(Image/OnAllCylinders)

The Henry J was the brainchild of Henry J. Kaiser himself, chairman of the Kaiser-Frazier automobile company. Kaiser felt that, as the U.S. economy recovered from World War II, folks would be looking for budget-friendly transportation.

To keep costs low, the Henry J did away with amenities like a trunk lid, glove box, or roll-down rear windows. Kasier looked to Willys to supply the engines, and you could opt for the same L-134 four used in the Jeep CJ or a more powerful inline six.

Legendary designer Howard “Dutch” Darrin had a role in styling the Henry J, giving it some tailfins and a distinct dip along the door. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

Upon its release, the Henry J was priced low.

…Problem was, it wasn’t priced that low.

And folks soon realized that, if they spent just a few hundred more, they could get a much better appointed Chevy or Ford. As a result, the Henry J was a relative flop, and few remain roadworthy today.

That’s why we dang-near fell over when we spotted this one at the recent Goodguys Summit Racing Nationals. And when we saw its license plate, we absolutely had to talk to its owner to learn more.

“I’m really proud of the way it looks, like it was made for it, not cobbled up,” Melvin says. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

“My wife wanted one for a long time. And we were both born in 1951,” owner Wally Melvin explains. “So I found this one—and I knew what I was going to do with it the minute I saw it,” he grins.

But there was one big catch:

“I wanted it to still look like a Henry J,” he reveals.

That meant no altered wheelbase, fender flares, modern interior, or massive hood bulge. With that guideline established, Melvin gave us the details of the build.

For starters, the project took about a two and a half years. The engine was poached from a 2015 Ram 2WD truck. It’s a 5.7L Hemi that’s wearing a later 6.1L-style manifold, and Melvin retained the truck’s eight-speed automatic.

Want to learn more about the Chrysler Gen. III Hemi? Read our Hemi Spec Guides.

“The truck’s rear end was way too big,” Melvin explains, so he opted for a modified Ford nine-inch. “But it’s got the driveshaft from the truck,” which he had to cut down significantly to fit it under the diminutive Henry J body.

The chassis has been boxed and the Henry J is fitted with a Ridetech coil over suspension.

The firewall was moved back six inches and the transmission tunnel was bumped out, but the Hemi motor does snug-in pretty well. That said, Melvin tells us that fitting the stock exhaust manifolds was tricky and shorty headers were a no-go right from the start. A thinner radiator sourced from a late model Challenger freed some space up front. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

When asked about the project’s overall difficulty, Melvin is laughably humble. “After we got it all figured out. It wasn’t that bad,” he jokes. But then he admits that going the Mopar route had some challenges. “Everyone’s done the LS, but [the Hemi] was kind of a learning process.”

Melvin describes how he had to get a computer-controlled engine and transmission to play nice with things like a modified driveshaft and relocated speed sensors. “We changed the shifter three times,” he continues. “And even changed the gas pedal a few times to get it to fire up.”

Melvin matched the original scripting to the “Hemi J” logo along the rocker panel and hood. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

And we really wanted to hear about how a 1950s compact economy car does with modern V8 power.

“It drives straight down the road, honest to God,” Melvin laughs as he mimics two fingers placed on the steering wheel.

Turning our attention inside, Melvin made some concessions on his stock-appearance rule. “I had to run a Dakota Digital speedometer, because everything’s electronic now,” he admits. But most everything else is original, including the seats, dash, and steering wheel.

While the Hemi swap demanded some interior mods, most everything else is stock.
….Well, maybe not that small toggle switch behind the custom shifter console. That activates the exhaust cutouts—because: AWESOME. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

Thinking about undertaking a big project like this? Perhaps something really outside of the box and concerned you’ll get stuck on a particular aspect of the build?

Melvin offers some reassurance:

“That’s the thing, there are people out there, and somebody, somewhere knows how to do it,” he explains.

“There’s somebody out there that has done something like it. And 98 percent of those people will help you—they will bend over backwards to help you out.”

And judging from the smiles and handshakes he received from other fascinated gearheads as we talked with him, we’re sure that Melvin is part of that 98 percent.

***

Melvin worked hard to remain faithful to the Henry J’s original look and feel, though we love its new stance. (Image/OnAllCylinders)
The Hemi J rides on Rocket Racing Wheels wrapped in BF Goodrich Tires, and notice the Wilwood calipers peeking through the spokes too. (Image/OnAllCylinders)
The Henry J was well-travelled before Melvin worked his Hemi magic. And though he initially planned on swapping this window for clean glass, he changed his mind over the course of the build. We’re glad too, because those vintage stickers are super cool. Click the image to zoom-in and read them all. (Image/OnAllCylinders)
All the Henry J’s original brightwork was polished back to life. (Image/OnAllCylinders)
Here’s a final shot of the Hemi J’s engine bay—just to reinforce how clean and well-executed the Hemi swap is. (Image/OnAllCylinders)
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Author: Paul Sakalas

Paul is the editor of OnAllCylinders. When he's not writing, you'll probably find him fixing oil leaks in a Jeep CJ-5 or watching a 1972 Corvette overheat. An avid motorcyclist, he spends the rest of his time synchronizing carburetors and cleaning chain lube off his left pant leg.