Monday, February 28, 2011

Five Worst American Cars: The Henry J

About three weeks ago I started my list of the five worst cars in (recent) history. Coming in at Fourth runner up were the 1958-1960 Lincoln and Continental Mark series, followed by the 1958 Packardbakers and crude Chrysler Sebring / Dodge Avenger.

That brings us to a car that was almost as bad as all three of the above:

1) It was so terribly pretentious that its manufacture designed it with Cadillacesque fins as an homage that luxury brand

2) Its fit and finish made the 1958 Packard look like a real luxury car instead of a tarted up Studebaker – and –

3) Its compact size – like the Sebring/Avenger – was an excuse to build it on the cheap.

But it had one other thing going for it that none of the above could claim – it was also sold in Sears Roebuck Stores!

Thus, I name the Henry J as the first runner up to the worst US automobiles built – ever.

Now I can feel you all scratching your head and saying “the what? Did he leave out a word, or its name?” No: the car was, in fact named Henry J – after the whimsical steel magnet Henry J. Kaiser, and the car’s chief champion. Kaiser started building cars after buying an old Ford plant at Willow Run, Michigan from the Ford Motor Company. Teaming with Joseph Frazier (who controlled what was left of Graham Paige), Kaiser and Frazier built two brands of cars at Willow Run, the Kaiser and the up market Frazier. Except for the grilles, the cars looked exactly the same, because they were. Except one was named Kaiser and the other one was named Frazier.

While it was a seller's market, car starved American's bought anything on four tires.  Joe Fazier thought the company should develop the next generation car, but Henry Kaiser was man whose mind wasn't easily led by others opinions.  Everything for 1948 remained exactly as it had in 1948.

Joe Frazier knew that the ruse couldn’t go on for long, so he bailed on Henry Kaiser. After killing off the Frazier brand in 1951, Henry started thinking about another Henry – Henry Ford. Faster than you can say “What this country needs a good ten cent cigar” Henry Kaiser decided that if the other Henry could build a simple to own, low cost car for the masses – and make a million bucks – why couldn’t he?

Kaiser went to his car stylist and said he wanted a new car with a new look. And the stylist, Howard "Dutch" Darrin produced a beautiful design that could have been an instant classic - it could be a sedan, it could be a convertible - it would have sold like hotcakes.  But, almost at the same time, an ouside group came forward with their compact - a bulky small car that had more in common with an English Ford than a Kaiser.  So, Kaiser, who had the instincts of the dodo bird, went with that option and instead had Darrin tart it up a bit.

And that was exactly what he got. A cheap tart.

That the tooling for this new inexpensive “compact” was expensive - Kaiser couldn't enjoy benefits of mass production like GM did by spreading out the cost over many many cars, so to keep the car as inexpensive as possible, they cut some corners. Make that a lot of corners.

First, they did away with all the extra chrome in an era when consumers equated chrome with quality and luxury. The more chrome a car had, the better it was and the more envious others would be when they saw one driving it. For HJK’s new car, this meant that the bumpers, and the grille piece up front had chrome – everything else used black rubber seals. So the car looked cheap.

They also cut costs by making just one body style – a two door coupe - because it used just two doors and four hinges, whereas a four door-car used double that. So they would save on parts.  Rear windows that rolled down? Nixed. “And while you’re at it, bub – get rid of the trunk lid.”  And thus the car had no dedicated access to the trunk.  Put all that together and you get this:

Having made the car’s low cost as possible, then the Ad Men took over. Instead of giving it a sporty name and trying to sell its image to public, it instead was named for its number one promoter and champion, Henry J. Kaiser himself. The rationale was that they could market the Henry J. and the Kaiser – cars so good that Kaiser himself had them named for him.

 The Sexy Beast Himself, Henry J Kaiser

Kaiser’s car company also struck a deal with Sears Roebuck to sell a re-badged Henry J in Sears stores under the name “Allstate” as a product tie in to their line of car care products and service centers.  Under the plan, the Allstate would receive a bit more chrome and were given plaid vinyl upholstery, and would be sold in Sears stores in the south at first before going nationwide.

Yep, Henry J. Kaiser had a bulletproof plan – almost.

You know that old P.T. Barnum adage about never under estimating the intelligence of the American people. That was exactly what Kaiser had done.

The public hated the cars.

First of all, they thought the car was ugly, and they found it’s striped down persona crude. They also didn’t like that the car was powered by a four cylinder engine. And as it turns out, the public in 1950 liked the idea of windows going up and down, and on a new car they expected certain things, like a trunk lid.  And they really hated the idea that get the spare tire out of the trunk area that an adult had to climb into the back seat, reach over said seat back and then haul the tire out over the upholstery - and then that's where the old flat tire had to go, too.  All that road grime all over those plastic covered seats and "Oh, Auntie Hilda I'm sorry but you've ruined your dress!"

And faster than you can say “Joe Frazier”, Sears bailed on the Allstate after selling less than 1,000 of them.

So what did Henry do with the Henry J.? It eventually got a trunk lid (told you so), some more chrome (told you so), plaid interiors (seems that Kaiser had stocked up on plaid vinyl sensing that the Allstate would be an all-star) and it got a continental style spare tire. How chi-chi!

Kaiser also managed to jam a six cylinder engine under the hood.  But by the time Kaiser did all of this this, the car cost as much as a full sized car from the big three, and it was still ugly!

Even after all the improvements, they still couldn't get dealers to take delivery of them, because the dealers were losing money on every one they tried to give away.

Kaiser wasn’t alone in producing a compact in the early 1950s. Nash’s Rambler – a compact that debuted in 1950 as a fully loaded premium compact convertible – became such a success that it eclipsed the Nash brand. But then there was Hudson, which pinned its hopes on the compact Hudson Jet, and crashed,.  The Henry J had a lot of high hopes attached to it when it helped to kill off Kaiser's US auto works. Unlike Hudson, though – a company that built quality cars that were race track ready – Kaiser had little, if anything going for it.  And in marketing terms the Henry J was a joke from the get go.  The Yugo had better buzz about it than the Henry J.  Even in collector's circles the cars are more likely to raise an eyebrow than young mans interest.
But what of Kaiser and his cars. By 1956, Kaiser was out of the US car market, instead focusing on Kaiser Jeep division.  In a rare move of to automobile prowess, Henry J was able to pick up Willys when it was on its last legs, and in the deal he got Jeep.  However Kaiser continued manufacturing cars in Brazil using his sedans (marketed in South America as the Carabella) and the Willys Lark series through the 1960s.  But the Henry J? The dies were cut up and melted for scrap, and Henry J. Kaiser said literally siad "To hell with this'" and went to Hawaii to build tract housing.  And the managed healthcare monolith Kaiser Permanente actually has its roots in Kaiser's Steel corpration.

And thus, I bestow upon the lowly Henry J the title of first runner up – and should the Worst American Car Ever Made be unable to follow through with discharging it’s duties, than this plain Jane sedan shall be elevated to something other than its toad like status in American Motordom.

Coming soon, the absolutely worst car in the history of American history.


  1. I only ever saw one (an allstate), up close at a car show, it was in pristine condition...
    And as I was standing there, I remember thinking: What a lump.
    That's what it was, A Lump with a jelly-jar interior.

  2. in that photo, it appears that henry has a swollen henry j in his trousers, lovingly referred to as the "peach." this is not the swollen thing one wants in their trousers.

  3. Am enjoying your series on the worst cars ever (domestic edition).

  4. I like all things pretty or stylish. That car is neither, bless

  5. @Petra: Then why did I find a pair of your panties in the glove compartment?

  6. I can't say. They could turn up there for any number of reasons.

  7. A lousy car, tract houses and an HMO monolith? I don't think I like this man.