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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.)