Not all '50s cars were born cool. Sure, some started looking good over the years and others earned their keep as alternatives to the mainstream. A few even endeared themselves as loveable ugly ducklings. Then there's the Kaiser sedan.
On paper, the '51 Kaiser had everything going for it: Howard "Dutch" Darrin styling cues, a unique browed windshield, a European-influenced greenhouse, and a natty looking grille. In steel, rubber, and glass, however, the sum of those parts flew like a lead zeppelin. Time hasn't been kind to the Kaiser, either; nowadays, they're appealing as curiosities like Edsels and AMC Pacers ... only uglier. It still takes a visionary to see the Kaiser's dormant beauty.
J.F. Launier confesses that the Kaiser's grace wasn't readily accessible at first. He admits never noticing Kaisers until one rolled into his shop for paint, and even then, he thought it strange at best. As J.F. started working, however, something clicked. "I was sanding one of the fenders-you know, really feeling the thing-and I thought to myself, 'Man, this thing has shape!'" he says.
Even though J.F. convinced the owner to let him lower that particular Kaiser and give it big 'n' little whitewalls, he couldn't shake the thought of a fully massaged Kaiser. "I wanted to build something really different for a long time, and Laurie Peterson's Stude ("From Tubs to Dubs," Custom Rodder, November 2002) was one of my inspirations," he says. However, "Once I saw the Kaiser that way, I thought, 'Why do I want to copy something that's already been done?'"
J.F.'s Kaiser is a culmination of four cars, including the first he found, an uncommon '51 business coupe. To briefly describe what he's done doesn't do the story justice, for hundreds of small changes accompany every major cut. We'll give it a shot, though.
First, J.F. removed the roof and shortened the body 7 inches between the doors and rear wells. Rejoining the two halves proved especially difficult, as the quarters feature several compound curves that no longer matched. The cut required J.F. to project the quarter-panel's dip, a Howard Darrin design hallmark, into the door. He took it as an opportunity to make the dip terminate as a quarter-panel bulge; however, the new shape made the door's rear vertical edge look considerably clunkier. J.F. addressed that by giving the back of the doors a softer S-curved edge.
The roof went back onto the car, albeit more than 4 inches lower and with its windshield leaned back another 10 degrees. He relieved the top of everything below the gutters and fabricated entirely new sections to produce a pillarless greenhouse. The gasket-set windows didn't follow the more contemporary profile, so J.F. closed the gap between the glass and roof, tweaked the window trim to match the new shapes, and flush-mounted the glass.
J.F. eliminated the cowl ahead of the windshield and extended the hood rearward to create a more contemporary pocketed cowl. He reduced the hood's profile at the nose and replaced the Kaiser's stock grille perimeter with a hand-cut-and-filed brow. He created a sleeker bumper from original bumper pieces and flat- and round-stock steel, and gave the nose a more streamlined feel with Jeep Liberty headlights.
The Kaiser's original frame matched neither the car's wheelbase nor its new demeanor, so J.F. created a frame from 2x4-inch 'rails and Art Morrison arches. The front uses a Dale Gerry crossmember and Corvette suspension components that were, ironically, forged from Kaiser aluminum. The rear is a Ford 9-inch on Gerry's four-link/Panhard linkage. Both use Firestone air springs and Aldan Eagle adjustable dampers.