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Ron Good’s Kaiser Traveler has attracted plenty of attention at Southern Ontario car shows this summer.
Ron Good’s Kaiser Traveler has attracted plenty of attention at Southern Ontario car shows this summer.

Car Enthusiasts

Station wagon substitute was 'loaded for bear' Add to ...

The hatchback may be a familiar automotive design feature today, but this handy cargo solution eluded the industry until France's Citroën created a protohatch to add to its 1938 Traction Avant's bag of tricks and America's Kaiser took things a step further with its Traveler/Vagabond a decade later.

Citroën's first attempt was a two-part system with an upper portion that lifted and a lower section that dropped, developed to improve the utility of the Commerciale version of the Traction Avant. It took until 1954 before it got around to fitting what is recognizable today as a rear hatch.

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Kaiser's solution - as legend would have it, drawn with the forefinger of Henry Kaiser himself in the dust covering the rear of one of his unsold conventional sedans - also had a drop-down tailgate, but in addition a large top-hinged hatch that included the rear window.

Either Kaiser, or more likely, some of his engineers came up with the idea in 1948 in an effort to broaden the company's range of offerings with a sort-of substitute for the station wagon it didn't have. The Traveler (and high-line Vagabond) went into production in 1949 and lasted until 1953.

General Motors' Australian captive Holden was also playing with two-part tailgates in the late 1940s and, oddly enough, Aston Martin came up with small hatch for its early 1950s DB2-4. The Pininfarina-designed Austin A40 Countryman of 1959 looked the modern hatchback part, although it still featured a tailgate and lift-up rear window.

But Italy's Innocenti, which was building the A40 under licence, created a hatch for its Combinata version in the early 1960s, by which time the Renault 4 also sported one. The idea caught on and the term "hatchback" was in common usage by the end of the decade.

But in the late 1940s, Kaiser's solution was a pretty novel one, as things created out of necessity often are.

The Kaiser-Frazer Corp. was something of a novelty itself, having been created in 1945 by businessman Kaiser and Joseph Frazer. The latter had been president of car maker Graham-Paige and headed the new enterprise, which sold cars under both founders' names.

By 1953, Frazer was gone and the company known as Kaiser Motor Corp., which later took over Jeep maker Willys-Overland. The last Kaisers were built in 1955.

But in the meantime there was the Kaiser Traveler, which not only had a rear hatch system, but a clever folding seat arrangement that created a seven-foot-long load area. The vehicle's rear section was also structurally strengthened, fitted with heavier-duty springs and shocks; a nifty licence plate holder flopped down to make it visible when the tailgate was open.

A minor downside of the original was that the left rear door was welded shut and the spare tire mounted to it inside. This apparently wasn't expected to bother manly men enticed into buying a Traveler by the ad slogan "Loaded for bear … and deer … and ducks." Something that did upset buyers, however, was the hatch's reputation for water leaks.

Apart from its trick rear section, the Traveler was pretty standard mechanical fare for the time, equipped with a 115-horsepower, 226-cubic-inch (3.7-litre) Continental flathead, inline-six engine and three-speed overdrive transmission.

The Traveler was redesigned for 1951 with a working left rear door, thanks to moving the spare underneath, and the example pictured here was built that year, but sold as a 1952 model.

"They basically changed the serial numbers, the hood ornament, gave it a two-tone paint job, a new name, Virginian, and called it a '52," says Ron Good, who purchased it in the mid-1990s.

Good, who practises law in Port Hope, Ont., grew up in Sudbury as a car-crazy kid perhaps a little frustrated by a father who drove nothing but Chevrolets. The first Kaiser he can recall was a 1951 DeLuxe Sedan driven by the husband of an elementary school teacher.

"I thought that car was just the most amazing thing I'd ever seen," he says, and has remained a Kaiser enthusiast ever since.

Good didn't own a car during high school or while studying commerce and law at Queen's University and his first was, "wouldn't you know it, a Chevrolet."

His first old car was a 1953 Chrysler Windsor Sedan passed on to him by his grandfather, and used as a daily driver by his wife. "It was a great old car, but we really didn't understand it at the time," Good says. It suffered from a lack of maintenance and eventually ended up in the scrap yard.

But on a visit to a car show in 1980, he saw another '53 Windsor and came home determined to find one. Within days he came across an ad for a "53 Windsor in Saskatchewan that began with the words 'Grandpa bought it new.'"

He bought it, drove it home, painted it, and runs it to this day. "It's bulletproof but dull, an old man's car, which is why I call it Clarence," he says.

Another for-sale ad caught his eye in 1995, this one from New Brunswick, offering a "rust-free" Kaiser Traveler for a modest amount. Good acquired it and it sat until the necessary parts were hunted down, including cargo deck wood strips sourced from "Kaiser Bill" in Utah.

Good turned it over to restorer Tommy Patterson of Newtonville, Ont., in 2006, who soon discovered it wasn't quite as rot-free as advertised. "It was a mess," says Good. It finally emerged last fall looking great in its Pasadena yellow and onyx two-tone paintwork and was soon dubbed "the Bumblebee."

Good - who describes himself as an automotive historian and has an extensive collection of literature and about 200 1:43 scale models - remains philosophical about the extent of the "competent and caring" restoration the car required.

"I'm not complaining," he says. He's just happy to have been given the opportunity to preserve an unusual vehicle, which has attracted plenty of attention at Southern Ontario car shows this summer.

globeauto@globeandmail.com

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