When you distill down what we do here at Forgotten Fiberglass, it’s really about the search for history – reuniting lost cars with the history and the people that built them. This sometimes takes us beyond fiberglass (blasphemous, I know) and in this case to a car I’ve come to appreciate the design of more over time – the Kaiser-Frazer cars designed by Dutch Darrin and others in the early and mid 1950s.
1954 Kaiser Manhattan:
My favorite design of this era has to be the ’54 Kaiser Manhattan….
This car had a newly revised front end which was based on the 1951 Buick XP 300 showcar shown below:
1953 Kaiser Dragon
And this led me to going “backwards” to the greatest name I’ve ever heard for a car – the 1953 Kaiser Dragon. Richard Langworth, author of the 1975 book on the history of Kaiser-Frazer https://www.undiscoveredclassics.com/category/and-now-for-something-completely-different/called “The Last Onslaught On Detroit” has characterized the ’53 Kaiser Dragon in the following way:
The ’53 Dragon was probably the best Kaiser built, but at nearly $4000 it was no sales maker, and only 1277 were sold (Collectible Automobile, October, 2009).
Click here to read a great four page article on the Kaiser Dragon by the editors of Consumer Guide.
But the ’53 Dragon didn’t come out of clear air – it came from the history of Kaiser in 1951 when a special decor package referred to as a “Dragon” and four special show cars debuted simultaneously at the Chicago Auto Show.
1951 Worldways Showcars – Chicago Auto Show
Richard Langworth discussed the cars at this ’51 Chicago Auto Show in his 1975 book in the following way:
Nineteen fifty-one opened with a spectacular (Carleton) Spencer-designed display at the Chicago Auto Show. “Kaiser-Frazer” presents Worldways in Motoring,” read the sign above four sumptuously trimmed show cars.
* Taking you back to your little grass shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii was the “South Seas…”
* Next was the Academy Blue metallic “Explorer,” complete with polar bear fur seats and a pith helmet lying on the front seat….
* Third was the “Safari,” done in zebra and lion pelts…..
* Finally came the “Caballero,” flourishing palomino and unborn calf hides, western buckles on door saddlebags, and spurs for window winders.
For those of you who read the article on the ’53 Dragon, you’ll notice that it tied itself closely to a “South Pacific” theme by using bamboo styled vinyl upholstery and a bamboo vinyl top. It’s a really interestingly appointed car if you dig into the design. Those of you who like it should read the October, 2009 article in Collectible Automobile that reviewed the life of it’s designer – Carleton Spencer.
So if you like “South Pacific” or “Tiki” themed cars, the “South Seas” car is probably for you. And what makes it the “South Seas” is the interior of the car. Here are four photos of Kaiser’s “South Seas” car taken back in ’51:
The ’51 “South Seas” – Lost Information That You Can Help Uncover:
So what did the sign say that appears in front of the “South Seas” in the photo above?
I couldn’t read the sign which, I surmise, held secrets untold about the car for 50 years and counting. So…employing help from good friends Alden Jewell and Rik Hoving, we tried our best to scan and sharpen the “South Seas Sign” in several ways. Five close ups of the sign appear below:
Deciphering the “South Seas” Sign
So….I’ve outlined the text above showing each of the four paragraphs and the lines under each paragraph. To the best of our ability, here’s what we’ve determined what’s in the sign so far:
- Line 1: With the new Kaiser-Frazer xxxx xxxx xxxx the history of the South Seas xxxx
- Line 2: modern xxxx xxxx four door sedan of tropical xxxx xxxx xxxx of
- Line 3: the South Seas xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx of the xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx
- Line 4: xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx in the xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx
- Line 1: For the xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx
- Line 2: xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx Polynesian Archipelago. The Upholstery is xxxx
- Line 3: and which has been hand made or hand woven by skilled islanders. xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx
- Line 4: xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx of the South Seas xxxx
- Line 5: xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx
- Line 1: Of particular mention is the Plexiglass folding desk on the back of the
- Line 2: front seat. xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx of the
- Line 3: islands is the xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx The xxxx
- Line 4: will be fully prepared xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx weather with xxxx xxxx xxxx
- Line 5: xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx
- Line 1: The xxxx xxxx are made of xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx
- Line 2: xxxx xxxx on the beaches of Waikiki. xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx
- Line 3: xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx .
So is this an impossible project?
I’ve not let that stop us before, and I know many of you are also so inclined to ignore the obvious. So if you want to help, place your comments below and let me know words you see, think you see, or can make out. Or send me an e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll send you the scans so you can try your hand and tackle a puzzle that would have given those at “Bletchley Park” more than they bargained for when decrypting the famous code from the German “Enigma” machine (maybe a bit overstated there….*wink*)
So please don’t tell Rick D’Louhy that I found a ’53 Dragon and am buying it from new friend Dave Antram. It’s rough but it’s the challenges in life that make obstacles worth overcoming. The original plaque for who the car was sold to still shows the original owner’s name – Daniel Deal. I wonder if I can find the family? How can you beat that!
And what about the “South Seas” show car? History says that it was dismantled, repurposed, or destroyed by the Kaiser family in the 1950s. It was purported to be at the Kaiser family’s estate in Hawaii back then, and the car was never seen again.
The “Explorer” from 1951 still exists, but the remaining two cars – the “Safari” and the “Caballero” have either been destroyed or remain to be found. Wouldn’t it be fun to see the “South Seas” car back on the road again? I can feel the gears a grindin’ again 🙂
Hope you enjoyed the story, and until next time…
Glass on gang…
My Uncle Lee was a Kaiser aficionado, he had several restored Kaisers at the time of his death including a 53 Manhatten and a 51 tribute car to the South Seas. I was in the process of rebuilding the engine when Lee died and the car has been out of the shed only a half a dozen times since his death. I can remember Lee telling me about the South Seas show car and how he had spoken to some people who were involved with the car originally. Lee modeled the 51 after what information was available and from memories of those involved. The cars have since Lees death been passed down to his son but I still maintain and occasionally take one of the cars out for drives to enjoy Lees eternal presence in the cars.
This re-styling was a huge improvement over the original shoe box Kaisers thanks to Dutch Darrin. A number of well done customs have been done with them. One 2 door is on a Jay Leno video. A convertible was made buy a kid. He later bought it back and restored it – it is on-line, too. I remember their last show, the 1954 Detroit Auto Show – One had a simulated Alagator top. These cars were not huge like the other Yank Tanks of the era. In many ways were ahead of the times – a Euro sedan size of the future.
Duntov was working on a V8 when Willow Run shut down RIP
@Darren…Thanks for such wonderful researched detail Darren. You’re right- there’s so much more to learn when you take the step into tracking down history and asking questions from the original individuals involved and/or their families. Great stuff and keep it coming 🙂 Geoff
The article above mentions Richard Langworth’s book, The Last Onslaught On Detroit. While the book is long out of print, it is an excellent read if you can find a copy. It provides great insight based on what was know about the Kaiser-Frazer company at that time (1975), and has a lot of information from first person interviews. Kudos to Richard for finding all these men and interviewing them. On Pages 28-31, you can find a few photos and some printed information on some of the Emeryville experiments, including one of E.H.’s body proposals. That proposal was built as a small model (1/2 of a car body positioned next to a mirror making it look like a whole car)., which brings me to my posting.
Several years ago I was researching E.H. Daniels, trying to learn more about his work at Emeryville (California) during WWII. I had no idea how much I was about to learn.
Emeryville was one of the ship yards owned and operated by Henry Kaiser. During WWII the primary focus there was ship building, however also wanted to get into the automobile business. He put together a team of experts, from all over the world, to research alternative body materials (plaster, wood, fiberglass, etc.) and various drive lines/suspensions (front wheel drive, torsion) etc. This little group, including E.H. Daniels, was set up in a small corner of the Emeryville yard to design, built, test and experiment. E.H. would later follow Kaiser to Detroit and would help the in-house design staff at Kaiser-Frazer on a wide range of projects.
After making contact with the Daniels family, and learning what I could, I mentioned the car designs. They were completely unaware that E.H. had designed or proposed any car/bodes, so it was really neat to share that information with them. They then pointed me towards Carlton Spencer and Fred Zermack to learn more about E.H. as both had worked closely with E.H. at Kaiser-Frazer.
Carlton was the head of interior design there and had an impeccable eye, making many of the Kaiser-Frazer cars look extravagant and luxurious inside. He and E.H. worked together on the creation of the interiors of these special Kaiser show cars and all three were involved in the design and creation of the “show displays” that would accompany these wonderful cars as they were shown around the world.
During my conversations with the Daniels family and Mr. Zermack, I learned that they were business partners outside of Kaiser and designed one of the first drive up bank buildings, a wide variety of other buildings, statues, etc. Mr. Zermack also indicated that Carlton Spensor may have played a role in some of the interior design/color schemes of some of these accomplishments.
I know that many times our research focuses on the cars and their amazing and eventful histories, however I’ve learned that the stories and histories of the designers have much to offer as well.
I just read your article in midst of my research of EH Daniels. He is my Great Grandfather and I am attempting to put together a biography on him. Would you mind contacting me at email@example.com to discuss any research you are willing to share?
Thank you very much,
I tried to send email to the address you posted and keep receiving a delivery failure (unable to deliver/address does not exist)message .
I would be happy to make contact with you to discuss your great grandfather and/or any other information that I can share.
My contact information is: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sorry for the typo. My email address is email@example.com
As I recall correctly, there used to be a Kaiser Dragon in Harold LeMay’s collection in Spanaway, Washington. I remember seeing it many years ago and at that time it was in amazingly good original condition… with a LOT of gold plating.
I don’t know if that car remained in the LeMay family collection there or if it ended up in the ACM LeMay museum over in Tacoma. Anyway, perhaps you are aware of it.
And yes, K-F made some remarkable cars. But the ones I was waiting to see (and never saw in the flesh because I doubt they got made) were the all-aluminum cars that kept being promised by Kaiser Aluminum division. My fave among them would have been the “Menehune” (and I think that’s Hawaiian speak). Anyway, for what it’s worth.
Thanks for the usual fascinating stuff!
@Bob – Good catch. Now I think it says “With this car, Kaiser-Frazer….” Much appreciated!
I believe the first three words are:
With this new instead of with the new
@Wayne Graefen. Thanks for sharing Wayne. The gentleman I’m purchasing my Dragon from – Dave Antram – owns the Explorer, and the more I’ve learned about these ’51 show cars the neater they seem for their design and the times. I’ll e-mail you the article on Carleton Spencer – I think you’ll enjoy it. Now…we just have to find one of those other “missing” Kaiser showcars! *wink* Geoff
The passion for cars was born into me and could never be denied. I was born in ’47 and when the restyled ’51 Kaisers appeared on streets around my father’s car, I couldn’t take my eyes off of them and was asking questions dad could not answer other than “Kaiser”. The ’53 show cars from K were absolutely over the top attempting to grab attention but and isn’t it weird that the survivor is the one with the polar bear interior and it is still original.
~ great article(s), Geoff. thanks very much.
you may recall i told you a couple years ago, about the awakening of my early automotive lust when my Dad’s basement workbench had a picture of a ’53 Kaiser Manhattan over it. in that email i included this promotional photo; http://www.oldcarbrochures.org/var/albums/NA/Kaiser-Frazer/1953_Kaiser/1953_Kaiser_Press_Release/1953%20Kaiser%20Press%20Release-01.jpg?m=1305532460
. all my best for 2014 to you, Geoff and to your many interesting projects!