Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 5
Worlds First Hatchback?
Which manufacturer deserves the credit for having created the first hatchback in passenger cars? It is one of those intriguing questions, the answer to which is becoming more difficult as time passes and increasing numbers of hatchbacks emerge from a wide variety of manufacturers. Renault was generally considered to have popularised the body style when it created the '16'
, but the origins of the sedan hatchback go much further back than that.
The original idea for a hatchback design was not European, but American, and like so many other innovations in automobile design, it came from one of the smaller post World War II manufacturers. It was in 1945 that industrialist Henry J. Kaiser teamed up with the controller of Graham Paige's car making fortunes, Joe Frazer. Kaiser wanted to get into the post World War car making boom, and Frazer had the facilities. It was as simple as that. After a few years of making fairly stereotyped vehicles without much that made them stand out from the rest in the late forties, Henry J himself came up with a new model line in the Kaiser Traveler and Vagabond.
It appears he became fed up with the rattling, firm ride of a wagon he and his wife used to travel to their Lake Tahoe retreat in the mountains between California and Nevada. He wanted luxury sedan travel with wagon utility so he sketched out a few modifications in the dust on a Kaiser sedan and had his designers go to it. The result was a normal looking Kaiser in which the whole rear, including original boot and rear window opened upwards on a pair of struts. Rear seats were redesigned to fold forward, leaving the long load area which has become so popular in hatchbacks today.
In that early model the spare wheel was mounted against the left hand rear passenger door which was welded shut! It was soon repositioned beneath the boot floor however, and the first five door sedan was born. These hatchbacks accounted for at least 25% of Kaiser Frazer's production during 1949.
More than 200 changes were made to the sedan in the process of creating the Traveler, including the use of stronger springs and shock-absorbers to cope with the extra load.
The wiring on the floorpan and the rear guards had to be relocated, and new openings for the rear window and new dies for the split decklid were required. The car was strengthened by the use of extra reinforcement above the upper hatch to replace lost stiffness. One of the biggest obstacles the engineers faced was in creating a good seal to keep out noise, dust and most of all, moisture. Sealing the gaping hatches proved difficult, and service bulletins multiplied as mechanics tried to cope with thousands of complaints.
A T-shaped handle was devised for the hatch, and piano hinges were used on the lower part to provide support when it was used as a horizontal platform. People would use that platform to hold heavy objects, so it was suspended by strong chains, bagged in vinyl in a vain attempt to stop rattles. The base-model Traveler had smooth, heavy-duty vinyl upholstery and headliner and varnished wooden rub rails in the bed to ease the sliding of payloads. The Vagabond was a more luxurious Traveler with the ornate Kaiser Deluxe dashboard, fender skirts, pleated vinyl upholstery, and the option of genuine leather.
Though there were a few other innovatory models to come from Kaiser later, none became the forerunner of subsequently popular utility style in the same way as the hatchback.