Answer Man

Answer Man: Frazer added short, colorful chapter to car history

Q. I have an old picture of a friend standing next to a Frazer automobile. I am unfamiliar with the make. What can you tell me about them, and where did they make them?

— B.W., of Belleville

A. Let me start my answer with a trivia question I think you’ll find equally interesting: While he worked at the Chrysler Corp., who came up with the name for the old Plymouth automobile — and why?

It was Joseph W. Frazer, who later would see his own name plastered on tens of thousands of cars — including the one with your friend. But in the late 1920s, Chrysler was looking to enter the economy-car market and needed a name for its new product.

Frazer suggested Plymouth — but not for the reason you might think, according to an article by Richard Langworth in a 1988 issue of Collectible Automobile. Yes, the Plymouth car would immediately use the Mayflower, which, according to legend, landed at Plymouth Rock with the Pilgrims, as its logo. But Frazer wasn’t envisioning an early Bob Seger “like a rock” slogan.

“That’s a good, old American name,” he reportedly said when he proposed the name. “Ever hear of Plymouth Binder Twine?”

Many of his colleagues were less than impressed with the idea, which was based on a product from the Plymouth Cordage Co., the world’s largest manufacturer of twine and rope in the world at the time. Company founder Walter Chrysler, however, latched onto it immediately.

“Every farmer in America knows about Plymouth Binder Twine,” Chrysler said, obviously thinking about a huge target audience. “Let’s give them a name they’re familiar with.”

It was another milestone on Frazer’s road to success in the automobile industry. In 1939, the Yale engineering school alum was elected president of Willys-Overland, which won the government contract to design the Jeep. By 1944, Willys-Overland was raking in $212 million a year thanks to the Jeep’s quick-won popularity.

But in 1944, Frazer apparently needed a new challenge, so he took control of the Graham-Paige Motors Corp., which had suspended production in September 1940 in favor of producing war materiel. Frazer promised that the company would resume making cars at the end of World War II with a brand-new model named the Frazer.

To do this, however, Frazer needed funding, which is how he met Henry Kaiser, a self-made California industrialist, who had amassed a fortune in shipbuilding, cement, steel and aluminum during the war. In 1945, the two formed Kaiser-Frazer and set to work.

At first, the future looked bright. To manufacture their new lines, they immediately bought the Ford Motor Co.’s old Willow Run complex between Ypsilanti and Belleville, Mich. (Later, others would be built in Long Beach, Calif., for West Coast sales as well as Canada, Israel, Japan, Mexico City and Rotterdam, Holland.) Unions were on board, figuring competition with Ford, GM and Chrysler would be healthy for wages and job security.

So in 1946, before the Big Three could get up to speed again, the two men turned out 4,000 Frazers and 7,000 Kaisers, a similar car. They lost $19 million, but they were only getting started. With the introduction of the Kaiser Special, the company produced 100,000 cars in 1947 for a $19 million profit.

The cars had a lot going for them, including the first true postwar sheet metal and welded steel construction along with such modern amenities as aluminum alloy pistons, automatic choke, dual-acting hydraulic brakes, independent suspension, a curved rear window and fresh-air heater. They followed that with another profitable year in 1948 as the Kaiser Special caught on.

But with the Big Three ramping up their postwar production of new models, Kaiser-Frazer sales began to slide, and consumers soon feared being stuck with cars that could not be repaired. In 1949, the company lost $31 million and a rift between the two owners began to grow. From a peak market share of 5.4 percent in 1948, Kaiser-Frazer cars essentially disappeared by 1956. But by that time, Joseph Frazer had left the company in 1950 and the Frazer car disappeared in 1951 after the final 10,000 leftover 1950 bodies were used.

Still, Kaiser went on to buy Willys-Overland in 1953 to form the Kaiser-Willys Corp., which would be sold to the American Motors Corp. in 1963 and, ironically, in 1987 to Chrysler, where Frazer had had his big start. Frazer died of cancer in 1971 at age 79.

Final fascinating footnote: Graham-Paige Motors, which Frazer acquired in 1944, dropped “Motors” from its name in 1960 and went into the real estate business, buying such properties as the third Madison Square Garden sports arena in New York, which was razed in 1968. In 1962, the firm changed its name to the Madison Square Garden Co.

Today’s trivia

What Ivy League running back was the first Division I player to break the 4,000-yard mark in three seasons, setting an NCAA career rushing record in the process? Hint: He became a popular actor after his professional football career.

Answer to Sunday’s trivia: Humans sometimes get a “frog” in their throats, but on a horse, you’ll find the frog on the underside of its hoof. It’s a V-shaped structure that starts at the rear of the hoof and gradually narrows before ending about two-thirds of the way toward the front. Blackish-dark-gray in color, it is thought to act as a shock absorber and helps the horse’s grip on hard, smooth ground. It also helps pump blood up the horse’s leg each time it hits the ground. It is said to be akin to the human fingertip.