Making a 1953 "Henry J" Cruiser
By Dave Brackett
Around Christmas of 2002, I bought a 1953 Kaiser "Henry J". The car came from Ventura, California, and was in decent shape. It had a straight six engine, which was an upgrade, and had a stick tranny with overdrive. The car was complete, only missing a hood ornament. My intention was to restore the car, but I had never done that, always building hot rods from scratch.
I usually finish a vehicle in several months, but after working on the car for 6 months, I lost interest. I did not enjoy restoration of a vehicle, there was no challenge, or design required. In the spring of 2009, I decided to finish the car.
I wanted to build a great cruiser, semi-hot rod. I wanted good mileage, modest performance, and something reliable for a daily driver. I had been replacing any stick tranny's I had with automatics, as I have developed a left leg problem. I could not find an automatic to fit the stock six, and I also wanted more than the 17 MPG the "Henry J" offered.
I had bought a 4.3 Chevy V-6 with 700R4 automatic for another project, that never materialized. This was perfect for mileage and performace, but would it fit? I removed the "Henry J" motor and hung the 4.3 Chevy in the frame. There was no X member and the stock frame was boxed, both of those being good, but the stock steering box was huge and very much in the way. I wanted to leave the car totally stock except for the engine swap, so replacing steering was not an option.
I moved the motor about an inch to the passenger side, and the problem was solved. I made a plate to bolt accross the front of the motor and fit the stock "Henry J" motor mounts. I did have to build a new rear cross member farther back, but made it bolt in, as the stock one was. I built custom headers, lengthened the pitman arm to speed up steering and miss the header. I finished building the new exhaust with glass pack mufflers, exiting just in front of the rear tires.
The 4.3 Chevy motor originally had fuel injection, but I built an adaptor plate and put a Holley 2 barrel carb on the injection manafold. This kept the mileage respectable. I added an aftermarket HEI ignition, I love them since you only hook up one wire to the ignition. A high speed starter helped give me more clearance from the frame. I fabricated new throttle linkage to fit the new carb and attach to the "Henry J" pedal.
Cooling might have been a problem, but I had a better core put in the rebuilt radiator, moved the outlet to the other side, which made a cross flow style radiator. Worked great for a cruiser. A custom driveshaft attached the 700R4 to the "Henry J" rear end. Paint and body work restored the car to it's original form. Upholstery was redone in the style of the original, but using better fabrics. Since chrome plating is getting difficult and expensive, I redid all the original chrome pieces in a silver hammered finish, goes great with the yellow paint.
Wiring was a bit of a challenge. I rewired the entire car, changing to 12 volt bulbs, seal beams, electric wiper, and accessories. The only 6 volt items left are the fuel and temp gauges, and the horns. The horns work fine on 12 volt and a "runtz" was added to utilize the 6 volt gauges.
The original glove box was made from cardboard, and had rotted away, so I built a new one from sheet metal, should last longer. There was a grill in the center of the dash, someone had drilled holes in it to mount a radio, I think. I did not want a radio and covered the louvers with a plate with my vehicle logo "davEiko".
I wanted the car to be lower than original, so I dearched the rear leaf springs 3 inches, and put lower profile tires on the front to provide a modest rake. I redid the brakes and left the front suspension original. The car rides great, and steers fine with the huge steering wheel, since I sped up the steering. New glass finished the project, and I added an aftermarket heater, since this "Henry J" did not have one. So the car would retain it's original look, I attached the automatic tranny to the column shift lever. The clutch pedal has been removed, and I added turn signals.
I enjoyed this project with the challenges of modifying things to make a reliable daily driver and cruiser, while trying to retain the original look and style. What a fun car, and it is the size of modern new cars, easy to park, too.