I was 14 when I first learned of Kaiser Dragons from my mentor Paul Terhorst. That was in 1976…..seems like yesterday the Bi-Centennial Train was making its way thru the Chicago, Illinois area where I lived. But I was focused on cars, and my mentor for classic cars was Paul Terhorst. Paul was – and is – a Packard guy and I was learning all I could from him between 1976 and 1979. Then we moved to Florida.
Through those years Paul taught me about Classic Corvettes, early Mustangs, prewar Packards and Cadillacs (I had acquired my first car – a 1955 Cadillac Fleetwood – when I was 14 and restored it with Paul’s guidance). Conversation and conversation we had about cars. I even learned about the Woodill Wildfire first from Paul (and thought it just a curiosity at the time). And then he told me about Kaiser Dragons. A car called a “Dragon.” How could you forget a name like that. And besides the name “Dragon” I only retained one more piece of information about the car for the next 40 or so years. It had a bamboo vinyl roof. For some reason I never forgot that fact. And I never saw a Dragon all those years until 2017.
My First Kaiser Dragon
As you know, I like unusual cars – cars where little focus has been given to for all these years and for all the wrong reasons. It turns out that around 2012 I started to understand that the Kaiser marque was one of these “forgotten” cars. I loved the beauty of Dutch Darrin’s 1951-1955 design and I also thought to myself – “who could ignore a car that was named “Dragon.””
So I started to learn more. And what I learned over the years made my appreciation for Kaiser and their history grow. And while I may talk more about Kaisers and specific models in future stories, we’ll talk just about Kaiser Dragons in this one.
I bought my first Kaiser Dragon from my friend Randy Rutherford in Pennsylvania. I had visited him years before to check out a few Kaisers that he had for sale, and he was an enjoyable person to talk to. The perfect ambassador for the Kaiser marque. The Dragon I bought was unrestored but was called a “Show Dragon” – just a handful were made as special order cars and this one was one of the few to survive. Each came with gold-plated wire wheels – not sure that will be on my list of restoration for this one, but the car is now safely tucked away in Tampa, Florida.
My Second Kaiser Dragon
I really cut my teeth on this one – and learned much about Kaisers and in this case Dragons too.
In early 2017, I was fortunate to find a very nice Dragon for sale near my home – 2 and 1/2 hours from my home – close by I thought at the time. I spent about a year taking it all apart to understand the car and learned a great deal along with my mechanic from Bob Dayton – Kaiser collector and enthusiast extraordinaire. I blame his helpfulness and passion for these cars on my current collection of Kaisers – many many Kaisers are down here in Florida, now, because of him.
The Kaiser had been sitting for many years and was in great shape but needed to be completely gone thru – which we did and this process helped prepare me for the next stage starting with Kaiser restorations. So the first year I renovated it and sorted out all problems. Then I kept it for about another year and a half and sold it. The new owner promptly took it to the Concours d’Elegance of America in Michigan (one of the top 3 concours in the nation) and was recognized as having one of the 10 most interesting cars at the concours by Car and Driver magazine.
Car & Driver Magazine Recognizes Our Kaiser Dragon at
2019 Concours d’Elegance of America
Car & Driver Magazine: July 29, 2019
Check out the photos of my Dragon taken in early 2019 at Dunedin Beach, Florida (my high school hangout place still to this day). I think you’ll like the car for its era.
The 1953 Kaiser Dragon Interior
Interestingly, the Kaiser Dragon namesake started in 1951 and it was all about the interior – Dragon Vinyl they called it. The designer responsible for this was Carlton Spencer and “Dragon Vinyl” was created to give the luxurious look of alligator hide. But for the 1953 model all that changed. For the first and only year, the name of the most expensive model of Kaiser would be the “Dragon” but the interior would contain no Dragon vinyl.
Instead in the popular South Pacific “Tiki” theme of the day, they went with different colors of bamboo patterned/textured vinyl with a mid-century modern designed cloth insert by fashion consultant Marie Nichols. Finishing off the interior was a medallion with the owner’s name installed on the glove box. Add to this stylish interior the fact that all Dragons were “fully-loaded” with options and many of the standard Kaiser trim pieces on the exterior of the Kaiser Dragon were plated in 14 karat gold. Wow!
The Dragon was quite a car and made quite a statement for 1953. Check out some of the interior shots of this Dragon and you’ll see why the interior gets so much attention from collectors and enthusiasts alike:
This was a barn find – a car kept inside since the mid 1960s, but still lots to do to restore. It had been for sale for some time and part of the challenge was where it was located – a beautiful location but off the beaten path. Craig Johnson and I love those “unbeaten paths” so we drove thru the mountains of Virginia near Mount Weather to retrieve this Dragon. It will be a nice restoration project for the near future. See photos below. I included some photos of our transporting the Dragon home and one with both Dragons at my house in Tampa, Florida.
My Fourth Kaiser Dragon
So I sold my restored Dragon last year leaving me two unrestored Dragons (and a third 1954 2 door hardtop in which I want to use to create a custom Dragon – but that’s a story for another day.) I guess currently having two Dragons in need of restoration is not enough for me, but karma with a “C” – “Car-ma” reared its pretty little head and….I’m now on Dragon number 4. And this is the result of my good friend Chris Dunn.
Chris and I met just after high school – in 1981 at a car show at Clearwater High School in Clearwater, Florida. Chris was into Lincolns and I was into Cadillacs. He shared the photo below of the 1981 car show and my car with me recently – nearly 40 years ago. When you think about it the Cadillac was just 26 years old. My 2005 Suburban is 15 years old and still looks new-ish in design. Designs really rapidly changed in the 40s, 50s, and 60s.
Chris now owns one of the largest Lincoln parts and restoration businesses in the world (click here to check out his website) and I’ve made a vow to Chris that some day soon I’ll need his help to find a 2 door hardtop 1958 Continental. I love those big luxury cars of the 50s and 60s it seems and the ’58 is an amazing car.
Not too long ago, Chris offered to put one of our unrestored American specials on display in his showroom and we chose our 1955 Bangert Manta Ray. Check out the photos below from 2014 and car – fun stuff!
So when Chris contacted me last week I thought it was going to be on a Lincoln or Cadillac adventure. It was’t. He’d spotted a Kaiser close by, it was for sale and asked if I interested. That’s strange – there are never any Kaisers “close by” to me so I told Chris “probably not – I’m pregnant with cars.” But….it might be fun to have a look. That’s how these problems always start – don’t they? I should probably just turn off my phone and throw the computer out the window. (I’d probably still find cars anyway….or they would find me).
So I went to see the Kaiser that I thought was a Kaiser Manhattan – maybe I’d just buy a few parts off the car. It looked like the Kaiser had seen some northern exposure but the rust wasn’t that bad – a good parts car perhaps. The car was just 20 minutes away so I made plans to go see it and off I went. Here’s what I first saw:
I didn’t recognize it as a Dragon at first. Nearly every feature that would quickly identify it as a Dragon had been removed. Interestingly, all the gold that had been on the car had been replaced with chrome – or at least the parts that were left on the Dragon. And the glorious Dragon interior – bamboo vinyl, Laguna cloth by Marie Nichols – everything had been redone maybe 30 years ago and since decayed. Nothing “Dragon” was left in the interior to show its former glory.
But the glovebox quickly revealed the truth. The Dragon-specific badge showing who the car was built for was on the car – not in great shape, but the car had been built for “Boone Wilson.”
A quick check on the model number and firewall plate confirmed it was a Dragon – not in great shape, but a 1953 Kaiser Dragon with color code 097 – Stardust Ivory. A Dragon is not a common car. It was made for just one year – 1953, and only 1277 were produced during an approximate 6 month production run from late 1952 to late spring of 1953. And so on July 16, 2020 the fourth Kaiser Dragon I’ve owned appeared at my house. And it closely matched the color of my home – I’m sure my neighbors will enjoy that point of fact 🙂
So I had found a Kaiser Dragon just 20 minutes from my house that was worth saving and affordable. Who would have thought that I’d find any Dragons close by. I think I may have the only Kaiser Dragons in the state of Florida – if that gives you a sense of how few of these survive. And now I have my fourth Dragon courtesy of my nearly 40 year friendship with Chris Dunn. Thanks Chris 🙂
Those of you wanting to learn more about Kaiser Dragons can review the recent an excellent Hemmings article by David Conwill via the link below:
Hope you enjoyed the story, and remember…
The adventure continues here at Undiscovered Classics.