Another Sleeper: 1954 Kaiser Manhattan

By 1954, the writing was on the wall for Kaiser cars. The company could not compete with the major manufacturers, and after its initial success, its relatively high prices, the lack of a modern V-8 power plant, a small number of models for buyers to choose from, and a limited dealership network all contributed to quickly declining sales. Kaiser stopped selling passenger cars in 1955, and moved on to become a holding company as Kaiser Industries, which became the seller of the Jeep line, which Kaiser had acquired in 1953 when it bought the Willys-Overland company.

Ironically, the 1954 Kaiser Manhattan was a good looking car with many advanced features and was probably as good or better than many of the cars produced by American manufacturers that year. This very nice looking example is for sale on Craigslist in Austin, Texas, with an asking price of a rather steep $12,500.

Still, this car has alot going for it, both in terms of looks, originality and condition. It is a very pretty car, appears to be rust free, and only needing some paint work on the trunk. The the chrome is beautiful, and those tail lights just look fantastic. While the seller says very little about his car, and provides few photos, there is one thing about this car that may make it more attractive to some of us, and that is its drivetrain. This Kaiser features a Ford 289 V-8 and C-4 transmission that were installed in the 1960s, making this car a true sleeper in its current form.

Growing up in the fifties and sixties, I remember seeing a fair number of Kaisers around our town, and one of my childhood friend’s family drove one just like the car for sale here, well into the 1960s. Kaisers have always stood out from the crowd, and the 1954-55 Manhattans were probably the best cars the company produced. Although Kaiser collectors might object to this repowered version, I think the conversion makes the car a better driver, and alot more unusual. I do wish the seller had provided more information about his car, and at least some interior and engine compartment photos. It would be fun to know the story behind this build, which the seller says was professionally done in the 1960s, making this car something of a period hot rod. Beauty – and value – is in the eye of the beholder. Is this car interesting enough to attract your attention, and open your wallet?


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  1. DrinkinGasoline

    This falls into the category of : “Love ‘Em or Hate ‘Em”.
    In my mind’s eye, these were a tad out of proportion in styling but… cannot deny that this was in fact, one of the greatest eras in styling design that will never, ever be repeated.
    At 12.5k, it fails to pry my wallet open but
    I can certainly appreciate this example of American automotive history. Best of luck to the seller and, the buyer.
    “It’s all about the cruise, regardless of the vehicle you choose”. Quote Trademark pending. :)

    • Tim Rusling

      I applaud DG’s open-mindedness and good will. . .not always found in the hearts of car people.

  2. Don

    When I was a kid I thought these looked so cool kind of evil looking .

  3. RayT Member

    I love the styling and, in fact, after having owned three Kaisers in my younger days (one ’52 and two ’53s), remain a fan of the cars themselves. I could do without the 289 and C-4, though; the old Continental “six” and four-speed Hydro that powered all of mine were more than adequate.

    Had a neighbor when I was in primary school (circa 1958 or so) who had a ’54, which I thought was pretty zoomy. I still do. Someday, I might bite for an original ’54, especially if it’s supercharged.

    Like 1
    • DrinkinGasoline

      As a Ford guy, I must concede on your observation of the 289 and C4 in this one. The Continental drivetrain suited them well. The curb weight alone dictated more than the 289 as well as highway speeds requiring more than the C4 could muster given the differential gear ratio.

      • RayT Member

        Never thought of my Kaisers as “performance” cars. They could cruise at highway speeds, got decent fuel mileage, were very reliable, and that was all I asked of them.

        I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to old cars. Of course, some of the cars I WOULD drop a 289 (with manual transmission) into would certainly be considered “classics” by other BF readers, so I’m usually reluctant to point them out! :)

    • Rich

      Ray T – one for sale in eBay here in Des Mines (54 super-charged) with a BIN of around $14k.

    • Richard Ochoa

      Sorry, I equate the Kaiser with a Pacer or a Rambler! Ugly with a Capitol U. I’m a Tri-Five Chevy guy!

      • Tim Rusling

        It’s a shame that the cars that I love will never find favor in your eyes.

        Like 1
      • Duaney

        It’s telling that even the first year of the new styling of the 1951 Kaiser is more advanced and beautiful than the 1955 Chevy that is blocky and square.

        Like 1
      • Jimmy Novak

        Richard proves again that taste isn’t arguable.
        As is my own about Chevrolets, which remind me of oil drums, carnival rides
        and/or mattresses.

  4. Don

    I kind of like the no thumbs up our down .If a man wants to put a thumbs up our down you can still do it .The only thing is we no your name .Grow some.😂

    • DrinkinGasoline

      Agreed. If you like what someone has to say, then agree verbally. If you don’t, then disagree….verbally.
      Say what You mean and mean what you say.
      No need to hide behind a “Thumbs Icon”.

      • Blackta1

        I agree with DrinkinGasoline. So, imagine a large yellow fist with the thumb sticking toward the sky.

      • Dave Wright

        Sort of like people that use silly anonymous monikers instead of there real names.

      • leiniedude leiniedude Member

        I travel to a couple other sites that post your name in small print below the comment if you like or dislike. I always thought the thumb thing was if you agreed or disagreed. I can’t remember if I ever gave a thumb down. And while we are eliminating the thumb option we might as well get rid of those silly anonymous monikers.

    • DrinkinGasoline

      To each their own Mr. Dave Wright…We all have our reasons. :)

      • DrinkinGasoline

        By the way Dave, Drinkin’ Gasoline is the “moniker” airbrushed on the decklid of my Lead Sled (Kustom Kemp) :)

  5. Ed Williams

    I went to the Los Angeles County Fair about the time these were first introduced to the public. They had a test drive circuit laid out on a portion of the parking lot and I got the chance to drive one. I have forgotten which model it was only that drove very nicely and smooth. ( I never did buy one, though.)

    • DrinkinGasoline

      What a cool opportunity ! Not many can say that they drove one !

  6. Don

    I am sorry I just get tired of the damn wining on hear .This is a great place for car guys and girls .

    • DrinkinGasoline

      No need for apologies….the real enthusiasts get it. It’s all good. :)

    • Tim Rusling

      With all the constant fighting against regulatory agencies trying to squash or eliminate old cars from the roadways – or even our driveways, we ought to be supporting each other – and applauding the many varied cars and trucks that collectively turn us on – that we’ve kept from the crusher.

  7. Don

    I do like the 289 kind of a sleeper.

    • DrinkinGasoline

      With that curb weight….maybe stroke it out to a mild 331 :)

    • Tim Rusling

      Though not for total purists, the newer drive train gives this car a new life and will be easier to service. These cars are a fading memory for some of us, and new to younger folk. Keep ’em on the road if at all possible.

      • DrinkinGasoline

        Agreed !

  8. z28th1s

    A 289 in a big heavy car like that is a long way from a sleeper, even though I’m sure it is peppier than the original motor.

    • Chebby

      I was wondering how to say exactly that, nice job.

    • DrinkinGasoline

      That’s why I agreed with the Continental drivetrain. Maybe a 400 with a C6 ? Bellhousing might be an issue though….:)

    • David W Member

      Well look at it this way – the 289 Ford V-8, even if it’s one that’s in mild tune form, puts out over 200 horsepower, whereas the stock side valve six cylinder this car came with was capable of only 118 horses. This car has dual exhausts and likely a four barrel carburetor, so may be putting out closer to 225 horses. I figure nearly doubling the horsepower without increasing the weight means this car will be alot faster than it was originally, and would fool the average spectator or competitor….therefore it’s a sleeper!

      • DrinkinGasoline

        David W…point taken. My 84 F150 4×4 with it’s original equipped 302 C6 8.8 TTB was seriously lacking. It is a Tow Package optioned truck that just didn’t get it. After yanking the engine and taking it to 331 with 300 hp and a shift kit in that C6….she can pull down a house. She may not be pretty, but she does the job.

  9. Fred w

    Two years ago I owned a ’51 deluxe, all original. Pleasure to drive on the back roads but needed that 289 for highway travel.

  10. DrinkinGasoline

    After revisiting…how can you not love that nose shot !?

  11. Mitch

    If memory serves me correctly, the McCullough supercharger only kicked in when the car was floorboarded.

  12. Tim Rusling

    Not every car person needs the most popular or the most beautiful or the most valuable. If you want something that’ll make you stand out at the shows or on the street, maybe you could try another branch of the Kaiser family: a Frazer car.

    • Lou Rugani

      Surprise her with a Kaiser;
      amaze her in a Frazer.

  13. stillrunners lawrence Member

    I was at the esate auction….think it sold for less that $500… buy there and yes there were many sleeping…….

  14. Jim Mc

    Wow….’54 Kaiser Manhattan w/a ’60s swapped 289? I have no problem with this. None whatsoever.
    This one just shot to my top 5 “if I won the lottery” list.

  15. Lou

    I had several Kaisers and two Frazers. Fine cars all.

    Like 1
  16. Fred W.

    They were as good as or better than anything on the raod at the time. “Built to Better the Best” was the company slogan. Only things that did them in were lack of a V8 and constant perception that the company would fail, which ultimately proved true. Back when I owned mine I produced a 30 minute documentary on K-F, for those interested:

  17. Brad

    When I was about 12 years old, my neighbor bought one of these as a barn find. It was 2 tone green, with the factory straight 6 and the supercharger. Mitch suggested that it was a McCullough unit. I recall that the supercharger had an emblem with either a goose or duck in flight. I drove the car several times, and yes, I floored it, and I’m fairly certain that I heard the supercharger come to life. It was a peppy car (for it’s size), and loved the styling. Those tail lights were really cool !

  18. SunbeamerStu

    Here’s an original condition Kaiser Manhattan on CL for $3K OBO:

    Better like green.

    Nope, not mine. Have enough projects as is, tho it would be fun to have this. I like these cars. Just offering a public service.

    • boothguy

      That looks like a 53 and a good deal- check the paperwork

    • Tim Rusling

      Stuff lots of power into it and you’d have a heck of a Manhattan Project.

  19. Rodney

    Ok, here we go. I liked the thumbs up and thumbs down icons. You can like something without explaining why you like it and dislike something without having to explain as well. It controlled the moronic comments and encouraged the smart and thoughtful ones. I found it useful and entertaining. As the recipient of high thumbs (42 on one comment) and low (having my comment removed) I began to understand the language of “The Barn”.

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