1954 Kaiser-Darrin
1954 Kaiser-Darrin. Photo: Bill Vance. Click image to enlarge

by Bill Vance

One of the prettiest and rarest American sports cars was not even originally authorized by the manufacturer. It appeared almost at the end of the company’s car business, and was created by a talented stylist after he had left the company. This was the Kaiser-Darrin, first shown by Kaiser-Frazer in Los Angeles in 1952. It didn’t get into production until 1954.

Kaiser-Frazer Corp. was formed when Henry Kaiser, of construction and Liberty ship building fame, and Joseph Frazer, president of Graham-Paige Motors, teamed up after the Second World War to establish a new automobile manufacturer named Kaiser-Frazer.

K-F’s first 1947 Kaiser and Frazer cars were orthodox, front engine, rear drive, slab-sided sedans. But at least they had a modern pontoon-type body, and were all new at a time when established motor companies had returned to building pre-war designs until they could develop new ones. Studebaker would be the quickest off the mark with its new “coming-or-going” 1947 models.

K-F’s stylist, Howard “Dutch” Darrin, had worked in Europe styling cars like Rolls-Royces and Hispano-Suizas. But he left K-F because they went ahead and used his design for their new car before he felt it was finalized. He was later lured back to pen the 1951 Kaiser Manhattan whose large windows, sharply canted windshield and low beltline made it one of North America’s most beautiful sedans.

When K-F didn’t agree with the styling theme that Darrin wanted to follow for their new compact Henry J model, he left again. The parting was amicable, however, and he retained a spiritual connection with Kaiser-Frazer.

As a personal project, Darrin began working on a sports car in his Hollywood studio, based on the Henry J chassis. For the body, he decided to use a relatively new material called glass-reinforced fibre, generically called fibreglass. It was lighter than steel, and more suitable for a low volume car because it didn’t require expensive stamping dies.

By mid-1952 the prototype was ready. It had a 2,540 mm (100 in.) wheelbase and was powered by an 80-horsepower, 2.6 litre (161 cu in.) side-valve six cylinder engine driving the rear wheels through a three-speed manual transmission.

Darrin had wrought styling magic with his beautifully styled open two-seater. It was long and low, with a tiny vee-shaped grille. Its front fender line sloped gently down to the backs of the doors, then kicked up and curved over to form the stylish rear fenders. The deck lid ran clean and unbroken from the cockpit to the Henry J back bumper, although this would later be altered. Slightly modified ’51 Kaiser tail-lights dominated the rear of the car.

But the piece-de-resistance, in addition to a jaunty three-position top, were doors that glided forward and almost disappeared inside the front fenders. Darrin held a patent for a sliding door which he had designed back in 1948. The sports car’s roller-mounted doors didn’t disappear totally, however, and the narrow opening made entry and exit somewhat difficult.

When his new car was ready, Darrin called Henry Kaiser to come and view it. Kaiser was apparently cool toward the two-seater when he first saw it, but when his new wife saw it she was so enthusiastic that she won him over.

The decision was made to produce the new car and call it the Kaiser-Darrin. Production got under way in January, 1954, in a K-F plant in Jackson, Michigan. There were some changes made from the original prototype, such as placing the instruments, including a tachometer, in front of the driver rather than spread across the dash. Separate lids were used for the trunk and the well-holding the top, and there was a one-piece windshield. Tiny vee-shaped parking lights echoed the shape of the grille. It was now powered by a Willys F-head six cylinder engine.

It also offered seatbelts as an option, only the second American manufacturer to do so, after the 1950 Nash.

Unfortunately for the Kaiser-Darrin, it had several strikes against it. The first was a price as high as that of a Cadillac or Lincoln. Another was that Willys Motors, Inc. (which K-F had become in 1953) had a dealership network that was shrinking as customers perceived that the company’s cars were a dying breed. And considering its price, the performance of the K-D was only mediocre.

Auto Age magazine tested a prototype in October, 1953, and recorded a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) acceleration time of 13.2 seconds and a top speed of 161 km/h (100 mph). The Chevrolet Corvette, in spite of being hobbled by a two-speed “Powerglide” automatic transmission, could sprint to 96 (60) in 11.0 seconds, and top 171 km/h (106 mph), and it cost less money.

Willys Motors went out of the car business in 1955, leaving several Darrins unfinished. Dutch Darrin took them over and completed them, fitting some with Cadillac engines that turned them into high performance machines. In all, an estimated 435 Kaiser-Darrins were built, of which a large percentage still exists. They are now favoured collectibles.

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