Kaiser Manhattan 4-dr Sedan

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Keywords: Kaiser Manhattan 4-dr Sedan
Description: In the 1940s industrialist Henry Kaiser applied his formidable manufacturing talents to building very attractive new cars and making them available before the Big Three revised their lines following

In the 1940s industrialist Henry Kaiser applied his formidable manufacturing talents to building very attractive new cars and making them available before the Big Three revised their lines following World War II. Kaisers sold well at first, with low-six-figure sales registrations, about the same as Studebaker in 1948. But this great postwar automobile story began to unravel.

By 1950 Detroit’s new designs and engines offset Kaiser’s novelty. The marque’s dramat­ic 1951 redesign, created by the legendary Howard "Dutch" Darrin, was hobbled by a six-cylinder powerplant that couldn’t compete with buyers’ increasing preference for eight-cylinder engines in mid-price cars. Kaiser’s reversal of for- tune kept the company from ever again offering a new body design; the 1953 Kaiser Manhattan featured here is virtually identical to its 1951 predecessor.

The Kaiser car business was only seven years old when this handsome Manhattan two-door was built. The car, which lives at the Antique Automobile Club of America Museum in Hershey, Pennsylvania, was donated by the family of the late Sylvester Pittman of nearby Cham-bersburg. Pittman took excellent care of the Manhattan, as evidenced by a notepad in the glovebox containing detailed maintenance notes. In August 1981, with 28,750 miles on the clock, Pittman changed the No. 30 oil and put in a new filter. The contents of a cardboard box in the trunk include an original shop manual, some NOS parts in original boxes and a gallon of exterior paint.

The Manhattan, now with 84,300 miles on its odometer, is a good-sized vehicle with a 118-inch wheelbase and an overall length of 210 inches. The 118-hp L-head six-cylinder engine—euphemistically named Supersonic—displaces 226 cubic inches and is fed by a 17-gallon gas tank. This car has the optional Hydra-Matic transmission. But its lack of power steering is disappointing—when maneuvering to park, steering can be reminiscent of prewar cars.

The Manhattan reflects Kaiser’s main theme for 1953: safety. A tall greenhouse hides the car’s low center of gravity and provides good views of the fenders for parking. The wraparound bumpers protect against sideswiping.

While the Manhattan is a mechanically competent machine, it is the car’s intriguing design that is the big draw. The interior sports a combination of clever tan and brown vinyl called Bambu and Boucle, which resemble decorator fabrics with their complex textures. Bench-style seats are comfortable, with slightly soft cushions. A single round cluster of instruments faces the driver with an embossed vinyl-covered padded cowl running the length of the dash. Stretched along its base are recessed radio controls, the glovebox, clock, etc.

Looking closely at the bright exterior trim reveals slightly different finishes—bumpers are chrome, but side trim is stainless steel. There is a rather obtuse explanation for this on a card found in the owner’s manual, titled "Care of Bright Trim." It describes both government restrictions on metals (due to the Korean War) and the need to wash the car every week, applying "Kaiser-Frazer Lustur-Seal Haze Cream" to the trim. Too much time has passed to tell how well that procedure disguised the difference in finish.

Kaiser’s 1953 merger with Willys-Overland accelerated its decline by sparking a highly publicized controversy over the company’s military contracts. As Kaiser shut down its automobile factory in 1955, the production equipment was shipped to Argentina, where the model continued to be built into 1962.

This Manhattan club sedan is about to begin a second career, too—on the big screen. Our drive took place during an update of its operating attributes just before being sent to New York City and Washington, D.C.—along with nine other AACA Museum cars—to take part in filming of the upcoming Robert De Niro-directed The Good Shepherd. The Manhattan’s good looks are sure to be appreciated in Hollywood.



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