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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.