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 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 at the Kaiser shipyard in Richmond, California, in April 1943. 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. (1943 public domain 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 withdrew 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. After the war, he helped to establish Aero Limited, one of the first commercial airlines.

Darrin’s entrée into the automotive design field came in a roundabout way. In the early twenties, he approached the design firm LeBaron about a pair of Delage chassis he had recently acquired and was looking to resell. Darrin befriended LeBaron co-founder Thomas Hibbard and shortly afterward accompanied Hibbard on a trip to Paris, ostensibly to establish overseas offices for LeBaron. After they arrived, Darrin and Hibbard decided instead to start their own Parisian company, Carrosserie Hibbard et Darrin.

The new firm quickly became a success and by 1926 had established a factory in the Paris suburb of Puteaux, with a commission from Rolls-Royce to offer factory-approved bodies for French customers. In 1929, Hibbard and Darrin established their first U.S. showroom, opened in New York only weeks before the Crash.

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)

With the onset of the Depression, business dried up, and in 1932, Darrin and Hibbard went their separate ways. Opting to remain in Paris, Darrin 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 on the wane by the late thirties. In 1937, Darrin returned to the States, leasing a space on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, not far from posh Hollywood nightclubs like Ciro’s and the Trocadero. Tall and debonair, Darrin had always cut a striking figure, and he played the image of the Parisian sophisticate to the hilt. His mercurial, sometimes cantankerous temperament was no great handicap in Hollywood, where he soon attracted wealthy customers like actress Rosalind Russell, actor-crooner Dick Powell, and singer Al Jolson. Some, 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.

1940 Packard Darrin Custom Super Eight convertible Victoria front 3q
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, which Darrin preferred for custom work, 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 and in 1943 he returned to the Army as a flight instructor. By 1945, however, he was back in a new shop on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, doing private commissions.

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. Darrin subsequently made a deal with the Lehmans to develop a car of his own, which was to be marketed through the Lehman Brothers retail stores. As designed, it was quite advanced, with torsion bar suspension, hydraulic power assists, and a fiberglass body made by Hayes Manufacturing Co.

In 1946, Darrin told the press that he envisioned two models: a compact, selling for around $2,000, and a long-wheelbase, midsize sedan, selling for around $2,800, both powered by an L-head Continental six. Darrin said he anticipated a 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 fell apart and only a single prototype convertible was ever built.

Charlie Schwartz also introduced Darrin to Joseph Frazer, who commissioned Darrin to do a quick scale model of a postwar car that Frazer initially intended to market through Graham-Paige. 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 “Darrin Styled” 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.

Later that year, Darrin became a Kaiser-Frazer consultant, winning a competition with Brooks Stevens Design Associates and K-F’s internal styling team to develop the 1951 Kaiser. At the same time, Darrin also proposed a smaller spin-off of his design, riding a 105 in. (2,667 mm) wheelbase, intended to capitalize on Henry Kaiser’s longstanding interest in economical small cars.

1951 Kaiser Deluxe sedan front 3q
Developed by Howard Darrin with assistance from Duncan McRae (then part of Kaiser-Frazer’s in-house styling staff), 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)

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  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.

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