The short-lived, fiberglass-bodied Kaiser Darrin was perhaps the most distinctive product of Henry Kaiser’s decade-long adventure in Detroit — it was also one of the last. This week, we look at the birth and death of the Kaiser Darrin, the short history of the Henry J on which it was based, and the final collaboration between the great industrialist Henry J. Kaiser and dashing automotive designer Howard A. “Dutch” Darrin.
HENRY KAISER VS. DETROIT
We talked at length about Henry Kaiser’s career in our earlier article on Kaiser-Frazer, but a brief recap seems in order. Originally from a small town in upstate New York, Kaiser had risen from very modest beginnings to become an industrial titan: builder of the Hoover Dam, architect of a formidable shipbuilding enterprise, founder of the pioneering Permanente Health Plan and clinics (known today as Kaiser Permanente), and more.
In 1945, at the age of 63, Kaiser decided to try his hand at the auto business, launching the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation in partnership with Detroit veteran Joseph W. Frazer. Together, they leased the massive Willow Run bomber factory near Ypsilanti, Michigan, and tried to challenge Detroit at its own game.
After an early flush of success in the booming postwar years, things began to turn sour for Kaiser-Frazer, the result of inadequate capital, unrealistic expectations, and a rapidly cooling marketplace. Joe Frazer was effectively ousted in 1949, leaving the company’s operations to Henry Kaiser, Henry’s son Edgar, and a board dominated by Kaiser loyalists. As the fifties dawned, it seemed that Henry Kaiser might finally have overextended himself. Still, the Kaisers were preparing a second offensive with an inexpensive new compact sedan and a new full-size model designed by stylist Howard Darrin.
THE ADVENTURES OF DUTCH DARRIN
Unlike Henry Kaiser, Howard A. “Dutch” Darrin grew up in affluent surroundings; he was born in 1897 to a well-to-do New Jersey family with an interest in the American Switch Company. Although Darrin evinced an early interest in automobiles, his initial plans involved a career in electrical engineering, beginning with an internship at Westinghouse before World War I. When the United States entered the war, Darrin set those ambitions aside to become a pilot, joining the Aviation Section of the U.S. Army Signal Corps and later helping to establish a short-lived commercial air service called Aero Limited.
Darrin’s entrée into the automotive design field came in a roundabout way. In the early twenties, he approached the design firm LeBaron Carrossiers in hopes of selling a pair of Delage chassis he had recently acquired. Darrin befriended LeBaron co-founder Thomas Hibbard and shortly afterward either accompanied or encountered Hibbard on a business trip to Paris in spring 1923. Recognizing that business was booming and labor was cheap in Europe, the two soon decided to start their own Parisian company, Carrosserie Hibbard et Darrin.
The new firm quickly became a success. In 1926, they set up their own factory in Puteaux, a Parisian suburb, and secured a commission from Rolls-Royce to offer factory-approved bodies for French customers. In October 1929, Hibbard and Darrin established their first U.S. showroom in New York City.
The firm’s prospects looked good, but business quickly dried up following the stock market crash on October 29. By the end of 1930, Hibbard et Darrin was overextended and close to bankruptcy, so the following January, Darrin and Hibbard decided to shut down their operations and go their separate ways. Hibbard went back to the U.S., but Darrin wanted to remain in Paris, so he found a new partner in Argentine financier J. Fernandez, owner of Carrosserie Fernandez et Cie. As the economy slowly recovered, their new venture, Darrin et Fernandez, enjoyed several reasonably successful years, offering bodies for high-end European makes like Delage and Hispano-Suiza.
With fears of a new war in Europe, business was once again waning by the late thirties. In 1937, Darrin returned to the States and resettled in Hollywood, where he leased a space on Sunset Boulevard. Tall and debonair, Darrin had always cut a striking figure and he made the most of his Parisian sophisticate image. His mercurial temperament was no great handicap in Hollywood and his proximity to posh Hollywood night spots like Romanoff’s, Ciro’s, and the Trocadero helped him to court wealthy customers like actress Rosalind Russell, actor-crooner Dick Powell, and singer Al Jolson. Some customers, like actors Errol Flynn and Clark Gable, later became Darrin’s close friends.
In 1939, Darrin convinced Packard chairman Alvan Macauley to authorize a factory-catalogued, semi-custom Packard Darrin, which became in numerical terms one of the most successful products Darrin had yet developed. In 1940, Packard also offered Darrin $10,000 to develop a rival to Cadillac’s popular Sixty Special, which became the basis for the 1941 Packard Clipper, although Darrin later alleged that he was never actually paid.
America’s entry into the war put Darrin temporarily out of business, so in 1943 he returned to the Army as a flight school field commander. By 1945, however, he was back in a new shop on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, doing private commissions. Joseph Frazer, then the president of Graham-Paige, hired Darrin to develop a postwar Graham-Paige car and later commissioned him to create a scale model of a Frazer car to support Kaiser-Frazer’s initial public offering.
After the incorporation of Kaiser-Frazer, Darrin’s design became — with many revisions with which he had no involvement and of which he did not approve — the first 1947 Frazer. Hoping to capitalize on the prewar glamour of Darrin’s name, Kaiser-Frazer added “Styled by Darrin” badges to its early cars, although Darrin objected, dissatisfied with the changes the company had made to his design. The badges were deleted in 1948.
Meanwhile, an acquaintance of Darrin’s, the investment broker Charles Schwartz, introduced Darrin to the Lehman Brothers, New York investment bankers and the owners of a prominent department store chain. The Lehman Brothers, who had almost underwritten the Kaiser-Frazer IPO (and were indirectly responsible for Kaiser-Frazer adopting Darrin’s design for production), made a deal with Darrin to develop a car of his own, which was to be marketed through Lehman Brothers retail stores.
In 1946, Darrin told the press that he envisioned two models, both powered by an L-head Continental six: a compact, selling for around $2,000, and a long-wheelbase, midsize sedan, selling for around $2,800. Both were technically advanced, featuring torsion bar suspension, hydraulic power assists, and a fiberglass body made by Hayes Manufacturing Co. Darrin said he anticipated a total volume of 30,000 units a year — at least 20 times the combined production of all his previous custom and semi-custom cars. Unfortunately, raw materials were still in short supply at the end of the war and molding the fiberglass body proved to be more difficult than expected. The project collapsed and only a single prototype convertible was ever built. Darrin shopped the concept elsewhere, but it came to nothing.
In early 1948, Darrin returned to Kaiser-Frazer, winning a competition with Brooks Stevens Design Associates and K-F’s internal styling team to develop the 1951 Kaiser.
THE BIRTH OF THE HENRY J
As we mentioned in part one of the Kaiser-Frazer story, both Henry Kaiser and co-founder Joe Frazer had been very interested in developing a compact car and each had done some initial work on such a model before they even met. For various practical reasons, the first Kaiser and Frazer cars were conventional, full-size models, but Henry Kaiser had remained keen on compacts.
In 1946, Kaiser-Frazer commissioned compact car proposals from the Los Angeles-based design firm E.H. Daniels, Inc. and the team of Brooks Stevens and Robert Paxton McCulloch (founder of McCulloch Motors and later Paxton Products), but neither got past the model stage.
Nonetheless, when Henry Kaiser went to the federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) for a major operating loan later that year, he once again promised that Kaiser-Frazer would launch a small, economical people’s car with a price tag of less than $1,200, undercutting every other new car on the American market. According to Kaiser-Frazer engineer Ralph Isbrandt, Kaiser’s people’s car idea greatly appealed to RFC officials, who made the introduction of such a car a condition of the $44 million loan. The RFC further specified that more than a quarter of the loan money be spent on the development of the compact, which Kaiser had optimistically declared could be on sale by mid-1950.
The Kaisers had reservations about this deal, in part because the RFC also demanded that they put up shares in their non-automotive businesses as collateral. However, the potential consequences of not getting the loan were even more severe. Overly optimistic or not, the Kaisers were now committed to the compact plan.
Around that time, Henry Kaiser was approached by Detroit investor Frederick C. Matthaei, then a principal shareholder of the automotive supplier American Metal Products (AMP). AMP and steel fabricator Haber Stump Harris had recently developed a prototype compact car that Matthaei had originally hoped would allow AMP to become a full-fledged automaker. However, AMP quickly realized that building a complete automobile was beyond its capabilities and Matthaei opted instead to sell the design to a larger company.
Kaiser had been approached by many inventors and entrepreneurs over the years and the AMP car was among the more down-to-earth of those proposals. Nonetheless, many of Kaiser-Frazer’s Detroit veterans immediately dismissed the AMP prototype as amateurish and unworkable. Dutch Darrin felt similarly, instead proposing a compact version of his 1951 full-size Kaiser design, riding a 105-inch (2,667mm) wheelbase but sharing much of the same tooling and many components.
Henry and Edgar Kaiser were already accustomed to resistance from the company’s Detroit contingent, whom the Kaisers had come to regard as hidebound naysayers hostile to any idea they hadn’t suggested themselves. The Kaisers decided to buy the AMP design anyway, taking the logical if ill-founded position that adapting an existing design would be cheaper than starting from scratch.
Darrin continued to lobby for his short-wheelbase Kaiser concept. Since it was bigger than the AMP design, the Kaisers thought it would cost more to build, but Darrin argued that the materials cost would be far outweighed by the savings in tooling. Edgar Kaiser remained skeptical and tried to placate Darrin by offering him a per-car royalty for helping the in-house stylists refine the AMP prototype for production. Darrin reluctantly accepted.
As the naysayers had warned, turning AMP’s crude prototype into a production-ready car was more complicated and more expensive than Henry and Edgar had anticipated. Among other things, the AMP car could not easily accommodate the Continental six used in K-F’s full-size models. Since the company lacked the resources for an all-new engine, Kaiser-Frazer ended up purchasing four- and six-cylinder engines from Willys-Overland. The AMP prototype’s tubular frame also proved unworkable and was discarded in favor of a new frame designed by Ralph Isbrandt, who, ironically, had previously spoken up against buying the AMP design.
With the RFC-imposed deadline fast approaching, there was little that could be done with the prototype’s awkward proportions, but in-house stylist Herb Weissinger added a new grille (reminiscent of the 1951 Frazer) and stubby, Cadillac-like tail fins. Darrin’s most visible contribution was the body sides, which had a trace of Darrin’s trademark “Darrin dip.”
The finished car, dubbed “Henry J” — officially chosen in a write-in contest, although the Kaisers had apparently selected the name beforehand — went on sale on September 28, 1950. With a starting price of only $1,219 (soon raised to $1,299), the Henry J was the cheapest new car in America and one of the most economical. Unfortunately, the low price — another requirement of the RFC loan — had been achieved by stripping trim and features to an almost comically Spartan level; the base-model Henry J didn’t even have a glove box. Fit and finish of the early cars was also sub-par and owners soon complained of poor door seals, leaky windows, and an assortment of other minor maladies. Early sales were encouraging, but it didn’t take buyers long to conclude that a used Ford or Chevrolet was a more livable proposition.
Kaiser-Frazer sold about 75,000 Henry Js in the first year, but ended the model year with more than 7,000 unsold cars. Sales for 1952 amounted to fewer than 35,000 despite a deal with Sears, Roebuck to market a facelifted version of the Henry J under the Allstate brand name. Things got worse from there. The Henry J did well overseas despite the lack of a RHD version or suitable export suspension, but at home, early interest in the Kaiser compact was quickly fading.
THE EXCALIBUR J
Whatever its aesthetic and merchandising shortcomings, there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with the Henry J’s sturdy boxed-section frame or dependable L-head Willys engines. Contemporary testers like Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated and Popular Mechanics‘ Floyd Clymer chided the Henry J’s assembly quality, but praised the compact as a basically sound package. Aside from its obvious economy, it had an agreeable blend of ride comfort and maneuverability and with the six-cylinder engine it was sprightly, if not particularly fast. Some highly successful sports cars had been built on far less promising foundations, and enterprising builders and hot rodders were soon contemplating a racier Henry J.
Among them was designer Brooks Stevens. Although Stevens had nothing to do with the Henry J’s design, he had remained in contact with Kaiser-Frazer as a consultant. In 1951, he acquired several Henry J chassis, added minimalist roadster bodywork with aluminum body panels and simple cycle fenders, and pitched the concept to Kaiser-Frazer as a dual-purpose sports racer along the lines of the Anglo-American Nash Healey or the Allard J2. The Kaisers declined, but Stevens decided to build three of the cars at his own expense. Dubbed “Excalibur J,” the roadsters were intended primarily for competition in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Class D events.
The Excalibur Js traded the Henry J’s L-head six for the newer Willys “Hurricane” F-head engine, also used in the Willys Aero compact. In stock form, the 161 cu. in. (2,639 cc) Hurricane six made 10 to 15 horsepower (7.5 to 10 kW) more than its flathead counterpart; in racing tune, Stevens’ crew extracted a reliable 100+ hp (75 kW). With a dry weight of only 1,500 lb (680 lb) — nearly 900 lb (400 kg) lighter than the already-svelte six-cylinder Henry J — that was enough to give the Excalibur J strong acceleration and a top speed of around 120 mph (193 km/h).
The Willys-powered Excalibur J ran its first SCCA race in July 1952, taking second in class. According to Bill Brown, the Excalibur Js ran in some two dozen events in the 1952 and 1953 seasons, winning nine of them and regularly besting European and Anglo-American rivals costing far more.
Around the end of 1952, Stevens showed the Excalibur J to various automotive magazines, apparently hoping to find an automaker willing to put it into series production. Despite the Excalibur J’s racing exploits, he found no takers and only the three original cars were ever built; they continued to race with some success through at least 1957. Stevens subsequently applied the Excalibur name to a Lincoln-powered, rear-engine race car and then to his long-running retro-classic line, which was introduced in 1964.
THE DARRIN SPORTS CAR
In early 1952, a few months before the Excalibur J began its competition career, Dutch Darrin started work on a Henry J-based sports car of his own. It’s not clear if Darrin was aware of Stevens’ efforts or not; it’s certainly possible that Darrin heard about the Stevens proposal, but Darrin later told author Richard Langworth that his initial motivation was simply to assuage his lingering disappointment with the way production Henry J had turned out.
That spring, Darrin and his son Bob developed a clay model of a sleek, low-slung roadster featuring the “Darrin dip”; a peaked windshield reminiscent of (and perhaps borrowed from) the 1951 Kaiser; a manually retractable fiberglass hardtop; and unusual sliding doors. The doors were a new variation on a concept Darrin had conceived for his stillborn postwar car and subsequently refined for his ’51 Kaiser proposal, which had included electrically operated sliding doors front and rear as well as electric windows that would lower automatically as the doors opened. Kaiser-Frazer had rejected that idea, presumably on cost grounds, but Darrin had applied for a patent on it in June 1948, issued in early 1953. Unlike Darrin’s earlier proposals, the roadster’s doors retracted into the front fenders rather than over them and for the sake of simplicity had no windows, power-operated or otherwise.
Like his abortive postwar car, Darrin decided to build the roadster out of glass-reinforced plastic (GRP, or fiberglass) rather than steel or aluminum. Fiberglass had several advantages for auto bodies, including light weight and corrosion resistance, but its biggest selling point was that plastic molds were far less expensive than the tooling for steel bodies — cheap enough to make fiberglass-bodied cars economically viable for small private manufacturers.
When the clay was completed, Darrin commissioned Costa Mesa, California-based Glasspar to create a body for an initial running prototype, using a stock Henry J chassis and drivetrain. Although Glasspar’s primary business was fiberglass boats, founder Bill Tritt was also at the forefront of an emerging cottage industry in plastic kit cars, including his own Glasspar G2 and the Willys-based Woodill Wildfire. By the time Darrin hired them in 1952, Tritt and the Glasspar staff knew as much as anyone about making automotive bodies out of glass-reinforced plastic; Glasspar would later serve as a consultant to GM and Volvo, among others.
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.
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 some of 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.)
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.
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 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.
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.
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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