No automaker wants to end up on the ten worst cars of the twentieth century list created by the How Stuff Works website. But the Henry J, coming in at number five on the list, at least has an interesting backstory.
Haven’t heard of a car named the Henry J? Not surprising, it didn’t live very long, wasn’t produced in great numbers, and was never rewarded with great acclaim.
Henry J. Kaiser was a World War II industrial powerhouse involved in ship building. He was quite the innovator and brought a number of mass production ideas into the manufacture of war ships. His quick building of Liberty ships had a profound effect on the war’s outcome. Before the war, he’d been more construction-oriented and had a hand in building Hoover Dam on the Colorado River and both Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams on the Columbia River.
In the modern era, the Kaiser name is most recognizable because of Kaiser Permanente, a vast health care system originally established to serve his many employees. The system operates in eight states and is both one of the largest non-profits in America and the largest managed health care system operating in the country.
After the war Henry J. Kaiser was looking for an opportunity now that the government wasn’t buying anymore Liberty ships and he came upon the idea of building cars. Specifically, low priced cars that everyone could afford. He combined efforts with Joseph Frazier, a long time car man who spent time as an executive at Packard, GM and other car companies.
One of the advantages they had in the beginnings of things was that Kaiser-Frazer cars were all new designs for car buyers. Ford, Chevy and Chrysler were still hawking pre-war models allowing the new boys on the block to create quite a stir in the market. It really helped until folks actually saw and drove the cars.
Kaiser-Frazer labored under some restraints. To finance the enterprise a government loan was obtained that had requirements. The car must seat five, be able to go 50 mph for extended periods, cost less than $1,300 and be available for sale no later than September 30, 1950.
The hurry-up to get to production and being able to sell for a low price came at a cost. Design was simplified, features eliminated. The back windows were stationary, things like a glove box were left off, and perhaps the oddest, there was no access to the trunk from the outside, only a pass through from the cars interior after lowering the back sets.
Inexpensive got assessed as cheap. The lack of features hurt, but so did a poorly painted dash without cover or padding. The power plants were short on power. Kaiser offered 68 or 80 horsepower engines that were described as “couldn’t ever go fast enough to outrun its own ugliness.”
People quickly realized for a couple hundred of dollars more, they could actually roll down the back windows, or have a trunk lid for access and go a lot faster besides with a Chevy or a Ford.
Kaiser struggled to get the sales he needed to be profitable. He hit upon the idea of collaborating with Sears and Roebuck company to market a rebrand of the Henry J as the Allstate, proudly adorned with Sear’s Allstate tires, tubes, fan belts and batteries, complete with their three-year warranty.
What Sears and Kaiser would later learn is what many have learned over the years: You can dress a pig up, but most people still recognize it as a pig. Designer Alex Tremulis was hired to dress up the pig. He altered the grill, put on a very fancy hood ornament and added Allstate logos. With altered hub caps, special door locks, improved interior fabrics and painted blue engine with orange Allstate lettering, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize the Henry J under the fine looking hood ornament.
As one might presume, Henry J dealerships were not keen on the idea of competition from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue. The car was advertised on the back cover of the 1952 edition. It didn’t make the 1953 catalogue because the experiment was already over by then.
By 1954 it was over for Kaiser too. There were some 1954 models that made use of existing 1953 chassis and bodies but no new bodies were created.
Timing was not on Kaiser’s side. He went small when the market became interested in big. The car buying public became interested in the ride, safety and comfort of the larger vehicles and more engine power was fun too.
The Henry J would only get a participant trophy at the All-American Automobile Awards Show. The car just didn’t have the right innovations to win over the car buying public in the years following World War II.