Supercharged Sedan: 1954 Kaiser Manhattan

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“The only ’54 car for under $6,000 equipped with [sic] supercharger. the ’54 Kaiser’s performance must be experienced to be believed. Developed with Kaiser and McCulloch engineers, Kaiser’s supercharger is controlled by a solenoid switch on the accelerator. It idles at cruising speeds (saves gas) but revs up the instant you step down on the gas.” So says a brochure showing the 1954 Kaiser Supercharged Manhattan. This example is posted here on craigslist in Soddy-Daisy, Tennessee, just northeast of Chattanooga, and the seller is asking $7,500. Here is the original listing, and thanks to Rocco B. for the tip!

The first thing that strikes me about this car is how incredibly nice it looks inside and out. The seller says that it has a new paint job in satin black, certainly an unusual finish for what would have been one of the most elegant cars of the era. I like it a lot, but I would prefer a shiny finish on my fancy Manhattan. And some wide white wall tires, but condition-wise, this one looks outstanding.

There is no mention of rust or bodywork, but some of the chrome could use help, or not. Just make sure everything is functioning correctly and drive it as it looks now. There are many unusual styling features on this car, not the least of those are the tail lights. Howard “Dutch” Darrin redesigned the company’s top model, the Manhattan, in 1951 and this ’54 model is wearing a redesigned grille. 1954 would be the last full year of production for this company with a few cars being sold in 1955.

Wow, what a clean interior! How is this car only $7,500? Hagerty is at $9,900 for a #4 fair-condition car and $18,900 for a #3 good-condition car. This sure looks like a good one to me. If this car doesn’t have loads of bondo and rust underneath that fresh matt black paint, and it runs and drives as well as it looks, this is an absolute steal. The interior wouldn’t have had vinyl seating surfaces, but it looks great and is all-new, according to the seller. They even show a photo of the trunk and it’s filled with most-likely rare parts and other Manhattan goodies.

Other than the overall visual condition, the big thing here is this engine. Or more so, its supercharger. This is a Continental flathead-six with 118 horsepower before stepping on it and opening up the supercharger, which then brings it to 140 horsepower. It sends power through a three-speed manual to the rear wheels and the seller says this car runs and drives great, and I say this is a killer deal if it checks out. What are your thoughts on this supercharged Kaiser Manhattan?

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  1. JustPassinThru

    I’m thinking that it’s low priced because memories are dying off. How many under-50 types even know who Henry Kaiser even WAS? His work on the Hoover Dam, and with Liberty Ships, and how he was trying to set up his personal conglomerate, but unfortunately, time ran out for him.

    And the Tax Man came and took most of his stuff – had to be sold to pay huge Estate Taxes.

    Kaiser’s entry into the auto world was dramatic, but in the long term, not that lasting in its influence. He was in for nine years – and in the end, with Kaiser-Frazer on the ropes, and him not willing to further risk the parent company, he opted to phase things out. His Argentinian subsidiary, IKA, was doing well, and the Manhattan and other models’ tooling were exported there. As were Willys-Overland’s passenger-car tooling, after Kaiser Industries bought failing Willys. Henry Kaiser, construction magnate and government contractor, couldn’t grasp the finer points of big-ticket consumer sales, but he sure knew government contracts, He thought, and correctly, that the military contracts for MBs and later M38 trucks (jeeps) would work as the basis for a pared-down Willys Motors.

    To this car. Henry Kaiser, in his brief time in private-sale autos, tried his hardest to do things right. In fact, that’s how he ran Willys/Kaiser-Jeep, to the end – using higher-quality supplied parts, such as Jeep’s use of THC transmissions, not Warner or PowerGlide.

    His Kaiser cars were built well, with sturdy parts…but the time, the era, was when expensive cars were expected to offer a V8. And Kaiser simply could not buy one, not from GM, not from independent makers.

    The supercharger was to be his temporary solution until his new engine specialist, David Potter, got through his crash program to create a Kaiser V8.

    It never happened. Kaiser-Frazer ran out of money. Joe Frazer, his partner with auto experience, had already bailed. Kaiser’s own banks refused to loan for anything involving K-F. It was time to retreat, and accept Willys-Overland as a consolation prize.

    David Potter was fired with many of the staff, and took his drawings out the door to Kenosha. Over at American Motors, he got a clean-slate V8 into production in record time.

    This car: Reasonable price. But, will it satisfy a buyer if the buyer has to spend every C&C meet-up, explaining what a Kaiser is?

    Like 41
    • Aussie Dave Aussie DaveMember

      Hey I’m over 50 (too close to 60 for my liking) I’ve never heard of Henry Kaiser, but I have heard of Kaiser cars.
      This one is a beaut, but the under value has me concerned.

      Like 13
    • Jesse Stout

      Excellent comment ” Just Passin Through”!! 👍🏻

      Like 7
    • RICK W

      This Vintage Rolls Canardly (Roll down one hill and Can ardly get up the next) recalls Henry J. as well as J.J. Nance, Charlie Nash, George Mason, Frazier, et al, who were unfortunately unable to save their innovative and great automobiles. Now, so many great Marques are gone, while we are faced with SUVS, crossovers and melted jelly beans, masquerading as Luxury vehicles.

      Like 12
      • RICK W

        BTW, also recall aspirational names, like Manhattan, Ambassador, Patrician, New Yorker, Fifth Avenue, President, ( Studebaker Dictator might be appropriate today 😀), et al. Before combination of letters and numbers took over for vehicles which are far from inspiring.

        Like 13
    • Urbane Coyote

      Henry J’s health plan, started for Oakland shipyard workers, is still going strong.

      Long live Kaiser-Permanente!

      Like 1
    • Wayne from Oz

      Isn’t that what C&C is for, to chat?

      Like 1
    • yermamsrude yermamsrudeMember

      If you’re a native Californian, particularly from the Bay Area, Henry J Kaiser’s legacy lives on in the form of one of our biggest HMOs, Kaiser Permanente. His name is still on some buildings in Oakland, and he even has a street named after him! I doubt most Californians are aware of his foray into motor vehicles these days, though.

      Like 1
  2. HoA HoAMember

    “Pardon me boys”, but Chattanooga has 2 “T’s”. We can excuse the author, probably still reeling from that deck estimate, $$$, just terrible,,anyway, these cars always reminded me of a Basset hound, with those droopy eyes. Aussie Dave probably isn’t the only one, but at one time, and JPT said it well, Henry Kaiser was THE most successful man in America. His WW2 contributions and of course the Jeep later, it was said he valued his employees and treated them well.
    This car? All good things must pass, and for some reason, the cars were never popular, except the Henry J. A last gasp effort here throwing everything from the parts bin at it to no avail. The supercharger was just a marketing gee-gaw, and only useful at above 3,000 rpms,(?) right when the flattie was running out of room. After the belt broke, like Studebakers, many never replaced it. Got to admit, compared to the others, only that weird college professor would own one. Again, weird is in, at least in my neighborhood, and be right at home, however, the stick will kill the deal, I’m telling ya’.

    Like 13
    • Scotty GilbertsonAuthor

      Thanks for catching that, HoA!

      Like 5
    • RICK W

      Pardon Me HoA, are we on the Chat a New GA Choo Choo? 👍.😅 🤣 😂 . Sorry, sometimes I just can’t help myself! STILL Crazy 🤪 after all These years!

      Like 4
  3. Glemon

    Kaiser, like all the 50s orphans, has an interesting story. I always thought the styling was just a little strange, but that interior sure is a nice, clean design forgle the fifties. I didn’t know they were that expensive new, can see why it was a tough sell.

    Like 5
  4. Gary

    Very cool “Safety-Glo” tail lights and the first car to mention an ergonomic interior. Buick show-car grille too. Better styling than most other 1954’s but no V8 was the main problem.

    Like 8
  5. rbig18

    Supercharger is cool, lack of a V8 hurt, but the main problem was styling. They were just all ugly. The Chevy Aztec

    Like 2
  6. little_shoesMember

    I like.

    Like 5
  7. chalieMember

    They were under powered compared with the price competition, Olds, Buick, and for less money a V8 Ford, or a Dodge with the hemi. Even Studebaker had a V8 by 1951, and, the Hudson 6 was far more powerful. The fit and finish was really great, a pop-out windshield if a front end crash so you would not be decapitated by the glass (seat belts were a far cheaper solution).

    Like 4
  8. Harrison Reed

    I remember Henry Kaiser well. And certainly when his slab-sided Kaiser and Frazer came in 1947, they were like nothing else on the the road. They were popular… at first. But then, by 1950, they were stalling in the marketplace. The Henry J. was not all that popular, in my recollection — except for its first year, 1951. Almost a tragedy to see one of these selling for such a low price. Not far from here, there is someone who has an entire “fleet” of 1951-1953 Ksiser Manhattan cars (don’t believe he has a ’54).

    Like 7
  9. Big C

    At that buy in price? Someone looking to get into the old car hobby might bite. The computer geek, when he buys his plastic ’32 Ford coupe, from Classics R US auto mall, usually wouldn’t know the history of Henry Ford from Henry Aaron. He just thinks it’s cool looking, when he pulls into the car show.

    Like 3
  10. chrlsful

    orphans are fun and they need some one to love them

    Like 12
    • jwaltb

      That’s the best Chrisful comment I’ve ever seen!

      Like 5
    • Matthew Dyer

      What did you say? Wink
      PS O get moft ait

      Like 0
  11. Will

    Ugly? ‘Scuse me but considering the other ’54s, all except the Bourke-designed Studie Coupe, this thing is pure art of the highest sort. (Personally, I prefer the unadorned original from Dutch in the ’51. It’s the one with the smaller fin-end taillamps and the simple two-bar grille.)
    The design is truly timeless and even today– especially today– it stands out as svelte compared to the current crop of tortured metal gray turds such as the Nissan Juke which gets uglier by the year.
    But then, I’m a old, retired designer so what do I know…

    Like 10
  12. Mike F.

    My Dad was hired by Henry Kaiser personally at Grand Coulee Dam in Washington, and worked for Kaiser Engineers for 35 years. He was around Henry from time to time in the early years and said you couldn’t tell him anything. Frazier, the car guy, certainly couldn’t. His decision to overproduce cars as the market cooled, along with the Ford and Chevy 1953-1954 price war (and the v8 issue) killed the brand.
    We had 4 of them over the years….nice stately, cruiser types. My high school car was a ’51 2 door in that lime green color and I took a lot of flak from the Model A, ’40 Ford and ’49 Merc guys at school but it got me there. I loved it. Lots of memories.

    Like 8
  13. Jack

    Gosh, HoA, the Kaiser wasn’t popular? Couldn’t tell that to my father, he had TWO of ’em! The first was a ’47 bought when I was 5, so I only vaguely remember that one. Now Pop was a farmer and I do remember STANDING (no car seat back then) on the front seat while he went flying across a field with parts for a piece of broken down farm equipment. He and my mother were on their way back to New Jersey after a trip to Florida in February when they had some kind of problem with the Kaiser and he traded the car in on the spot for a new ’53 Kaiser. Since it was a Florida car, it didn’t even have a heater in it until he got back to Jersey and Fortnum Motors, who sold Studebakers, put one in the car. The Kaiser had a Continental spare tire that was stolen on another trip to Florida in ’56. The next year, ’57, the Kaiser was gone and a Dodge Coronet 4 door graced the parking area in the farm yard. Lotsa memories from that one and the push button transmission, but that’s another story…

    Like 6
  14. Kermit Koch

    Well said Justpassingthrough. I work with a 23 year old mechanic. I started talking about Studebakers and Ramblers and then he asked me, “What’s a Studebaker?”

    Like 3
    • JGD

      You should have told him that Studebaker entries ran at the Indianapolis 500 in 1930, 1931, 1932, and 1933. The 1932 race fielded a 5 car team with all 5 cars finishing the race and #22 driven by Cliff Bergere finishing a team best 3rd place. For more info google “Studebaker at the Brickyard”.

      PS. I’m a former owner of a 1930 Dictator 6 Sedan (in 1958) and a 1963 Hawk R1 (in 1963-65).

      Like 3
  15. Harrison Reed

    Will and Mike F.: I really enjoyed you comments! I personally found the 1951 Kaiser just a bit “plain Jane”, though: it needed dressing-up a bit. But the 1954 was a classic study in wretched excess — especially at the front end! My favourite, looks-wise, was the 1953 — dressier than the ’51, but still holding to the basic 1951 style. 1953 was a lovely year for many makes. The tail ends of Chrysler makes received a badly needed styling update, ending that “rabbit-sitting-down” side-profile. They had received a desperately-needed nose-facelift in 1951, and 1953 completed the picture. Sadly, in 1954, they simply added unnecessary bulbous chrome accents to the 1953 designs, uglifying them. Starting in 1955, Chrysler cars decided to go toward the Weird — an ugly trend which extended into the 1960s. The 1953 Chevrolet update had to wait for 1954, to get better-looking. Despite very bad fender-vent rusting issues, the 1953 Studebaker coupe was clearly a classic — demonstrated by the fact that the basic design was still working in the Hawk as late as 1964. But when you look across the automotive design landscape in 1954, you first see the unnecessary added chrome trend taking hold that year. In 1955, it would destroy the Studebacker coupe, the 1955 buick, Cadillac, and Oldsmobile. The earlier Oldsmobile Futuramic, running from 1948 to 1951, is instructive on how a static design simply progressively got more richly trimmed, with each new year. I loved the 1953 Kaiser Manhattan with that special roof (the name of that up-market model escapes me at the moment — one of you will surely think of it!). Oddly, Frazer, in 1951, instead of still looking like the Kaiser, alternatively resembled something of an odd full-sized Henry J.! But, given 1954 trends of going gaudy with chrome to mask a dated design; we can hardly fault Kaiser for what they did that year.

    Like 4
    • Mike F.

      Harrison Reed – back at you about your comments. I personally think the ’53 Studebaker Starlight Coupe was about the prettiest car of that era….beautiful lines. And I agree about Chrysler in ’55….just too strange.
      We had a ’53 Manhattan, dark grey over dove grey. Never had an issue with it. Unfortunately my sister totaled it. I can’t laugh tho because I totaled the ’51 my senior year in high school. Alas….

      Like 0
  16. Harrison Reed

    I just thought of it: the 1953 Kaiser DRAGON! (isn’t the elderly mind wonderful??

    Like 7
  17. Harrison Reed

    Kermit Koch: Had no clue as to what a Studebaker was; hey? What would he have done with a Franklin or Hupmobile? Did you ever notice how LONG those little Studebaker pickups from the late 1940s and early 1950s remained in daily service? Now, sadly, many of them are lawn-ornaments.

    Like 3
  18. Robert

    Right you are, Rick..unfortunately it would seem that the days of the quality-built, affordable and stylish automobile is long gone, and we’re left with plastic cars that cost half a years salary(unless you buy something expensive), are nearly impossible to work on yourself because it takes very expensive equipment to discern what’s wrong with them, and are worth less than half of what they cost in 3 years time..sure there are exceptions, but show me one of them that has an ounce of the styling and presence that the Kaiser for sale here exudes. Super neat car, if I didn’t have so many irons in the fire, I’d give her a good home!

    Like 4
  19. NicMember

    @ JustPassinThru
    thank you for the interesting story and the short introduction to the Kaiser world.

    Mal sehn ob es klappt

    Like 1
  20. bone

    These cars always remind me of one of those old Tex Avery cartoons about the “cars of the future” where they would have bizarre looking cars having odd options like an automatic razor to shave your face when you were late to work.
    I think its for sale cheap is because the car was painted flat black ( Rustoleum spray cans ?) which may be hiding things , and to do this car right would require a lot for a quality paint job . The engine back looks kind of ratty too.

    Like 2
  21. V8roller

    @JustPassinThru great write-up, I didn’t know about the origin of the 327 V8 that’s in my Rambler.
    Too right about people knowing nothing of past cars, but then why would they…. what’s missing from most of the cars at shows is any information… all it takes is a write-up sello’d in the side windows, a little history and information about the car, like I have in my 63 Rambler. Just polish and park the car is not enough, if you want to keep the old-timer flame alive.

    Like 0
  22. Bali Blue 504

    I’ve a ’50 Hudson Commodore with ratty fabric on the seats. Quoted $5K labor to have the seats redone (and to top that off – no identical cloth available), I could nearly buy the Kaiser. Neat deal: A new interior and a free gem-of-a-car to go with it.

    Like 2
  23. NicMember

    … Interest, but despite multiple requests, unfortunately there is no reaction or answer from the seller on craigslist.
    Too bad, not serious such a thing

    Like 1
  24. Scotty GilbertsonAuthor

    20 days after the seller posted this car for sale, it’s still for sale! How is that even possible?

    Like 0

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