Out in Bruce Kiser’s side yard sits a 50-year-old, bulbous, blue car with a chrome bird-in-flight hood ornament and a cushy, cardinal-colored front seat anchored way back from the dash. Like a puzzle box, the back seats of the Kaiser Traveler fold away until the inside of the car is laid open like the bed of an El Dorado but outfitted with vintage wooden runners. Kiser’s car was built by Henry J. Kaiser, the industrialist who designed everything from warships to medical clinics. Kiser the collector has three cars made by Kaiser the industrialist, and one of his rare two-door models is currently on display at the Oakland Museum of California.
Why’d you choose to collect Kaiser cars?
The main reason is my last name is Kiser, and I was born in ‘53, so I figured, if I’m going to have an old car, I might as well have a Kaiser anyway. I could have a Dodge or a Chevy, but everybody has those. I figured I might as well find a ‘53 Kaiser.
How does the Kaiser fit into the history of automobile production?
It was on the higher end money-wise, way on the lower end production-wise. The same year my ‘53 was built, they made 30,000 Kaisers, but they made 1,180,000 Fords. … The main drawback: He never switched to eight cylinders when everybody else did. It was a heavy car with a small motor in it. Motor-wise, it got blown off the road pretty easily.
Why did Kaiser get into building cars?
He had been building liberty ships for the last five years for the military. He was putting out, I think, one a day when the war was going on. So, he had steel, aluminum. Everything was his already, so he decided to make cars for everyone coming home from the service and stuff. … He was very ingenious. He could do anything, it sounds like, from reading about him.
How did you find the cars you’ve collected?
The first one I got was from a gentleman in Livermore. He had it in just one of those little fliers with the car ads in the back, and that was the first time I’d seen a ‘53 for sale, so my wife and I drove over there. He had two cars. He needed to get rid of one of them, and fortunately he wanted to get rid of the ‘53, and it was a two-door, which made it very rare. So, I picked that one up, and that’s the one that’s in Oakland. It was in a lot different shape seven years ago than it is now anyway.
What did you have to do?
We did a lot of interior work, a lot of exterior work, and then a friend of mine from the fire department who was a mechanic went over the engine and stuff. So, we just kind of made it all new again. And it looks, well, I mean, it looks good enough to put in a museum, so I’m pleased with that anyway.
When they’re repainted, and the engines are new, what are they worth?
A ‘53 in excellent condition is about $7,500. They’re not the top end, car-wise and stuff, but when the most I’ve ever paid is $700 for one, that’s tenfold anyway. You have to invest a lot of time. That’s the other novel part of the whole deal is that you can go to a swap meet, like Pleasanton, which is probably the biggest swap meet in the country, and not find any Kaiser parts, but if you do, then you think the whole day’s a success.
How did the Oakland Museum find out about your cars?
They were already doing the whole Kaiser history. … They had everything else he’s done: Kaiser-Permanente, the dams, everything else. (He even made dishwashers, but apparently it wasn’t much of a success. Even on his first showing, every dish was broke when the cycle was done.) But then the secretary treasurer of our Northern California club [Kaiser-Frazer Owners Club International] talked to the curator down there, and the curator asked him if anybody would be nice enough to loan their cars. It’s going to be seen by more people there than in my side yard anyways. So, he had sent me a letter and asked if I was willing to put it on display for four months. And that’s when I decided it needed a paint job. I wanted it to look the best it could, so we had them mix up actual Kaiser color schemes from stuff we had, and everybody that’s seen it so far said it came out exactly how they printed it in ‘53.
What’s the best story your car has inspired?
It’s kind of a cute little story. I had a mechanic friend a few years ago. He was working on one. After he got done with it, he said when he was a kid he had a ‘53 Kaiser. He said the first time he was ever slapped by a girl in the back seat was in a ‘53 Kaiser.