1951 Kaiser Manhattan Custom ‘Dragn’

As an automotive journalist, I am constantly on the lookout for cool cars to write about. Most of the time I have to work hard to seek them out, but every once in a while the cars seem to find me. This particular car and I keep running into each other, so I knew it was time to write about it.

I first ran into this heavily customized 1951 Kaiser Manhattan at Cars and Coffee in Scottsdale. I saw it again at SEMA 2012 in Las Vegas. Then it popped up on my YouTube subscriptions for Jay Leno’s Garage and the Eastwood YouTube channel. It was just begging to be written about!

The man behind the car is Keith Charvonia, an industrial designer from Phoenix, Arizona. Keith purchased the car from a friend for $150 and has put 8 years of work into this project. What he has created is something truly original.

It’s got the look of a lead sled Mercury or Cadillac, but the fact that it’s a Kaiser is pretty unique. Even more unique is the fact that Keith transformed this car from a 4-door into a 2-door! Check out his build thread over at Jalopy Journal for photos of the transformation.

He did all the body work himself with a MIG welder and a grinder in his two-car garage. He smoothed and shaved panels and chopped the roof. There was a ton of custom metal fabrication in converting the 4-door sedan into a coupe while making everything fit right and look stock.

Here’s where things get interesting: the original Kaiser chassis and engine weren’t much good, so Keith swapped them out with the chassis and drivetrain from a 1995 Chevrolet Caprice. It’s a low-cost way to get your classic car to handle like a modern vehicle. He notched the Caprice frame when installing the air ride suspension so that it could be slammed to the ground.

The seats and console came from a Ford Thunderbird, but there are some custom touches too. There’s a Vintage Air system to keep cool (essential in Phoenix!) and an AutoMeter gauge has been worked into the stock housing. In the videos, Keith talks about how he heated a piece of PVC and fitted it around the steering wheel.

The most eye-catching thing about the car is its magnificent blue fade paint job. The car was painted by legendary hot rodder Gene Winfield in California.

This is as pure as hot rodding gets. It wasn’t built by a team of professionals in a fancy shop with all the best tools. It was done by one guy working in his garage with basic tools. It handles like a modern car not because of some high dollar custom chassis, but because he stuck it on a Caprice frame. It’s a brilliant solution that really exemplifies the hot rod spirit: doing what you can with what you have. We salute Keith and his awesome car, and we hope we’ll be seeing more of his wonderful creations in the future!