A new car so inexpensive you could buy it with cash at your local gas station?
This was a consumer pipe dream during World War II — yet Henry J. Kaiser, despite being preoccupied with running the largest shipbuilding effort of the home front, simultaneously pursued postwar public needs such as transportation, housing, and health care — the last being his most enduring legacy.
Henry J. Kaiser’s efforts to produce an affordable car always point to the humble but inexpensive “Henry J“ launched in 1950. But there’s a deeper story that demonstrates Kaiser’s commitment to using new materials — aluminum and magnesium — to create an American “people’s car” 7 years earlier.
Light metals intrigued Kaiser. He proposed building a West Coast aluminum plant in 1941, but instead Alcoa was given the government blessing, and Kaiser wouldn’t get into the aluminum business until 1946. But he did venture into magnesium manufacturing, and in late 1941 was producing the exotic metal in a plant near his Cupertino, California aggregate quarry.
In early 1943, Henry J. Kaiser entered into a contract with Karl K. Probst and Rollin N. Harger. Probst is considered the “Father of the Jeep,” having designed it as a consulting engineer for the Bantam Car Company in 1940.
The arrangement was classic Kaiser — hiring skilled professionals to develop products that met a current government need as well as an anticipated broader public need. The contract specified creating both a “Jeep Junior” and a “Kaiser Car” (sometimes referred to as the “Kaiser Kar”) passenger vehicle.
The logic behind that pairing was explained in correspondence from Probst and Harger:
We feel so keenly the necessity of building the jeep coincident with the passenger car because the jeep is justified as a war necessity which satisfies us for our activities and enables us to employ such key men as are essential to both projects which we otherwise could not do.
By May, the contract had expanded to include 6 jeep models, ranging from 1,000 to 1,300 pounds for the U.S. War Department.
No civilian passenger cars were manufactured during World War II, so it was big news in June 1943, when Kaiser announced his intention to produce a $400 car (the average price of a new car in 1941 was over twice that) — so affordable, it could be bought with cash and available at gas stations.
"I'm aiming for a market that present cars reach only third- or fourthhand,” Kaiser said.
The car would be very lightweight due to using magnesium for the frame and engine. The powerplant was in development, described in press accounts as a 16-cylinder air-cooled two-cycle radial engine projected to develop 80 horsepower. This was around the same time Kaiser was considering a Dymaxion car with radial engine power. In 1950, Kaiser would choose a similar engine for his proposed personal civilian aircraft.
Meanwhile, the lightweight jeep began receiving good reviews at its August testing at the military’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds. Kaiser’s contract with Probst & Harger was revised; the Kaiser Car’s intended exotic radial engine was replaced with the less expensive conventional 4-cylinder Continental engine.
Probst & Harger was also asked to produce a “midget car” to be sent to Permanente’s workshops for further modification, as well as a “farm vehicle” — identical to the military jeep but allowing “such modifications as we consider necessary… to result in a general utility vehicle.” This was the middle of the war, and Kaiser anticipated the American public’s thirst for such machines.
On October 3, 1943, Probst & Harger submitted drawing #5129 for the “Kaiser Car.”
In December 1943, the Henry J. Kaiser Company entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Hudson Car Company (manufacturer of, among other vehicles, the 1954 Nash Metropolitan), detailing Kaiser’s development of 6 jeep prototypes (4 larger, 2 smaller) under contract with the Army Ordnance Research Department and anticipating volume manufacturing should the prototypes be selected for production.
But by mid-1944, things began to unravel. The military didn’t pick his lightweight jeeps — at least partly due to a shortage of aluminum — and Kaiser went to court against Probst & Harger to restrain them from disclosing details of the vehicles developed under contract with Kaiser.
The American public, eager for an affordable new car, would have to wait until July 25, 1945, when Kaiser-Frazer motors was founded, leading to the much-anticipated 1950 release of the “Henry J.”
Thanks to UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library for materials used for some of the research in this article — Henry J. Kaiser papers 1873-1982, BANC MSS 83/42c, Cartons 18 and 122.