Dressed to Kill: The 1954 Kaiser Darrin

SELLING THE KAISERS

When the running prototype was completed in August, Darrin presented it to Henry Kaiser and his wife, proposing it as a new Kaiser-Frazer model. As Darrin described the scene, Kaiser immediately lost his temper, outraged that Darrin would build such a prototype without the company’s authorization. Kaiser declared testily that he had no interest in offering a Kaiser-Frazer sports car and resisted all of Darrin’s efforts to reason with him — until Kaiser’s wife Ale interjected to say that she thought the prototype was beautiful and that if Kaiser-Frazer wasn’t making sports cars, it certainly should be.

1954 Kaiser Darrin front 3q © 2009 Pat McLaughlin (used with permission)
The Kaiser Darrin’s chassis is not identical to the Henry J’s — the frame rails were modified to allow the lower ride height, the steering ratio was altered, and the spring and damping rates were altered to match the lighter body — but is very similar. The fiberglass body was molded in two sections, not including the decklid, doors, and hood. The Kaiser Darrin was originally offered in only four colors: Champagne Lacquer (white), Red Sail Lacquer, Yellow Satin Lacquer, and Pine Tint Lacquer (green). Lacquer paints were specified because the fiberglass body could not withstand the temperatures required for baked enamel. Wire wheels were a factory option. (Photo © 2009 Patrick McLaughlin; used with permission)

We should pause for a moment to mention a few particulars about Alyce (Ale) Chester Kaiser, whom Henry Kaiser had married in April of the previous year. A nurse from Oakland, California, she had been on the staff of the Permanente clinic in Oakland during the war and later worked concurrently as executive assistant to Permanente Foundation medical director Sidney Garfield. When Henry Kaiser’s first wife, Bess Fosburgh Kaiser, had taken ill in 1949, Ale Chester became the Kaisers’ live-in nurse, which she remained until Bess died in March 1951. Bereft at the loss of his wife of 45 years, Kaiser married Chester only 27 days later. They made a curious pair — a handsome, then 34-year-old divorcee and a portly, balding widower then only weeks shy of his 69th birthday — and their wedding drew widespread press attention, causing a stir among Kaiser’s family and friends. Nonetheless, the couple were devoted to each other and would remain together until Kaiser’s death in 1967.

1954 Kaiser Darrin rear 3q © 2009 Pat McLaughlin (used with permission)
Since it used a modified Henry J frame, the Kaiser Darrin’s overall dimensions were similar to those of its plebeian brother, making it relatively large for a fifties sports car: 67.5 inches (1,715 mm) wide and 184 inches (4,674 mm) long on a 100-inch (2,540mm) wheelbase. The factory quoted a shipping weight of 2,175 lb (987 kg), about 275 lb (125 kW) lighter than the last six-cylinder Henry J Corsair Deluxe; curb weight would be around 2,325 lb (1,055 kg) with a full tank of fuel. (Photo © 2009 Patrick McLaughlin; used with permission)

It would probably be overstating the point to say that Ale Kaiser convinced her husband to build Darrin’s roadster, but at the very least, her comment convinced Henry to calm down and consider the possibilities. Darrin said that once Henry took the time to think it through, he became very enthusiastic about the idea. Other than the short-lived Crosley Hotshot and the expensive and rare Nash-Healey — which was more Healey than Nash — no major U.S. automaker yet offered any sort of sports car. (Although the Chevrolet Corvette was already in the works by August 1952, it had not yet been announced and we don’t know that either Darrin or Kaiser was aware of it.) Even if Darrin’s roadster didn’t sell in great numbers, it promised to provide great publicity as well as welcome showroom traffic for beleaguered Kaiser dealers.

With Henry Kaiser’s blessing, Darrin exhibited the prototype at the 1952 International Motorama, which opened at L.A.’s Pan-Pacific Auditorium on November 10. (Not to be confused with GM’s traveling Motorama shows of the same era, the Los Angeles Motorama was founded by Hot Rod and Motor Trend publisher Robert Petersen in 1950, catering primarily to the burgeoning hot rod and custom field.) Public response was very positive and the roadster generated considerable interest from the automotive press. The car was not yet identified as a future Kaiser model, but Darrin hinted that Kaiser-Frazer was very interested. The roadster’s projected retail price was said to be under $3,000 — not cheap, but still reasonably attainable and half the price of a Nash-Healey.

1952 Nash-Healey sports convertible front 3q © 2007 Writegeist (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)
A collaboration between Nash and the Warwick, England-based Donald Healey Motor Company, the original Nash-Healey was based on the chassis and body of the earlier Healey Silverstone, but with the grille, drivetrain, and 235 cu. in. (3,847 cc) six of the 1951 Nash Ambassador. The Nash-Healey had an active racing career: The initial right-hand-drive prototype finished fourth overall in the 1950 24 Hours of Le Mans and Nash-Healeys competed at Le Mans in 1951, 1952, and 1953. In 1952, the Nash-Healey got a new body designed and built by Turin’s Pinin Farina. A sleek, long-wheelbase hardtop coupe, the Nash-Healey Le Mans, was added to the line in 1953. All were very expensive, limiting sales; a 1952 roadster like this one listed for nearly $6,000. (Photo: “1952 Nash Healey” © 2007 Writegeist; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

BIRTH PAINS

At the New York Auto Show in January, Kaiser-Frazer announced that Darrin’s fiberglass roadster would indeed become a production model. The company subsequently commissioned Glasspar to build a number of additional prototypes for the auto show circuit. Kaiser predicted that the roadster would go on sale by the fall of 1953.

Before that could happen, however, there were a number of snags to resolve. One was the engine; although Darrin’s prototype used a stock Henry J drivetrain, even Henry Kaiser agreed that a sports car needed more power. To that end, Kaiser engineers borrowed one of Brooks Stevens’ Excalibur Js and fitted it with a modified version of the Henry J’s L-head six with a high-compression aluminum head, a hotter cam, and three side-draft carburetors. While the modified six eventually yielded about 25 hp (19 kW) more than the stock engine, the greater power came with driveability problems and a propensity for valve and piston damage. Several automotive magazines tested a prototype with the modified engine, but by summer, the engineers had given up on it.

1954 Kaiser Darrin engine © 2010 Jack Snell (used with permission)
In stock form, the Kaiser Darrin’s Hurricane F-head six made 90 gross horsepower (67 kW) and 135 lb-ft (182 N-m) of torque. Essentially the same engine was used in many 1952-1954 Willys Aeros and the 1955 Willys Custom and Bermuda; its four-cylinder brother was used in some Jeeps through 1971. In 1954, Willys added the 226 cu. in. (3,707 cc) six from big Kaisers, making 115 gross horsepower (86 kW), but that engine was not offered in the Kaiser Darrin. (Photo: “1954 Kaiser Darrin Roadster ‘WKT 124’ 7” © 2010 Jack Snell; used with permission)

In March, Kaiser had merged with Willys-Overland, reorganizing Kaiser-Frazer as Kaiser Motors. When the three-carb engine proved unreliable, Kaiser engineers decided to follow Brooks Stevens’ example and trade the L-head six for the F-head Willys Hurricane six. Lacking the Excalibur J’s performance tuning, the Hurricane six made only 90 hp (67 kW), but it was still notably stronger than the Henry J’s flathead. At least one prototype roadster was tested with a Roots-type McCulloch supercharger — similar, if not identical, to the one added to Kaiser Manhattans for the 1954 model year — but it was not offered as a factory option.

Shortly after the engine issue had been resolved, UAW Local 149 went on strike, effectively shutting down the Willow Run plant. Pilot production of the new roadster finally began in August, not at Willow Run, but in Kaiser’s parts warehousing facility in Jackson, Michigan, which had previously been used to assemble the 1951 Frazer. Even then, the roadster’s specifications weren’t yet finalized and full production didn’t begin until December.

1954 Kaiser Darrin decklid badge © 2008 George Camp (used with permission)
Many modern sources still refer to this car as the “Kaiser Darrin DKF-161,” but according to historian Jack Mueller of Kaiser-Frazer Owners Club International (KFOCI), Kaiser internal documents list its official designation as “Kaiser Darrin 161 Sports Car.” Decklid badging was one of the few external indications that the roadster was a Kaiser; since Kaiser was now technically a subsidiary of Willys Motor Corporation, the build plates identify it as a Willys product. (Photo © 2008 George Camp; used with permission)

The roadster’s name proved another sore point, causing considerable tension between Dutch Darrin and Kaiser management. Some early company documents described the roadster as the “KDF,” but someone eventually remembered that the Volkswagen Beetle had originally been the KdF-Wagen (taking its name from the prewar Nazi tourism organization). Kaiser subsequently described the roadster as the DKF-161 (from “Darrin Kaiser-Frazer” and the engine displacement), but Darrin argued that “DKF” would be too easily confused with Auto Union’s DKW brand; he was also annoyed with what he saw as an attempt to downplay his involvement. Henry Kaiser finally ordered that the roadster would be called “Kaiser Darrin.”

Darrin was even less pleased when he saw the changes Kaiser had made to his final design. He was presumably already aware that Kaiser had rejected his original hideaway-hardtop idea and that the prototype’s divided windshield had been traded for one-piece glass, but when production began, he was horrified to discover that Kaiser body engineers had raised the leading edges of the roadster’s front fenders by about 4 inches (10 cm) and added turn signals beneath the headlamps. The changes were not arbitrary — Kaiser had discovered that the prototype’s headlights were too low to meet some state lighting requirements and a growing number of states now required turn signals — but Darrin had not been consulted and when he saw the finished product, he threw a fit. There was little to be done about it, but even years later, Darrin insisted that the alterations had spoiled the design.

1954 Kaiser Darrin front © 2007 George Camp (used with permission)
In addition to the higher headlights and altered front fender line, the production Kaiser Darrin had a one-piece windshield lacking the ‘widow’s peak’ of the original prototype. Wind wings were standard equipment; at different points in production, they could have been either glass or plastic. (Photo © 2007 George Camp; used with permission)

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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