Dressed to Kill: The 1954 Kaiser Darrin

The short-lived, fiberglass-bodied Kaiser Darrin was perhaps the most distinctive product of Henry Kaiser’s decade-long adventure in Detroit — it was also one of the last. This week, we look at the birth and death of the Kaiser Darrin, the short history of the Henry J on which it was based, and the final collaboration between the great industrialist Henry J. Kaiser and dashing automotive designer Howard A. “Dutch” Darrin.

1954 Kaiser Darrin grille Pat McLaughlin 2009 per
(Photo © 2009 Patrick McLaughlin; used with permission)

HENRY KAISER VS. DETROIT

We talked at length about Henry Kaiser’s career in our earlier article on Kaiser-Frazer, but a brief recap seems in order. Originally from a small town in upstate New York, Kaiser had risen from very modest beginnings to become an industrial titan: builder of the Hoover Dam, architect of a formidable shipbuilding enterprise, founder of the pioneering Permanente Health Plan and clinics (known today as Kaiser Permanente), and more.

In 1945, at the age of 63, Kaiser decided to try his hand at the auto business, launching the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation in partnership with Detroit veteran Joseph W. Frazer. Together, they leased the massive Willow Run bomber factory near Ypsilanti, Michigan, and tried to challenge Detroit at its own game.

1943 SS George Washington Carver E.F. Joseph (U.S. PD - USOWI 1943PD)
The fruit of Henry Kaiser’s wartime shipbuilding efforts was thousands of Liberty Ships, like this one, the SS George Washington Carver, photographed in April 1943 at the Kaiser shipyard in Richmond, California. Before the war, Kaiser had never even contemplated building a ship; by 1942, his shipyards were turning out 14,245-ton Liberty Ships in as little as five days. (U.S. public domain wartime photograph attributed to E.F. Joseph of the U.S. Office of War Information; source)

After an early flush of success in the booming postwar years, things began to turn sour for Kaiser-Frazer, the result of inadequate capital, unrealistic expectations, and a rapidly cooling marketplace. Joe Frazer was effectively ousted in 1949, leaving the company’s operations to Henry Kaiser, Henry’s son Edgar, and a board dominated by Kaiser loyalists. As the fifties dawned, it seemed that Henry Kaiser might finally have overextended himself. Still, the Kaisers were preparing a second offensive with an inexpensive new compact sedan and a new full-size model designed by stylist Howard Darrin.

THE ADVENTURES OF DUTCH DARRIN

Unlike Henry Kaiser, Howard A. “Dutch” Darrin grew up in affluent surroundings; he was born in 1897 to a well-to-do New Jersey family with an interest in the American Switch Company. Although Darrin evinced an early interest in automobiles, his initial plans involved a career in electrical engineering, beginning with an internship at Westinghouse before World War I. When the United States entered the war, Darrin set those ambitions aside to become a pilot, joining the Aviation Section of the U.S. Army Signal Corps and later helping to establish a short-lived commercial air service called Aero Limited.

Darrin’s entrée into the automotive design field came in a roundabout way. In the early twenties, he approached the design firm LeBaron Carrossiers in hopes of selling a pair of Delage chassis he had recently acquired. Darrin befriended LeBaron co-founder Thomas Hibbard and shortly afterward either accompanied or encountered Hibbard on a business trip to Paris in spring 1923. Recognizing that business was booming and labor was cheap in Europe, the two soon decided to start their own Parisian company, Carrosserie Hibbard et Darrin.

The new firm quickly became a success. In 1926, they set up their own factory in Puteaux, a Parisian suburb, and secured a commission from Rolls-Royce to offer factory-approved bodies for French customers. In October 1929, Hibbard and Darrin established their first U.S. showroom in New York City.

1937 Ford-Darrin cabriolet front 3q
Not all of Darrin’s custom work was on expensive luxury cars; this is a Darrin-customized 1937 Ford cabriolet. (author photo)

The firm’s prospects looked good, but business quickly dried up following the stock market crash on October 29. By the end of 1930, Hibbard et Darrin was overextended and close to bankruptcy, so the following January, Darrin and Hibbard decided to shut down their operations and go their separate ways. Hibbard went back to the U.S., but Darrin wanted to remain in Paris, so he found a new partner in Argentine financier J. Fernandez, owner of Carrosserie Fernandez et Cie. As the economy slowly recovered, their new venture, Darrin et Fernandez, enjoyed several reasonably successful years, offering bodies for high-end European makes like Delage and Hispano-Suiza.

With fears of a new war in Europe, business was once again waning by the late thirties. In 1937, Darrin returned to the States and resettled in Hollywood, where he leased a space on Sunset Boulevard. Tall and debonair, Darrin had always cut a striking figure and he made the most of his Parisian sophisticate image. His mercurial temperament was no great handicap in Hollywood and his proximity to posh Hollywood night spots like Romanoff’s, Ciro’s, and the Trocadero helped him to court wealthy customers like actress Rosalind Russell, actor-crooner Dick Powell, and singer Al Jolson. Some customers, like actors Errol Flynn and Clark Gable, later became Darrin’s close friends.

In 1939, Darrin convinced Packard chairman Alvan Macauley to authorize a factory-catalogued, semi-custom Packard Darrin, which became in numerical terms one of the most successful products Darrin had yet developed. In 1940, Packard also offered Darrin $10,000 to develop a rival to Cadillac’s popular Sixty Special, which became the basis for the 1941 Packard Clipper, although Darrin later alleged that he was never actually paid.

1940 Packard Darrin Custom Super Eight convertible Victoria front 3q © Aaron Severson
Between 1940 and 1942, Packard offered a modest number of catalogued “semi-customs” Packard Darrins. The majority were convertible Victorias like this one, although there was also a long-wheelbase convertible sedan. A closed sport sedan was catalogued in 1941, but as far as we’re aware only one was built, for a senior Packard executive. A few 1940 Darrins were based on the smaller One Twenty chassis, but at Alvan Macauley’s insistence, most of the factory-catalogued cars were on the bigger Custom Super Eight/One Eighty chassis. (author photo)

America’s entry into the war put Darrin temporarily out of business, so in 1943 he returned to the Army as a flight school field commander. By 1945, however, he was back in a new shop on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, doing private commissions. Joseph Frazer, then the president of Graham-Paige, hired Darrin to develop a postwar Graham-Paige car and later commissioned him to create a scale model of a Frazer car to support Kaiser-Frazer’s initial public offering.

After the incorporation of Kaiser-Frazer, Darrin’s design became — with many revisions with which he had no involvement and of which he did not approve — the first 1947 Frazer. Hoping to capitalize on the prewar glamour of Darrin’s name, Kaiser-Frazer added “Styled by Darrin” badges to its early cars, although Darrin objected, dissatisfied with the changes the company had made to his design. The badges were deleted in 1948.

Meanwhile, an acquaintance of Darrin’s, the investment broker Charles Schwartz, introduced Darrin to the Lehman Brothers, New York investment bankers and the owners of a prominent department store chain. The Lehman Brothers, who had almost underwritten the Kaiser-Frazer IPO (and were indirectly responsible for Kaiser-Frazer adopting Darrin’s design for production), made a deal with Darrin to develop a car of his own, which was to be marketed through Lehman Brothers retail stores.

In 1946, Darrin told the press that he envisioned two models, both powered by an L-head Continental six: a compact, selling for around $2,000, and a long-wheelbase, midsize sedan, selling for around $2,800. Both were technically advanced, featuring torsion bar suspension, hydraulic power assists, and a fiberglass body made by Hayes Manufacturing Co. Darrin said he anticipated a total volume of 30,000 units a year — at least 20 times the combined production of all his previous custom and semi-custom cars. Unfortunately, raw materials were still in short supply at the end of the war and molding the fiberglass body proved to be more difficult than expected. The project collapsed and only a single prototype convertible was ever built. Darrin shopped the concept elsewhere, but it came to nothing.

In early 1948, Darrin returned to Kaiser-Frazer, winning a competition with Brooks Stevens Design Associates and K-F’s internal styling team to develop the 1951 Kaiser.

1951 Kaiser Deluxe sedan front 3q © Aaron Severson
Developed by Howard Darrin with assistance from Duncan McRae (then part of Kaiser-Frazer’s in-house styling staff), the 1951 Kaiser was considered quite stylish in its day, although it offered neither a convertible nor a glamorous pillarless hardtop. Sadly, Kaiser-Frazer was never able to offer a V8 engine and the standard 226 cu. in. (3,707 cc) L-head six left the big Kaiser somewhat underpowered. Note the divided windshield with its center ‘peak,’ an element suggested by Darrin’s son, Bob; the same feature appeared on the initial prototype of the Kaiser Darrin. (author photo)

14 Comments

Add a Comment
  1. Very informative article. I first saw a photo of this car in 1955, and couldn’t believe how silly the front end looked. Now that I have googled a photo of the prototype, with the lower grill and headlights, it makes much more sense.

    1. Yeah — the difference is subtle, but the original prototype didn’t give the vague feeling that it’s turning up its nose at you, where the production version feels a bit like a Gil Kane comic book character.

  2. “Packard: A History of the Motor Car and Company” (Kimes) has a photo of Darrin’s Packard proposal. The front end has a vague similarity to the Kaiser Darrin but looks much better with the addition of a traditional waterfall grille. Darrin was clearly more comfortable designing luxury cars.

    Like the senior Kaiser and Willys Aero, the Darrin might have plausibly survived the end of US production if it had a more viable design. Alas, the Darrin was more a styling exercise than a fully thought out production model.

    Part of the problem was that Darrin misjudged the market. In the long run a two seater needed to be easily drivable in all weather conditions. That necessitated features such as roll-down windows.

    In addition, unlike the Hudson Italia, the Darrin didn’t offer much in the way of engineering innovations. The sliding doors were unique but they didn’t solve a compelling problem (at least for two seaters) and weren’t particularly well executed.

    Most importantly, the Darrin’s styling was decidedly weird. The car’s narrow sliding doors resulted in an awkward toy car profile. The front end looked like an anteater due to the “third eye” grille. Even Darrin’s trademark dip backfired by necessitating a roofline that had the ponderousness of a baby carriage. Not the stuff of which cult followings are made.

    1. Ah, thanks for the tip on the book. I didn’t recall seeing it when I had that volume from the library; I didn’t have access to it when this was written.

      I think the production Darrin suffered in minor but perceptible ways that the prototype did not. The nose is one — the original prototype, with its lower grille and headlights, did not have the "anteater" look, although I can see how the grille would not be to every taste. The folding top is another compromise. The original hardtop was really quite sleek; it looks better than, say, the roof of a fixed-head MGA of a few years later. Whether it would have provided decent weather sealing or headroom I don’t know, but it did look a lot better, which I suspect was Darrin’s main priority.

      I agree that the Darrin probably would have had a stronger market if it had had better weather protection, but it’s hard to chide either Darrin or Kaiser Motors too much on that score, since very few sports cars of the time had much real weather protection, either. The Thunderbird didn’t arrive until after the Darrin was already on sale, the Corvette didn’t get roll-up windows until 1957, and a lot of the small British sports cars didn’t get them until well into the sixties. (I can’t say most of those rivals looked any better all buttoned up, either!) The Darrin offered no great advancements of the theme, but it wasn’t like they were selling Stanley Steamers, either.

  3. Great article as always Aaron, a real curiosity with the sliding doors, the only comparable set-up I can think of would be the BMW Z1.

    1. Yup, the 1988-1991 Z1 (never imported to the U.S., as far as I know) also had sliding doors. I’ve never seen one outside a museum, so I’m not that familiar with the mechanism.

      1. I’ve only seen one, they were never sold here being LHD for starters. I gather they were a toe in the water exercise to field-test some of the technologies. They had a high sill similar to a gullwing car, into which the door dropped down vertically, but still had a normal window. You could even drive the car with the doors retracted.

  4. The year was 1955, some time in May. My friends and I (all about 14 years of age)were standing outside our school one morning, waiting for the bell to ring. Seemingly out of nowhere an absolutely lovely little white two placer pulled up to the curb in front of us and left a very pretty classmate in our midst. We were stunned to see Carolyn slide the passenger door into the front fender. Carolyn’s father owned Bob Smith Kaiser Frazer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and after school we headed down there to get a closer look at the beauty we had seen that morning. That was our introduction to the Darrin, and I’ve been in love with the car ever since.

  5. Wow, the car looks beautiful. I’m a big fan of old cars, and I would love to see this in person. Great article with good supporting pictures. Thanks!

  6. Great article, thanks!

    Correction, AMP’s chief was Fred Matthaei, who donated the land upon which the University of Michigan’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens are located. (Worth visiting if you are near Ann Arbor.)

    1957 "University decides to relocate the Botanical Garden to 200 acres donated by Frederick C. and Mildred H. Matthaei"

    1. Robert,

      Thanks for the correction! I appear to have picked up that error from Richard Langworth’s book (I suspect it was the product of transcribing oral interviews). I’ve corrected the text.

  7. G’ma R. finally gave up on her marriage, and took a trip to San Francisco, CA, in 1954. She bot a “pine Green” [we all referred to it as “seafoam”] Kaiser Darrin–Cannot remember the exact number, but it was near the last one off the line, 400 and something. And she bot a Lilly Of France designer coat [still have that].
    Not long after that, she moved to Alaska, and left the car in the “safekeeping” of Mom. In those days, cars were shipped on open deck–some slipped overboard, and she didn’t want to risk that, nor having it in a climate not suitable for rag-top convertibles.
    Mom always had a tough time maintaining things, so eventually, she gave it to me. I started doing needed repairs and maintenance. But my DH was overseas, and living situation was dicey for keeping a car under repair status. It ended up getting taken from me by my covetous Uncle, who had the Gladstone Lincoln Mercury Dealership then.
    He used it as collateral for a loan, and lost it to someone near Portland, OR.
    That car had some toe-curling adventures–a definite “history”.
    I MISS that car, like no other!
    NOTHING came close to the signature sound of the Willy’s straight-6 engine, and the ride of a silk scarf floating on a breeze at any speed. The tranny was so well matched to the engine, the gears could be shifted without benefit of clutch, if the RPM’s were running right.
    Whoever has it, I hope they know the true Joy of it, not just the money value! If ever there was a car that shoulda kept being produced, THAT was one. It got about 20 mpg with a lead-foot, even back then. Great memories!

  8. Ha! Who knew? Our Kaiser Darrin might have been one of those Darrins rescued and reconditioned and resold in CA???
    It must have had a supercharger on it, because Mom had it doing over 110 along Hwy 10 out to Palm Springs. From the description above, only those with superchargers would have been able to do that…it was plenty responsive!

    1. If it was able to do an actual 110, it’s not unlikely that it had a supercharger or a different engine. However, speedometers in that era were not outstandingly accurate, particularly at higher speeds, so it also isn’t necessarily unlikely that an actual 95 or so might have been a much higher indicated speed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Click here to read our comment policy. You must be at least 18 to comment and PLEASE DON'T POST COPYRIGHTED CONTENT YOU DON'T OWN!
Except as otherwise noted, all text and images are copyright © Aaron Severson dba Ate Up With Motor. All rights reserved.. Trademarks referenced herein are the property of their respective owners and are used here for informational/nominative purposes; this is not an official or authorized website of any automaker or other business entity.