spare tire.
1954 was the last year for the Henry J (1955 was the last for Kaiser Auto) and sales totals reached 130,322 for all four years of production. As the Big 3 got bigger they pushed many smaller automakers out of the market in the 50?s and 60?s and Kaiser was one of the casualties. But with cars like the Henry J and Darrin, Kaiser left an impression in the 50?s those with an eye for design can?t deny.
Henry J?s today have been popular with the drag couture, many becoming quarter mile machines that look like no other, a dragster with an overbite (they look best without the front bumper). A website I found called www.HenryJcars.com has many links to some project cars and some great pictures of restored hot rods for anyone interested in continuing their Henry J education.