Jack Mueller

NOTE: The author would like to take this opportunity to recognize the work of James McCloud, the first General Manager of Industrias Kaiser Argentina and a major player in the set-up of the IKA operation. Mr. McCloud’s autobiography of these activities, THE IKA STORY first appeared in print during 1995. That first printing is long sold out, but I understand that a second printing of this "must" book for the K-F nut may be in the works. Direct quotes from the book appear here in Italics.

Anytime an automotive era ends, there are a number of "last cars"; it depends on your definition of what is the Last Car. Is it the last car off the production line? How about the last car shipped out of factory inventory (not always the last off the line)? What about the car that fills the last order accepted by the factory, or the last to be delivered retail? This story covers the last of the "regularly scheduled" Kaisers…the 1955 models built during the regular 1955 model year?

Based on production figures published in AUTOMOTIVE NEWS, Willys Motors, Incorporated appears to have "frozen" a group of 1954 Kaiser Manhattan models built in May 1954. These cars were given new hood ornaments and serial numbers to make them 1955 models. This may seem unlikely, but the figures indicate that June and July 1954 production should have been confined to the later Kaiser Special models. The July 1954 production run—30 cars for July--there was no more Kaiser production until May 1955, when the Argentine consignment started rolling out. It was also in May that a fateful meeting took place in New Orleans, as recounted by Mr. McCloud:

De Lesseps "Chep" Morrison, then mayor of New Orleans worked very closely with the Kaiser interests in the early days of the Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation’s activities in Louisiana. Mayor Morrison had also organized an entity called International House that served as a meeting place and sounding board for South American public and private sector contacts. International House was directed by Mario Bermudez, a Colombian by birth. Mario had excellent relationships with various heads of state in South America. Chep and Mario proposed that Mr. Kaiser tour South America and investigate investment possibilities for the surplus manufacturing facilities we had…Edgar [Kaiser, Henry’s son-JM] who was spending most of his time in Toledo in those days, swung into action and had Hickman Price put his plans on the back burner until the results of Henry Kaiser’s projected tour of South America unfolded. This decision is the reason that Argentina became the first Latin American country in integrated vehicle manufacture even though Brazil’s infrastructure and population should have given it priority.

On October 4, 1954, a letter of intent was signed by the Argentine interests and Willys Motors to kick off the IKA project. According to Mr. McCloud, the following item constituted a provision in this letter:

The new company would purchase from Kaiser one thousand Kaiser passenger cars at Kaiser’s current export price for semi-knocked down automobiles. The distribution and sale of the one thousand automobiles would be made in accordance with the procedures and prices to be established with the pertinent authorities.

This consignment was the "introduction" of the Kaiser car in the Argentine market. The package worked out for the Argentine plant called for production of a Kaiser automobile based on the 1954 Manhattan design at the IKA works. The package also contained provisions to build this car with virtually 100% local (Argentina) content over a pre-determined time period. That meant that the tooling for the Kaiser car, including engine and other mechanical assemblies had to be shipped south. With the tooling gone, there would be no Kaiser car for the American market (for a brief time, there was a plan to put Kaiser nameplates on the Willys sedans and hardtops, but this tooling ended up destined for Brazil under a similar type deal).

The held over 1954 models were "contract cars" intended to cover legal provisions of dealer and distributor franchise agreements rather than being a serious effort in the marketplace. Provision 22 of the standard franchise agreement required the factory to buy back:

All new, unused and undamaged current motor vehicles which were purchased from the factory and are then the property of and in the possession of the dealer (or distributor in the distributor version) at the net invoice to dealer current at the date of termination, including transportation charges paid by the dealer.

All new, unused and undamaged parts exclusive of trim and trimmed parts, purchased from the factory or an authorized distributor for the models current at the time of termination and the preceding model, at the net invoice price current at the date of termination, exclusive of transportation and packing charges.

All new, unused and undamaged accessories purchased from the factory of design current at the date of termination during the period of 6 months immediately preceding the termination at the net invoice price current at date of termination, exclusive of transportation and packing charges.

By offering a 1955 Kaiser, the factory got itself off the hook for any parts and accessory items current for 1953 model year cars. By offering the 1955 Kaisers at what amounted to the cost of parts (wholesale on the Manhattan 4-door was only $1,414,34 and $1,376.91 for 2-doors, according to K-W Trade Letter K54-8Z, dated 12/8/54). As far as I know there were no 1955’s repurchased by the factory. This may have seemed sneaky, but Chrysler Corporation and Ford did similar things when they stopped the DeSoto and Edsel.

Now back to our story, and more from Mr. McCloud:

The 1000 Kaiser cars were also arriving (late May 1955-JM) and Larry Daniels set up his initial organization to handle their distribution…it would have been easy to merely turn the whole job over to Tiphaine y Cia, the Kaiser-Willys distributor, but we wanted to start developing a dealer organization. In addition to getting a rather generous allocation of cars to retail, the Tiphaine organization handled the installation of the Argentine manufactured components and delivered the vehicles to the rest of the dealer body.

We had to manage the operation very carefully. The cars were sold to persons who had received a purchase certificate from the government at the predetermined price of m$n (Argentine currency unit-JM) 92,500 approximately US$ 6500…In the long run, the income from the imports is probably what saved IKA. I don’t have the exact figures, but we probably cleared about US$2500 per car after preparation costs, dealer discounts and original cost.

A total of 1,021 Kaiser Manhattans were built during May and June of 1955, the last regular production run of Kaiser automobiles in America. Besides the 1,000 sent to Argentina for sale, 6 more went south, used as company cars by IKA. That left 15 vehicles behind. These cars were "specials" that never saw a dealer showroom or lot, at least as a new car. One of the 15 was requisitioned by outside design consultant Brooks Stevens. Mr. Stevens still had this car at the time of his death in 1995.  When his collection was sold off,  Bill Tilden rolled in with the best offer and got the car.  What about the other 14?

All of the 1955 Kaisers sold through stateside Kaiser dealers were equipped with superchargers. Argentine cars were not (I am not sure about the 15 cars left behind). Argentine Kaisers were equipped with leather upholstery rather than the combination vinyl/cloth used on the regular models. Also, the Kaisers sent to Argentina did not have overdrive or automatic transmission…again, because the factory records may no longer exist, only finding the cars left in the USA will tell what they got (assuming the cars were not "upgraded" over the years).

Chuck & Betty Hucker have done a lot of research on these last cars, partly because they currently own the last of the run, S/N 11021 (numbers started with 10001). They have identified another of the group—11015—, which is currently owned by George Lash in Mentor Ohio. An additional car—11022—was built to the order of George Harbert, who was head of engineering at Toledo. This car came after the end of the Argentine run, and was the first of Kaisers built at Toledo from spare parts between 1955 and 1957. The other two cars were originally used as company cars for Kaiser Industries or Willys Motors; the third of the group still exists, and carries a letter from Kaiser Jeep Corporation attesting to its pedigree.

The other cars from this last run are easy to identify, even if they are incomplete, IF they have their ID tags on them. For the 1955 model year, Kaisers used the same serial number prefix system Willys Motors had for other Jeep and Aero type models. The "regular" 1955’s had a prefix of 51367 for 4 doors, 51467 for 2-door models. This identified the vehicle as being a 1955 model year product ("5"), a Kaiser rather than a Willys branded vehicle ("1"), the number of doors ("3" or "4"), having a factory installed 226 cubic inch engine ("6") and 2-wheel drive ("7"). The Argentine run carries a prefix of 51363N, according to the plate on the Hucker’s (and other) car. In this case, the "3" identified the vehicle as an export model rather than intended for domestic sale through a dealer.

From what I was able to piece together over the years, the Toledo operation had a "used car" employee sales operation, just as Willow Run had for Kaisers, Frazers and Henry J automobiles. Company cars retired from service were offered to employees at special prices; company executives could have a vehicle special ordered for them, and buy the car through the factory sales operation rather than the regular dealer in Toledo. In both cases, the cars were entitled to service at the company garage, and therein lies a bit of trivia noted in cars by both the Hucker’s and myself. The Hucker’s car had a notation written on the inside of one of the door panels. The 1954 Kaiser Manhattan prototype owned by my father at the time of his death had its own notation, indicating a 1961 accident required replacement of left front door and front fender. It appears that the company mechanics identified work done or their "contribution" to keeping a vehicle maintained in this manner.

For those wanting to be "Kaiser Detectives" seeking out the other special cars, now that you know how to easily identify the Argentine export lot from the regular Kaiser cars, here’s some thoughts on where to look for them. The company cars ended up with company employees, so the great majority of them ended up on used car lots in the Toledo area as they were traded in on newer vehicles. One car surfaced on the lot of the American Motors dealer in Kenosha Wisconsin in the 1970’s: this car was traced back to a Kaiser-Jeep engineer who was transferred to Kenosha after AMC purchased the Kaiser-Jeep operation. There is also a possibility that a couple of the cars ended up in the San Francisco Bay area, formerly in service to Kaiser Industries corporate HQ at Oakland. Again, any 51363 serial number tags are a dead giveaway!



The Last Kaiser says Good-Bye . . .
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