Myth Buster: Henry J. Kaiser and the Jeep

posted on February 3, 2010
By Tom Debley
Director, Heritage Resources, Kaiser Permanente

Kaiser at wheel of a Jeep

Many people think Henry J. Kaiser’s foray into the automobile business after World War II was a failure when his Kaiser automobiles disappeared from America’s roads after only a few years. If you are one of them, think again. Indeed, if you drive a Jeep or the next time you are sitting at a traffic light next to a Jeep, think Henry Kaiser.

The Jeep was Kaiser’s most successful automobile venture when, in 1953, he bought Toledo-based Willys Overland, maker of the Jeep that became world-famous with its service in World War II.

Willys Overland was the maker of engines for Kaiser’s “Henry J,” America’s first compact car. Kaiser had entered automotive manufacturing in 1946, but by 1953 he was losing money.  So when he bought Willys Overland that year for about $70 million in the biggest auto merger in history to date, some argued he was throwing good money after bad.

Kaiser Pink Jeep Surrey was a line of Jeeps in the 1960s

Not the case. As Patrick R. Foster concludes in his book “The Story of Jeep” (Krause Publications, Iola, WI, 1998), “There were several reasons why Kaiser wanted Willys, but the biggest was pride. Henry Kaiser had never failed at anything he tried, but it appeared that the auto business would break that streak.”

What followed was an all-out marketing campaign to capitalize on the public’s fascination with the Jeep. Kaiser’s faith in the Jeep began paying off.  Annual sales volume topped $160 million within two years, with a profit approaching $5 million. It was the first profit for Kaiser’s car manufacturing since 1948.

Designers at work at Kaiser Jeep Corp. in the 1950s.

By 1966, Kaiser Jeep Corp. was building sports and compact cars, stationwagons, and the Jeep Wagoneer, which some say was America’s first SUV. Where there had been one plant in Toledo, manufacture of the Jeep had spread to 32 other countries by the time of Kaiser’s death in 1967.

Five years after Kaiser died, Kaiser Jeep Corp. was sold in 1972 to American Motors. A few years later, Renault Company of France bought American Motors.

In 1987 Chrysler Corporation bought American Motors from Renault for the sole purpose of getting the rights to manufacture the Jeep. Lee lacocca, like Henry Kaiser before him, capitalized on America’s love for the ubiquitous, ‘go-anywhere’ Jeep. 

So while Henry Kaiser is mostly remembered today for co-founding Kaiser Permanente, you can also thank him for making the Jeep a popular American car around the world.

(Photos: The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley and the Kaiser Permanente Heritage Archive)  

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5 Responses to “Myth Buster: Henry J. Kaiser and the Jeep”

  1. Newton Zehnder says:

    Hello, first I want to say that I follow your blog. Great post, I fully agree with you. Have a good day…

  2. Vince Golla says:

    As a car guy, I really enjoy reading about Henry J. Kaiser’s contributions to the automotive industry and to automotive Americana. I can’t help but to wonder whether the Pacer and the Gremlin would have happened under Henry J’s watch. Doubt it.
    (full disclosure: I am an employee of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Inc.)

  3. Deon Fanney says:

    Awesome post! Interesting info to know.

  4. Sandra Ahn says:

    Growing up in Hawaii, I saw these brightly colored Jeeps darting all over Oahu. Apparently Mrs. Kaiser’s favorite color was pink, so the Jeeps and the Catamarans, and I believe their home, were painted bright pink. Thank you for this historical note that has a warm place in my heart. Nice job.

  5. Chris says:

    Great article, but wouldn’t the Crosley qualify as the first American compact?

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