Posts Tagged ‘Kaiser-Frazer’

Henry J. Kaiser and Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion car

posted on February 5, 2015

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage Writer



The very word screams “futuristic design,” and rightly so. It was industrial designer R. Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller’s term for his exotic road vehicle, so unusual it hardly seems fair to call it a “car.”


Newspaper photo of Dymaxion car at Chicago World’s Fair, May 6, 1934.

Dymaxion, a term Fuller used for describing his geodesic domes as well, was shorthand for Dynamic Maximum Tension. It was aerodynamically shaped like a zeppelin, with a strong and lightweight trussed frame. It had three wheels, two in the front and one in the back. The full-blown version would be nearly 20 feet long, fuel-efficient, and designed to carry up to 11 people. In partnership with design polymath Starling Burgess, Fuller produced a working prototype in their Bridgeport, Connecticut workshop and debuted it at the Chicago World’s Fair (formally known as the “A Century of Progress International Exposition”) in 1933-1934. National columnist Howard Vincent O’Brien described it on August 15, 1934:

[The Dymaxion car] is on exhibit…in the Crystal House, and is well worth a look if you are interested in knowing what sort of vehicle may soon be taking you about.

It’s a three-wheeled affair, driven from the front wheels, and with the engine in the rear. It turns on its own base, and, using a standard Ford engine as a power plant, it will go – says Mr. Fuller – 125 miles an hour, doing 30 miles to the gallon of gasoline.

I haven’t ridden in it yet, but those who have say it floats like an airplane.

Unfortunately, the vehicle never went into production. An accident in October, 1933 killed the test driver and injured several bystander investors, which dampened prospects for further commercial development. The design occupies the fringe area of “good ideas that weren’t practical.”

But visionary industrialist Henry J. Kaiser gave it a shot.

Letter from E. E. “Gene” Trefethen Jr. (Vice-President of the Henry J. Kaiser Company) to R. Buckminster Fuller, 12/18/1942, courtesy The Bancroft Library, MSS 83/42c

Letter from E. E. “Gene” Trefethen Jr. (Vice-President of the Henry J. Kaiser Company) to R. Buckminster Fuller, 12/18/1942, courtesy The Bancroft Library, MSS 83/42c

Kaiser made history when he entered the automobile market in 1945, applying his industrial mass production skills to a postwar world hungry for vehicles. He partnered with veteran automobile executive Joseph Frazer to establish the new Kaiser-Frazer Corporation, from the remnants of Graham-Paige, of which Frazer had been president. Kaiser’s name would grace the affordable and practical end of the line, and Frazer would be the nameplate on the upscale side of the lot.

It’s not commonly known that years earlier, at the end of 1942, Henry J. Kaiser paid Bucky Fuller to engineer and produce a ¼ scale model Dymaxion, to be completed in early 1943. At that time Henry Kaiser was committed to various wartime vehicle projects under federal support, including building cargo ships and “baby flat top” aircraft carriers, prototyping lightweight jeeps, and even experimenting with giant flying wings. So it should come as no surprise that, with the support of the Board of Economic Warfare (on which Fuller served as staffmember), he explored the advantages of Fuller’s Dymaxion.

According to Fuller scholar J. Baldwin, the updated design would include several of these features:

  • Powered by three separate air-cooled “outboard” type (opposed cylinder) engines, each coupled to its own wheel by a variable fluid drive. Each of the engine-drivewheel assemblies was detachable. The engines themselves were run always at the same speed; the speed of the car was controlled by varying the quantity of fluid in the coupling;
  • Low-horsepower engines – 15 to 25 hp, cut down to one engine at cruising speed, for 40-50 mpg;
  • Steered at cruising speeds by the front wheels, rear-wheel steering was used only as an auxiliary for tight turns, or to move sideways;
  • High speed stability enhanced by extending the rear wheel on a boom to lengthen the wheelbase.

Alas, the prototype results were not impressive.

In August, 1946, author Lester Velie wrote this in a three-part series on Henry J. Kaiser for Collier’s magazine:

Kaiser had dabbled with cars since 1942. In that year he commissioned Buckminster Fuller, the industrial designer, to design a car. Fuller came up with what he called a dymaxion car, a three-wheel job, with a motor that could be hitched to front or rear, or to any of the three wheels. He made a mock-up of the car’s tear-drop body in plywood. This and engineering drawings he submitted to Kaiser, expecting Kaiser to commission him to do the further necessary engineering toward a completed prototype.


R. Buckminster Fuller, Dymaxion Car for Henry Kaiser: Longitudinal Section, c. 1943, Black ink on tracing paper, 83.4 x 92.3 cm (32 4/5 x 36 3/10 in.), Through prior gift of Carson Pirie Scott and Company and the Three Oaks Wrecking Company, 1991.150, The Art Institute of Chicago

Kaiser shipped the plywood mock-up of the dymaxion car to his cement plant at Permanente, Calif.  There, without waiting for such refinements as a specially designed motor, he slung a secondhand Willys-Knight engine on the three-wheel job and started riding.

The dymaxion turned over.

Undaunted, Kaiser brushed himself off and went to New York where he announced belligerently before a National Association of Manufacturers audience that if the automobile industry lacked the courage to plan postwar automobiles now, he would have to do it himself.

Despite Henry Kaiser’s enthusiastic and reckless test drive, the Dymaxion’s road stability was not an insurmountable design flaw (it did have a few, including poor rear visibility and an unfortunate tendency for the rear to lift off the ground at speed). But the project ended there, and it never saw mass production.

In 1957 Henry J. Kaiser and Bucky Fuller would again collaborate on another project, the commercialization of aluminum geodesic domes.

Jeff Lane, director of the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, Tennessee, has been faithfully recreating a working model of the first Dymaxion prototype, and Noel Murphy is directing a documentary film on this magnificent, though flawed, vehicle. Recently a set of original blueprints turned up, and an excellent set of Dymaxion photos can be seen here.

On the broader subject of the vision of Henry J. Kaiser and his role in the automotive industry, listen to the stirring podcast by Hemmings Motor News’ Jim Donnelly and read his companion article “Master of the West: The Towering Accomplishments of Henry J. Kaiser” in the Hemmings Classic Car March, 2015 issue.

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Henry J. Kaiser takes a page from Ford’s book

posted on April 28, 2014

Concept of welding rather than riveting in ship production borrowed from Henry Ford’s manufacturing process

By Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer


Richmond, California – Ford Assembly plant surrounded by four Kaiser shipyards, 1944

Willow Run plant, circa 1951; from The Kaiser Story, page 41

Kaiser-Frazer Willow Run plant, circa 1951. The “arched eyebrow” split windshield indicates that these are likely Kaiser Deluxes.

Henry J. Kaiser had admired the mass-production advances that allowed Henry Ford to make cars more efficiently.

In late 1940, before Kaiser embarked on the largest shipbuilding project in world history, he sent a close associate to survey a Ford assembly plant.

Results of that visit opened Kaiser’s eyes to the advantages of welding over riveting. That insight, along with the pre-assembly of ship parts and streamlining the flow of materials, was crucial to the breathtaking output of Kaiser’s new shipyards.

Kaiser wasted little time maintaining his momentum as a major American industrialist after the end of World War II.

With his massive West Coast shipyards closing down, and his nascent health care program that would eventually blossom as Kaiser Permanente just beginning, he turned his attention to automobiles.


Henry Ford II, wife Anne Ford, Henry J. Kaiser, wife Bess Kaiser; Oakland train station, 1946

On Aug. 9, 1945, Kaiser formally announced a partnership with veteran automobile industry executive Joseph Frazer to form the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation.

Kaiser was particularly interested in producing affordable transportation for the American public. Kaiser-Frazer leased the Willow Run manufacturing plant near Ypsilanti,  Michigan, built by Ford in 1942 to build World War II bombers. Within nine months workers in the plant were breaking records for the number of newly built cars.

K-F’s labor relations were good, which helped them to pump out cars in 1946 during the GM strike and the stalled Ford and Chrysler contract negotiations. And in 1949, Kaiser and Ford were on opposite sides of labor law regarding a Taft-Hartley Act representation interpretation.

The National Labor Relations Board’s first decision under Taft-Hartley in 1947 excluded foremen from collective bargaining rights. This ruling was challenged: Kaiser felt that foremen should be included in bargaining units; Ford did not. But the Senate-revised 1949 Labor-Management Relations Act affirmed that foremen could not have collective bargaining rights.

While Henry J. Kaiser and Henry Ford II (president of the Ford Motor Company from 1945 to 1960) may have been business rivals, their relationship was not antagonistic. Newspaper photos of the two with their spouses projected a message of collegiality.

By the late 1950s Kaiser’s automobile venture was grinding to a halt, and all that remained were overseas plants and the Jeep line of rugged vehicles (under Kaiser from 1953-1969). Ford bought out Kaiser-Frazer’s operations in Brazil in 1967, the year Henry Kaiser died.

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Kaiser’s first labor attorney in the thick of union battles

posted on January 23, 2014

By Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer

Second in a series

In 1941, before the United States entered World War II, Henry J. Kaiser was already building cargo ships for the British war effort. Early on, labor jurisdiction issues loomed large, and Kaiser’s labor man Harry F. Morton had his hands full.

Before the shipyards opened, Kaiser representatives signed a closed-shop agreement with American Federation of Labor-affiliated unions and hired a handful of workers; when the yards began full operation, the thousands of new workers were required to join the AFL.

Because many of them were already members of Congress of Industrial Organizations-affiliated unions, they were subsequently discharged. The CIO filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board.


Aerial photo, Todd-California Shipyard in Richmond, CA (later Permanente Metals shipyard #1), circa 1941

In a letter dated Dec. 6, 1941, the day before Pearl Harbor, Morton reported to Kaiser’s shipyard managers, Edgar Kaiser in Portland and Clay Bedford in Richmond, on this issue.

The “industry” side proposed a formal proportional allocation among the unions for journeyman jobs for welders, but this did not sit well with the nine AFL unions whose members included welders.

Eventually a compromise was reached in which welders in the shipyards would not be required to maintain membership in more than one union and that employment would not require purchase of a permit fee.[i]

Morton aligns with the AFL in closed shop fight

When the jurisdiction wars erupted again in 1943, Morton fought alongside the shipyard craft unions and received a landmark favorable ruling.

The U.S. government had charged that the Kaiser shipyards in Portland had acted unfairly in favoring the American Federation of Labor over the emerging, competitive, and radical CIO.

This time Congress’ help was called upon and passed what is known as the “Frey amendment” (named for head of the AFL Metal Trades Department, John P. Frey). The CIO lost on a technicality.

This ruling was crucial because it meant Henry J. Kaiser could run a closed shop in his shipyards, and production of ships for the war would not be jeopardized by struggles over workforce representation.

Morton read his victory telegram at a Metal Trades conference and declared: “And thus endeth another chapter in the history of the attempt of the National Labor Relations Board to break the union shop.”[ii]

Labor man tapped for aircraft plant

Corsairs in production line at Brewster Aviation.

Corsairs in production line at Brewster Aeronautical, circa 1943.

In late 1943 Morton moved back East as vice president of Industrial Relations for the Brewster Aeronautical Corporation. Brewster was manufacturing F3A-1 Corsair[iii] fighters, but had been ineptly run.

As a favor to the Navy Secretary, Kaiser agreed to try and turn the company around. Despite cost-cutting and improved output, Kaiser was delighted to turn the plant back over to Navy officials in May 1944.

While at Brewster, Morton continued to advise Kaiser on labor.  After reviewing a report by Industrial Relations Counselors[iv] on the then-new steel mill in Fontana, Calif., Morton sent a telegram to Kaiser executive Eugene Trefethen Jr.:

“I did not advocate a closed shop provision for the Fontana contract, but I did object to IRC’s recommendation that “. . . the company resist any demands of the union for a closed shop or union shop contract.”

“This is so foreign to all of Mr. Kaiser’s fundamental beliefs and public utterances that I could not let it go unchallenged . . . I violently disagree with the fundamental approach of IRC to labor problems.

“It is the approach of AT&T, Bethlehem, DuPont, G.E., General Motors, Standard [Oil] of New Jersey, U.S. Rubber and U.S. Steel, but not of Kaiser.

“It is my conviction that a large part of Brewster’s trouble is the result of IRC thinking and approach, and I am confident that what is needed is less IRC and more Kaiser thinking and approach in labor relations.[v]

Morton active after war ends

In early 1945, Morton briefed Kaiser on a meeting he’d had with Charles MacGowan, president of the Boilermakers union, a group that was influential (and controversial) in Kaiser’s wartime shipyards.

The subject was the merger of the American Federal of Labor with the Congress of Industrial Organizations. MacGowan opposed the merger. Morton advised Kaiser:

“I pass these suggestions on to you for what they may be worth. Personally, I don’t believe they are worth much, as [Philip] Murray and [William] Green had agreed to this once before and the agreement was later repudiated.[vi]

Green (AF of L) and Murray (CIO) both died in 1952; it would not be until 1955 that the two labor organizations would merge under the leadership of George Meany. The AFL-CIO Murray-Green award received by Henry J. Kaiser in 1965 was named for them.


Carl Brown (left), president of the Independent Foremen’s Association of America, confers with Harry F. Morton while representing Kaiser-Frazer. UPI newspaper photo, 2/19/1949.

The last known records of Morton’s career reflect his negotiation with employees at the Kaiser-Frazer automobile plant. One of the provisions of the recently enacted landmark Taft-Hartley Act removed any legal obligation to bargain with foremen; Morton felt that they should keep faith with the foremen, and the Ford Motor Company managers felt they should not.

Harry F. Morton’s full story remains to be told. We lose sight of him in our research after the early 1950s. However, he now is recognized as a significant factor in shaping the climate of positive labor relations that characterizes Henry J. Kaiser’s legacy.


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[i] Harry F. Morton correspondence to Edgar F. Kaiser and Clay Bedford, December 6, 1941; BANC MSS 83/42C, ctn 9, folder 12.

[ii] Speech by Harry F. Morton, in Proceedings of the 35th Annual Convention of the Metal Trades Department, AFL-CIO, September 27, 1943.

[iii] The Brewster F3A was an F4U “Corsair” built by Brewster for the U.S Navy; Chance-Vought created and built the Corsair, which also was built under contract by Goodyear.

[iv] In the wake of the horrific Ludlow Massacre in the Colorado minefields of 1917, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., created a labor-management think tank that today is known as Industrial Relations Counselors, Inc. <>

[v] Telegram from Harry F. Morton to Eugene Trefethen Jr., about IRC report on Fontana, October 1, 1943; BANC MSS 83/42C, ctn 19, folder 25.

[vi] Interoffice memo, Fleetwings Division of Kaiser Cargo [aviation manufacturing, Bristol, PA], from Harry F. Morton to Henry J. Kaiser in New York, January 22, 1945; BANC MSS 83/42C, ctn 151, folder 12.



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Howard A. “Dutch” Darrin – Kaiser-Frazer car designer

posted on November 22, 2013

Lincoln Cushing, Heritage writer

Howard “Dutch” Darrin sculpting clay on model of Kaiser Darrin sports car, circa 1953.

Kaiser Permanente Heritage Resources published a story in 2010 on the Kaiser Darrin sports car (“Kaiser-built 1954 sports car delights today’s collectors“), but history never sleeps, and we’ve recently digitized some slides buried in our archive of the designer in the process of creating the prototype.

Howard A. “Dutch” Darrin (1897-1982) was a World War I aviator, inventor, and automobile designer. After WWII, when Henry J. Kaiser entered the automobile industry, Darrin was brought in as a freelance consultant and he worked on several designs. But Kaiser-Frazer’s last automobile gasp was to be a sleek convertible sports car with a fiberglass body and sliding doors – designed by Dutch Darrin.

The predecessor to that vehicle was called the Darrin Motor Car, featured in the October, 1946 issue of Popular Science: “For 20 years crack designer Howard Darrin engineered cars for the big manufacturers – and dreamed of producing his own. Now the dream has come true in a new superlight car of novel design, with a plastic body and hydraulically powered labor-saving gadgets.” That car never happened, but the seed had been planted and it blossomed soon afterwards.

Howard “Dutch” Darrin sculpting clay on model of Kaiser Darrin sports car, circa 1953.

In 1950 the Kaiser-Frazer automobile company asked Darrin in to improve the styling of the “Henry J” budget car. The meagre production budget afforded little latitude, so Darrin’s improvements were minor, but he convinced Henry J. Kaiser to let him create a more attractive car on the Henry J chassis. At first Henry Kaiser didn’t like Darrin’s long, sculpted convertible, but his new wife Alyce (“Ale”) loved it. The project got the green light.

The new Kaiser Darrin on display, unknown auto show, circa 1954.

These photographs show Darrin sculpting the clay on a full-size mockup, most likely in his workshop in Santa Monica, California. For more on Darrin’s long design history, see this article by automotive journalist Mark Theobald.

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