The old early 50’s Henry J models built by Kaiser had to be one of the best hot rod bodies of all time, providing the perfect platform for a perfectly righteous gasser. Often outfitted with a 351 Cleveland or other suitable V8 drivetrain, the pint-sized little cars made the perfect drag car with the right look as well as power to weight ratio.
When they first appeared as a compact four cylinder economy car introduced in 1950 that continued until 1954. Sears department stores even marketed their own version of the little Kaiser model, sold as the Sears Allstate. Steel tycoon industrialist Henry J. Kaiser had at one time hoped to revolutionize American society by creating a low cost automobile with a similar simplicity concept as the original Model T Fords. With the basic 2.2 liter four banger, purchased from Willys, and the same as used in the Jeep models, the little Kaiser cars could get up to 35mpg. A six cylinder engine was later added.
But, the small Kaiser cars sold very poorly despite the low $1300 price tag. That was only $150 less than a striped down full size Chevrolet. And the Henry J eliminated such features as armrests, a trunk lid, and many other parts in an effort to be both cheap and simple. But, American buyers weren’t that interested in that, and loved a little more size, power and luxury in their cars, where the bigger Ford and Chevy models easily outsold the Henry J. But, many of the cars found a later life as gasser hot rods in later years as old Henry J’s had a low resale price as well as the striped down nature of the cars made them appeal to drag racers.
Today, custom hot rod Henry J are some of the coolest hot rods on the road. But, when they were new, they were a real marketing failure. Getting 35mpg wasn’t popular when gas was both plentiful as well as cheap.