Howard A. "Dutch" Darrin, the man behind the 1937-1942 Packard Darrin left an indelible imprint, not only on the automobile, but on the people he met in the old car movement, long after his career building and designing cars had ended.
Dutch Darrin was a kind of "breakaway designer." He was crusty, hardbitten and had no reticence about expressing his opinions. He had flashing blue eyes, snowy white hair in later life, a bubbling enthusiasm for what he liked, a withering contempt for what he didn't. Interviewing and reporting on Dutch was a test of a writer's finesse: the art of balancing Darrin's fierce convictions with the opinions of others who sometimes saw matters in quite a different way.
You can't please all of the people all of the time, and occasionally a journalist would credit the wrong designer. Do this with Brooks Stevens and he'd send an elegant and polite correction by mail; do it with Raymond Loewy and he'd threaten to sue; do it with Dutch and he'd telephone: "I disagree with your conclusions and will not have my name attached to them. Goodbye." Come to think of it, he did the same thing at Kaiser-Frazer, when he took umbrage at something they'd done to alter his design for the 1951 Kaiser -- so in 1952, off came the little chrome "Darrin Styled" nameplate, which Dutch had insisted they put on in the first place!
He had an automotive curriculum vitae that put to shame most of his design contemporaries. Starting in the Teens as a Westinghouse engineer, he invented an electric gearshift for John North Willys, deciding then and there to spend his career on cars instead of electronics. When he went to France with the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, he fell in love with Paris.
In 1920 he founded America's first scheduled airline, Aero Ltd., but he soon returned to Paris and set himself up as a custom coachbuilder, initially using the Minerva chassis. He was shortly building custom bodies for the cream of European society, working on his own or in successful partnership with designer Tom Hibbard and, later, a banker named Fernandez.
To continue reading about Dutch Darrin's fiery personality and history in the auto industry, turn to the next page.
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Dutch Darrin, the 1937-1942 Packard Darrin Creator
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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Development of the 1937-1938 Packard Darrin
The first 1937 Packard Darrin taught Dutch a great deal about his semi-custom concept. Built in a Los Angeles body and fender shop before Darrin moved into Sunset Strip, it was created for actor Dick Powell. The chassis was from a 1938 Eight (aka One Twenty) and the body looked splendid, with sweeping fenders and a low beltline displaying the characteristic "Darrin dip" at the doors. But Dutch had cut up a business coupe to build it, and chassis for closed cars weren't as rigid as those for open models. The car leaked like a sieve and had too much body flex.
Darrin built two more five-passenger Packard Darrins at another body shop before the move to Sunset Strip, selling one to Clark Gable. Like the first example, these had wooden cowls, which contributed most of the shake, rattle, and roll. Once "production" got rolling at Sunset Strip, clever Rudy Stoessel designed a cast aluminum cowl, which made a huge difference on the 16-18 Darrin Packards built in 1938-1939.
Among their buyers were Rosalind Russell, Chester Morris, and Al Jolson, who each paid a cool $4200-5200, probably equivalent to six figures in today's money. (That was peanuts compared to some of the esoteric specials the movie crowd was buying at the time, supporting Dutch's idea of relying heavily on production car components.) For some of these customers, Packard Darrins were simply too special. Dick Powell sold car number one after a few months because people were noticing, waving, and chasing him for autographs.
These early Darrins were strictly freelance jobs with no factory sanction or blessing. Indeed, the sophisticated, old-line Packard Company back on Grand Boulevard in Detroit looked askance at Hollywood's custom body builder, producing svelte open four-seaters instead of square-edged Rollston limos or LeBaron town cars. Dutch, however, was determined to sell the Darrin to Packard as a catalogue offering.
Darrin actually preferred the chassis of the medium-priced Packard One Twenty to that of the Super Eight or Twelve for the design of his Packard Darrin. "For one thing, it was more up to date, and for another it was considerably lighter," he said. "By lowering the radiator I knew I could make a very beautiful custom-bodied Packard One Twenty with little change in its basic structure."
Like Loewy, Darrin believed that "Weight is the Enemy." There was also an economic side to his reasoning: a One Twenty was much cheaper than a senior Packard, and considerably easier to modify.
In 1938, he convinced the Detroit Packard dealer council to commission a Darrin for their annual show at the Packard Proving Grounds -- the company's home turf. It was another safari into what Dutch always called "my adventures in the American automotive jungle."
"Art Fitzpatrick, who achieved fame as a commercial artist for Pontiac, was working for me at the time," Dutch wrote in Automobile Quarterly in 1972. "He and a friend drove day and night to get there in time. They ran into a drunk driver who smashed one whole side of the car."
It was still driveable, so Darrin had his boys drive it (unauthorized) onto the Proving Grounds and park it off to one side with the undamaged side showing. "A great deal of enthusiasm was created," continued Dutch, but "Packard brass were furious and wouldn't speak to me for awhile." At first the Company refused to catalogue Darrins, but dealers finally raised so much clamor that Packard chairman Alvan Macauley called on Dutch to talk things over on one of his trips to California.
Dutch Darrin had an unorthodox method for getting his point across at times. On the next page read about how he got Packard to approve the Darrin Victoria for production in 1940.
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The 1940 Packard Darrin
Because the 1937-1938 Packard Darrin was creating such a buzz, packard Chairman Alvan Macauley took it upon himself to go to California and see the cars for himself.
When Macauley ventured that the Packard Darrins had a reputation for body flex, Dutch leaped up on the cowl of the nearest example in his shop. "Get off," yelled Macauley, "you'll ruin it for sure!" Dutch just grinned at him, jumping up and down. Unbeknown to Macauley, it was one of those with Rudy Stoessel's cast aluminum cowl. "I asked if he thought it was strong enough. That was how I got Packard to approve the Darrin Victoria for production." It appeared for the first time in Packard's 1940 catalogue.
There were strings attached to this deal: one was Alvan Macauley's stipulation that most Darrins be built on the Super Eight chassis, this for prestige purposes. He said Dutch could turn out a handful on the One Twenty chassis -- with a considerably reduced list price of $3800, f.o.b. -- but the majority had to be Super Eights. Packard also specified two additional body styles, a Convertible Sedan and a four-door Sport Sedan.
The late Warren Fitzgerald, an eminent Packard authority, held the Convertible Sedan the best design of the three: "It had the long 138-inch wheelbase, combined with the three-inch-longer hood, which made for stunning proportions." Dutch agreed with this view, but thought the Sport Sedan should not have been built at all: "It wasn't possible to alter it as dramatically as the open models." Yet it looks fabulous today, somewhat reminiscent of Bill Mitchell's pacesetting Cadillac Sixty Specials, but altogether sleeker, more flowing.
A fourth type, never catalogued, was a magnificent Model 1806 (1940) Coupe de Ville, its elegant landau bars complementing the curve of Darrin's beltline. This car was built as an auto show special, but several others followed in 1941; at least one has survived.
The Super Eight Darrins were priced at $4570 for the Convertible Victoria, around $6100 for the Sport Sedan, and $6300 for the Convertible Sedan -- the latter two were more expensive than any other model in the 1940 catalogue by nearly $2000. Even at these prices, demand would be brisk, however, and Darrin knew he'd need more cars than he could produce at Sunset Strip. So he arranged with Roy Faulkner, president of the almost defunct Auburn Motor Car Company, to produce 1940 Packard Darrins at the Auburn plant in Connersville, Indiana.
Production estimates vary. The Sport Sedan was dropped after a reported two were built; figures of five Convertible Sedans and 40 Victorias are commonly quoted. New serial/body number analysis by Charles Blackman of the Packard Club may alter these numbers.
Whatever the actual figures, production was inevitably limited. Packard must have soon wished there were more to go around. Showroom floor traffic increased 300 percent when a Darrin was on display, and a dealer was allocated a Darrin only if he'd promise to keep it on the floor for a month whether it was sold or not.
On the next page read about the unusual stunts Dutch Darrin would perform to promote the 1941 and 1942 Packard Darrins.
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The 1941-1942 Packard Darrin
Back in Hollywood, Dutch Darrin was promoting the 1940 Packard Darrin with his usual flair: "One of the stunts we did was to leave one of the cars in front of Romanoff's where many of the Hollywood personalities had lunch. We'd bribe the doorman to keep an empty space right by the door, so anyone alighting couldn't help but notice it. We also got a lot of free publicity, and made a little side money by renting our cars to the studios for movies."
Dutch was riding high: "I figured I'd hit the big time. Packard was the most prestigious luxury car manufacturer in the country, and they would certainly take every Darrin I could hand them. We were soon hopelessly backlogged and I went to Detroit looking for more production facilities."
Dutch was unable to arrange any production in Detroit, and Auburn closed its automotive division at the end of 1940. Darrin then transferred the operation to the hearse and flower car builder Sayers and Scoville in Cincinnati, Ohio. "Their directors were all on hand to watch the first 1941 Packard Darrin come off the line -- followed closely by a hearse!" Dutch said. "It was quite a sight."
Quoted production figures for the Cincinnati Darrins, all Super Eight Convertible Victorias, were 35 for 1941 and 15 for 1942. A Sport Sedan was catalogued for 1941, but there is no record of any production. In design, the Cincinnati cars followed established Darrin lines, with trim shuffles to coincide with model year face-lifts: fender-top parking lights for 1941, low horizontal flanking grilles on each side of the main grille for 1942.
Some Packard followers have wondered why the company itself never took on Darrin production. There are many good reasons, the primary one being the transfer of Packard body production from its own Grand Boulevard plant to Briggs commencing in 1940.
Other factors included the strong emphasis on medium- and low-medium priced models by 1940, and the relatively limited market for Darrins; had Packard made the cars available in unlimited quantity, buyers for such esoteric models would have eventually petered out because there simply weren't that many to go around, even with the Depression ending.
Finally, Packard never entirely got over its doubt about the structural rigidity of the Darrin, Rudy Stoessel's aluminum cowls notwithstanding. P.S. de Beaumont, a prewar Packard engineer, said the company actually produced kits to improve front-end strength, because Dutch had removed the radiator cradle to lower the grille. The Darrins looked fantastic, management may have reasoned, but they still weren't up to Packard body standards.
Because of World War II, Dutch switched his focus to other pursuits. Read about the final days of the Packard Darrin on the next page.
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The Final Days of the Packard Darrin
World War II and the advent of the envelope-body Clipper brought the final end to Packard Darrin production. (A double irony: Dutch claimed that he largely designed the Clipper, but that Packard never paid him for it.) Darrin stopped playing with cars and went off to help train pilots for the air war, continuing to associate with exalted figures, notably flier/industrialist Howard Hughes.
At war's end, he went back to body building, and played a major role in both design generations of Kaiser-Frazer, contributed to the Jeep Wagoneer, and ran off stillborn proposals for Crosley, DKW, Ilian of Israel, and Kaiser-Argentina.
One of his last projects was a Darrin version of the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, in which he transformed a boxy, Volvo-like affair into a curvaceous sedan along familiar lines, with his patented beltline dip and jutting, rounded fenders. He never worked again for Packard, though he did conceive an intriguing four-seat convertible with two-way sliding doors allowing entry to the front or rear compartment. The idea was utterly impractical, but it featured one of the most beautiful modern adaptations of the traditional Packard grille ever conceived.
Howard A. "Dutch" Darrin had very firm ideas about how such projects should be handled. He sailed confidently forward, and once arrived in his port of conclusion, no attack by land or sea was sufficient to dislodge him. He was a great joker and a wonderful needler, but there was a serious side to him too, and nobody was more loyal to a friend.
If there was one quality which set Dutch off from most comparable automotive figures, it was his characteristic way of standing back and looking at himself, as he believed history would: "How will I look if I do this or that?" Or: "What must I do now so that the verdict of history will be favorable?" Like Churchill, he was always searching for finest hours, and if one was not immediately available, his impulse was to create one.
He was, of course, above all, supremely fortunate. Time and again, as with the immortal Packard Darrins, history placed him in a role that he was ideally qualified to fill. Dutch was superbly lucky. And perhaps the warmest thing about him was that he never ceased to say so -- as for example in 1972: "Whoever thought that a dumb kid like me would fall into a strawberry patch?"
Among the many car collectors who knew him in his later years, each recalls some little incident -- many of them, a kind action graced with the courtesy of past generations, going far beyond the normal calls of polite communication. Each collector has his own memory, for in the wealth of the tributes Dutch received at his death all of them at least know the epitaph he would have chosen himself: "He was a good automobile man."
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