Safety didn’t sell – and, despite the most beautiful interiors in the auto industry, Kaiser sales were weighed down by that pathetically underpowered Continental flat head six cylinder engine Kaiser had used from the beginning.
We saw in last week’s post that Kaiser, using designer Carleton Spencer’s genius, tried to make a niche for itself in the very competitive car market by offering interiors of high style and comfort. One motivation for Kaiser to build cars with lavish interiors, as we’ve seen previously, was the anemic Continental six cylinder engine Kaiser was saddled with just as the V-8 craze was sweeping the country. Kaiser couldn’t afford to tool up for the V-8 their engineers had developed, but it was comparatively inexpensive to put plush interiors in the cars. Carleton Spencer had a green light to put his talent to work.
Along with the introduction of the Dutch Darrin/Duncan McRae-designed ’51 Kaisers, Spencer had put together the “Dragon” package option with its unique reptile-pattern vinyl upholstery. Although the “Dragon” package itself listed for $125, there were many “mandatory options” – a contradiction in terms if there ever was one – that pushed the Dragon-optioned cars’ price to well above the price of a standard Kaiser DeLuxe, which was already uncompetitively priced against offerings from Oldsmobile and Buick.
Initial sales of the ’51 Kaiser line were very encouraging for the company, but sales fell dramatically as the model year progressed. Kaiser’s continuing penchant for over-producing saw the model year end with many unsold ’51s sitting in factory storage lots. That meant that when the ’52 model year began, Kaiser was once again taking unsold cars from the previous model year and renumbering them as current models and labeling them as “Virginians.” Actual ’52 Kaisers didn’t reach dealer showrooms until very late in the model year. This situation meant that Spencer had to wait until the production of the ’53 models began to show more of his interior magic to the buying public. Before we look at what Spencer did for the ’53 Kaiser line, let’s learn more about him.
“Bambu” upholstery in a ’53 Kaiser
Carleton Spencer is remembered for bringing new patterns and colors to the automobile interior. The Dragon was his masterwork.
After being discharged from the Army in the Autumn of 1946, Spencer joined Kaiser-Frazer. His prewar background included blueprint drawing at Fisher Body and color coordinating at the Ditzler Paint Division of Pittsburgh Plate Glass.
In 1939-1940, he edited an industry publication. Colors and Contours, a compendium of new styling ideas and trends among car manufacturers. A man of impeccable taste and judgment. Spencer was an easy person to like, and he got along well with all the various warring tribes to be found at Kaiser-Frazer. Men like Spencer are rare birds in the styling business where egos run rampant.
The first thing Spencer did at Kaiser-Frazer was to survey what women liked, a novel notion at the time. The results of Spencer’s survey correlated closely with a similar study for the popular House and Garden magazine for women, so he worked with that magazine to develop materials and colors suitable in both house and car.
For example, what Kaiser-Frazer called “Indian Ceramic,” an veryy bright puce-pink paint recalling Native American pottery, was identical to a household finish that House and Garden called “Flame.”
One of some 2,000 built: a ’51 Frazer Vagabond in Spencer’s “Indian Ceramic.”
In 1972, Spencer was quoted as saying, “We didn’t have a bunch of different engines, or a whole lot of the things they have today to make cars different, like 27 different models. We had only one basic body … Color and trim was where we had to achieve a difference.”
His first production effort was the elaborately trimmed Frazer Manhattan, swathed in beautiful contrasting broadcloth. The Manhattan later was cited by the Milestone Car Society for introducing revolutionary new colors and fabrics to the automotive interior. Less remembered today but significant is the fact that early Manhattans were offered in different series of seasonal colors and trims – darker ones for winter, pastels and bright colors for summer. Not until years later did the rest of the industry begin catching onto this practice – for example the “Spring Specials” from Chrysler and Ford.
The first generation Kaisers and Frazers came only in a four door body. The new body for the 1951 Kaisers was offered with two or four doors, but Spencer’s original problem remained: There just wasn’t much visual difference between the various models. Also, there was still only one six-cylinder engine, no hardtop, no convertible, no station wagon. The company contemplated all three, as well as the aforementioned V-8, but couldn’t fund the production. So Spencer got busy again.
Planned but unbuilt: ’51 Kaiser station wagon
Last week, we saw the four fabulous interiors in the “Worldways” cars shown at the Chicago Auto Show where the ’51 Kaisers were introduced, and we’ve already covered the Golden Dragon package offered for the ’51 model year. What we didn’t mention about the ’51 Dragon package is that while most of them were sold as “Golden Dragons” painted in Arena Yellow with a black “Dino” pattern padded vinyl roof, other color combinations were also available. There was the “Silver Dragon,” painted in Mariner Grey and fitted with a scarlet padded vinyl roof and matching interior. There was also the “Jade Dragon” – metallic green paint with a white vinyl roof.
The 1953 Kaiser Dragons were fitted with genuine 14 carat gold badges
For 1953, the Dragon became a model rather than a package option. The Dragons were fitted with 14 carat gold plated badges and hood ornament. The “Dino” pattern vinyl used in the ’51 Dragon package was replaced with “Bambu” fabric and a similarly textured vinyl was used on the padded roof. These ’51 and ’53 Kaiser Dragons were among the first cars in the industry to offer padded vinyl roofs.
Other than working with fashion designer Marie Nichols on the interior fabrics, the ’53 Kaiser Dragon was all-Spencer. He had begun working with Nichols to explore the various combinations of vinyl and cloth in early 1952. His prototypes for the ’53 Dragon include variations of Nichols’ “Laguna” cloth, a heavy-duty Belgian linen with rectangular overlapping patterns, and 1951-type “Dino” vinyl, combined with mouton-like carpeting.
As the development of the ’53s progressed, Spencer switched from the “Dino” vinyl to the very attractive “Bambu” pattern (mentioned above) that looked like a finely made bamboo curtain.
“Bambu” vinyl was another product of the L. E. Carpenter Company who produced the “Dino” vinyl. In addition to being applied to the 1953 Dragon’s padded top, it was also used to line the trunk and interior walls, door panels, package shelf, seats, padded dashboard, and was even used to line the glovebox.
Above: “Bambu” fabric and Laguna cloth interior of a ’53 Kaiser Dragon.
Below: the “Bambu” pattern on the dashboard padding. Kaiser was one of the first in the industry to offer a padded dash board.
Spencer developed jade green, black, and maroon color variations. Seat inserts were Nicols’ Laguna cloth. Spencer chose a special long-filament “Calpoint” carpeting, which also turned up in the Kaiser-Darrin sports car. The Dragon featured over 200 pounds of insulation, giving it a much quieter, heavier feel than the lesser Kaisers. The genuine 14-carat gold finish on the hood ornament, hood and rear-deck V medallions, deck and fender scripts extended to the trunklid keyhole cover.
The Dragons were the first 1953 Kaisers announced (in September 1952). Two months later the company added a novel variation painted bright Frosted Holly Green (metallic), with two-tone vinyl interior and a white poplin-grained canvas top.
In March 1953, the green cars were replaced by another beautiful rendition done in Maroon Velvet metallic, with a straw-colored Bambu vinyl top and maroon Bambu-and-Laguna interior. This extraordinary-looking Dragon, along with the Stardust Ivory/green Bambu combination, are the most common, while black is the scarcest. The black was discontinued because the lacquer showed the waves in the sheet metal. The white canvas-topped model is also uncommon.
A number of show Dragons were built with yet fancier equipment. Several bore gold-anodized wire wheels (chrome wires were a $270 option on all Kaisers from early 1953) and rust-colored “Boucle” vinyl padded tops and upholstery. According to Spencer, about a dozen of these were built during April 1953, along with various other specials.
The 1953 Dragon had a mandatory accessory group that included all the previously mentioned trim features and cost nearly $1,200, giving the finished car a showroom price close to $4,000. The package included tinted glass, oversize 7.10×15 whitewall tires, Hydra-Matic transmission, radio with rear speaker, heater/defroster, windshield washer, center armrests front and rear, and the Kaiser Manhattan accessory group.
Upon retail delivery, dealers would fill out a card with the owner’s name and address, which they returned to the factory. The factory then mailed an engraved medallion to the dealer for installation in place of the stock “K” symbol on the glovebox door, along with a personal letter from Kaiser president Edgar Kaiser “emphasizing the custom features of the car” built expressly for the owner, with congratulations for the customer’s discernment.
Discerning they would have to be, because $4,000 in 1953 bought a Cadillac Coupe de Ville, a Chrysler Custom Imperial, or a Lincoln Capri convertible, all with powerful V-8s. Under that beautiful skin, the Kaiser was plug boring: automotive vin ordinaire.
Throughout the make’s 10 years. Kaisers were powered by that almost lifeless Continental flathead six that had started life as an industrial engine. Although the 1951-vintage chassis was superbly balanced, it was conventional in every respect. That a six-cylinder car could cost $4,000 was a major contradiction in the automotive psychology of 1953 – and most buyers knew it.
The final debacle at Willow Run occurred during the first half of 1953, when production tapered off from 8,000 to 4,000 to 1,200 cars a month. Dragon production stopped entirely on May 28, having reached a total of only 1,277 for the model year. Still, the Kaisers refused to face the inevitable. “We are going to stay in business and make a go of it,” Edgar Kaiser declared. “Willow Run is not a white elephant. It is only 73 cents a square foot and it’s really the ideal place to do manufacturing.” It certainly was that! In fact, Willow Run built cars and transmissions until the late 1990s as it had ever since Edgar Kaiser sold it to General Motors in November 1953. And, Kaiser did make a go of it – by continuing with the Jeep via their purchase of Willys in 1953. Today, Jeep is the largest and most successful part of Fiat-Chrysler, the latest owners of the valuable Jeep brand.
The Dragon is important not for its sales – which between the 1951 and 1953 versions only accounts for some 1,600 cars – but for its concepts. The designer of the Kaiser Dragon altered our whole way of thinking about automotive interiors. With it, Carleton Spencer brought the dark, cavernous internals of the American car into the modern era of man-made fabrics and vinyls, using colors that had never been seen outside the living room. By pushing the envelope with his brilliant use of colors and materials, Carleton Spencer inspired other automotive designers in the fabulous ’50s, though no one did it with quite his élan.
Portions of this post were adapted from a 2007 article in “How Stuff Works” and from a prospectus on a 1953 Kaiser Dragon offered in 2015 by Auctions America.