December 6, 2017

A car by any other name

Henry J. Kaiser with early model "Henry J" car before it was named - badge on hood says "Name The Car," February 29, 1950.

Contributed by Lincoln Cushing, Archivist and Historian

What’s in a name? For Cordelia Maxwell Bell, that was a $5,200,000 question.

The Berkeley, Calif., widow, who held 200 shares in the automobile company started by Henry J. Kaiser after World War II, sued the company for that tidy sum in a complaint over how it named its entry-level car.

The hefty lawsuit contrasted with the low price of the controversial new car, dubbed the “Henry J,” which promised to be a first-time new automobile for millions of Americans hungry for wheels after World War II.

“The name is so ridiculous that it can be justified on no other ground than to satisfy a deep ingrained meglomanic desire for personal publicity,” read Mrs. Bell’s complaint, which went on to disparage the well-publicized naming contest that had resulted in the moniker.

The public first heard about the naming contest in early November 1949, when full-page ads appeared in newspapers across the country. With pointing-hand dingbats and boldface type befitting the result of a presidential election, the homely ads bellowed:

The Kaiser-Frazer $200,000 Walter Winchell “Name the Car” Contest! Just name the new low-priced car in the low price field!
Kaiser-Frazer "Name the car" newspaper contest ad 11/7/1949

Kaiser-Frazer "Name the car" newspaper contest ad from November 7, 1949.

The contest promised a first prize of $10,000, plus a matching donation to the Damon Runyon Memorial Cancer Fund, named after an American newspaperman and author who had died of throat cancer in 1946. A prototype of the car featured a name badge that said — what else? — “Name The Car.”

Jack Mulller, historian for the  Kaiser-Frazer Owners Club, International, explains the business reason behind the contest:

The Kaiser-Frazer management fully and honestly expected 1950 would be a profitable one for the company.  The contest was aimed at showing the public Kaiser-Frazer was not a failure and that it had the product that Americans wanted (at least according to surveys). By getting contest entrants into Kaiser-Frazer dealer showrooms, the dealers had a shot at perhaps making a sale of the moribund 1949 and 1950 model year products.

The car was first shown to the public at the February 1950 Chicago Automobile Show, identified only as “The Red Car,” but not for long. The first American car to be christened by the public was announced May 13, 1950. The naming contest winner was Frances Atkinson, the wife of a Denver university student.

The top 29 winners all proposed the same “Henry J” name, but only 10 got $500 checks because their submitted explanations were so compelling. Mrs. Atkinson had written that, to America’s millions, the name symbolizes “vision, courage, democracy at work.”

More than 1,000 people shared cash prizes, and almost $80,000 went to the cancer fund. Newspaper accounts quoted Mrs. Atkinson’s response to receiving the check at the award ceremony:

“I didn’t believe it ’til I felt it. Look at the zeroes on it! Like the wheels on a train.”

But Mrs. Bell didn’t believe it either and proceeded to sue for lots of zeroes. A May 16, 1950, newspaper article further explained:

Mrs. Bell doesn't care for the name. She says in her complaint the $200,000 spent to get the name was "stupidly squandered” and she wants the money returned to the corporation. The $5,000,000 is to reimburse the corporation for the damage caused by the selection of "the wholly unfitting, improper and ridiculous name."
Henry J newspaper ad, 9/29/1950

Henry J newspaper ad, September 29, 1950

The suit sought to restrain officers and directors of the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation from adopting the “Henry J” name. It complained further that “the said name is well calculated to make it the butt of many jokes; that it is to be expected that radio comedians, cartoonists, and columnists will forthwith begin lampooning the said automobile.”

The litany of gripes continued, including that “… said name is so ridiculous that its adoption leads to tremendous ill will among the other contestants who obviously submitted better names, and that its adoption necessarily leads to the inference among the other contestants and plaintiff that it was no contest at all; that the name had been decided on before the contest started.”

Naming hubris or not, such things happen. The Ford Motor Company’s new 1957 model was named "Edsel" in honor of the founder’s son, Edsel B. Ford.

There’s no record of what happened with the lawsuit, but despite its claims, the car came out of the gate as a marketing success, and around 82,000 were produced in its first year. When the Henry J rolled out to the public in the fall of 1950, it represented the fruition of Henry Kaiser’s dreams. A September 29 newspaper article reported:

… It is the car that Henry J. Kaiser, board chairman, envisioned when Kaiser-Frazer was formed in 1945. Developed on the basis of postwar engineering advances, the Henry J models profited from prior years of experimentation with 50 prototypes built under Mr. Kaiser’s personal direction.

Kaiser said: “We have achieved such an automobile with new standards of value, economy, performance and appearance. Presenting this car is the realization of the proudest ambition of my life.”

Chalk up a win for the American public.

Photo of driver Rocky Fisher leaping his Henry J over the “man-killing ramp” at the 87th Street Stadium in Chicago, from pictorial souvenir booklet “Aut Swenson Thrillcade: World Champion Auto Devils,” 1953.

Photo of driver Rocky Fisher leaping his Henry J over the “man-killing ramp” at the 87th Street Stadium in Chicago, from pictorial souvenir booklet “Aut Swenson Thrillcade: World Champion Auto Devils,” 1953.

The Henry J was the lowest-priced new car on the market. In 1946, Henry J. Kaiser had borrowed $44 million from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation; one of the terms of the loan was that Kaiser-Frazer would produce an affordable car with a price tag of less than $1,300.

Unexpectedly, the spartan Henry J would become a favorite of car customizers because of its low resale value, lightweight, rugged chassis, and relatively roomy engine compartment. In the end, the car was not competitive in the American market, and production slowed. Manufacturing stopped in 1954 after 1,000 cars had been sold, and total output was 124,871.

Even though ultimately unsuccessful in the automobile industry, Henry J. Kaiser had left his mark in producing a car for the people.