The Automotive Giant You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

August 7, 1971

Joseph Washington Frazer, whose meteoric rise in the automobile business took him from repairing and maintaining vehicles to serving in top executive-level positions at several major companies, died at his home in Newport, Rhode Island. He was 79.

“Mr. Frazer, who had the build and energy of a fullback, glowed with a ruddy, virile charm that enabled him to score repeated successes in the motor-car industry,” stated his obituary in the New York Times. “The only auto magnate to have a home in Newport, he was equally at ease in the society of convivial factory foremen.”

Frazer was born in 1892 in Nashville, Tennessee. He was a descendant of one of George Washington’s uncles. In 1911, Frazer graduated from Yale College’s Sheffield Scientific School (a part of Yale University) with a degree in science. Frazer then worked for 16 cents an hour as a mechanic’s helper at a Packard Motor Company dealership in Nashville. He eventually switched over to selling automobiles instead, ending up at a Packard franchise in New York City.

Frazer left Packard to work for the Saxon Motor Car Company as the manager of its office in Cleveland. By 1919, he began working for General Motors. Frazer soon made an indelible contribution to the company when, as assistant treasurer of the General Motors Acceptance Corporation (present-day Ally Financial), he leveraged his strong monetary expertise to help develop a pioneering program whereby people could pay for their automobiles in installments.  While on loan from General Motors to help out at the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company, Frazer set up a similar financing arrangement for that manufacturer.

Frazer’s formidable business savvy and more specifically his ability to increase automobile sales to an unprecedented extent brought him to the attention of Walter P. Chrysler of the Maxwell Chalmers Motor Company. Frazer joined that company in 1924 and quickly played an instrumental role in tripling its sales. In 1925, the company was reorganized as the Chrysler Corporation.

In his quest for opportunities for growth for the newly upgraded company, Frazer urged Walter P. Chrysler to manufacture a low-priced automobile that could formidably compete with similar offerings from General Motors and the Ford Motor Company. Frazer even picked out a name for his hoped-for vehicle. “Why not call it Plymouth?” he said. “That’s a good old American name. Ever hear of Plymouth Binder Twine?” While others at the company weren’t crazy about the name, Chrysler (a Kansas native with deep rural roots) liked it. “Every farmer knows about Plymouth Binder Twine,” he asserted. “Let’s give them a name they’re familiar with.” Plymouth made its debut in 1928 and, within three years, ranked third in automobile sales in the United States. Plymouth remained in production until 2001.

During his time at the Chrysler Corporation, Frazer officially served as vice president of its sales division as well as the Plymouth and DeSoto subsidiaries. He decided to seek new challenges in 1939, becoming president of the financially struggling Willys-Overland Motors automobile company. Frazer explained this high-risk move by proclaiming, “Security is but an illusion, repose is not the destiny of many.”

As president of Willy-Overlands, Frazer oversaw the company’s large-scale and lucrative production of a new vehicle for the U.S. Army. Frazer even insisted that he came up with the widely used name for that vehicle – the jeep – by slurring the initials for “General Purpose” (G.P.) that were first used to describe it. This claim, unlike the one for his naming the Plymouth automobile, has been hotly disputed. Another one of Frazer’s major achievements at Willy-Overlands involved the development and sales of the low-priced and popular line of automobiles known as the Americar. By the time Frazer stepped down as president of Willys-Overlands in 1944, vehicle sales for the once-ailing company had mushroomed to $212 million annually.

That same year, Frazer became president of Graham-Paige Motors Corporation. Frazer, seeking to better position himself for what would become the nationwide jump-start in producing and selling automobiles after World War II, joined forces with industrialist Henry J. Kaiser to establish a more financially robust enterprise. The two men formed the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation, with Frazer initially serving as its president. The company became the most successful of the American automobile manufacturers established within the first several years following the end of the World War II. Frazer remained with the company until the 1950s.

“Great? Not, of course, with the greatness of people like Walter Chrysler or Henry Ford,” stated automotive historian Richard M. Langworth in his assessment of Frazer that has been quoted in Hemmings Motor News. “But by a perhaps less exalted scale he was the kind of man the industry needed, and still needs today.” Frazer was inducted into the Automobile Hall of Fame in 2012.

For more information on Joseph W. Frazer, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_W._Frazer.

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