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The Unloved Kaiser Henry J Is a Classic I'd Proudly Display on My Front Lawn

Back in 1950, the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation went against the "bigger is better" tide with a compact car named after company co-founder Henry J. Kaiser. Way ahead of its time, the Henry J was a flop and few people remember it, but it's a classic I'd proudly park in front of my house.
1951 Kaiser Henry J 16 photos
Photo: tednugent/Bring a Trailer
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With so many cool and significantly more valuable early 1950s classics out there, the Henry J seems like an awkward choice, right? Well, I have a thing for unusual cars and I have an even bigger thing for defunct marques. And I'm not talking about the brands that Ford, GM, and Chrysler left behind in the 21st century (like Mercury, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac). But independent carmakers that haven't been around for decades.

I'm talking about the likes of Kaiser-Frazer, Nash, Studebaker, or Hudson, companies that either disappeared through mergers or went bankrupt trying to compete with the "Big Three." And even though they don't get as much love as the bigger Detroit brands, all these companies left tremendous legacies behind them. What's more, they're also responsible for many car features that we now take for granted.

Nash Motors, for instance, pioneered quite a few groundbreaking technologies and features, starting with the first conditioned air heating/ventilation system. Introduced in 1938 as an optional feature, it gained a thermostat in 1939 and became the basis of all modern car heaters in use today. Nash also built the first mass-produced unibody automobile in the U.S. in 1941 and introduced the first American car with seat belts as a factory option in 1949.

Kaiser-Frazer wasn't as prolific, but the company entered the market with a bang in 1946, when it introduced some of the first newly designed automobiles in the U.S. (all while the Big Three were still marketing pre-WWII vehicles). Kaiser also produced America's first fiberglass automobile, the Darrin.

Kaiser Henry J
Photo: Kaiser-Frazer Corporation
While this achievement is usually attributed to the Chevrolet Corvette, which arrived in showrooms a year before the Darrin, Kaiser's drop-top debuted in concept form two months before GM's now-iconic nameplate. The Darrin was essentially a re-bodied Henry J, which brings me to one of my all-time favorite classics built by a defunct automaker.

The Henry J was born in the early 1950s, in an era when American buyers were demanding increasingly bigger and more luxurious cars. There was no such thing as a midsize car in the U.S. at the time, but two men thought that a new car had to be different from the existing models in the market offered by the "Big Three." One was George W. Mason, president of Nash-Kelvinator, and the other one was Henry J. Kaiser, chairman of Kaiser-Frazer Corporation.

Nash was the first to jump on the compact car bandwagon with the Rambler in April 1950. Only 176 inches (4,470 mm) long, the Rambler was made available with a variety of body styles. Kaiser's Henry J joined in by the end of the year, but it was a notably different approach.

Envisioned as a modern take on the Ford Model T, the Henry J project was completed via a federal government loan. The financing specified that the car would be priced at no more than $1,300 in base form, would seat at least five adults, and would be capable of at least 50 mph (80 kph) for extended periods.

Kaiser Henry J ad
Photo: Kaiser-Frazer Corporation
To achieve the goal of creating the most affordable U.S. automobile, the Henry J was designed to incorporate the fewest possible components. To save body stamping costs, for instance, the car did not have a trunk lid. Access to the storage compartment was only possible by folding down the rear seat. Kaiser also restricted the Henry J to a sole two-door sedan body with fixed rear windows for the same reasons.

The compact also lacked many features that were already common at the time, including a glove compartment, armrests, a passenger-side sun visor, and a ventilation system. On top of that, while most early 1950s automobiles came with inline-six and V8 engines, Kaiser went with a 134-cubic-inch (2.2-liter) four-cylinder supplied by Willys-Overland.

Far from impressive at 68 horsepower, the engine enabled the Henry J to achieve 25 mpg (9.4 l/100 km) and helped the car win the Mobil Economy Run. But the compact was pretty much a commercial flop.

Lacking basic convenience features and promoting fuel economy at a time when gasoline sold for only 27 cents per gallon, the Henry J was off to a promising start with 81,000 units in 1951, but sales dropped to only 23,000 examples in 1952. The fact that Kaiser began offering a trunk lid and an inline-six engine (80 horsepower) didn't help, and production was suspended in 1953. The company struggled to sell its remaining stock throughout 1954.

Kaiser Henry J
Photo: Kaiser-Frazer Corporation
So why do I have a soft spot for a 1950s classic that's far from iconic and successful? Well, I think the Henry J was a visionary automobile. Yes, it arrived at the worst possible time for compact cars in the U.S., but the concept became popular a little more than a decade later, and by the mid-1970s, every single automaker had one in showrooms.

Second, I think it's a beautiful automobile. Designed by American Metal Products and refined by Howard "Dutch" Darrin, the genius behind the Kaiser Darrin, the Henry J's styling brings together the coolest automotive traits of the era. It boasts a slanted front fascia with a three-point design made famous by Studebaker and it rocks a beautiful rear end with a sloping roofline that goes all the way to the bumper and classy fender fins.

The somewhat complex beltline, the slightly beefed-up rear haunches, the split windshield, and the large spear on the nose are also reminiscent of fancy full-size cars of the pre-WWII era. Kaiser didn't just focus on making it cheap to manufacture and affordable to buy, it actually spent a lot of time creating a good-looking car. Oh year, and it also has the right amount of chrome.

I also believe in the Henry J as a solid daily commuter. Sure, it's annoying to access the trunk through the rear seats and it's probably a nightmare to get the spare tire out the same way, but this car is genuinely spacious for a compact. And you can always go for the late version that came with a trunk lid or examples that were fitted with a continental tire mounted atop the rear bumper.

Kaiser Henry J
Photo: Autograf
And in a world where prices of desirable classic cars have spiked rather dramatically, the Henry J remains an incredibly affordable oldtimer. Nicely restored examples rarely exceed the $20,000 mark and Henry Js that need a bit of work can be had for anywhere between $10,000 to $15,000. And that's more affordable than a 2023 Nissan Versa in base trim and a fraction of what you'd pay for a Tri-Five Chevrolet Bel Air of the Sport Coupe variety.

Yes, the Henry J may never become a full-blown collectible, but it's a decidedly rare classic since many of them were abandoned, scrapped, or transformed into restomods and gassers. It's one of those gems that doesn't get the love it deserves.

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About the author: Ciprian Florea
Ciprian Florea profile photo

Ask Ciprian about cars and he'll reveal an obsession with classics and an annoyance with modern design cues. Read his articles and you'll understand why his ideal SUV is the 1969 Chevrolet K5 Blazer.
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