Saturday, April 16, 2011

Henry and Me

Although he was never in the military, He was truly one of America’s great war heroes.
Henry J. Kaiser
During World War 2, Henry J. Kaiser was an industrialist whose manufacturing genius allowed the Kaiser Shipyard in Richmond, California to produce cargo ships at the rate of one every 4 days!

Liberty Ships
They were appropriately called “Liberty Ships.”

After the war he switched to manufacturing cars….most of which were called…….never mind.

You probably vaguely remember the Kaiser-Frazier.

But I doubt if any of you recall the Henry J.

A young Bill Clinton
I’ve only heard of one other person, besides myself who ever owned one. That was Bill Clinton.  It was his first car.

Now that I think about it, that makes perfect sense, since many of them had fold down rear seats.

Mine didn’t; instead it was one of the models that actually had a trunk lid, which was considered optional equipment. (On most Henry J’s the trunk was accessed from the inside by folding down the back seat.)

The dashboard only held the speedometer and a few switches. There was no dome light, cigarette lighter, horn, turn signal lever, or passenger side sun visor. There were no armrests. There was no glove compartment. The triangular "vent windows" on the doors didn't open. The rear windows didn't roll down or open in any way. In fact, there was no cabin ventilation system at all, not even fresh air ducts.

Ad for the Henry J
The seat covers were made of paper...covered in thin plastic. I could go on, but you get the picture.

My Dad bought that car for me in the Fall of 1953, I believe.. It's unknown what model year it was because there was only one basic model....and any that were not sold in the year they were manufactured were sold as the following year's "new model." .

Kaiser also worked out an arrangement with Sears to sell Henry J's under their own name.  Sears called them ALLSTATES. Hence, the 51, 52, 53, and 54 Henry J's and Allstates.......were all basically the same car.

And one of them was mine.

My guess is that unlike a Liberty Ship which Mr. Kaiser could make in 4 days……the Henry J’s were probably made from scratch in about 4 hours.

Yet, in spite of all its shortcomings....(as well as my own total  irresponsibility in not maintaining it properly)  that car got my friends and me to and from a lot of places trouble free. It seems that luck was always with that Henry J and me.

The Henry J
I'm not talking about that either.. Remember, I had the model with the trunk lid.

I'm talking about transporting me from Furman to UNC, getting me to the radio station on time everyday, wearing out at least 2 sets of tires traveling to and from Chapel Hill and Charlotte every weekend, etc. (For the entire time I had that car, I never had a girlfriend who lived in the same town I was living in.)

But I knew that the day would come when that little car with the big man's name was going to stop pretending and become what it really was; a cheap, slapped together pile of .....tin.

Stan Hoke and I were returning to Charlotte from Chapel Hill that day in the Spring of 1955 when the Henry J just "up and died." But, the "luck of the Henry J" was still with me.  It got Stan involved

Stan Hoke CHS53
He was the best thing that ever happened to my old Henry J.

He diagnosed the problem almost immediately. He said the “timing gear” needed to be replaced. And he knew how to do it. It was a labor intensive job (that I could never have afforded to pay for) so Stan and I spent half of that summer taking the engine apart and replacing the “timing gear.”

After we got it put back together again…..the engine was still dead. We had put the part in backwards. So we spent the rest of the summer taking it all apart again. But by the time classes started again in the Fall, the Henry J was back on the road to Chapel Hill.

As far as I’m concerned no one will ever convince me that Stan Hoke was not a genius.

My contribution was mainly handing him the right wrenches and keeping my head under the hood for moral support.

Thanks to Stan, I got at least another year of trouble free use out of that car.

Of course, people still made their little jokes and once a bunch of the “dormies” in my building were able to move the little car and hide it about a block away, so I would think that it had been stolen.

But the joke was on them because I knew that in all of thiefdom, no one had ever stolen a Henry J, or even considered it.

So, I just calmly waited them out….until my silence almost drove them crazy and they blurted out their dastardly deed and the location where they had hidden my car.

In the interest of fairness and full disclosure, the Henry J was not all Mr. Kaiser's fault. For him to enter the automobile business he needed to borrow the money...and the only place he could get it was from the government.

So naturally, it came with "strings." The government stipulated that the automobile not be sold for more than $1300. They envisioned a "peoples car," much like Hitler's Volkswagen.....or even Henry Ford's no frills, no extras, Model T.

It was our bureaucracy's first venture into the American Automobile industry.

The result was the Henry J.

So, unless President Obama soon decrees that every American must be required to own one,
fifty or sixty years from now, one of your grandchildren might very well be telling their grandchildren a story eerily similar to this one. Only the names will have changed.

I predict that sometime, oh, around  2055  there will be at least one young kid who drives off to college in another government ill designed, forgotten, strange looking, rickety  old 2011..........VOLT. 

It will be a good story to tell his grand kids.

But they probably won't believe it.  -Ed

"When your work speaks for itself, don't interrupt."
                                       -Henry J. Kaiser