Let’s build our way out of this

Getting the country back on something resembling a “peacetime” economy after World War II proved to be tricky: the government had yet to back away from the controls put in place to support the war effort, and when it did — President Truman dropped both price and wage controls in 1946 — the immediate result was a spike in prices without a corresponding spike in wages, accompanied by occasional shortages of commodities.

Henry J. Kaiser was new to the car business, which was probably a Good Thing in the late 1940s: while the first new postwar models from most manufacturers were warmed-over ’42s, Kaiser and sister make Frazer started off with brand-new designs, which sold well. And Kaiser, who’d been a big-wheel industrialist but who had never built cars before, apparently figured that he could keep ratcheting up production indefinitely. Lileks’ Bleat yesterday morning had a scan of a 1948 Kaiser-Frazer ad that expresses this ebullience:

Kaiser-Frazer never has subscribed and never will subscribe to an economy of scarcity and indecision. We proved that it was possible to batter down all obstacles and produce 145,000 Kaiser and Frazer cars last year. Now, Kaiser-Frazer vows to more than double last year’s rate of production! Why are we so confident? Because our sales continue to increase with each passing month!

As it turned out, Joseph Frazer, the half of the Kaiser-Frazer combine with actual automotive experience, had warned Kaiser that eventually — ’48, ’49, ’50 — their larger competitors would have new cars that would put the K-F sedans behind the curve, and that they probably should back off until the next generation was ready. Henry J. was livid; shortly thereafter, Joe Frazer was looking for work. But Frazer was right: a lot of leftover ’49s were reserialed as 1950 models, and the new Kaiser (the Frazer name was dropped after 1951) wasn’t going to be ready until 1951 at the earliest.

Continuing in his sorta-populist mode, Kaiser complained that not everyone could afford one of his cars, and introduced a compact called, of all things, the Henry J. It was a success at first, though it wasn’t that inexpensive; Sears, Roebuck sold a version (branded “Allstate”) for a couple of years at some Sears stores and in the catalog. But the Henry J didn’t compete well with Nash’s Rambler, another low-end car that didn’t appear so obviously built down to a price, and it was dropped after three years. The big Kaiser, futuristic and beautiful in 1951, was old news in ’53 and ’54, at least partly because the rest of the industry was playing with modern V8s, while Kaiser stuck with its old sidevalve six.

The last Kaisers appeared for 1955. The company had merged with Willys Motors, and ultimately the only products to survive the merger would be Willys’ line of sport-utility vehicles sold under the name Jeep.

I mention all this because there continue to be rumors that General Motors and Chrysler will merge, as early as today, and I suspect that the only Chrysler products to survive the merger will be the line of sport-utility vehicles sold under the name Jeep.





3 comments

  1. fillyjonk »

    7 November 2008 · 7:23 am

    Interesting. The only stuff I know about that era and price controls and the battle between those who would control prices and those who would allow a freer market come from the Nero Wolfe novel, The Silent Speaker.

    And I supposedly had a better-than-average education in U.S. history. It’s interesting what gets left out. (Though considering that a lot of years, the last day of classes corresponded with the teacher’s lesson plan on V-J day, perhaps I shouldn’t be so harsh.)

  2. Kay Dennison »

    7 November 2008 · 8:17 am

    Thanks for the history lesson. I grew up in Toledo and a lot of my friends’ dads worked at the Willys plant. It’s now a Jeep plant and it’s good to know that it could survive the merger. Ohio doesn’t need to lose more jobs.

    And as a driver of Chrysler products for many years (but not now), I will mourn its passing. They served me well.

  3. CGHill »

    7 November 2008 · 10:20 pm

    Well, Friday passed with no merger announcement, so maybe it won’t come off after all. I still think it’s a bad idea.

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