To have known Dutch Darrin -- designer of the 1937 Packard Darrin -- in fabled, between-wars Paris would have provided a writer with grist for a lifetime. Forty years later he would sparkle as he recalled Moulin Rouge, the Left Bank, and Montmartre in the Roaring Twenties.
His friends were people the rest of us have only read about: René Mathis of Ford-France, André Citröen, Louis Renault, the brothers Panhard, Ettore Bugatti, Sir John Siddeley, princes and potentates, presidents and polo players. To have associated with all these; to have had the incredible luck he always acknowledged; to have enjoyed a rich career, and to have had fun doing it, is surely what the philosopher meant when he talked about living life to the fullest.
In 1937, Darrin moved to California, transferring his activities from individual to semi-custom bodies, but maintaining a distinct style that branded them immediately as his own. Here he was aided by two experienced coachbuilders, Paul Erdos and Rudy Stoessel, the latter going on to found California's long-lived Coachcraft Inc. Typically, Darrin made do with little, buying a former bottling factory with a good location: Sunset Strip, Hollywood.
"After fixing the place up I didn't have money to spend on plate glass windows," he said, "so we placed a plywood partition 10 feet behind the store front and displayed our new cars in the open. You could stand there at night and hear the screech of brakes and see cars backing up and people getting out to examine our wares."
He styled himself "Darrin of Paris," and like Raymond Loewy he had an aristocratic French accent that he could turn on or off as the need arose. Dutch's clientele now included the New World's aristocracy, such as Errol Flynn, Constance Bennett, Clark Gable, Ann Sheridan, and Carole Lombard.
Innately talented, Dutch was always personally involved in the cars that bore his name: everything from his custom bodies of the 1920s and 1930s through his reskinned Rolls-Royce Silver Shadows in the 1970s. Unlike Raymond Loewy, he was not a stylist-become-marketing expert, who discovered and hired talented employees and took credit (as Loewy had a right to do) for what they produced. Dutch did it all -- even supervised the construction of semi-customs like the famous Packard Darrins. They might not have been paragons of craftsmanship, but by gosh they were unique, beautiful, and as dashing as all get-out.
Darrin's Packard connection stemmed from his decision to return to America from France in 1937. He realized that the age of full-custom bodies was waning, but thought the Hollywood film colony would buy rakish semi-customs. His concept, for which he deserves credit as a pioneer, was to customize production cars and produce semi-customs -- relatively inexpensive, yet distinct from mass-market stuff. Of Packard he said, "Its chassis was unimpeachable, and its classic grille was a great starting point." He had always fancied himself "a strong grille man," depending on the radiator to focus his designs, though his favorite American production car was the grilleless Cord 810/812, designed by a man Dutch considered a genius, the late Gordon Miller Buehrig.
Darrin began designing what would be the first model of the Packard Darrin series. On the next page read about the thought process that went into the design of the car.
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