Dressed to Kill: The 1954 Kaiser Darrin

THE BIRTH OF THE HENRY J

As we mentioned in part one of the Kaiser-Frazer story, both Henry Kaiser and co-founder Joe Frazer had been very interested in developing a compact car and each had done some initial work on such a model before they even met. For various practical reasons, the first Kaiser and Frazer cars were conventional, full-size models, but Henry Kaiser in particular remained keen on compacts.

In 1946, Kaiser-Frazer commissioned compact car proposals from the Los Angeles-based design firm E.H. Daniels, Inc., and the team of Brooks Stevens and Robert Paxton McCulloch (founder of McCulloch Motors and later Paxton Products), but neither got past the model stage. Nonetheless, when Henry Kaiser went to the federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) for a major operating loan in late 1948, he once again promised that Kaiser-Frazer would soon offer a small, economical people’s car with the lowest retail price of any new American automobile. That prospect appealed to RFC officials, who made the introduction of such a car — to go on sale no later than the summer of 1950 — a condition of the $44 million loan; roughly a quarter of the money was set aside to finance its development.

1951 Kaiser Henry J front MikesCarPix 2009-per
The Henry J was not technically a Kaiser; it was registered as a separate marque and the cars carried no Kaiser identification. Henry Js offered two engines, both supplied by Willys-Overland: a 134 cu. in. (2,200 cc) L-head four, rated at 68 hp (51 kW), and a 161 cu. in. (2,639 cc) L-head six, rated at 80 hp (60 kW). Both engines were also used in contemporary Jeeps, although Willys rated the flathead six at 75 hp (56 kW). All Henry Js had a three-speed manual transmission, but overdrive was a highly desirable option costing just under $100. (Photo © 2009 Mike’s Car Pix; used with permission)

Around that time, Henry Kaiser was approached by Detroit investor Frederick C. Matthaei, then a principal shareholder of the automotive supplier American Metal Products (AMP). AMP and steel fabricator Haber Stump Harris had recently developed a compact car prototype, which Matthaei had originally hoped would allow AMP to become a full-fledged automaker. However, AMP had quickly realized that building a complete automobile was beyond its capabilities and Matthaei opted instead to sell the design to a larger company.

While many of Kaiser-Frazer’s Detroit veterans dismissed the AMP prototype as amateurish, the Kaisers decided to buy it on the not-illogical premise that adapting an existing design would be faster and cheaper than developing a new compact car from scratch. Kaiser was unmoved by the strenuous objections of K-F engineers (and several board members), which he attributed to Detroit’s customary hostility toward any idea “not invented here” — an attitude with which the Kaisers were already very familiar.

Dutch Darrin lobbied hard for his short-wheelbase ’51 Kaiser concept, arguing that it would cost less to tool than the AMP design, but it was to no avail. When Edgar Kaiser offered Darrin a per-car royalty to help the in-house stylists refine the AMP prototype for production, he reluctantly accepted.

As the naysayers had gloomily predicted, turning AMP’s crude prototype into a production-ready car was more complicated and more expensive than Henry Kaiser had anticipated. Among other things, the AMP car could not easily accommodate the Continental six used in K-F’s full-size models. Since the company lacked the resources for an all-new engine, Kaiser-Frazer ended up purchasing four- and six-cylinder engines from Willys-Overland. The AMP prototype’s tubular frame also proved unworkable and was discarded in favor of a new perimeter frame designed by ex-Willys engineer Ralph Isbrandt.

1951 Henry J two-door sedan front 3q Randy von Liski myoldpostcardsonFlickr 2010-per
The initial Henry J was 174.5 inches (4,432 mm) long on a 100-inch (2,540mm) wheelbase with a shipping weight of only 2,300 lb (1,043 kg). This car appears to be a base model, lacking chrome garnish moldings and a rear decklid. It has a hood ornament, opening vent windows, and cloth upholstery, all of which were optional (standard cars had fixed quarter windows and vinyl-coated plastic upholstery), but it lacks radio, heater, glove box, turn signals, backup lights, wheel trim rings, and whitewalls — a very basic car, even then. (Photo © 2010 Randy von Liski (myoldpostcards on Flickr); used with permission)

With the RFC-imposed deadline fast approaching, there was little that could be done with the prototype’s awkward proportions, but in-house stylist Herb Weissinger added a new grille (reminiscent of the 1951 Frazer) and stubby, Cadillac-like tail fins. Darrin’s most visible contribution was the body sides, which had a trace of Darrin’s trademark “Darrin dip.”

The finished car, dubbed “Henry J” — officially chosen in a write-in contest, although the Kaisers had apparently selected the name beforehand — went on sale on September 28, 1950. With a starting price of only $1,219, the Henry J was the cheapest new car in America and one of the most economical. Unfortunately, the low price — another requirement of the RFC loan — had been achieved by stripping trim and features to an almost comically Spartan level; the base-model Henry J didn’t even have a glove box. Fit and finish of the early cars was also sub-par and owners soon complained of poor door seals, leaky windows, and an assortment of other minor maladies. Early sales were encouraging, but it didn’t take buyers long to conclude that a used Ford or Chevrolet was a more livable proposition.

Kaiser-Frazer sold about 75,000 Henry Js in the first year, but ended the model year with over 7,000 unsold cars. Sales for 1952 were well under 35,000, despite a deal with Sears, Roebuck to market a facelifted version under the Allstate brand. It was downhill from there: The Henry J did well overseas despite the lack of a RHD version or suitable export suspension, but at home, the compact was going nowhere fast.

1951 Henry J two-door sedan rear 3q Ronnie Schreiber CarsinDepth 2011 per
Notice anything missing from this early Henry J? It has no trunk lid. Standard Henry Js had no external luggage access, requiring baggage (or, less conveniently, the spare tire) to be wrestled in and out through the fold-down rear seat. Omitting the trunk lid was one of the measures that enabled Kaiser to advertise a rock-bottom list price for the basic four-cylinder sedan, although an exterior trunk lid was included on Deluxe models and later offered on the base cars as part of an optional Accessory Group. (Photo © 2011 Ronnie Schreiber; used with the permission of Cars in Depth)

THE EXCALIBUR J

Whatever its aesthetic and merchandising shortcomings, there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with the Henry J’s sturdy boxed-section frame or dependable L-head Willys engines. Contemporary testers like Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated and Popular Mechanics‘ Floyd Clymer chided the Henry J’s assembly quality, but praised the compact as a basically sound package. Aside from its obvious economy, it had an agreeable blend of ride comfort and maneuverability and with the six-cylinder engine it was sprightly, if not particularly fast. Some highly successful sports cars had been built on far less promising foundations, and enterprising builders and hot rodders were soon contemplating a racier Henry J.

Among them was designer Brooks Stevens. Although Stevens had nothing to do with the Henry J’s design, he had remained in contact with Kaiser-Frazer as a consultant. In 1951, he acquired several Henry J chassis, added minimalist roadster bodywork with aluminum body panels and simple cycle fenders, and pitched the concept to Kaiser-Frazer as a dual-purpose sports racer along the lines of the Anglo-American Nash Healey or the Allard J2. The Kaisers declined, but Stevens decided to build three of the cars at his own expense. Dubbed “Excalibur J,” the roadsters were intended primarily for competition in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Class D events.

The Excalibur Js traded the Henry J’s L-head six for the newer Willys “Hurricane” F-head engine, also used in the Willys Aero compact. In stock form, the 161 cu. in. (2,639 cc) Hurricane six made 10 to 15 horsepower (7.5 to 10 kW) more than its flathead counterpart; in racing tune, Stevens’ crew extracted a reliable 100+ hp (75 kW). With a dry weight of only 1,500 lb (680 lb) — nearly 900 lb (400 kg) lighter than the already-svelte six-cylinder Henry J — that was enough to give the Excalibur J strong acceleration and a top speed of around 120 mph (193 km/h).

1954 Kaiser Darrin Hurricane engine Murilee Martin 2009 per
Willys-Overland’s “Hurricane” F-head (intake over exhaust) engines were a development of the company’s earlier L-head line and shared some of the same tooling. Moving the intake valves to the cylinder head allowed larger ports and better breathing, while the long-stroke, undersquare dimensions provided good low-end torque — important in the Jeeps that were the main users of these engines. The four-cylinder Hurricane was introduced on Jeeps and Jeepsters in 1950, the six-cylinder version (seen here in a production Kaiser Darrin) in 1952. They remained in use in both the U.S. and Brazil into the 1970s. (Photo © 2009 Murilee Martin; used with permission)

The Willys-powered Excalibur J ran its first SCCA race in July 1952, taking second in class. In all, the Excalibur Js ran in two dozen events in the 1952 and 1953 seasons, winning nine of them and regularly besting European and Anglo-American rivals costing far more.

Around the end of 1952, Stevens showed the Excalibur J to various automotive magazines, apparently hoping to find an automaker willing to put it into series production. Despite the Excalibur J’s racing exploits, he found no takers and only the three original cars were ever built; they continued to race with some success through at least 1957. Stevens subsequently applied the Excalibur name to a Lincoln-powered, rear-engine race car and then to his long-running retro-classic line, which was introduced in 1964.

THE DARRIN SPORTS CAR

In early 1952, a few months before the Excalibur J began its competition career, Dutch Darrin started work on a Henry J-based sports car of his own. It’s not clear if Darrin was aware of Stevens’ efforts or not; it’s certainly possible that Darrin heard about the Stevens proposal, but he later told author Richard Langworth that his initial motivation was simply to assuage his lingering disappointment with the way production Henry J had turned out.

That spring, Darrin and his son Bob developed a clay model of a sleek, low-slung roadster featuring the “Darrin dip”; a peaked windshield, reminiscent of (and perhaps borrowed from) the 1951 Kaiser; a manually retractable fiberglass hardtop, and unusual sliding doors. The doors were a new variation on a concept Darrin had conceived for his stillborn postwar car and subsequently refined for his ’51 Kaiser proposal, which had included electrically operated sliding doors front and rear as well as electric windows that would lower automatically as the doors opened. Kaiser-Frazer had rejected that idea, presumably on cost grounds, but Darrin had applied for a patent on it in June 1948, which was issued in early 1953. Unlike Darrin’s earlier proposals, the roadster’s doors retracted into the front fenders rather than over them and for the sake of simplicity had no windows, power-operated or otherwise.

1954 Kaiser Darrin rear 3q George Camp 2007per
Darrin’s initial prototype incorporated a retractable fiberglass hardtop stowing beneath the rear decklid, like Peugeot’s late-thirties 402BL Éclipse Décapotable. However, the hideaway hardtop proved impractical and was eventually abandoned in favor of a “Deauville-style” three-position folding soft top, stored in a separate well behind the cabin. The decklid’s complex lift-and-tilt hinges were discarded and the empty space in the tail originally intended for hardtop storage became additional luggage space. (A fiberglass accessory hardtop was offered on production Darrins, but it was not retractable.) (Photo © 2007 George Camp; used with permission)

Like his abortive postwar car, Darrin decided to build the roadster out of glass-reinforced plastic (GRP, or fiberglass) rather than steel or aluminum. Fiberglass had several advantages for auto bodies: It was relatively light, it was more resilient than aluminum, it didn’t rot, it was immune to corrosion, and it could be molded into shapes difficult to achieve with steel. Its most critical advantage, however, was that plastic molds were far less expensive than the tooling for steel bodies — cheap enough to make fiberglass-bodied cars economically viable for small private manufacturers.

When the clay was completed, Darrin commissioned Costa Mesa, California-based Glasspar to produce the body for an initial running prototype, using a stock Henry J chassis and drivetrain. Although Glasspar’s primary business was fiberglass boats, founder Bill Tritt was also at the forefront of an emerging cottage industry in plastic kit cars, including his own Glasspar G2 and the Willys-based Woodill Wildfire. By the time Darrin hired them in 1952, Tritt and the Glasspar staff knew as much as anyone about making automotive bodies out of glass-reinforced plastic; Glasspar would later serve as a consultant to GM and Volvo, among others.

1952 Woodill Woodfire front 3q Rex Gray 2008 CCBY2.0gen
Developed by Downey, California, Willys-Overland dealer B. Robert “Woody” Woodill, the original Woodill Wildfire had a fiberglass body made by Glasspar and running gear borrowed from contemporary Willys models — including the same F-head F6-161 Hurricane six later used in the Kaiser Darrin. After Kaiser acquired Willys in 1953, Woodill adapted the Wildfire’s body to use a Ford chassis and powertrain. He continued to produce and sell Wildfire kits through at least 1956. (Photo © 2008 Rex Gray; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

14 Comments

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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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