"Plastics." It was the one word of advice given to new graduate Dustin Hoffman in the famed movie of the same name. And plastics were key for the 1954 Kaiser-Darrin Roadster. Years before the movie, carmakers had been tinkering with methods for using reinforced plastics in automotive design. Early postwar shortages had many makers searching for alternatives to steel, including Kaiser-Frazer. The promise of plastics also drew the attention of prominent designers, among them renowned stylist Howard "Dutch" Darrin.
Known for penning stylish designs for coachbuilders, Darrin had worked as a designer for Kaiser since early postwar days. After awhile, Darrin grew frustrated with the compromises that resulted when his designs butted up against corporate priorities. So, when he set out to create a new sports car in early 1952, he did it in secrecy. Using his own time and money, Darrin constructed -- first in clay and then in a rolling fiberglass prototype -- a striking two-seat sports car based on the chassis of the 100-inch-wheelbase Henry J.
It was long, low, and utterly unique in appearance. When the mock-up was ready, Darrin invited Henry J. Kaiser to have a look. Although the boss wasn't impressed, his wife was, declaring it "... the most beautiful thing I've ever seen." Mrs. K's opinion carried the day -- the decision was made to build the sleek two-seater.
Bodies were supplied by Glasspar, a pioneer in the use of fiberglass for boat hulls and kit cars like the Woodill Wildfire. Assembly line production began in January 1954 in Kaiser's Jackson, Michigan, plant, reserved for special projects. Before this, several changes had been incorporated into the prototypes to ease production: one-piece windshield instead of a two-piece unit, raised front fenders to bring the headlights up to regulation height, a single carburetor in place of triple carbs, revised dash with gauges clustered ahead of the driver, and separate lids for trunk and top (instead of one rear-hinged panel).
Fortunately, the most distinguishing features of Darrin's design remained intact in the final versions. These included the unique "pursed-Ups" grille that one K-F stylist said "looked like it wanted to give you a kiss." Also salvaged were Darrin's patented (in 1946) sliding doors. Although a great idea, they never did work too well -- they tended to stick and rattle. Also retained was the neat three-position top (up, down, or half open) with functional landau irons.
Sadly, Mrs. Kaiser's enthusiasm for the Darrin wasn't shared by the general public. Priced at $3,668, the car cost about $150 more than a Corvette and nearly as much as a Cadillac. And although the Kaiser-Darrin was high-style, it wasn't high-performance -- despite the low 2,175-pound weight, 90 horses just weren't enough.
More importantly, the Darrin had the distinct misfortune of being launched just as Kaiser's fortunes were waning. As the life ebbed out of the company, Darrin himself bought about 50 of the leftover cars. He then reworked them with supercharged Willys F-head and even Cadillac V-8 power. These more potent Kaiser-Darrins were the last of a reported total run of only 435 units.
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