In our earlier posts about Kaiser cars, we covered the fact that, while the cars were competent handling and offered good brakes and ride comfort, they were woefully underpowered because they were powered by the anemic Continental “Red Seal” six cylinder L-head engine which had also been used in many industrial applications including fork lifts(!). Kaiser engineers had developed a 288 cubic inch overhead valve V-8 which reached running prototype stage, but never saw production because the company lacked sufficient funds to tool for it. This is lamentable, because the Kaiser and Frazer cars came to market right as the craze for V-8 engines was sweeping the country. Automakers who didn’t offer a V-8 engine – Packard, aside from Kaiser-Frazer, being a prime example – in those post war years soon found themselves hurting for sales.
Searching for a way to differentiate its cars from its numerous competitors, Kaiser drew upon the talents of Carlton Spencer to design its interiors. Spencer also had a lot of say about the selection of exterior colors of the Kaiser and Frazer cars. One Spencer exterior trick was to install badges on the front fenders that used the name of the car body color. This resulted in many people mistaking the color name for the name of the car model, with sometimes humorous results. For example, a car painted in “Linden Green” might be mistaken as being named “Linden Green” because of the badge on the fenders.
A 1949 Kaiser in “Linden Green.” The badge on the fender announcing the model name was often mistaken as being the name of the car model rather than the name of the color.
Spencer was an extremely creative and talented interior designer who revolutionized the auto industry with his innovative use of materials, colors and patterns. Kaiser cars may not always have been the flashiest on the outside, but – thanks to Spencer – they certainly were inside.
With the introduction of the all-new ’51 Kaisers came a Spencer-designed interior option, the Dragon. The Dragon option included a vinyl roof made to look like woven bamboo. The vinyl used on the seats was embossed by a special cold-press heat transfer method that made the vinyl look like the skin of a reptile. Carleton Spencer was aiming for a new look – “the luxurious look of alligator hide. You know what an alligator handbag costs. We were trying to get a souped up vinyl that would copy it. We used the term “Dragon” so no one would mistake it and say it was either real alligator or real lizard.” This had nothing to do with the animal-rights movement, which was then decades away, but with truth-in-advertising laws: You can’t call it ‘gator unless it is.
Pleated in big 2 1/2-inch ribs, Dragon vinyl covered the seat cushions, package shelf, and instrument panel. Stretched smooth, it was used on the seat risers, front seatbacks, and door panels. To complement it, Spencer added heavy thick-weave carpeting on floors, quarter panels and lower-door kick pads.
The Dragon interior option on a ’51 Kaiser.
Aside from the Dragon option, for the 1951 Chicago Auto Show, Spencer prepared four specially-trimmed cars, each with a theme. The four themes were “South Seas,” “Explorer,” “Safari,” and “Caballero.” With these four cars Spencer set a pinnacle in over-the-the top interiors. “K-F presents Worldways in Motoring,” read the sign above four sumptuously trimmed Kaiser four-door sedan showers at the Chicago show.
The “South Seas” on exhibit at the 1951 Chicago Auto Show
The “South Seas” was upholstered in straw-like tropical vinyl and a Hawaiian-pattern linen weave; it also boasted a fishnet headliner, straw floor coverings, and a lucite rear picnic table with barometer, compass, and topographical map of the Hawaiian Islands.
The “Explorer” was finished in Academy Blue metallic, set off by seats covered in polar bear fur; it was even shown with a pith helmet on the front seat.
Zebra and lion pelts lined the inside of the “Safari,” which Kaiser later sold, appropriately enough, to wild-animal tamer Clyde Beatty.
Last, but certainly not least, was the “Caballero,” finished in palomino and unborn calfhides, western buckles on door-mounted saddlebags, and spurs for window winders.
While the first three were one-offs, Kaiser built at least three Caballeros – for Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and an executive who owned a Texas cattle ranch.
The ’51 Kaisers were initially well-received by the buying public, but as the 1951 model year rolled on Kaiser stumbled badly. Spencer’s fabulous interiors did little to boost sales. Next, 1952 was nothing less than a disaster for the company. Kaiser’s penchant for over-producing caused actual 1952 production to be a minuscule number of cars. Spencer was still pouring his creativity into trying to find a winning formula for Kaiser. There was little he could do for 1952, so he turned his sights on 1953 and created a new interpretation of his “Dragon” theme for 1953, which we will cover next week.