Wheels of Steel 

Rare Kaiser-Frazer vintage cars on display at the Oakland Museum.

When Dr. Ed Schoen finished medical school in 1954, many roads lay open before him. After much consideration, he chose the one that came with a free two-seater convertible sports car. That car, a Kaiser Darrin, was part of the offer from a health-care provider founded by the man who was the namesake of both: Henry J. Kaiser.

Most people think of Kaiser as a WWII-era shipbuilder, or as one of the fathers of the Hoover Dam. But between 1947 and 1967, Kaiser's name was stamped onto the grille of more than 100,000 automobiles. The Darrin is the rarest of all Kaiser cars -- only 435 were ever made. It has an exceptionally unique design: the front doors slide into the fender rather than opening out, and the body was the inspiration for many future sports cars.

Dr. Schoen is retired now, but his Darrin is still working hard. It came all the way from Point Richmond to spend the next three months wowing automotive-enthusiast guests at the Oakland Museum of California. You can swing through and take a gander at this and other uniquely styled Kaiser cars, now through July 11, at the museum's showcase, "The Cars of Kaiser-Frazer: A Car for Everyone." Bruce Kiser's '53 Manhattan is also on display. He purchased the vehicle in 1996 because, as he puts it, "I was born in 1953 and my name is Kiser, so I figured, what the heck!" The four vintage cars are exhibited alongside Kaiser car advertisements, models, posters, premiums, and other ephemera.

The antique autos are being shown as part of the museum's ongoing exhibition, "Henry J. Kaiser: Think Big." The three-month vehicular portion of the show is the culmination of two years' work by Michael Dobrin, a bearded, enthusiastic gearhead who runs an automotive PR firm in his spare time. He has coordinated previous car shows at the museum, including a 1998 custom car and hot rod exhibit. "I've worked with the Kaiser-Frazer owners' club," he says. "Their California chapter has about 25 members, all of which own at least one or two Kaisers."

The secretary of the Kaiser-Frazer car club, Bob Gilzean, is also lending his best car to the exhibit. The Chico resident brought his 1949 Kaiser Vagabond down on a trailer, then drove it up the temporary stair-ramp with such gusto it left museum workers quivering with shock. The Vagabond is quite possibly the first-ever hatchback. Its revolutionary trunk design forced the spare tire into the back seat, which required the manufacturer to weld the left rear door shut. Passengers either had to enter from the other side, or perform the Dukes of Hazzard maneuver.

As always, there are plenty of other exciting things to see and do at the Oakland Museum (Oak and 10th streets). If you time it right, you just might glimpse the freshly hatched ducklings nesting in the reeds around the entrance-way pond. But be sure to stop in and say hi to Dr. Schoen's Darrin before it's taken back home and covered up for safekeeping. For more info: MuseumCA.org or 510-238-2200.

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