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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