Dressed to Kill: The 1954 Kaiser Darrin

AFTERWORD

Conventional wisdom usually calls the Kaiser Darrin a flop, but compared to some of its sports car contemporaries, it really didn’t do that badly. The pricey Nash-Healey only sold around 500 copies between 1951 and 1954; Allard production never topped 150 or so a year and annual sales of fiberglass kit cars like the Glasspar G2 and Woodill Wildfire were measured in the dozens. As for the Corvette, while the early six-cylinder model was produced in far greater numbers than the Kaiser Darrin or its foreign rivals, even Chevrolet’s vastly stronger dealer network and bigger marketing budget didn’t make it an easy sell. Chevy ended 1954 with hundreds of unsold Corvettes and the model didn’t really become profitable until it after it had gained a V8 engine and roll-up windows. All things considered, it’s remarkable that Kaiser sold as many Darrins as it did, particularly considering how moribund the company had become by 1954.

1954 Kaiser Darrin emblem badge © 2009 Murilee Martin (used with permission)
We believe the cars Dutch Darrin sold after the demise of Kaiser Motors may have done away with the Kaiser identification — substituting different badges would not have been a difficult exercise — but we were unable to confirm that. (If you own or have seen one of the final Darrins and can speak to this point, please let us know!) (Photo © 2009 Murilee Martin; used with permission)

Even if Kaiser Motors had been healthier, we doubt the Darrin would have sold in vast numbers. A lower price, proper weather protection, and more power would have helped a little, but it’s still hard to imagine the company making much money on it. That might not have been so bad if the roadster had arrived early enough to provide meaningful promotional value to the rest of the line, but by the time the production version was ready, Kaiser didn’t need a traffic builder, it needed a miracle.

In later years, Darrin occasionally lamented that he didn’t just build and market the roadster himself, without Kaiser. While that probably would have been less personally frustrating, we suspect that if Darrin had marketed the car himself, it would now be only a minor historical footnote, much like the Muntz Jet. As it stands, the Kaiser Darrin is the probably the best-known and arguably the most desirable product of Kaiser-Frazer/Kaiser Motors. The roadster was already becoming collectible by the early 1970s and today, restored examples routinely command six-figure prices. In 2005, there was even a Kaiser Darrin U.S. postage stamp.

1954 Kaiser Darrin grille © 2007 George Camp (used with permission)
The Kaiser Darrin’s distinctive grille is probably its most immediately recognizable element; it survived the transition from styling prototype to production car with few, if any changes. (Photo © 2007 George Camp; used with permission)

While Henry Kaiser stumbled in his attempt to conquer the auto industry, it was not his Waterloo, nor was it even his final venture. Before his death in 1967, Kaiser went on to build a new empire in Hawaii, including the elaborate Hawaiian Village hotel complex in Waikiki (now owned by Hilton) and Honolulu’s Hawaii Kai residential community. Kaiser’s Hawaiian home and properties were often liberally decorated in bright pink — Ale Kaiser’s favorite color.

Howard Darrin continued to develop proposals for various automakers (including Willys Jeep and IKA) well into the 1960s, but as far as we know, none was produced in significant numbers. Nonetheless, Darrin remained one of America’s most lauded automotive designers and a frequent guest and judge at concours events. He died in 1982 at the age of 84.

Although Darrin had many criticisms of Kaiser-Frazer, he usually spoke fondly of Henry Kaiser himself. Despite their occasional disagreements, the two apparently got along surprisingly well, especially considering the differences in their backgrounds and temperaments. With its glamorous, Continental looks and humble, workaday underpinnings, the Kaiser Darrin managed to epitomize both men — an appropriate monument to two vivid and memorable American characters.

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The author would like to thank George Camp, Murilee Martin, Pat McLaughlin, Mike’s Car Pix, Ronnie Schreiber of Cars in Depth, Jack Snell, and Randy von Liski (a.k.a. myoldpostcards) for the use of their photos.


NOTES ON SOURCES

Our sources on the Henry J, the Kaiser Darrin, and Howard “Dutch” Darrin included “American Sports Car Designed for Mass Production,” Popular Science Vol. 99, No. 2 (February 1953), p. 137; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1941-1947 Packard Clipper” (23 October 2007, HowStuffWorks.com, http://auto.howstuffworks.com/1941-1947-packard-clipper.htm, accessed 21 April 2010), “1937-1942 Packard Darrin” (31 October 2007, HowStuffWorks.com, auto.howstuffworks. com / 1937-1942-packard-darrin.htm, accessed 27 June 2011), and Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Arch Brown, “1953 Allstate: Henry J in Drag?” Special Interest Autos #155 (September-October 1996), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Postwar American Independents: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002), pp. 4-11, and “SIA comparisonReport: 1954 Chevrolet Corvette vs. Kaiser Darrin,” Special Interest Autos #81 (May-June 1984), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor New Book of Corvettes: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Terry Ehrich (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000), pp. 8-17; Bill Brown, “General Specifications 1952-57 Kaiser Darrin Sports Car” (2007, www.kaiserbill. com / Web-PDF/ Darrin-General-Specs.pdf, accessed 24 June 2011) and “Kaiser Flyer #10: What, Kaiser had two Sports Cars??” (2006, www.kaiserbill. com/ Flyers/ 10.pdf, accessed 19 June 2011); Tom Carlile, “Designer Darrin and his new U.S. Fiberglas Competition – Is This America’s Answer to the European Sports Car Monopoly?” PIC Magazine February 1953, pp. 46-50; Floyd Clymer, “Clymer Tests the Henry J,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 95, No. 2 (February 1951), pp. 111-112, 274-276; Howard A. Darrin, “Automobile Power-Operated Sliding Door Construction,” United States Patent No. 2,628,860, filed 7 June 1948, published 17 February 1953; Howard “Dutch” Darrin, “My American Safari: Further Adventures in the Automotive Jungle,” Automobile Quarterly Vol. 10, No. 1 (First Quarter 1972), pp. 36-45; Lowell Fideler’s Henry J history pages, n.d., home.comcast. net/~ljfid/ page01.htm, accessed 22 June 2011; Patrick R. Foster, Standard Catalog of Jeep, 1940–2003 (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2003), and The Story of Jeep (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 1998); Nick Georgano and Nicky Wright, Art of the American Automobile: The Greatest Stylists and Their Work (New York: SMITHMARK Publishers, 1995); Wesley S. Griswold, “Plastic Henry J Makes Play for Sports-Car Fans,” Popular Science Vol. 99, No. 4 (May 1953), pp. 109-111; John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, Rev. 4th ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); Geoffrey Hacker, “Petersen Motoramas” (no date, Forgotten Fiberglass, www.forgottenfiberglass. com/ ? page_id=553, accessed 22 June 2011) and “1953 Dyna-Panhard Sports Car – Designed by Howard ‘Dutch’ Darrin” (25 July 2010, Forgotten Fiberglass, www.forgottenfiberglass. com/ ?p=7536, accessed 19 June 2011); Geoffrey Hacker and Darren Swansen, “The Kaiser Mysterion – Darren Swansen’s Wonderful Find” (6 December 2009, Forgotten Fiberglass, www.forgottenfiberglass. com/ ?p=837, accessed 19 June 2011); Geoffrey Hacker and Tony St. Clair, “The Darrin Competition Sports Car – Voila!” (19 June 2011, Forgotten Fiberglass, www.forgottenfiberglass. com/ ?p=13419, accessed 22 June 2011); Guy Hadsall, Jr. and Patrick Foster, Mister Javelin: Guy Hadsall Jr. at American Motors (Milford, CT: The Olde Milford Press, LLC, 2007), pp. v-vi; “Henry J vs. Maverick: How much progress in 23 years?” Special Interest Autos #23 (July-August 1974), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Postwar American Independents, pp. 36-41; Dave Holls and Michael Lamm, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997); Dan Jedlicka, “Kaiser-Darrin, 1954 car review” (2008, TheWeeklyDriver.com, www.theweeklydriver. com, accessed 19 June 2011); JL Productions, “Kaiser-Darrin History Page” (2010, Kaiser-Frazer Cars, www.kaiserfrazercars. com/ darrinpg.htm, accessed 24 June 2011); “Kaiser Plastic Sportster Goes Into Production,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 101, No. 3 (March 1954), p. 87; John Katz, “Dazzling Darrin,” Special Interest Autos #188 (March-April 2002), pp. 32-37; Michael Lamm, “A Supercharged Kaiser-Darrin,” Special Interest Autos #2 (November-December 1970), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Postwar American Independents: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, pp. 62-66; Richard M. Langworth, Kaiser-Frazer, the Last Onslaught on Detroit: An Intimate Behind the Scenes Study of the Postwar American Car Industry (Automobile Quarterly Library Series) (Boston, MA: E.P. Dutton, 1975); Mark J. McCourt, “Dramatic Darrin,” Hemmings Classic Car #53 (February 2009), pp. 20–29; “More Car in Less Space,” Popular Science Vol. 149, No. 4 (October 1946), pp. 132-133; Jack Mueller, ed., KFOCI Handbook, v. 4.0 (Kaiser-Frazer Owners Club International: n.d.), circlekf. com, last accessed 27 June 2011); Cliff Reuter, “1955 SCCA Race Results” (no date, Etceterini. com, www.maseratiexperts. com, accessed 24 June 2011); Frederick J. Roth, “Kaiser Darrin” (2003, American Sports Cars, www.americansportscars. com/ darrin.html, accessed 19 June 2011) and “Meet Bill Tritt – Father of the Fiberglass Sports Car” (2003, American Sports Cars, www.americansportscars. com/ tritt.html, accessed 19 June 2011); Wilbur Shaw, “Plastic Kaiser Shows Its Sporty Ways,” Popular Science Vol. 165, No. 2 (August 1954), pp. 112-114; Sports Car Club of America, Eighth Running Palms Springs Road Race official program, 26-27 March 1955, Mark Theobald, “Darrin of Paris,” “Fernandez & Darrin,” “Hibbard & Darrin,” and “Howard A. ‘Dutch’ Darrin 1897-1982” (2004, Coachbuilt, www.coachbuilt. com, accessed 25 June 2011); Burt Weaver, “driveReport: 1941 Packard 6,” Special Interest Autos #11 (June-July 1972), pp. 44–49; and Greg Zyla, “Greg Zyla: 1954 Kaiser Darrin” (1 November 2010, OakRidger.com, www.oakridger. com, accessed 25 June 2011).

Additional information on Henry and Alyce Kaiser came from Stephen B. Adams, Mr. Kaiser Goes to Washington: The Rise of a Government Entrepreneur (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997); Joan Didion’s 1966 essay “Letter from Paradise, 21° 19′ N., 157° 52′ W,” published in Didion’s anthology Slouching Toward Bethlehem (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968) and reprinted in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: The Collected Nonfiction (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), pp. 142-153; Mark S. Foster, Henry J. Kaiser: Builder in the Modern American West (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1989); Ken Gross, “The Man Who Never Failed,” Special Interest Autos #27 (March-April 1975), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Postwar American Independents: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, pp. 33-35; “Henry Kaiser Tells Plan to Wed Nurse,” The Deseret News 7 April 1951, p. 2; “History of the Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program—Kaiser Permanente Before 1970, The Founding Generation,” Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1984–1999, 2002, bancroft.berkeley. edu/ ROHO/ projects/ kaiser/, accessed 22 June 2011; “Kaiser Takes Bride Today,” Miami Sun News 10 April 1951, p. 15; School of Travel Industry Management, 2007 Legacy Honorees, “Henry J. Kaiser,” (28 November 2007, www.tim.hawaii. edu/ about/ legacy_07_honorees/ henry_kaiser.pdf, p. 23, accessed 25 June 2011; “TYCOONS: Henry J.’s Pink Hawaii,” TIME 24 October 1960, www.time. com, accessed 25 June 2011; and the Wikipedia® entry for Kaiser Permanente (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaiser_Permanente, accessed 26 June 2011).

Information on Brooks Stevens and the Excalibur J came from Richard M. Langworth, “When Henry J. Didn’t Get His Way,” Special Interest Autos #52 (August 1979), pp. 18-23, and “Brooks Stevens: The Seer Who Made Milwaukee Famous,” originally published in Special Interest Autos #71 (October 1982), pp. 18–23, updated in 2003 and reprinted in Langworth’s blog entry “Purple Prose: Brooks Stevens” (18 June 2010, richardlangworth. com/ purple-prose-brooks-stevens, accessed 19 June 2011); “The Excalibur Automobile: Thirty Years of Excellence,” Circle & Sword Vol. 9 (Winter 1981-1982); and “The Excalibur J Automobile & The Beassie Engineering Co.” (2010, American Automobiles, www.american-automobiles. com/ Excalibur-J.html, accessed 19 June 2011).

Additional information on the Kaiser Darrin’s sports car contemporaries came from the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1949-1954 Allard J2 and J2-X” (23 October 2007, HowStuffWorks.com, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1949-1954-allard-j2-and-j2x.htm, accessed 21 June 2011); Arch Brown, “1953 Nash-Healey: America’s First Postwar Sports Car,” Special Interest Autos #71 (October 1982), pp. 10-17, 52-53; Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); “Former Westporter Briggs Swift Cunningham, Noted Racer, Dies,” Westport Now, Friday 4 July 2003, www.westportnow. com, accessed 19 June 2011; Ken Polsson, “Chronology of Chevrolet Corvettes” (last updated 3 January 2011, www.islandnet. com/ ~kpolsson/ vettehis/, accessed 25 June 2011); Frederick J. Roth, “Woodill Wildfire 1952-1956” (2003, American Sports Cars, www.americansportscars. com/ wildfire.html, accessed 25 June 2011); and the Wikipedia entries for Lance Reventlow (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lance_Reventlow, accessed 25 June 2011) and the Nash Healey (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nash-Healey, accessed 21 June 2011).

A refresher on the mechanics of F-head engines came from Paul Niedermeyer, “Automotive History: The Curious F-Head Engine” (20 February 2011, Curbside Classic, www.curbsideclassic. com/ automotive-histories/ automotive-history-the-curious-f-head-engine/, accessed 23 June 2011) and from the Wikipedia entry for the Willys Hurricane (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willys_Hurricane_engine, accessed 26 June 2011).


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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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