Jack Tanner's first encounter with a Henry J coupe left a sour taste in his mouth. "My dad had a '51 Henry J and I remember riding around in it as a kid. I hated the way it looked. I thought it was ugly," Tanner recalled.
To make matters worse, he said, "Dad's car was Plain Jane, a heater and a radio and that's it. My uncle had an Allstate, a '53, and it was a 6-cylinder and he used to outrun my dad's little 4-cylinder all the time."
Both cars were built by Kaiser-Frazer as post-war compacts and were virtually identical, except for the badging — and the fact the Allstates were sold by Sears, Roebuck and Co. That's right, you could buy a fully functional automobile from Sears back in those days, outfitted with Sears brand tires, spark plugs and radio.
A total of 115,000 Henry J's were built from 1951-54, while 2,300 Allstates were cranked out from 1952-53.
Memories of his father's '51 Henry J faded fairly quickly, until Tanner got involved in drag racing years later. He started seeing the little coupes jacked up, running straight front axles and big V-8 engines, running as gassers. Suddenly, the Henry J didn't seem so stodgy.
So when Tanner spotted a '51 Henry J project for sale in Chanute a little over four years ago, he took the plunge. "The body was pretty much done on it... the guy who had it wanted to buy a Harley-Davidson," he said.
A custom frame, built of 2-inch by 3-inch rectangular steel tubing, was set up for a Mustang II front suspension and a small block Chevy V-8. Tanner rebuilt the 355 cubic inch engine, which runs Dart high performance heads, an Edelbrock Performer air gap intake manifold, 750 cfm Mighty Demon carb, MSD electronic programmable ignition, a Comp Cam and a set of homemade tubular headers that he built to snake around the steering box.
The handmade firewall has a removable panel to allow access to the MSD distributor. A Summit radiator was added to keep the car cool on longer drives. And just for good measure, Tanner had a set of "Kaiser V-8" decals made up for the valve covers, which tends to further confuse some folks who may have figured out what the car actually is.
"Some think it's a Studebaker. You tell 'em it's a Henry J and a lot of 'em think 'Henry Ford,' " Tanner said. Taking his cue from the confusion, he added a vanity plate that reads, "WHATZAT."
The coupe employs a Chevy Turbo 350 transmission equipped with a B&M shifter. Power is routed back to a narrowed 9-inch Ford rear end that can be fitted with 3.50, 3.73 or 4.30 gears, depending on the driving situation at hand.
Big 10-inch wide Weld Racing wheels mounting fat Hoosier tires tuck inside the widened wheel tubs, and a 100-horsepower shot of nitrous oxide is on tap with the flip of a switch on the driver's console. Add that all up and factor in a 100-inch wheelbase and handling can be a bit of an issue.
"If you don't have it pointed straight, you'd better hang on," Tanner says. A 5-point racing harness wrapped around the driver's Ford Fiesta bucket seat helps in that department. The car is capable of quarter-mile times in the high 10-second range, he said, although it was not built to race.
He kept the Ebony Black PPG primer over Sandstone cream paint scheme that was on the car when he bought it, but color-sanded and buffed it to a pleasing satin luster. He also added a forward-tilting fiberglass hood to the car, molding in a shortened 1970 Z-28 cowl induction scoop in the process.
The car has been on several road trips to Goodguys car shows, including one at Texas Motor Speedway, where he eased the car up to a top speed of 141 mph down one straightaway before backing off.
He and several buddies with high-dollar show cars enjoy traveling to events together. "I never win nothing with it... they've got all the shiny stuff," he laughed. "But this thing is like a magnet... it really attracts people wherever we go with it," he said.
That's reward enough for a car that he once would have called an ugly duckling.