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How Kaiser Cars Work


1954 Kaiser Cars and the End of Kaiser
The Kaiser company built only 435 units of the 1954 Kaiser Darrin before it ceased production in the U.S.
The Kaiser company built only 435 units of the 1954 Kaiser Darrin before it ceased production in the U.S.

Seeking to slash overhead, Kaiser transferred production from Willow Run to W-O's Toledo, Ohio, facilities, and hoped for a sales miracle with a clever facelift by stylist Arnott "Buzz" Grisinger.

From the front, the '54 Kaisers looked much like the Buick XP-300 show car (a favorite of com­pany president Edgar Kaiser), with a wide concave grille, dummy hood scoop, and headlights "floating" within oval housings. Out back were "Safety-Glo" taillights: the existing units given finned housings and a lighted strip atop the fenders.

Remaining Travelers were canceled for '54, but Manhattans were boosted to a maximum 140 horsepower by bolting on a McCulloch centrifugal supercharger that cut in at full throttle. Also offered that year were unsupercharged Specials in two "series."

The first involved '53 Manhattans warmed over with '54 front ends -- yet another effort to use up leftovers. Second-series Specials were genuine '54s with wrapped rear windows, as on all of that year's Manhattans.

But sales didn't improve, and 1954 Kaiser production was a dismal 8539, including 4110 Manhattans, 3500 "early" Specials, and a paltry 929 "late" Specials. With that, only Manhattans returned for '55, distinguished by a higher fin on the hood scoop and little else. Just 270 were sold.

Another 1021 were exported, most to Argentina, where Kaiser Motors hoped to continue production for South America at a subsidiary plant. It's a tribute to the design's durability that the '55 was built there through 1962 as the little-altered Kaiser Carabella.

A memorable last-gasp U.S. effort was the 1954 Kaiser Darrin sliding-door sports car. Dutch had designed it in late 1952 for the 100-inch-wheelbase Henry J chassis, and talked Henry Kaiser into selling it for $3668. Only 435 were built before Kaiser ceased U.S. production.

The Darrin was beautifully styled, and still looks good today. Besides a then-novel fiberglass body, it boasted unique sliding doors, a patented Darrin idea first tried on an nrelated 1946 prototype.

The DKF-161 (the official designation) also offered a three-position landau convertible top with intermediate half-up position, plus full instrumentation and, usually, a three-speed floorshift transmission with overdrive. This plus the 90 bhp of the Henry J's 161-cid Willys six gave economy of around 30 mpg, but also 0-60 sprints of about 13 seconds and near-100 mph flat out.

But the Kaiser-Darrin affair greatly disappointed Dutch, who bought up about 100 leftovers, fitted many with Cadillac V-8s, and sold them for $4350 apiece at his Los Angeles showroom. The V-8 Darrins were potent indeed, capable of speeds up to 140 mph.

Kaiser came to an end in America during 1955 after 10 years and $100 million in losses. They were usually good cars and often innovative, but they never seemed to make it with the public. Edgar Kaiser liked to say, "Slap a Buick nameplate on it and it would sell like hotcakes." He was probably right.

For more on defunct American cars, see: