With all of the corporate bean-counting, market predictions, and sterilization that occurs within the automotive industry today, it is sometimes easy to forget how weird and convoluted things could quickly become "back then". No other car exemplifies this volatile complexity more aptly than the Kaiser-Frazer Henry J.
Conceived by the indomitable Henry J. Kaiser as a cheap and compact alternative to other American offerings, the curvaceous Henry J was first presented for sale in September 1950, after an earlier press reveal in Chicago. The car was priced at an unusually low $1300, due to the car being developed at the behest of a government loan. In order to turn a profit at this price point, the Henry J was built with a “Spartan” mindset, eschewing many simple features that were standard on its contemporaries. The seats were composed of tightly woven paper strands, the dash was a simple painted metal affair, it featured no glove compartments, and even neglected to include a trunk lid! Power (or lack thereof) came from a wheezy 68 HP inline-4 and a still woefully-inadequate 80 HP inline-6. Despite the relatively progressive styling and competitive price, the Henry J was not a showroom star. To alleviate some of his sales issues, Henry Kaiser turned to Sears, Roebuck and Co., and proposed to sell a rebadged Henry J under the already-established Sears automotive accessory line, “Allstate”.
While the Allstate was indeed a thinly-disguised Henry J, a few minor cosmetic changes stood out when the two nearly identical cars were compared. For choosing an Allstate over a Henry J, the buyer got: the engine painted a lovely Sears-blue, an interior done up in an exclusive plaid scheme for the headliner and seats (I love me some tartan!), and best of all, a Tucker–influenced front clip, penned straight from Alex Tremulis, the man who designed the legendary Tucker Torpedo. All this splendor was sold along with pre-installed Sears-brand spark plugs, battery, and bulbs. Fancy!
Pictured: Pure, unadulterated Highland luxury
Shockingly, a plaid interior was not enough to trick people into thinking it was a different car. Sales stagnated, and the Allstate was canned after only two years with just over 2,500 cars produced. All in, the Henry J and its associated brothers sold a total of 131,702 cars in a three-year span. This may seem like a substantial amount, but for comparison, the sales leader for 1953 model year was Chevrolet, with 1,346,475 cars sold. That was only one year of sales!
However, the Allstate diversion was not the strangest of the Henry J story. In yet another “interesting” sales venture, Kaiser struck a deal with Mitsubishi to produce his prized Henry J in Kawasaki, Japan. Marketing his little sedan toward Americans stationed in the area, Kaiser-Frazer became the first American corporation to set up shop in post-war Japan. Following this, Kaiser turned his sights on Israel. He managed to have his Henry J manufactured in an Israeli factory that built also built Mack trucks.
Pictured: The Kaiser-Frazer dedication in Japan
So, let’s take a step back. We have an American businessman with an oh-so-German last name, building funky little American cars in Japan and Israel, all while selling some through Sears-Roebuck department stores under a different name.
You can’t make this stuff up.
This is reposted from my blog, ThePistonRing