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Post-War American Minis That Failed

by Bob Hagin

September 24, 2001

At the turn of the last century, almost anyone with an idea and a machine shop could and did start an automobile company.

Just after World War II, that same entrepreneurial spirit was strong in America. We'd won the war and now a multitude of adventurers decided that there was a niche market for small (some very small), economical autos in the burgeoning American market place. These are the ones that tried and failed:

CROSLEY - The post-war Crosley was the epitome of basic four-wheel transportation. It could hold four average sized adults - but they'd have to be very close friends. Its body was almost as basic as two metal boxes joined together: one for the engine and a larger one for passengers. When it came out in 1946, it was powered by a 60-pound, point-seven-liter four cylinder engine that had been developed for military use to power portable water pumps and generators. It rolled on 10-inch wheels and was almost as narrow as a kid's pull wagon. The suspension front and rear were solid axles located by leaf springs and to make things even more basic, the brakes were mechanically actuated. The interior was made of vinyl and cardboard. Small cars that got good fuel mileage were hot just after World War II and the Crosley was a success - at first. It only cost around $1000, but in a few years the American economy heated up, so big became beautiful and the tiny Crosley disappeared in 1952, taking $3-million of Powel Crosley's money with it. Powell had made his fortune in cheap radios and household appliances before the war, but he was out of his depth in the new car business.

HENRY J - Another industrialist who misread the inner machinations of the auto-building business was Henry Kaiser. Kaiser made a fortune in the '30s in construction and the cement business. At war's end, he and fellow entrepreneur Joseph Frazer acquired Henry Ford's huge Willow Run bomber assembly plant near Ypsilanti, Michigan, and got into the auto business. Besides the full-sized sedans that the Kaiser-Frazer company produced, in 1950, the company unfortunately got into the compact car business with its small Henry J. It was unfortunate in that the "compact car" niche didn't get rolling for another decade. The Henry J came in only one body style: a two-door fastback that in its original form, lacked outside access to the trunk, a drawback for family use. It carried a Willys four-cylinder engine as standard equipment but it could also be had with 2.6-liter straight-six unit that gave the lightweight Henry J excellent acceleration. It sold for around $1350 at a time when a more luxurious Chevrolet could be had for not much more. Kaiser and Willys merged in '54 and the marque slowly disappeared with the last of the Henry J's m being built in Japan, Israel and the Netherlands.

ALLSTATE - For basic information on the Allstate, refer to the information on the Henry J. The car was built by Kaiser-Frazer for Sears Roebuck for sale through that company's mail order catalog as well as through its retail stores. Aside from the fact that its grille and its logo were different, the Allstate and the Henry J were twins and both could be had with a four-or six-cylinder engine. As many Sears items as possible were used on the Allstate which resulted in the basic car being guaranteed for three months but the tires, battery and some other items were warranted for much longer. Since the prices were the same, it was discovered by Sears marketing that buyers would rather buy from a "legitimate" dealer with a showroom rather than through a catalog. The Allstate faded away in 1953, one year earlier than its Kaiser clone.

NASH METROPOLITAN - The Nash Metropolitan (later know simply as the Metropolitan) was an Anglo-American venture between Nash (at one time a major name in the U.S. car business) and Austin of England, and was built from 1954 to 1961. The two-seater coupe and convertible bodies were a scaled-down American "bathtub" design that looked out of proportion on the little 13-inch wheels. Other than the styling, the car was all British, being built in England by Austin. The chassis hardware was "borrowed" from the small and spartan Austin A30 while the engine was from the larger Austin A40 and A50 models. To further attract American buyers, the Metropolitan had only three-speeds in its four-speed transmission case and the gear shift was mounted on the steering column where it broke with uncanny regularity.

KING MIDGET - At first glance, the King Midget could be mistaken for an early gasoline-powered golf cart but it was a fully roadable, albeit minuscule, two-seater with almost full weather equipment. Over the years it was powered by a couple of different single-cylinder engines, the most powerful of which put out 9.2-horsepower. Its automatic transmission (a later development) had two forward speeds and one in reverse and used a centrifugal clutch. The King Midget got its start in 1946 as a knock-down that required assembly by the buyer. Several owners of the little poppers "proved" their mounts by driving from coast-to-coast (total vehicle expenses under $27) or from Michigan to Mexico City (expenses $44.30). Other owners were equally adventurous. The King Midget lasted from 1947 to 1969, outlasting all the other post-World War II econocar upstarts.

Getting started making economical autos on a small scale is impossible now. The cost of getting one certified by the government would cost many millions. But electric cars? Now that's another story.