1954 Kaiser-Darrin

1954 Kaiser-Darrin Prototype
Henry Kaiser not only warmed to the idea of two-passenger sports cars with sliding doors, but he ordered Darrin to start on a four-door model.
Henry Kaiser not only warmed to the idea of two-passenger sports cars with sliding doors, but he ordered Darrin to start on a four-door model.

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.)

Darrin production began in January 1954 as the last assignment for the Jackson, Michigan, plant that had built most of Kaiser's special-order models.

Learn how Kaiser-Darrin got its name in the next section.

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