The Earliest Henry Js


By 1949, the post-war buyer's market had dried up and Kaiser-Frazer was in need of cash to keep their operation going.

That year Henry J. Kaiser went to Washington to negotiate a 44 million dollar loan from The Reconstruction Finance Corp. The terms of the agreement were that a portion of the loan would go to finance a low priced "people's car" that most families could afford. The car would have to be able seat six adults and carry a list price of $1300 or less. Dealers must be able to order them in any quantity they desired subject to Kaiser-Frazer's ability to produce them. There were no constraints on how the car could (or could not) be equipped.

Producing the Henry J would also help fulfill Henry Kaiser's dream of building this modern-day, low priced, American version of the Volkswagen.  Consider this: Volkswagen comes from the german words "Volks" and "Wagen." "Volks" meaning "people" and "Wagon" meaning "Wagon" or "Car." Hence, "The People's Car." 

When designer Howard "Dutch" Darrin heard of the plan, he began work on his own design of what he thought the Henry J should be (below). Darrin designed a 100 inch wheel base, scaled down version of the popular 1951 Kaiser which he also designed.


Before Henry J. Kaiser went to Washington, Fred Mathie, who had invested money into American Metals Products Inc. (AMP), had approached him with his design for a new low-priced car. American Metals Products was supplying frames, and springs for car seats to automobile manufactures. Mathie owned the Haber Stump Harris steel fabrication firm and proposed a tubular framed, 100 inch wheelbase fastback car. Haber Stump Harris, however, did not have the resources to produce this car so they got in touch with Kaiser.  The one car that AMP built served as the prototype for the Henry J.

For the better part of 50 years, almost no one, including the most ardent Kaiser-Frazer enthusiasts, knew what the AMP car looked like or how it was constructed. In 1998 the AMP car was discovered in a barn in Michigan!  It had suffered a fire and was in "poor shape and poor storage" according to the Kaiser-Frazer Owner's Club quarterly magazine.


After an article about the car was published in the "Lost and Found" section of  May/June 2000 issue of Special Interest Autos an alert reader recalled having seen the car in his college days. Realizing it was unique, he took photographs inside and out and still had the negatives! The photos below are proving invaluable in the restoration of this car currently taking place in Michigan.

When Kaiser-Frazer's design department got a hold of the AMP model, they made several styling changes. Most significantly, the Henry J used a standard "ladder" frame as opposed to the tubular frame of the AMP car. The Henry J was given a forward jutting front end, a floating grill, and Howard Darrin added his famous "Darrin Dip" in the fender line behind the door.  Edgar Kaiser (Henry J. Kaiser's son) had admired the fins on the late 1940s Cadillac cars so he had the design department add a set of fins to the Henry J. 

Below is an early factory promo photo. I have found no evidence to indicate if this car is an actual prototype or a clay mock up.

The  photo below shows Henry J. Kaiser with a prototype/model of the "People's Car" before it was officially dubbed "Henry J." The script on the hood reads "Name the Car."

When the Henry J went into production, the earliest cars had these features:

1.      The first 5000 were Aloha Green in color

2.      Lack of molding around the steering column. The first 6500 (approx) deluxe models and the first 1500 (approx) standards have this feature.

3.      Stationary front Vent windows - could not be opened

4.      Extra support/brace on body-to-frame mount.

5.      No horizontal bar behind the radiator.

Notice the lack of hinges and latches on the front vent windows in this photo of car number K513-001116. This is the 116th four cylinder Henry J produced. The car is currently being restored in Illinois.

The earliest Henry Js also lacked trim molding around the steering column where it meets the dash. The picture below of the dash, from the 1951 Henry J owners manual, is an artist's rendering but clearly shows the open steering column.

In these photos from the October 1950 edition of the Kaiser-Frazer Dealer News, announcing the Henry J, the open steering column is quite obvious. Also, notice the lack of levers/hinges on the vent windows.

This Henry J (photo below) was listed for sale on ebay in October 2001. The car needs a lot of TLC but notice it is Aloha green and sports the open steering column and stationary windows.

A photo (below) of the inside of car number K513-001116 reveals an open steering column and a lack of wing vent latches.

The first 5000 Henry Js, such as this one which was purchased new in Pennsylvania in Oct of 1950, were Aloha green in color. Note the open steering column and lack of wing vent latches/hinges on this car as well.


The photo below shows the extra body brace the early cars had.


The tubular black brace, mounted diagonally, fastened from the body-to-frame mounting bolt to the firewall. This brace was eliminated about mid-way through the 1951 model year. Kaiser-Frazer Service Bulletin number 279, dated March 5, 1951, informs dealers/distributors of the change. The bulletin states “In current production Henry J models the No. 1 body hold-down brackets have been modified to improve the body to chassis mounting. The new brackets have been designed to eliminate the need for the two tubular diagonal braces which extended from the body mounting bolt on the frame side rail to the front side of the cowl.” The bulletin goes on to say the change took place at approximately car numbers K513-014585 (four cylinder) and K514-021165 (six cylinder).  It further states the braces must not be removed from the earlier cars as they are “An essential part of body mounting and should not be removed.” It is interesting that despite this caution, there is no part number listed for these braces in the Henry J parts manual.

Early in the 1951 production year, Kaiser-Frazer offered opening wing vent windows as part of an accessory group on both 4 and 6 cylinder models. Once they became available most, if not all, Henry Js had them. 

Regarding the steering column molding – Kaiser-Frazer Advance Information Bulletin number 61, dated October 6, 1950 states “Effective with serial numbers 513-002494 and 514-007463, the factory switched from the tubular steering column support bracket to a die cast version.” The molding that became standard equipment early in the 1951 model year is shown below.

Below is car number K514-002510, purchased new on October 30, 1950. This car lacked the molding around the steering column.

In July, 2001 I located car number K514-002512, just two cars later, in a salvage yard.

K514-002512 is Aloha green with stationary vent windows, just as K514-002510, but it has the molding around the column. This was likely added by a dealer or perhaps a restorer as car number K514-002510 is in the range of those numbers which lack the molding. I also came across car K514-001513 in Arizona in August 2001 - It's been repainted in fire engine red but the paint code indicates it was originally Aloha green. It has the molding around the column, but again, it was likely added by a restorer or dealer. Footnote - this car was sold on ebay in July 2004, then sold again at a different classic car site in 2005.

It is possible that this upgrade was added because originally the Henry J did not have a ventilation system and heaters were optional. Car K514-002510 did not have air vents in it. Both car K514-001513 and car K514-002510 had the 1947/48 Kaiser - Frazer "Air Conditioner" heater. I have not encountered any other Henry Js with this heater so they were likely dealer installed. The cars that had factory heaters, which were introduced after the Henry J went on sale, required an air vent on the passenger side. The knobs for the air vents are mounted in the molding around the steering column these early examples lack. Many of the earliest 1951 Henry Js used left over Kaiser heaters from the 1949/50 model year. Car number K514-002512 had the "true" factory Henry J heater and ventilation system - it was likely installed by a dealer at a later time.

The earliest Henry Js, just as the AMP car, lacked a trunk lid. And, just as the AMP car, the rear storage compartment is accessed by folding down the rear seat back.  According to a factory/dealer bulletin, trunk lids became optional on the 1951 Henry J in December of 1950. Even though factory literature states that trunk lids were still optional on the 1952-54 models, very few 1952-54 cars were produced without a trunk lid.