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.
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.
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.
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.
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.