Don Pihl remembers dreaming about someday owning a Kaiser automobile.
“When I was back in high school, in ’47, I thought if I could have a car like that someday … but they sold for $2,000 and I didn’t even have $20 back then,” he recalls. So the dream went unfulfilled.
Fast forward a half century and Pihl was finally able to make that Kaiser dream a reality. He spotted an advertisement for a 1948 Kaiser in the High Plains Journal. The car had been sitting in a pasture near Hill City for 22 years. The grandson of the original owner had inherited the car, which he used as a daily driver. He started to restore the car, repainting it and installing new upholstery, but eventually lost interest and decided to sell it.
“It’s a pretty plain Jane car, three-speed on the column, no radio,” Pihl said, but it was just what he wanted and he bought it. And the ’48 Kaiser had only 16,000 miles on its odometer, so there was plenty of potential for bringing it back into service.
Little did he know that another Kaiser, one that definitely doesn’t fall into the plain Jane category, would appear years later, also in western Kansas. About three years ago, an employee in the family business saw a 1954 Kaiser Special listed for sale on the internet in Hays and brought it to Pihl’s attention.
“It came up on his phone … he didn’t even know what kind of car it was,” Pihl recalled. “I always thought it would be fun to have one of those.”
What set the 1954 Kaiser “Late” Special apart from other cars was that it had a factory supercharged engine in it, introduced as a mid-year upgrade to the earlier standard Manhattan body style.
“They were forced into it … Oldsmobile was coming out with a big V-8 engine and they needed to keep up,” Pihl explained. Rather than design a whole new engine, Kaiser engineers used the same basic 226 cubic inch Continental flathead 6-cylinder engine, but fitted a McCulloch belt-driven supercharger to it, boosting horsepower from 118 to 140 when the supercharger was engaged.
“It’s kind of like a passing gear, with a solenoid that kicks it in,” he explained. The centrifugal supercharger delivers pressurized air to a 2-barrel carburetor, producing the boost in horsepower. Only an estimated 800 4-door Specials were built with that engine, with another 129 2-doors so equipped.
Auto magazines of the era indicated the car offered the best of both worlds, economic family travel, with stout acceleration on tap for passing situations. The cars were equipped with 4-speed Hydra-Matic transmissions.
Pihl and his wife, Betty, drove out to Hays where the car had been stored for years to check it out.
“It’s all original except the paint (repainted Palm Beach Ivory) and as soon as I saw it, I thought, `That car is mine. It just had a lot of design in it,’ ” Pihl said.
The Kaiser features jet-age styling, with swept-back tail lights cut into the rear fenders, distinctive oval headlight bezels with mesh inserts, a wide chrome grille and front and rear windshields with a curved peak at the center of the roof. Inside, one of the first padded dashes installed on an American car offered a bit of front seat crash protection and a modernistic two-spoke steering wheel overlooked the automatic shift indicator. The interior is trimmed in vinyl and a heavy woven material, with the original headliner intact and in perfect condition.
A deal was made and the car was trailered back to the Pihls’ rural home near Lindsborg, where Don set to work getting it running. The gas tank, fuel lines and carburetor were full of rust, but he cleaned all that up and it now runs like new.
“I’ve never romped down on it and opened it up,” he says. But he and his wife did drive the unusual old Kaiser to Lindsborg’s Smoky Valley Classic Car Show recently, where they thoroughly enjoyed showing the car off.
“We didn’t win anything, but that’s not important. It’s the first show we ever went to and we plan on doing more,” he said.
Mike Berry: firstname.lastname@example.org