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The company was founded on July 25, 1945 and in 1946 K-F displayed prototypes of their two new cars at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. The Kaiser was of an advanced front wheel drive design while the Frazer was an upscale conventional rear wheel drive car. The production costs and time available prevented the front wheel drive design from seeing production so the new 1947 Kaiser and Frazer shared bodies and powertrains. Being some of the first newly designed cars to hit the market while the "Big Three" were still marketing their pre-war designs, the Kaisers and Frazers made quite an exciting entrance. Kaiser and Frazer would continue to share bodies and engines through 1950 with different exterior and interior trimming.
Henry Kaiser had no automotive marketing experience while Joseph Frazer did, having been president of the Graham-Paige Corporation prior to WWII. Henry Kaiser believed in pressing on in the face of adversity; Joseph Frazer was more pragmatic. As the market for K-F products slowed in 1949 Kaiser pushed for more production creating an oversupply of cars that took until mid-1950 to sell. Kaiser and Frazer continued at odds until Frazer left the company in 1951 and the car with the Frazer nameplate was dropped at the end of a short 10,000 unit production run. In 1952 the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation was renamed Kaiser Motors Corporation and continued building passenger cars until 1955.
In 1953 Kaiser bought the ailing Willys-Overland company for US$63,381,175 and merged the Kaiser and Willys operations together under the name Willys Motors. The decision was then made to exit the passenger car market which was accomplished at the end of the 1955 model year. By 1956 Willys Motors was building only utility vehicles, many for export, and was turning a healthy profit.
In 1970 the Kaiser Jeep Corporation was sold to American Motors Corporation who continued to manufacture Jeep vehicles until AMC was purchased by Chrysler in 1987 for $360 million. Chrysler wanted the Jeep vehicle line and had estimated that for them to create a similar competing product and build a reputation to match would have cost in excess of $1 billion.
Production of Kaiser Frazer models was centered at Willow Run, Michigan. Willow Run, the largest building in the world at that time, was built by the U.S. government just prior to World War II for Henry Ford to build B24 Liberator bombers for the European war effort and then later for the USA war effort. Once the war concluded Ford had no interest in the facility which then set the War Assets Administration off looking someone to lease or buy the building. When K-F expressed interest in the facility, the WAA offered them a very good five-year lease rate. So good that K-F couldn’t refuse. K-F also had manufacturing facilities in Jefferson MI, Long Beach CA, Portland OR, Leaside, Ontario, Canada, Haifa, Israel, Kawasaki, Japan, Mexico City, and Rotterdam (known as "Nekaf" Nederlandse Kaiser-Frazer). USA production was concentrated at Toledo OH upon the purchase of Willys-Overland starting in 1953; the Willow Run facility had been sold to General Motors after GM suffered a disastrous and destructive fire at their Livonia MI Hydramatic plant and needed a facility quickly to resume production.
Kaiser Frazer Products
Kaiser includes Custom, Deluxe, Virginian, Carolina and Manhattan sedans, as well as the Vagabond 4 door hatchback utility sedan.
Henry J, a small economy car including Corsair.
Darrin, the first production fiberglass sports car in the USA, beating Corvette to market by one month.
Frazer includes Standard, Deluxe and Manhattan sedans and the Vagabond hatchback. The 1951 Frazer Manhattan convertible was the last four-door American convertible until the 1961 Lincoln Continental.
Willys, including "Aero-Willys" and all sub-trim levels include Aero-Lark, Aero Ace et al.
Jeep, including pick-ups, CJ Vehicles, all steel wagons, Wagoneer and Jeepster marques.
Allstate, designed to sell through and by Sears-Roebuck Department stores in the southern USA, a slightly restyled Henry J. The cars were equipped with Allstate products (tires, battery, etc.). The modest styling changes distinguishing the Allstate from the Henry J were executed by Alex Tremulis, the designer of the 1948 Tucker Sedan.
Kaiser in Argentina
In 1951 Argentina sent their emissary, Brigadier General San Martín, to the United States in an attempt to convince an auto manufacturer to build cars in Argentina. In 1954 Kaiser was the only one to accept the offer with the rest believing the market was too small to justify the investment. Also, they didn't have the rugged products Kaiser did. On January 19, 1955 Kaiser and the government of Argentina signed an agreement to permit Kaiser to manufacture automobiles and trucks in Argentina. In February, Kaiser created a wholly owned subsidiary named Kaiser Automotores, the holding company which in turn owned part of the newly created Industrias Kaiser Argentina S.A. (IKA), the manufacturing and marketing arm. Other partners in IKA included the government-owned vehicle manufacturer IAME and private investors. In August Kaiser applied for and got an import license to bring in 1,021 completed cars, manufacturing equipment and spare parts from the USA. Groundbreaking for the new factory was in March of 1955 with the first Jeep vehicle rolling out of the plant on 27 April 1956.
The new Argentine factory was built in the city of Santa Isabel in the province of Córdoba with the Kaiser Manhattan being rechristened the Kaiser Carabela — named after a type of Spanish sailing ship. The USA vinyl and fabric interior was replaced with a more rugged leather interior, the speedometer was recalibrated in kilometers with the temperature, oil, and fuel gauge annotations in Spanish and the spring rates were increased to accommodate the unimproved Argentine roads. Oddly, the dash castings with annotations for vent, heater, headlight and wiper controls remained in English. No consideration was given to offering an automatic transmission due to the anticipated difficulty in obtaining service in remote towns. Production started on the Carabela on 25 July 1958 and, in the remaining months of year, 2,158 cars were built. IKA was also building Jeep vehicles at the Cordoba factory and assembled 20,454 Jeeps in 1958 alone. The combined Carabela-Jeep production of 22,612 units was 81% of all vehicles manufactured in Argentina in 1958 with the only competition being a state-run utility vehicle manufacturer. Many have questioned the wisdom of building IKA automobile factory in remote Santa Isabel which was far from ports and transportation hubs but the primary reason is that Córdoba was General San Martín's home province and he had a close, influential relationship with President Juan Perón.
In 1962 the Carabela, the "Gran coche argentino" (the Great Argentine Car), ended production with some 15,000 cars assembled providing elegant transportation for the doctors, bankers and other notables in Argentina. The Carabela had some stable mates in 1960-62 in the form of an Alfa Romeo 1900 sedan derivative named the Bergantin (another type of Spanish sailing ship) and an Argentine-manufactured Renault Dauphine (badged IKA Dauphine). In 1962 Rambler variants licensed from AMC would replace all of these. The final form of the AMC variants was the potent Torino which saw a lot of racing on international circuits. In 1970 Kaiser sold IKA to Renault.