When Tom Erickson of Lake Hubert was only 10, he spent a lot of time washing his neighbor's 1952 Kaiser in his parents' driveway.
"I wanted people to think it was ours," the 57-year-old said.
Erickson's interest in Kaiser-Frazer flourished and at one time he owned 12 of the automobiles. Today, he owns seven Kaisers and two Frazers, four of which are in running condition.
Tom Erickson's Kaiser Manhattan, like all the Kaiser and Frazer automobiles, had recessed instruments, a full-length padded dashboard and front seat back. Safety features like these did not cost extra.
His pride and joy is his 1954 Kaiser-Manhattan with a 226 cubic inch six-cylinder motor and three-speed manual transmission with overdrive. The two companies merged in 1953 after manufacturing separate vehicles starting in 1946.
Erickson, an independent home builder and former grade school teacher and electrician, has as much enthusiasm for Kaiser-Frazer cars as Dale Earnhardt has for racing the NASCAR circuit.
Not only can Erickson share information on about every Kaiser or Frazer made, he can recite his first Kaiser's license number and actual miles on it when he bought it as if he was telling when and where he was born.
Tom Erickson's Kaiser Manhattan has high, oversized taillights that give a 180-degree arc seen clearly by cars approaching from the sides. The taillights were called safety-glo rear fender lights.
The company has a lot of history. It was formed in 1946 by Henry J. Kaiser and Joseph Frazer. Kaiser was an industrialist who built ships during World War II (scenes from the film "Titanic" were filmed in one of his more than 1,400 ships). Frazer, a "car man," started Jeep, Plymouth and GMAC Financing.
The last Kaiser-Frazer was produced in 1955 in the United States, making way for the expansion of Jeep. Production of the cars with a different suspension and non-turbocharged engines lasted until 1962 in Argentina.
Erickson bought his first Kaiser, a 1951, on Sept. 12, 1958. He had just turned 16. He bought it from a German doctor who was the only one who could teach him how to drive.
The massive grille on Tom Erickson's car was called a dramatic jet-air scoop grille in magazine advertisements.
Since then, Erickson said he has been able to buy most of his cars for $50 or less, including his current 1954 Kaiser Manhattan. He added that he has made several trips to Colorado with these "$50 wonders." He found his Kaiser Manhattan in a barn in Mora.
"They were great cars, they really were," Erickson said. In the nine years the cars were made in the United States, the four-door and two-door body styles stayed mostly the same, Erickson said.
The company produced the first hatchbacks. They were called the Kaiser Traveler and the Frazer Vagabond. The back seat folded down and there was oak wood runners on the floor. The Vagabond's passenger door on the driver's side was welded shut. This is where the spare tire was.
Tom Erickson also owns a 1949 Frazer Vagabond, the first "hatchback." The back seat folds down. There are oak runners on the floor. Erickson said some of these vehicles became ambulances.
Erickson said some of these vehicles were sold to police departments or used as ambulances.
Six Kaiser-Frazer convertibles and the first compact car, the Kaiser Henry J, also were manufactured.
The body styles may not have changed over the years, but the interiors did. Interiors were upholstered in polar bear, zebra and lion skins, to name a few choices.
The company's greatest contribution to the automobile industry was its standard safety features. These included the lowest center of gravity of any American car, full-length padded instrument panels with no sharp jutting knobs and high, oversized taillights that gave a 180-degree arc seen clearly by cars approaching from the side.
In 1966, the government forced manufacturers to include safety features found on Kaisers and Frazers, Erickson said.
"They (made these safety features standard) because they cared about people," said Erickson, who has installed a thick pad in the middle on his Ford Ranger's pickup's dashboard. "The things are built like a bank vault."
Erickson, who joined the Kaiser-Frazer Owners Club when it started in 1959 and became member number 282, might need a "bank vault" to fulfill his long-term goal.
He wants to retire and rebuild all of his Kaisers and Frazers.
"I wish I had more money," Erickson said. "Imagine what I could do with a few thousand bucks on each one."
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