Originally seen in the October 30, 2018 issue of Old Cars WeeklyIndiana couple’s stable of Kaisers (and Frazers) includes the last Manhattan to leave the assembly line
By Brian Earnest
Charles Hucker never viewed himself as any sort of automotive preservationist. He grew up around cars and knew a lot about them — mostly how to fix them — but he wasn’t any sort of die-hard enthusiast.And he certainly never considered himself a Kaiser expert, or even a fan of the long-defunct make.
Somehow, however, through an unlikely confluence of events, his own insatiable curiosity, and an old book he had once given his father, Hucker, along with his wife Betty, has become a Kaiser lover, owner and somewhat of an expert on a nameplate that he grew up with, at least for a time.
And, he has the keys to a car that, once it’s fully restored, will be a historic set of wheels: the last Kaiser to “officially” roll off the Toledo assembly line in 1955 before the company exited the car-building business.
“Nah, I didn’t really expect all this to happen,” Hucker says with a laugh. “It’s just kind of snowballed!”
The tale of how Hucker wound up with the last Kaiser really started way back in 1946, when Hucker’s father, Wilbur Hucker, Sr., turned his farm implement business in LaCrosse, Ind., into a Kaiser-Frazer dealership and changed the name from LaCrosse Implement and Supply Co to LaCrosse Motor Sales.Chuck was only a year old when the change occurred, but he still remembers the Kaisers and Frazers coming and going for the next seven years before his father got out of the dealership racket and turned the business into a Standard Oil service station.
If there was any particularly affinity for the Kaiser nameplate in the family at the time, or in the years that followed, Hucker doesn’t remember it. “My dad never really spoke a lot about the car business,” he recalls. “A lot of the Kaiser dealers where bitter when they got out. It was a costly experience for them.
“We had a few cars that sat around that didn’t get sold, and we used them for service cars, but that was about it. We never really had an interest in them.”
In the early 1970s, Chuck gave his father a book titled “The Last Onslaught on Detroit,” which detailed the life and times of the Kaiser and Frazer lines. He figured his dad would enjoy a look back on the company that built the cars he sold, but Chuck didn’t think much more about the book until years later, after he had stumbled across some of his father’s old K-F sales records and newspaper ads. He had gotten the book back after his father died, and began reading the book, digging through more of his father’s old dealership materials and generally becoming enamored with Kaiser history. “One thing led to another,” he says, and soon the Huckers were driving to Corbin, Kentucky, to check out Robert Thomas’ K-F museum, and then rolling on to Ohio to take pictures of a pair of old ’55 Kaisers owned by John Logan.
Logan, by chance, had some more magazines and literature about Kaisers, and he gave them to the Huckers before they departed for home after their picture taking. “He said, “Here, these aren’t doing me any good. You can have them,’” Hucker said. That’s when things really got interesting.
“Betty was reading through some of the magazines in the box during the ride home and she found something that mentioned serial number 11021, and that number rang a bell with me,” Chuck said. He had found a similar number in the book he had given his father, and it turned out that the number was part of a unique run of cars that were supposed to be shipped to Argentina in a consignment deal. A total of 1,021 1955 Kaisers were supposed to be part of the overseas shipment, but only 1,006 were actually sent to Argentina — leaving 15 in the U.S.
These 1,021 cars were the last Kaisers ever built in the traditional way, although more research has shown that at least one more car was hand-built from left-over parts in the Toledo plant for a Kaiser engineer. There didn’t seen to be any disputing that car 11021 was one of the 15 Manhattans that didn’t get sent to South American, and the last assembly line car. The Huckers decided they needed to buy and preserve the vehicle. Logan didn’t want to separate his two Kaisers, so the Huckers wound up buying both cars he still owned. They ultimately sold the other Kaiser, but they have kept 11021 and are in the middle of a lengthy restoration.
“It’s just a piece of history,” Hucker said. “Anybody that restores and old car like that knows you’re probably never going to make any money on it. It’s just a part of history that we couldn’t see being lost forever.
“If the car would have been in better shape, I would have just liked to have left it as it was, but it was pretty rough. It’s pretty much getting the works (a total restoration).”
The historic 11021 Kaiser actually did make a significant road trip well before the Huckers began their restoration on it, however. Back in 2001, the couple trailered the car to the Kaiser-Frazer Midwest meet in Maumee, Ohio — mainly so they could swing by the Toledo plant and take a picture of the car in front of the aging plant before it was torn down. The plant was eventually demolished in 2002, but not before the Huckers had a couple more photos for their albums.
“We took it back to its birth place,” Chuck joked. “We knew the plant was going to be torn down, and we staged the car right in front of the factory.”
Hucker recently retired from his job as a mechanic at A&M Farm Center in Valparaiso, Ind., and hopes that he can speed up the restoration that he says has dragged on “for 5 or 6 years.”
“But I don’t have a place to put the car right now, anyway,” he laughs. “If it was done today, I’d have to sell something to make room in my buildings.”
That’s because in addition to the ’55 Kaiser, the Huckers own a very nice 1951 Frazer four-door sedan, another ’51 Frazer (“It needs a paint job, but we might do that ourself,” Chuck said), a ’55 Kaiser Manhattan that the couple purchased last year in Pittsburgh,’52 and ’53 Kaiser parts cars, and the remnants of a ’54 Kaiser parts car.
“We bought the parts cars because they were going to be scrapped, and we didn’t want to see that happen,” Hucker said. “We had to dig them out, and lay plywood down to drag them out. It was quite a chore to get them (home) … I just didn’t want to see anything like that get scrapped, because there are things on them that can be salvaged.”
“The ’51 Frazer is the nicest one and that’s the one we take to shows. We’ve taken that one to Colorado, and we’ve trailered it to Oshkosh, Wisconsin. If the show is within 50 miles, we’ll drive it. If it’s over 50 miles, we’ll trailer it.”
Chuck hopes to eventually give similar treatment to his historic ’55 Kaiser, although he figures it will be at least a year before the car is ready.
If the “last” Kaiser does nothing more than end up in Hucker’s garage and make it to an occasional show, it would still have been a worthwhile endeavor for the Huckers. Not only has the couple found a shared passion for the cars and the automotive genealogy that has accompanied their Kaiser and Frazer affections, but they have become research experts of sorts and authorities on production figures, serial numbers and other K-F facts, figures and anecdotes from the 1950s. The couple’s Web site, www.geocities.com/kaiserfrazergardens/ tells much of the Huckers’ story.
“We do get a lot of calls and e-mails from people who want to know about certain models,” Chuck said. “My wife has really gotten interested in all of it and she’s put together some books and binders with a lot of photos and information that we take to shows.”
He has restored 11021’s 226-cubic-inch L-head six-cylinder engine and has it ready to go, but the car is still largely in pieces and will need to be painted and completely re-assembled before it is ready to show off.
“I’ve got almost all of the chrome gathered up,” he said. “I’ve got the NOS grille and taillight housings and lenses and script. I’ve picked up a couple of different seats for it a couple years ago, and I was finally able to locate a rear window gasket. Once I get it home, it’ll probably be a year or more putting it back together. There is no headliner in it, or doorliners, or window glass. There is nothing in the car.”
“When it’s done, I’d like to see it go into a museum for awhile, if I can get it looking good enough. I’d like to be able to share it with people.”
Plan your upcoming year with the 2019 Reader Rides Calendar by Old Cars Weekly.
Get yours today!