Car of the Week: 1954 Kaiser Manhattan

Story and photos by Brian Earnest

Along with the fact that his father was a big fan of them, Tom Markielewski has a pretty good reason for loving Kaiser automobiles.

“The uniqueness. It’s a car for the individualist. It’s the car for someone who doesn’t want the ‘belly button’ car like the ’55-56-57 Chevrolet. It’s not an ordinary, mundane car. It’s very out of the ordinary and it really stands out,” says the Oakfield, Wis., resident.

Even when he takes it to car shows and is surrounded by hobbyists, Markielewski often has plenty of explaining to do. “Yes, I have to answer a lot of questions,” he says. “The vast majority of people have never seen or heard of a Kaiser automobile, let alone Henry J. Kaiser himself, which is unfortunate. I just usually give them the short answer, which is ‘It’s a cousin to the Jeep.’”

Tom’s father, Jerry, dragged him into the wonderful world of independents and orphans at a young age. The older Markielewski operated a service station in Fond du Lac, Wis., and became friends with a couple of Kaiser-Frazer owners who were charter members of the Kaiser-Frazer Owners Club. “My father started collecting Kaisers in 1959,” he says. “We had mostly Chevy, Olds and Cadillacs … He had the Kaisers, but never ran them much. They mostly stayed in storage. After my dad retired in 1995, he was approached by a friend who restored cars about restoring one of the cars he had in storage. But his friend convinced him to buy one that was already restored because my father was already getting up there in years… It’s a good thing he did, because it was in 2001 that he bought this car and I lost my dad in 2009. He got a lot of enjoyment out of it, which is wonderful.”

That car was a two-tone blue 1954 Kaiser Manhattan four-door sedan, which Tom now drives and displays with the same pride as his father. It’s fitting that he wound up with the unique Kaiser, considering that his automotive tastes have run off the beaten path for as long as he can remember. “I grew up with old cars. I was the only kid in school who new what a Kaiser was,” he jokes. “Heck, I was the only kid who knew what a Studebaker, or Packard, or Nash or Willys, or Graham or Hupmobile was, or any of those cars. My folks were older than the average folks at the time and so I grew up with a lot of older tastes in music and cars and everything. Most of the kids liked ’60s and ’70s muscle cars, and I grew up with the cars of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.”

The striking blue-on-blue Manhattan was restored by a previous owner — probably sometime in the early 1990s, Markielewski figures, and it still looks great today. It’s not ready for points judging, but that was never what Tom or his dad had in mind, anyway. It’s a great car to bring to weekend events like the Iola Car Show in Iola, Wis., where it was keeping company with many great machines this summer in the Blue Ribbon Corral. “It is an older restoration. It’s a ‘driver,’ so it passes the 20/20 rule,” Markielewski chuckles. “From 20 feet away going 20 mph, it looks great!

“It came from the Chicago area and it was rather hastily restored. We did do some work on it. We had to add some script to it and I had to have the engine rebuilt and a few other things. It was running when my dad bought it and we perfected it as far as the engine and drive train, I guess you could say… It is stock. The person who restored it restored it to the original colors — Blue Comet Metallic over Powder Blue. It has a 226 flathead engine in it and stock McCulloch supercharger in it, which was optional in 1954. They had to do something to try to win the horsepower race because Kaiser didn’t have a V-8. Three-speed on the column, Borg-Warner transmission with overdrive… And the clock works! [laughs].”

 

Chasing a dream

Shipbuilder Henry J. Kaiser decided to make the automotive industry his port of call after the Close of World War II. Teaming with Graham-Paige executive Joseph Frazer — a relationship that would be plagued by personality conflicts — Kaiser moved quickly to beat the major makes into production of an all-new postwar car. The result was a unique-looking, straight-sided design that quickly gained a following from buyers looking for something a little different.

More than 70,000 rolled off the Kaiser Willow Run, Mich., assembly lines for 1947 and the future looked bright. Soon, however, other automakers began to catch up and launch their own new lineups, and Kaiser-Frazer began to have financial problems.

A sizeable loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corp. helped keep the company afloat, although Frazer models were discontinued in 1951. The cash helped Kaiser launch the memorable Darrin sports car — penned by company design master Dutch Darrin — cool hatchback sedans called the Vagabond and Traveler, and a luxury model it dubbed the Dragon.

Still, times were tough for many automakers. Nash and Hudson combined in 1954, and Kaiser Motors bought out Willys-Overland, which had been building cars in Toledo, Ohio. The company became known as Kaiser-Willys, and soon all production was shifted to Toledo and the Willow Run plant was sold to General Motors.

For the 1954 model year, there were two again two series of cars. The first consisted of 1953 leftovers that were re-numbered as 1954s. Among the new developments was the supercharged “Super Power Six” that developed 140 hp. Still, only 17,000 cars were sold for the year, and the end of the road was near for Henry J’s company.

In 1955, Kaiser-Willys decided to a focus on building Jeeps and produced only about 210 cars for sale in the U.S. Another 1,021 were reportedly build for sale in Argentina. Eventually, the body dies and equipment were shipped to Argentina, where Kaiser built a car it called the Carabella for another seven years.

 

Proud survivor

The 1954 Manhattans were a step up from the Specials, although the cars shared many of the same general styling cues. The Manhattans came as either four-door sedans or two-door club coupes. They featured distinctive rooflines and grilles, and a three-section wrap-around rear window. The ornate tail lamp lenses and chrome treatments were among the most unique of any car around, and a shiny wide chrome molding ran the length of the car across the bottom of the fenders and doors. The supercharger boosted the old 226-cid “Super Sonic Six” from 118 to 140.” A three-speed manual transmission was standard. For an extra $107 you could get overdrive, or you could ante up $178 for the automatic.

Inside was a new interior with a vertically pleated, padded dashboard, U-shaped speedometer and lever type controls at the driver’s left. Other notable options for the model year included power brakes and power steering, air conditioning, fancy eight-tube radio, whitewall tires, tinted glass, two-tone paint for the Manhattans, leather upholstery and wire wheels.

Markielewski’s Manhattan was one of 3,860 four-door sedans reportedly built for the model year. It carried a base price of $2,454 — 50 bucks more than the two-door club coupe. “The Kaiser was priced about where Pontiac and Oldsmobile would be, so that was their direct competition,” he says. “You can style a car as beautifully as you want, but people were buying cars back then simply because they were being built by the ‘Big 3’… It really stands out. The lines are very crisp and clean. It’s chromy, but not ostentatious. Even with all the brightwork on it, it still has some style and class and sophistication to it.”

Markielewski says his ’54 is overdue for engine and suspension work. That hasn’t stopped him from taking regular joy rides in it, however. Taking a spin in a stylish orphan car with tons of personality never gets old. “I enjoy it very much. It drives like a 1950s vehicle, but it’s very enjoyable and very [drivable],” he said. “You can’t really compare it to a modern car. We’re talking a lot of years difference — 60 years plus.

“I’m very attached to it. My family was very involved in preserving Kaisers. It’s got a lot of family legacy to it.”

 

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