Just a few blocks from Kaiser Permanente’s current offices in Oakland (and Kaiser’s main headquarters during the 1950s at 1924 Broadway) at 23rd and Broadway is a new beer garden. It’s a nice place to relax after work, and part of its charm is the faux vintage signage honoring its earlier incarnation as a Dodge dealership. But drink deeper, and lo – back in the day, it was the site of Henry J. Kaiser’s first auto dealership.
The Kaiser-Frazer Corporation was Henry J. Kaiser’s venture into the post-World War II automobile industry, stagnant because civilian vehicles were not produced during the war. Pent up demand encouraged Mr. Kaiser to partner with automotive veteran Joseph Frazer and tackle a new field. K-F was founded on July 25, 1945, and its main manufacturing plant was Ford’s former Willow Run bomber plant in Michigan.
A 1945 promotional article in the Kaiser Richmond shipyard newspaper gushed:
“The Kaiser and Frazer will be the first new name cars to be introduced by a new company to the American public in more than a decade.”
A news item on June 21, 1946, announced that Henry J. Kaiser Motors had purchased half a square block at 23rd and Broadway in downtown Oakland for $150,000 to distribute Kaiser and Frazer automobiles and Graham Paige farm equipment. That portion of the block had been an auto dealership since at least the late 1920s. H.O. Harrison Co. sold Chryslers and Plymouths from 2321 Broadway in 1928. Later, the Remmer Brothers (1930-1931) and James F. Waters (1932) sold Desotos.
But even before the car lot was opened, the 1947 line of Kaiser and Frazer cars was premiered in the windows of the H.C. Capwell’s department store on Broadway from July through October, 1946. Banker A.P. Giannini, president of the Bank of America, was the proud first Pacific Coast owner of a Kaiser model. Small wonder – it was Giannini who introduced Kaiser and Fraser to stimulate a partnership.
At last, Henry J. Kaiser Motors, distributors of Kaiser and Frazer cars, was formally opened to the public October 20, 1946.
By 1947 a second lot was opened a block away at 2230 Broadway, where it intersects with MacArthur Boulevard. By 1950 a third lot appeared, at 2600 Broadway – and Henry J. Kaiser and his two sons held a grand showing in the lobby of San Francisco’s elegant Fairmont Hotel.
The dealership’s slogan? “We sell to make friends.”
Kaiser was very proud of his 1950 affordable compact car, the “Henry J.” By 1952, the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation was renamed Kaiser Motors Corporation and continued building passenger cars, and in 1953 introduced a stylish sports car called the Darrin. But it wasn’t enough, and the company ground to a halt in 1955. It was one of the very few failures in Kaiser’s career. In 1953 Henry J. Kaiser had bought the famous but ailing Jeep manufacturer Willys-Overland, which he ran much more successfully until it was sold off in 1970 after his death.
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On August 14, 2016, 2,270 people (yes, men were allowed!) all dressed as the iconic “Rosie the Riveter” gathered in the giant Ford Assembly Building craneway in Richmond, Calif., to beat the current Guinness World Record for such an event. More than a record-breaking gimmick, it was a testament to the impact of the World War II Home Front, and specifically honored the women who participated in the war effort.
The record had been previously held by 2,096 women at the site of the World War II Willow Run bomber plant in Michigan. During the war the workers at that Ford-owned factory turned out B-24 Liberator bombers; in 1945, the upstart automobile manufacturer Kaiser-Frazer moved in and by June 1946 began producing cars for the huge postwar market.
During World War II the Ford plant in Richmond was surrounded by four Kaiser shipyards, which together produced 747 ships to help win the war. The social programs that accompanied the war effort – such as efforts to integrate housing, provision of quality child care, acceptance of women in the industrial workforce, opportunities for women and people of color in trade unions, and the Kaiser health plan – were precursors of many subsequent social justice efforts, including the civil rights movement and second wave feminism.
The Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond is the only National Park to cover this important period in national (and California) history. It’s well worth a visit – on most Fridays, you can visit with these real Home Front workers from World War II. Please call the Visitor Education Center for schedule, (510) 232-5050.
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