Dressed to Kill: The 1954 Kaiser Darrin

THE KAISER DARRIN GOES TO MARKET

Although a few early cars probably found their way to customers in late 1953, the production Kaiser Darrin was not officially introduced to dealers until January 1954. With an MSRP of $3,668.50, it was far and away Kaiser’s most expensive product, more than twice the price of a six-cylinder Henry J Corsair Deluxe and $1,000 more than the none-too-cheap Kaiser Manhattan four-door sedan. Even considered only among sports cars, the Kaiser Darrin was pricey; it was over $150 more than a Chevrolet Corvette or Allard J2X.

1954 Kaiser Darrin interior © 2009 Pat McLaughlin (used with permission)
Compared to the Henry J on which it was based, the Kaiser Darrin was fairly well equipped, with standard turn signals, cigar lighter and ashtray, tinted windshield, bumper guards, horn ring, a padded dash (something Howard Darrin had patented in France back in 1930), a full set of Stewart-Warner gauges, and a 6,000-rpm tachometer. Electric windshield wipers were standard, but windshield washers were extra, as was a heater/defroster. (Photo © 2009 Patrick McLaughlin; used with permission)

Despite the lofty price, the Darrin’s performance was unexceptional: Top speed was about 95 mph (155 km/h) and reaching 60 mph (97 km/h) took around 15 seconds. That was quick enough to see off the cheaper MG TF, but not an Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider or Triumph TR2; the big sixes of the Corvette, Nash-Healey, or Jaguar XK120 would leave the Kaiser Darrin for dead. The Darrin’s handling was competent enough, with quick steering and predictable responses, but it lacked the agility of its European rivals and brisk cornering was accompanied by substantial understeer. The brightest dynamic notes were a surprisingly comfortable ride and excellent brakes: 11-inch (279mm) Bendix drums borrowed from the much heavier Kaiser Manhattan.

While it was generally easy to drive, day-to-day livability was not the Kaiser Darrin’s strongest suit. Interior space was adequate, if not generous, but making a graceful entry or exit through the narrow door openings took practice and owners quickly learned the necessity of keeping the door tracks clean and free of debris. The folding top and snap-in side curtains tended to leak enthusiastically in the rain and even with the optional heater, only the hardiest souls would try to drive the Darrin on a cold winter day. In those respects, the Kaiser Darrin was no worse than most sports cars of its era, but such shortcomings inevitably limited the Darrin’s market potential, especially in the snow belt.

1954 Kaiser Darrin upholstery © 2009 Murilee Martin (used with permission)
The Kaiser Darrin’s standard upholstery was vinyl, available in red, white, black, or Pine Tint (green), although some sources claim leather was available by special order. Another interesting option was seat belts, not widely available on American cars of this period. (Photo © 2009 Murilee Martin; used with permission)

Kaiser hoped to use the Darrin as an enticement for dealers to order more of the company’s workaday models, but by early 1954 many Kaiser franchises had either gone under or jumped ship and relatively few of the survivors ordered any Darrins at all. With serious (and well-founded) doubts about the company’s future, buyers were reluctant to take a chance on any Kaiser, much less a pretty but impractical roadster with a Cadillac price tag. It’s noteworthy that roughly 20% of all production Kaiser Darrins were sold through Dutch Darrin’s own West Hollywood showroom.

By July, a lack of orders led Kaiser to trim the Darrin’s wholesale price by about 5%. Later that month, Kaiser-Willys general sales manager Roy Abernethy (later to become president of AMC) introduced hefty dealer incentives on all Kaisers, including a $700 trade-in allowance on any Kaiser Darrin.

1954 Kaiser Darrin door-and-top © 2008 George Camp (used with permission)
Early-production Darrins reportedly had problems with the door rollers jamming, but after a switch to nylon roller bushings (subsequently retrofitted to early cars), the doors worked reasonably well as long as the aluminum tracks were kept free of dirt, mud, or debris — another strong argument for not driving the roadster in the rain! As you can see, even with the doors functioning perfectly, the door openings aren’t very wide, somewhat hampering entry and exit. (Photo © 2008 George Camp; used with permission)

By then, the roadster’s fate was a foregone conclusion. Kaiser had hoped to sell around 1,000 a year, but production had yet to reach half that figure and the factory still had a substantial backlog of unsold cars. Moreover, Kaiser was approaching the end of its lease on the assembly space in Jackson; the warehouse building had actually been sold to another company in 1953. Continuing production beyond the end of 1954 would require either a new lease or the establishment of a new assembly line. Since neither dealer orders nor sales showed any signs of improving, there seemed little point and the line shut down for good in August.

The final production tally, not including early prototypes, was 435 cars. (It’s not clear exactly how many prototypes were built. Dutch Darrin recalled that there were 62, but other sources claim there were as few as five, with fiberglass bodies from several suppliers, including Glasspar, U.S. Royal, and Owens-Corning. Author Michael Lamm notes that some chassis may have been fitted with several different bodies during development, making the total difficult to calculate.)

Kaiser dealers probably sold a few leftover Darrins through the 1955 model year, but both Kaiser and Willys were already on their way out of the auto industry. Kaiser sold fewer than 10,000 cars in 1954 (including approximately 1,300 Henry Js, all of them leftover 1953 models) and only 1,291 for 1955, most of those for export. By November 1955, the company had withdrawn from the automobile business except for Jeep and a minority interest in Industrias Kaiser Argentina (IKA).

1954 Kaiser Manhattan front 3q © Aaron Severson
The 1954-1955 big Kaisers, sold concurrently with the Kaiser Darrin, still used the same Darrin-styled body introduced in 1951, but sported an extensive facelift executed by Kaiser-Frazer’s in-house stylists, reportedly inspired by Buick’s XP-300 show car. The sole engine remained the 226 cu. in. (3,707 cc) Continental engine, but pricier Manhattan models like this one got a standard McCulloch supercharger, extracting 140 hp (104 kW) from the elderly flathead. Sales were very limited. (author photo)

THE DARRIN AFTER KAISER

After production ended, 100 or so unsold Kaiser Darrins ended up in a storage lot at the Willys plant in Toledo, Ohio. Dutch Darrin discovered them there months later in sad shape — the roadsters had spent the winter outside, buried in the snow, and were slated to be written off. Since the company was obviously keen to be rid of them, Darrin was able to buy about half of those cars at a substantial discount.

1954 Kaiser Darrin gauges © 2009 Murilee Martin (used with permission)
Darrin’s original prototype had the gauges spread across the dashboard, not unlike the early Corvette. Among the minor changes made for production was to cluster the gauges more closely together, making them easier to read. Note also the glare shields over each dial, a useful addition on a sunny day. (Photo © 2009 Murilee Martin; used with permission)

Since Darrin still owned the rights to the design — Kaiser had built the roadsters under license — he had the damaged cars shipped back to Los Angeles, cleaned them up, and resold them himself. Several were equipped with McCulloch superchargers and at least six others traded the Willys engine for an OHV V8 borrowed from the contemporary Cadillac Eldorado. Either conversion had far better performance than the stock roadster. Based on earlier tests of the supercharged factory prototype, the supercharged cars were capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 10 seconds and a top speed of over 100 mph (161 km/h); the Cadillac engine gave the Darrin a top speed of more than 145 mph (235 km/h). Some of the modified cars competed in a few SCCA events in the hands of owners like Laura Maxine Elmer (later to become Briggs Cunningham’s second wife) and Ray Sinatra, Jr., cousin of Frank Sinatra. Darrin sold the last of the roadsters by 1957.

1954 Kaiser Darrin dashboard © 2009 Pat McLaughlin (used with permission)
Like the Henry J, all Kaiser Darrins had a three-speed manual gearbox. Most if not all had overdrive, but sources vary as to whether it was standard equipment, a delete option, optional but almost universally specified, or initially standard and later made part of a theoretically optional Accessory Group that was nonetheless fitted to almost every car. We found no definitive answer and at this point, your guess is as good as ours. (Photo © 2009 Patrick McLaughlin; used with permission)

Perhaps the most intriguing Kaiser Darrin variation was a mooted long-wheelbase, four-door hardtop version with sliding front and rear doors. Henry Kaiser had suggested such a car in the fall of 1952, but by the time the roadster got off the ground, Kaiser Motors no longer had the resources for any spin-offs. In April 1954, Studebaker-Packard approached Darrin about developing a similar hardtop on a Packard chassis. A single mockup was built, sporting with a dramatic new nose, but sadly, Studebaker-Packard’s deteriorating financial condition led to the project’s cancellation. We don’t know what eventually happened to the mockup. (We were unable to obtain a photo of it for this article.)

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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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