350 V8 Equipped: 1954 Kaiser Manhattan

While the 1950s were a boom period for the “big three” American automobile manufacturers and they were able to secure the largest slice of the sales pie, that left the smaller independent manufacturers to fight over the crumbs. This led to a situation where these manufacturers were, more often than not, faced with merging to form a stronger base, going broke, or ceasing operations before the latter situation could transpire. One of those smaller manufacturers was Kaiser, and while they might not have achieved huge sales volumes, they did produce some interesting cars. One of those was the Manhattan, and this 1954 model is a car that has just come onto the market. It is located in Long Beach, Mississippi, and has been listed for sale here on Craigslist. The owner has set an asking price for the Kaiser at $5,500.

In 1954, the Manhattan was available as either a 2-door or 4-door versions, with the 4-door outselling its brother by a ratio of 12-to-1. This 4-door is a nice looking car, and it demonstrates some of the design features that made it such a distinctive vehicle. The most obvious of these is the sheer quantity of glass present in the vehicle, which imparts a light and airy feel. Kaiser also utilized an enormous amount of chrome trim on the car, and this also assisted in making the cars, particularly those finished in darker colors, achieve a lighter look. The owner of this particular Manhattan states that the car is essentially in quite a decent state. There are a few marks and dings present, but there is nothing there that is particularly bad. The Black paint is looking tired in a few spots, most notably the hood, but it still remains quite presentable. The only rust that is identified is a spot in the rocker on the driver’s side. The rear floor of the trunk is a known problem area in this respect, but given the fact that this doesn’t rate a mention, that suggests that all is okay there. There is also no mention of any issues with the floors or frame, so once again, you would have to assume that they are solid. For me, one of the disappointing aspects of this car is the finish of the grille, the distinctive headlamp surrounds, hood scoop, and the tail-light trims. All of these should be wearing some nice, shiny chrome, and their current finish detracts from the car’s appearance. Still, they all appear to be in good condition, so a trip to the plater should return them to their best.

One of the factors that probably hurt Manhattan sales more than any other, was the lack of a V8 engine when compared to its competition. Instead, the vehicle found itself fitted with a flathead 6-cylinder engine, producing 140hp. This meant that with the Manhattan tipping the scales at 3,440lbs, performance and acceleration figures were nothing to write home about. Getting from 0-60mph took 15.7 seconds, while the ¼ mile was covered in 20.8 seconds. The owner of this Manhattan has done something to address this shortcoming. The original six has made was for a Chevrolet 350ci V8, while the Hydramatic transmission has been binned in favor of a 700R4 overdrive automatic transmission. Working on the theory that if you are going to make a car go then it would be a good idea to make it stop, the front brakes have been upgraded to power-assisted discs. The Manhattan has also been treated to a custom fuel tank and electric fuel pump, the electrical system has been upgraded to 12-volts, while a new battery, new alternator, HEI distributor, new tires, and an electric cooling fan round things out nicely. With the suspension essentially remaining standard, the owner states that the car drives about as well as you would expect for a sedan of this era, but that the engine really produces more power than the car actually needs. It is probably fine as it is, but depending on its road manners, it might benefit from some work to the springs and shocks at some point down the track.

The presentation of the Kaiser’s interior is quite reasonable for a vehicle of this age, but the owner does identify one or two items that would need to be addressed at some point. The headliner is said to require replacement, while he also says that the dash cluster could benefit from restoration. On that subject, he does say that the speedometer is inoperative. This is most likely due to incompatibility with the updated transmission, and will probably require specialist attention to return it to a functioning state. Two items that don’t function are the radio and windshield wipers, and this is due to the upgrade to a 12-volt electrical system. Fixing the radio could be as simple as installing a converter in its power feed to step it down from 12 to 6-volts. Fixing the wipers might be a bit more involved, and it might require the assistance of an auto electrician. Having said that, there is a pretty strong network of Kaiser owners clubs across the country, and they could be a very useful resource for any required assistance. The rest of the interior looks quite nice, with no signs of any rips or tears in any of the upholstered surfaces.

By 1954, Kaiser was a company that was struggling financially, and in spite of producing some interesting cars, sales volumes simply didn’t reach the sorts of levels that would have made production sustainable. They were only able to sell a total of 4,110 examples of the Manhattan, of which, 3,860 were the 4-door variants the same as this vehicle. By 1955, US production of Kaiser passenger cars ended for good, although they did remain in production for some years in Argentina. In spite of such low build numbers, the Manhattan is not a car that will command a huge price in the current market. Very occasionally, a really pristine example will surface, and these are capable of fetching prices of $30,000 or more. This one isn’t pristine, nor is it original. However, it does look like it would be a blast to drive, and given the mechanical upgrades that it has received, it would seem to be a pretty reasonable buy at the asking price.


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  1. Nevadahalfrack Nevadahalfrack Member

    Hey BF Readers- who can tell me if that bronze look on the hood scoop and grill is stock?
    This is distinctly 50’s and really cool. It’s a shame that it’s history was changed with the Chevy motor and trans, but it’s still a somewhat unique car to be appreciated.

    Like 1
    • RayT Member

      Absolutely NOT stock, Nevada! The earlier “Dragon” model had some gold-plated trim (badges and hood ornament only, IIRC), but this is right there with adding a set of 20-inch gold wire wheels with Vogue Tyres in my book.

      As a former Kaiser owner, I have to say the old “six” delivered enough performance for real-world driving, and the four-speed Hydro was as good as it got for automatics in those days (and for a long time to come). I sometimes thought it would be fun to drop and Oldsmobile V8 in one, as Kaiser actually considered doing that — and built a prototype or two — until GM refused to sell them engines.

      Just as a footnote: Adam quotes 140 horsepower from a stock Kaiser, and that would only have been for the supercharged Manhattan. This might have been one, in which case I say shame on whoever dropped in the SBC, as blown Kaisers were pretty rare. The standard “Supersonic” six delivered more like 110 bhp.

      Like 8
      • Nevadahalfrack Nevadahalfrack Member

        Thanks, RayT. I’d forgotten some of the period cars had the gold trim but yes this looks out of place on this car-although this and the ‘50’s era Buick Roadmaster remind me of the first girl I dated with oral braces….

        Like 2
      • That AMC guy

        Kaiser was in the process of developing its own V8 and at least one prototype was built, but the company did not have enough money to put the engine into production.

        The designer, David Potter, went to work for Nash and developed a V8 to replace the Packard mill that Nash had been using. Due to his experience at Kaiser, the Nash V8 was designed and put into production in less than a year and a half and this became the 1st-generation AMC V8.


        Like 3
    • Robert Pellow

      I believe that this car is actually a 55 model but probably sold in 54. I think the 54 models were closer to the 51 version.

      • RayT Member

        If I remember the story correctly, there were no real ’55 Kaisers, just re-serialed ’54s, as production had ceased altogether by then. In fact, many ’54s (badged “Specials”) were made up with leftover ’53 body panels, and had the smaller ’53-style taillights.

      • Duaney

        The few 1955 models had a revised hood ornament with a taller center fin. There were around 3,000 left over 53 Manhattans, 2 and 4 door, the entire car and body was used to create “early” 1954 Specials, changed was the whole front clip to the 54 design and complete 54 tail lights

        Like 1
  2. Howard A Member

    Best way to go with a classic like this. Extremely unusual looks, and modern drivetrain. Nothing looks worse than your classic car at the side of the road with the hood up. I’ve never seen bronze grills on these. Can’t go wrong here.

    Like 5
    • Nevadahalfrack Nevadahalfrack Member

      Thank you, Howard A. It just looks odd..

      Like 1
  3. whmracer99

    Funny what you think of first sometimes — I looked at that and though “For God’s sake don’t ever break the front or rear glass.” Nice overall driver but in that middling place where it’s not worth enough to buy it and stash it away but driving it risks getting it dinged and fixing it and/or finding parts could be a tough. Just don’t see much of a market for it which is reflected in the asking price. Good luck to the seller.

    Like 1
  4. Bob C.

    Edgar Kaiser liked to say, “Slap a Buick nameplate on it and it will sell like hotcakes.” He was probably right.

    Like 2
  5. BlondeUXB Member

    Love the Eddie Munster roof line…

    Like 6
  6. Bultaco

    The butterfly windshield and backlight just make the look of this cool design. Have the gold painted chrome parts replated, upgrade the suspension to handle the power and drive it. Maybe add vintage air to make summer driving comfortable. Very cool old car.

    • Jack Hammer

      Butterfly? I called it a butt windshield.

  7. Classic Steel

    While i agree on keep original but that ship has sailed..
    I will say much work completed gor the price of the car.

    I guess this was a later Manhattan project without atomic proportions 😉

    Like 4
  8. local_sheriff

    I normally wouldn’t ever encourage any classic owner to drop into a newer V8 JUST because his car has a six – IMHO sixes have their unique properties and hum, and in mod’d form sound almost like a WW2 fighter!

    In this case however I fully understand the swap. The flathead not to mention the sheer weight of the Hydramatic would probably serve as anchors more than power adders… It’s a very unusual find priced reasonably, but built as an Olds powered re-engineered proto as RayT mentions above it would be way more true to history and also able to move

    Like 2
  9. socaljoe

    The bright work looks to have been spray painted gold. It was probably badly pitted. Not a bad car but weary of a salvage title

    Like 3
  10. Gaspumpchas Hulsizer

    yea classic steel I think the seller has a whole lot more into this one than the ask. Sure is unique and would be fun to cruise. IMHO you couldn’t buy this car and get it to this point for 5500. Hope the new owner fixes the gliches and runs the wheels off it!!! A good burnout would leave ’em scratching their heads!!

    Like 4
  11. Fred W

    The V-8 is needed if you ever want to take it on the interstate. I had a well restored one a few years back and decided to drive it to a Kaiser meet about 150 miles away. Took the backroads and it was happy as a clam at 50mph. When I headed home, a member with a Frazer convertible (same engine) was headed the same direction and he took the interstate. My reasoning was, “if he can…why can’t I?”
    After 30 minutes at 65-70 the temp needle was pegged . I got it cooled down and got home but the engine was never quite the same.
    RE: this one- the bronze color is spray paint and a bad choice, but cheaper than plating. I’ll bet the grill alone would be $1000 to chrome.

    Like 3
    • Duaney

      I’ve drove my Kaiser with the 226 at 90mph for hours on end, never a problem, still runs great, don’t go quite that fast these days, that was back when I was a little crazy. But the engine is reliable and can go whatever speed you need.

      Like 2
  12. Little_Cars

    $5500 seems fair enough. I was thinking the gold was an obvious cheap rattle can job, and I was right. At least it made the pot metal last a little longer. They shall be removed and plated as a rite of passage! Wonder how that 350 ci runs with the plumbing missing for emissions? In my world, you better be prepared to plug every hole on the engine or you will be chasing down all sorts of vacuum and blow-by problems.

    Like 1
  13. socaljoe

    Little_Cars vacuum leaks should not be a problem. If so very easy to find and plug. Most older street rods use these modern small block Chevys for power without any issue.

    • Little_Cars

      I don’t dispute you, just noticing that port in the center of the valve cover, and the big hose running past the carb. “In my world” meaning mid-70s MG, everyone plugs everything up on post-1968 engines, some with better success than others.

  14. Jaymon1962

    I really like the looks of this car compared to the Chevy tri-fives. I know that is blasphemy, but there it is. This car has elegant, even mid-century modern, lines.

    Like 4
  15. John S

    Definitely a cool, un-common car! This would be fun to cruise around in and watch all the befuddled faces trying to figure out what the heck it is! As far as the engine swap… they found the problem and fixed it. Here’s a rig that’s not over priced and looks to be in decent shape… if I only had room…

    Like 2
  16. RNR

    Somebody is going to have a lot of fun for only $5500!

    Like 3
  17. Comet

    Is it just me, or does this car remind anybody else of Deputy Dawg?

    Like 1
  18. Del

    Cool conversion but quite a few things left to do.

  19. Bob McK Member

    Fun unusual car that shod drive nicely with the 305 engine. I would love to have it just because it is rare.

    Like 1
  20. Jack Hammer

    As a child, I had a lot of experience with Kaisers. Me dad always loved odd cars, and after he sold our Cad 62 (don’t know why) he bought a ’49 Traveler, and did his own valve job. I should have kept the spring compressor. He later sold it and bought a beautiful dark green 1953 Kaiser Traveler, also a manual. Mom, Dad, Dog and I traveled all over Conn and NY State for vacations, sleeping in the huge back area of the car, as it was a hatchback. I particularly, remember a jaunt from Southern Conn. up to Ft. Ticonderoga NY, always sleeping in the car. I won’t forget those wooden slats. My dad really wanted a Darrin, but even in the mid 50’s, those were albino unicorns. Good old days.

    Like 5
  21. canadainmarkseh Member

    A 90’s Chevy truck engine would have been throttle body injection which I would have left on the engine. It was simple and easy to maintain and would have brought the emissions up to date. If I had this car right now I’d consider going back to that. This conversion is a very practical way to go if actually want to drive your classic car that’s why so many people do these conversations, they actually want to drive there cars. I’m going to start out with the flat head 6 under the hood of my dodge but a 318 is not out of the question for me.

  22. Timothy Curry

    Is this Kaiser still for sale ? how do I contact the owner ? im interested, Thanks Tim 617-719-9590 e mail currytim61@gmail.com , Thanks Tim

  23. Duaney

    The car isn’t listed on the local Craigslist. (Gulfport)

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