Kaiser-Frazer: The Last Onslaught on Detroit

Lookout Ranch

Well Oiled
May 9, 2015
Sierra Foothills
First Name
Willys Model
  1. Wagon
Willys Year:
  1. 1957
I've been reading the book of the above title. It's an interesting read, covering the auto industry in the post-war era as brands like Kaiser, Willys, Studebaker, Packard, and Hudson struggled for a permanent foothold in and industry that increasingly favored economies of scale.

Kaiser and Willys ultimately combined, with the Willys Jeeps being the surviving line, but there isn't much about that in the book. This is more the earlier Kaiser-Frazer story. Of course, Kaiser-Frazer was the source of the Super-Hurricane engine, and there is a bit of discussion in the book about Kaiser's acquisition of the engine from Continental, their sometimes frustrating struggles to adapt it (a mainly stationary engine) for use in autos, and their efforts to keep it viable with little improvements long after it became obsolete, because they didn't have the money to buy or develop a new engine.

Kaiser-Frazer built good cars, but after a brilliant start in 1947 when other car makers didn't have new post-war designs, they were always behind the curve on engine power, amenities, and pricing. They were too small to be cost-efficient, and as a relative start-up, they didn't have well-developed supply lines. Also, the Kaiser side, which brought the capital to the K-F partnership, didn't have a background in the automobile industry. They began to take over the business as more capital was required, and they made unwise investments in impractical R&D that really wasn't very helpful. It became a vicious circle as the product fell behind, the dealer network was smaller, their purchasing power weakened, and concerns about the company's viability began to circulate.

Interestingly, Kaiser had been fabulously successful at everything else up to this point. He had built an empire in cement, shipbuilding (those famous Liberty ships) and later aluminum and steel. The Kaiser business had helped build Hoover Dam, Grand Coulee Dam, and Glen Canyon Dam.

Kaiser Permanente, the big West Coast health plan, is one of the Kaiser legacies.



  • 61SiUYQAvhL.jpg
    64.8 KB · Views: 137
Cool information.

Thanks for the information.

It all comes in a full circle. I get to drive my Willys to Kaiser Permanente for annual check up.
I wanted to correct something I wrote above about the book not having much about the company following the combination of Kaiser and Willys. As I've gotten toward the back, there is a fair bit of talk about it, including an extensive discussion of the Aero and more info about the desperate attempts to keep the aging 226 engine competitive, including the use of a turbocharger in some of the bigger Kaiser cars.
In 1954, the 226 engine was offered as an option in a couple of Willys Aero models. Motor Life magazine described the performance as "torrid" and said "no car in its class can match the 226's accelerating power, its command of the road.... Zero-to-60 time is 13.9 seconds as compared to 20.3 for the F-head."

Apparently the Aero with the 226 had the best power-to-weight ratio of any car in its class at the time, mainly because of the light weight of the Aero's unibody design.

Hard to to believe anyone ever described the 226 as torrid!
One last observation from the book, from the executive who headed Kaiser's export division and then went to work for Willys sometime before they merged. At the time (early 1950s), he said, Willys accounted for roughly 75% of U.S. automobile exports. Impressive.
Some useless information I have come across in my research that you might find interesting. After the war, James Mooney stated that Willys-Overland had a hard time retaining and attracting employees because of a housing shortage in Toledo. They were losing people to K-F which wasn't all that far away.

Reading this book provided a little insight into how competitive the automotive market was when Kaiser and Willys were trying to secure their places among the surviving automakers of that era.

As mentioned earlier, the L6-226 engine was their power plant for much longer than they wanted, but they just didn't have the resources to develop a more competitive engine sooner.

I did some quick research and compiled the attached table to illustrate the problem. Even when they came out with the Tornado in mid-1962, it was barely competitive with older engines that Ford and Chevy would soon replace.

It it is interesting to note that the Tornado is a low RPM torque monster, and the Super-Hurricane has pretty darn good torque, too. Note the RPM where the Super-Hurricane's peak horsepower is. Probably not many ever reach that. l


  • image.jpg
    67.6 KB · Views: 24
Last edited:
That was Willys rating for the 230. When the SAE ran their tests against it, they came up with 155 horsepower @ 4,000 rpm and 230 ft lb torque@ 2000 rpms.