Car of the Week: 1954 Kaiser Manhattan

By Brian Earnest

The pride of Dave Hollen’s collector car fleet is also the car that almost got away. Actually, it did get away for a while, but even though he didn’t actually own his 1954 Kaiser Manhatten for the first 46 years of its life, Hollen always felt like the car was his.

“Well, my uncle Clair ran a Kaiser dealership years ago, and we were very close,” said Hollen, a resident of Glasgow, Pa. “From the time I first saw the car in April of 1954, the thing just kind of stuck on me. I remember when we went out that day to get the cars and went to the railroad yard. I thought to myself, ‘My god, that is one beautiful automobile.’

“Then when he had it at the dealership it those years, it never seemed to be for sale. He’d have excuses or tell people the transmission didn’t work right … but the bottom line is he wanted to keep the car. So it never got sold … When he retired in 1962, I was pretty much the caretaker for the car. I washed it and gave it exercise and kept it looking nice.”

Hollen was half expecting to get the car as a gift at some point, but when his uncle died in 1972, Hollen’s widowed aunt instead gave the car to her son. From there the car changed hands several more times, winding up with several different collectors, getting sold once at auction in Scottsdale, Ariz., and even belonging to a past president of the national Kaiser-Frazer club.

Hollen admits he was hurt that the car never went to him after his uncle’s passing, but he did his best to keep track of the car and never gave up hope. Luckily, the car never went to an owner who abused it. Hollen ran ads in various magazines looking for the car and tried to stay on the trail of the Kaiser over the years, “but I was always a day late and a dollar short trying to buy it,” he said. “One of the owners was a Cadillac guy, and I tried to buy it from him, and he said, ‘You don’t have enough money to buy it!’ I said, ‘Well, try me. Give me a figure.’ He would never give me a figure, and then he turns around and sells the car to somebody else! He never even gave me a chance to buy it.”

Finally, after some more detective work and some continued networking with friends in the old car hobby, Hollen found out the Manhattan had been sold out of the car corral at Auburn [Ind.]. He got the name of the new owner and eventually was able to pry the car loose. “After chasing the thing for 35 years, I figured I better just put up or shut up,” he said. “I probably paid a lot more for it than I should have, but when he gave me his price, I just said, ‘How do you want the money?’”

As attached to the Kaiser as he was when he was young, Hollen might have bought the car regardless of the condition. The fact that is was an amazingly low-mileage all-original survivor — it has just 20,457 miles on the odometer today — made it even more attractive.

“When that Intercity transport truck showed up, that was a big deal. Yes it was,” Hollen admitted. “When they got here and we unloaded the thing, it was like, ‘Damn, it’s finally home.’ That was a big day for me.”

And it isn’t like Hollen is easy to impress when it comes to collector cars, and Kaiser/Frazers in particular. He’s certainly one of the most prolific buyer/owners of K-F cars around. “Oh, I think the last I counted I have about 41 cars,” he said. “I’ve probably got 30-some Kaisers. I’ve got seven or eight ’54s. I’ve got a Henry J and a smattering of Frazers and early Kaisers. I’ve got a very early ’47 Kaiser, and I have two Edsels. Actually three, if you count the one in pieces.

“But if tomorrow I had to get rid of everything except one, this [1954 Kaiser] would be the one I’d keep. I’ve been around the car since April of ’54, so it and me go back a few years.”

By 1954, Kaiser was in big trouble financially and didn’t have the resources to do much in the way of updates and facelifts on its two-series lineup. That didn’t stop the company from producing some truly attractive cars, however, including the all-new Kaiser Darrin sports car.

The Manhattans were a stop 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 biggest development for the year for the Manhattans was the addition of a supercharger that turned the old 226-cid “Super Sonic Six” with a 118 hp into the 140-hp “Super Power Six.” A three-speed manual transmission was standard, but for an extra $107 you could get overdrive, or you could pony 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 pain for the Manhattans, leather upholstery and wire wheels.

Hollen’s uncle couldn’t bring himself to part with his two-tone (Signal Green over Jade Tint) Manhattan, and apparently all the other owners of the car were also fond of it because the car was meticulously maintained and rarely driven over the years. Even though Hollen hadn’t seen the car in the nine years before he bought it in 2000, he was told the car was in great shape, and he wasn’t disappointed when it arrived.

“It had been collector owned the whole time,” he said. “Nobody messed anything up. They left it the way it should be.

“Honestly, I didn’t do much to it. I tightened up the exhaust a little bit. I did the brakes and other than that I really just polished it up and put it back in the garage … I run it around locally, but I’m not much for the show circuit because I work full-time. I do enjoy the cars around home. I drive a few of them quite frequently. This car is as tight yet as the day it was built. When you shut the doors on it — the trunk, doors everything — you can just tell it’s a really low-mileage car. I don’t think it’s even had the shocks or anything replaced on it.”

Hollen actually has two other ’54 Manhattans that are identical to his “Uncle Clair” car. “I bought those when I had kind of given up hope [of ever buying his uncle's car],” he said with a laugh. “Try explaining to my wife why have I three ’54 Manhattans that are exactly the same!

“But it was just one of those things, when you decide you’re gonna do something and devil be damned, you’re gonna do it. I wanted the car. It was a big part of my life that I wanted back.”

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3 thoughts on “Car of the Week: 1954 Kaiser Manhattan

  1. Peter Crisitello

    Kaiser in my opinion is a unique vehicle. Years ago, I was told that unlike most other vehicles of the era, Kaisers were build from the inside out. The comfort of the driver and passengers came first; the rest of the car was designed around that.

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