Monday, January 13, 2014

Henry J: Cute, But Few Sold

Kaiser-Frazer's Henry J (1951-1954) was named after Henry J. Kaiser, founder of the company.  This was one of several marketing errors associated with the brand; an odd name without meaning to many people.

Another, according to this Wikipedia entry, was that conditions for getting a government loan forced the company to cut manufacturing costs to the bone, resulting in a cheap looking car.  For example, early Henry Js had no trunk opening; one had to open the side door, fold down the rear seat back and then try to maneuver a heavy, cumbersome piece of luggage into place.  For not a lot more money, a potential buyer could get a new entry-level Chevrolet, Ford or Plymouth with a trunk lid as standard equipment, more passenger room and other goodies not found on a Henry J.

Henry J styling was what I call cute, and more pleasing than that on many other small cars in the USA and elsewhere at the time.  A nice gesture was the small up-kick or micro-tailfin at the rear of the fender line.  It served as a counterpoise to the fastback roof line, giving the design some needed balance.  Unfortunately, that fastback roof line was going out of style in 1951.  Worse, it yielded an inconveniently sized trunk -- the trunk that was difficult to access due to its lack of a lid.

The grille was an oddity -- large, chromed shapes perhaps inspired by squiggly graphics and table tops that were so strangely popular around 1950.  Even so, it wasn't really bad.  Maybe that's because Kaiser-Frazer had a team of first-rate stylists for a few years, including Buzz Grissinger.


An advertising image showing a Henry with seriously small people.

This publicity photo offers a better sense of scale, though the boy with his hand on the door is pretty small.

More probably small-ish people stuffed into an already small car.  In those days, cars of any size were often pictured with small people or people crammed into the passenger compartment to give the illusion that the car was larger than it really was.  Note how the flowing fender line adds a touch of grace to what might have become just another slab-sided design.

This was one of the few photos I found on the Internet showing a Henry J with no trunk opening.  A trunk lid was quickly added once it became clear that the original configuration was hurting sales.  The double-curve at the top of the backlight window echoes window shapes on the new, redesigned Kaisers.


Anonymous said...

I have to take issue with one claim in this blog: "...named after Henry J. Kaiser, founder of the company. This was one of several marketing errors associated with the brand; an odd name without meaning to many people."

The name Henry J. Kaiser had a lot of meaning to most Americans in 1950. While his cars were a failure, he was famous for building ships during World War II. And before that, dams and roads. He was so popular in fact, that people want to draft him to run for president after the war. Shortly after WWII there was a popular song called "Call Henry Kaiser" which referred to his ability to get things built and get things done. He was one of the most known men in America at that time. Yes, his cars were a failure but they are the least of what he is remembered for.

Donald Pittenger said...

Anonymous -- Agreed that Kaiser was well-known to many Americans at the time, though at this remove it's a little hard to be sure of the percentage. He was not well known to me because I was pretty young at the time the car appeared. However, I still think the name was odd and that a better one for marketing purposes could have been chosen (not that it would have saved the car).

This is especially true if the compact Kaiser line was expected to endure. Consider if Apple had named the IPod the "Steve" -- how long would such a monicker resonate after Jobs' death unless the product was really well planted as a brand name? Generational succession is a factor that cannot be avoided at some point.

Anonymous said...

Yes, and Ford had the "Victoria" named for Henry Ford's wife. It did well but then you could argue that "Edsel", named for Henry Ford's grandson was not so great. But Henry J was well known and consider this - the official story was that Kaiser-Frazer had contest to pick a name for the Henry J. That means the public selected it based on what whey knew. Of course most insiders argue Kaiser-Frazer knew it would be called "Henry J" but waited for someone who entered the contest to select that name and then make them the winner. Automotive history is full of interesting stories.

dberger223 said...

Ford's wife was Clara Ala Bryant, born? 1864?
I think Victoria was some sort of carriage. The name was carried over to some autos.