Rare Ragtops



Even with the windows and top lowered, the author’s Frazer
Manhattan’s window frames remain in the “up” position.

The rarest automotive body style produced in the years since World War II is, with little doubt, the four-door convertible. Our “Motor City Milestone” choice this time is among the rarest of the postwar convertible sedans: the four-door convertibles built by Kaiser and Frazer for the 1949, ’50 and ’51 model years.

Convertible sedans had enjoyed a modest popularity during the 1930s. Open touring cars had virtually disappeared by that time, because they had no side windows, only side curtains, and were uncomfortable in bad weather. Convertible sedans had roll-up windows and were nearly as weather-proof as closed sedans. But it was the Great Depression, and few people were in a sporty mood. As a result, sales, and then production, had all but dried up by 1940.

The last four-door convertibles built by U.S. manufacturers before the war were the 1941 Cadillac Series 62, the Buick Super and Roadmaster, and the Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight. Part of the reason four-door convertibles disappeared was that, starting in 1941, two-door convertibles added rear-seat side windows, making the rear seat a much more pleasant place to be. Before that, riding in the back seat of a two-door convertible coupe with the top up was like climbing into a cave.

For the 1949 model year, K-F facelifted the models it introduced in 1947 with new grilles and more chrome. K-F designers also looked for ways to expand the number of models. Since its start-up, the corporation had built only four-door sedans. A completely new body design was planned that would include coupes and two-doors, but it would not be ready until 1951. So, designers set about coming up with new variations on the four-door. One was the Kaiser hatchback described in my last column (Old Cars Weekly, March 5, 2009). Another was our “Motor City Milestones” subject in this issue: a four-door convertible.

The first prototypes were, literally, sedans with the roof cut off. Testing soon revealed that sedan frames were not rigid enough without the reinforcement provided by a steel roof, so K-F finally had to buy frames specially reinforced with an “X” member. The minimum order was 1,000 frames. An upholstered bulkhead was also installed across the back of the front seat to support and reinforce the “B” pillars (the door posts between the front and rear doors).

None of this extra reinforcement was any surprise to experienced auto designers working on the project. Four-door convertibles in the 1930s commonly made use of a bulkhead between the door posts, and convertibles always require stronger frames than closed cars. There were additional challenges in converting sedan side windows to use in a convertible. A filler panel was needed between the door windows. In the 1930s, most convertible sedans had a solid but removable post secured by thumb screws. K-F took a different approach, using a chrome-framed window instead. This window was not removable, so the chrome window frames for the door windows were left fixed, as well. The door windows rolled down, but the frames remained in the “up” position. K-F couldn’t afford to engineer new window tracks and a removable center window.

Nevertheless, the finished convertible was solid and drove well. Interiors were very luxurious with top-grain leather, center armrests front and rear and hydraulic power windows. The convertibles were considerably heavier than the sedans, so performance was more sedate. The Kaiser and Frazer versions were equally well trimmed, with the Frazer listing for $100 more. Both were introduced in January 1949 — an unlikely month for a convertible.

To utilize some of the reinforced frames bought for the convertible, another model using a steel roof welded to the convertible body was built. It used the convertible windows and doors and was sold as a hardtop. The roof was of a lower profile than the sedans with a wrap-around rear window and was marketed as the Kaiser Virginian (meanwhile, the Kaiser convertible sedan was simply in the Deluxe series). The Frazer convertible and its fixed-roof counterpart were part of the Manhattan series.

Sales did not go well for Kaiser and Frazer during the 1949 and 1950 model years. Most of the competition had new body designs, while K-F products were now in their third year of production. But Henry Kaiser had insisted on maintaining high rates of production. The result was thousands of cars and finished bodies left over at the end of the year. Although it had been decided that the Frazer was to be discontinued in 1951 when the completely redesigned ’51 Kaiser was introduced, new front and rear fenders were designed for the Frazer and installed on the leftover ’49 and ’50 models. The leftover Kaiser and Frazers were all converted to 1951 Frazers!

The beautifully trimmed Frazer and Kaiser convertibles found few buyers. They were priced near Cadillac territory, in spite of being propelled by a modest flathead six. Only 65 1949 and ’50 model Frazer Manhattan convertibles were sold compared to a paltry 22 Kaiser Deluxe convertibles. For 1951, there were no Kaiser convertibles, and just 131 Frazer Manhattan convertibles were sold. Ironically, the ’51 Frazer was a sales success. Some 50,000 orders were received for new Frazers, but to no avail. Once the leftover bodies were used up, there were no more Frazers built.

The Frazer and Kaiser four-door convertibles were almost the end of that body style, but not quite. During the 1950s, Mercedes-Benz built a few hundred Series 300 convertible sedans. Last but not least, Lincoln built four-door convertibles from 1961 through 1967. But that, as they say, is another story.

The Frazer pictured with this column belongs to me. I plan to drive it to the Iola Old Car Show for the big show in July. See you there!

Comments or questions? E-mail the author at byronolsen@comcast.net.

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