The 1954 Kaiser-Darrin classic car had a checkered history, according to its legendary creator, Howard "Dutch" Darrin.
"By 1952 I'd become thoroughly fed up with the orange juicers at Willow Run," he recalled. "Since the 1951 Kaiser, they'd done everything against my judgment and wishes. I decided to head back to my shop in Santa Monica, where I could create what I wanted without interference."
Darrin was a legendary custom coach-builder and the only U.S. designer to get his name on a postwar production car. He was a friend of the famous, confidant of Hollywood celebrities, and perennial gadfly of Detroit styling studios.
It wasn't his first such experience. Dutch was involved with Kaiser-Frazer from the beginning, but each contact had ended in his angry departure. In 1945 he created the new firm's first design, for Joe Frazer's Graham-Paige, then walked out when he saw the slab-sided production Kaiser and Frazer.
In 1948 he returned to create the new 1951 Kaiser, only to leave again when the engineers made some changes. This time, he told himself, things were going to be different.
The 1954 Kaiser-Darrin was one of the last cars created by a single, gifted individual, a radical statement by a famous visionary. Both technically and historically, therefore, it remains unique and well worth your attention -- if you can find one. Circumstances made that rare even in 1954.
Always a forward thinker, Darrin became attracted to the design and cost benefits of glass-reinforced plastic right after the war and built a GRP prototype to demonstrate its potential. His theories were borne out in 1950, when the Glasspar Company was founded to build boat and, later, car bodies.
In fact, Glasspar clothed the first fiberglass "production" car, the two-seat Woodill Wildfire of 1952 (usually sold in kit form), as well as the sporting Kaiser.
"The car was an outgrowth of the frustration caused by the Henry J project," Darrin said in 1972. "I realized that its chassis deserved something better than it had received . . . I decided to make a sports car using the Henry J chassis -- without the authorization and knowledge of the Kaiser organization, but spending my own money . . . I built the clay model during the first half of 1952. My son Bob helped, and was responsible for its excellent surface development. This clay was followed by a running prototype."
To learn about the features of the 1954 Kaiser-Darrin, including its unique sliding doors, continue on to the next page.
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1954 Kaiser-Darrin Features
The result of the prototype for the 1954 Kaiser-Darrin was typically Darrin in that the front fenders swept up from a "dip" at the rear fender leading edges; high, vee'd grille; long hood; clean, tapering rear quarters; and smooth teardrop taillights (slightly modified from standard 1952 Kaiser units, Darrin's last contribution to the second-generation sedan design).
But its most notable aspect by far was sliding doors, a Darrin notion dating back at least to 1946, when Dutch patented it. The patent drawings showed a four-door model, with the doors sliding electrically on rollers into the front and rear fenders, meeting in the middle when closed. The idea, of course, was to ease entry/exit while eliminating conventionally hinged doors that Dutch saw as clumsy and old-fashioned.
Being a two-seater, the Kaiser-Darrin required only two doors, but they rolled into the front fenders just as Dutch's patent had outlined. Unfortunately, they didn't roll far enough, or were perhaps too narrow to begin with, for the openings they left were small, and most people found getting in and out quite a squeeze. Still, this problem might have been worked out in production -- had there been any to speak of.
Other features were more successful. A one-piece hinged decklid, extending behind the cockpit all the way to the rear, could be lifted clear for easy access to both the top and luggage compartments. Functional landau irons allowed the folding soft top to be locked in an intermediate position, leaving the rear section erect for open-air driving without back-drafts.
Underneath were the ladder-type, 100-inch-wheelbase chassis and 80-horsepower, 161-cubic-inch L-head six from the production Henry J. The only other hardware borrowed from K-F's compact were bumpers, steering wheel, and a few minor dash controls.
For more information on the 1954 Kaiser-Darrin prototype, continue on to the next page.
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1954 Kaiser-Darrin Prototype
It was a splendid looker, the first prototype. When Darrin had finished it, he invited Henry J. Kaiser to take a look: "Henry, Edgar [his son and K-F president] and the whole group came down to my workshop. The new Mrs. Kaiser also attended -- Henry's first wife had passed away a few years before -- and they all had their first look at the car, which was nearly ready for display at the L.A. Motorama in November."
What happened then was vividly embossed on the memory of the 1954 Kaiser-Darrin's creator -- and typical of the way cars were approved in those more innocent years, yet perhaps just as effective as today's committee system: "The first thing Henry did was read me out," Darrin recalled. " 'Dutch, what's the idea of this? We're not in the business of building sports cars! I cannot forgive your audacity in going ahead without authorization.'
"I explained to him carefully that the whole project was on my own time and money, and this was . . . what I thought K-F might need. I said if they didn't need it, I would build the car myself. In retrospect I wish I had.
"At this point, Mrs. Kaiser stepped forward. 'Henry,' she said, 'This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I don't understand why you say you're not in the business of building automobiles, whether they're sports cars or conventional cars. I don't think there'll be many companies, after seeing this car, that won't go into the sports car business.'
"That made it another matter . . . By the end of the viewing, Henry had not only bought the idea of a two-passenger sports car with sliding doors, but had ordered us to start on a four-passenger [model] with the same lines, using sliding doors going forward and backward."
To digress briefly, a four-seat, sliding-door car was built as a clay model, but not for Kaiser Motors, which had gone under by the time Dutch got around to it. Grafting on a Packard grille, he tried selling the idea to Studebaker-Packard, which by then was in hardly better shape than K-F had been, so again, there was no sale.
"The sports car the world has been awaiting" duly appeared in LA, where Dutch plied the press in his mock-French accent with statistics about rising MG and Jaguar sales: "The trend is just starting. Within three years you'll have thousands of American-built sports cars on the highways." (Not for the first time, Dutch was absolutely right: By the end of model year 1955, Ford had built more than 16,000 Thunderbirds.)
Learn how Kaiser-Darrin got its name in the next section.
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1954 Kaiser-Darrin Production
When the time came to name the 1954 Kaiser-Darrin, Dutch was again favored by his warm relationship with the Henry Kaiser.
"At first the execs wanted to call it the DKF for Darrin-Kaiser-Frazer," he remembered. "This was confusing. There was a DKF motorcycle and a DKW car . . . All the heads of the Kaiser industries then met in Oakland to resolve the problem . . . As each executive voted, it was yes for DKF, no for Darrin. It looked like a landslide -- until Henry Kaiser spoke up softly: 'I haven't voted.' 'Oh, Mr. Kaiser, surely we want you to vote,' came the reply. And Henry smiled at me and said, 'I vote we call it the Kaiser-Darrin. Period.' "
Dutch loved old Henry Kaiser. "He was a very, very astute, perceptive, and far-seeing man, but I think he was hampered in the car business by all those sycophants. He once came down to the studio to look at a model, and as he walked in the door I said to him, 'No.' 'Why, Dutch,' he said, 'I haven't even asked you a question.' I said, 'I don't care. You've got too goddamn many yes-men around, and this time the answer is no, regardless!' We laughed, but it was true."
Glasspar was approached to build the Darrin bodies, and a number were run off by the end of 1953. How many is a mystery. Ward's Yearbook reported that 62 Darrins were built in 1953 and 435 "production" models in 1954. However, serial numbers do not exceed 435, and the highest numbered car with a nonstandard serial is suffixed X-8, apparently the eighth experimental.
Furthermore, only one "1953" Darrin has ever been found, though it's possible that most of the others were converted to 1954 specs.
In any case, the early cars differed noticeably from the production models in having a split windshield, hand-fitted leather upholstery, full-length decklid, a set of Stewart-Warner gauges spread all the way across the dash, 24-spoke dummy wire wheels, triple carbs, and a lower front fenderline.
The last was subsequently raised to meet 48-state headlamp height requirements -- and produced another Darrin blow-up.
"Did you ever hear of putting larger tires on the wheels?" he demanded of quivering chief engineer George Harbert. "This is a sports car. It could have used larger tires." Harbert said the thought had occurred, but too late. Yet the 1954 still looked great, and Dutch gradually came to accept it.
What killed the Darrin, of course, was the demise of its maker. The sliding door may have needed development, but that could have been worked out had things worked out differently for K-F. In fact, if Harley Earl had thought of it, we might have sliding-door Corvettes today.
Other changes made before series production included a top well independent of the trunk, separate lids for each, one-piece tinted windshield with a darker band at the top, parking lights (shaped to mimic the grille), a more professional-looking interior with pleated vinyl upholstery (leather cost extra), and a revised dash with gauges clustered on the left and thick crash padding on the right.
Seatbelts were offered -- their second appearance on a U.S. car after Nash had dropped them as bad press in 1951 -- and Henry J bumper guards were added. Finally, K-F switched to the F-head Willys version of the 161 engine, with single carburetor and a rated 90 horsepower.
List price was set at a lofty $3,668, more than a contemporary Cadillac 62 or Lincoln Capri. A $62 heater was the only extra initially listed, though the belts and multi-spoke wire wheel covers were soon added, and Darrin himself designed a sleek GRP accessory hardtop.
So was the 1954 Kaiser-Darrin successful? Find out in our final section.
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1954 Kaiser-Darrin Success
The 1954 Kaiser-Darrin carried a tall price, but there were a lot of standard goodies: the three-way landau-type top, overdrive, the tinted windshield, windwings, windshield washers, electric wipers, whitewalls, side curtains, tachometer, stainless-steel wheel covers, and more.
GM Hydra-Matic was said to be optional, but was never listed. Four colors were available: Champagne (an off-white), Pine Tint (light green), Red Sail, and Yellow Satin. Special factory-order cars were plentiful. For instance, SFO number 65 occurred on car 271, suggesting that perhaps 100 of the 435 were customized in some way.
At least two of the early production Darrins were equipped with McCulloch centrifugal superchargers, perhaps out of frustration with the Willys engine, whose performance did not equal that of the tri-carb L-head. Weighing only a bit over a ton, the stock F-head Darrin was a modest performer, out-hauled by the six-cylinder Corvette. But the blower made it America's quickest 1954 sports car, as you'll see in the figures below.
1953 Prototype Three-carb
(Auto Age 10/53)
- 0-30 3.8 secs
- 0-60 13.2 secs
- Max. 100 mph
1954 Production Single-carb
- 0-30 4.0 secs
- 0-60 15.1 secs
- Max. 96.4 mph
- 0-30 3.0 secs
- 0-60 10.0 secs
- Max. est. 120 mph
More rapid yet were the 331-cid Cadillac V-8 conversions that Dutch carried out and sold after Kaiser left the car business. Priced at $4,350 each, they had 304 horsepower and were said to approach 140 mph.
Mrs. Briggs Cunningham campaigned one in Sports Car Club of America races and finished first at Torrey Pines, one of the few Darrins to win in open competition.
Darrin production began in January 1954, with final assembly at the near-idle Jackson, Michigan, plant where most of the specially trimmed Kaisers had originated. But Kaiser-Willys (as K-F had become by then) opted out of the passenger-car business within a year, leaving 100 Darrins lying around the factory with no takers (most dealers had already quit).
In the Kaiser-Frazer history, Last Onslaught on Detroit (an inappropriate title in view of what's happened since), the author called the Kaiser-Darrin uncompetitive -- not as quick as the Corvette, not as posh as the forthcoming Thunderbird -- and pointed out that the vaunted sports-car market was really very small, only 0.27 percent of the American market.
In retrospect, this judgment may have been too harsh. Despite its high price, the Darrin was an interesting boulevardier sports car: mechanically unsophisticated to be sure, but dashing, even with Dutch's grillework -- which one critic said, "always looked like it wanted to give you a kiss."
Ironically, while GM and Ford could not justify their two-seaters' then-low volume, Kaiser could have sold a few thousand Darrins a year at a decent profit.
In a broader sense, though, the Darrin symbolized one of Detroit's last one-man styling shows and his eternal frustration with the committee approach to design, manufacturing, and marketing.
"Dutch could have done so much for the company," said Arnott "Buzz" Grisinger, one of Kaiser's many talented designers. "But his arrangement was a royalty per car, and often he gave us the impression that he was all for Dutch getting everything. This made him uncompromising, even to the cost of the end product . . . It had to be his way, which was the only way."
When confronted with that complaint, Darrin said, "I know I was rough. I was younger then and more anxious for the company's success. I just felt that I was right, that I had proved I was right, and despite this they were going to do something that was wrong . . . That's the advantage of hindsight -- you don't make the same mistakes."
Hindsight at least suggests that Dutch had created something special in his sliding-door sports car. Collector demand had already far outstripped supply by the early 1960s.
Today, well over 300 Darrins are known to survive, and they've long been among the most valuable of Henry J. Kaiser's automobiles. Dutch was proud of that through the day he died.
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