Chevrolet’s Corvette celebrates 60 years as America’s definitive sports car this year, but it was beaten to market in 1953 by the Kaiser-Darrin, another flashy fibreglass-bodied roadster, that might have given it a run for its money if it hadn’t turned out to be its maker’s final folly.
The Kaiser-Darrin, with styling that arguably outshone the Vette’s, and with novel features that included forward-sliding doors and a baby-buggy landau top, brought together the names and talents of a pair of larger-than-life California characters.
One was industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, whose shipyards built Liberty ships during the war, and who helped put American back on wheels after it. The other was Howard “Dutch” Darrin, a talented car designer with a colourful past that included creating exotic bodywork for some of Europe’s great classic makes and cars for some of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
Kaiser teamed up with auto exec Joseph Frazer to create Kaiser-Frazer Corp. in 1945 and, for 1947, began marketing cars that were designed with the help of styling consultant Darrin, under both the Kaiser and Frazer names. But selling them proved difficult in the face of resurgent Big Three competition, and the next few years were a struggle for traction that never produced enough market grip, despite some creative Darrin input.
Frazer departed disgruntled and Kaiser Motors was created, but by the early 1950s even gold-plated hood ornaments and “Bambu” vinyl covered dashes weren’t helping. And the acquisition in 1953 of Willys-Overland, maker of the famed Jeep, may have proven a distraction (although ultimately Jeep was profitable on its own).
Producing a fibreglass roadster wasn’t likely to help correct Kaiser’s soon-to-prove fatal slide on the car side, but “Dutch” proved persuasive (with a little help) when it came to his pet Henry J-based sports car project, designed “on the side” in his California studios.
According to one story, after viewing the prototype, Kaiser told Darrin, “We are not in the business of building sports cars.” But his new wife chimed in with “This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and I don’t see why you aren’t in the business of building sports cars, Henry.” He soon was, although not for long.
Darrin was born in New Jersey in 1897, flew as an observer in France during the First World War and, on his return to the United States, established and briefly ran one of the first scheduled airlines. His next venture was luxury cars, most of which were special-bodied at the time, and resulted in his meeting designer Thomas Hibbard, one of the founders of famous coachbuilders, LeBaron. The pair would later set up shop as Carrosserie Hibbard et Darrin to design and sell custom-bodied, Belgian-built Minerva automobiles in Paris.
And they did well at it, establishing a reputation among monied Parisians for their designs, and branching out to produce bodies for Rolls-Royce, Isotto Fraschini, Stutz, Cadillac and other well-known luxury makes – until the arrival of the Great Depression, which led inevitably to the firm’s demise a couple of years later.
After flying solo again for a while, Darrin partnered with another Paris-based coachbuilder to create Carrosserie Fernandez et Darrin, which built bodies for 300 wealthy clients during the mid-1930s.
But, by 1937, Darrin was back in the United States and setting up shop in California as Darrin of Paris, to do for Hollywood silver screen royalty – among them Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, Al Jolson and Rosalind Russell – what he’d done for real royalty in Europe. A commission from Clark Gable to custom-body a Packard Eight into a Convertible Victoria led to a series of Darrin designs for Packard.
Early in the Second World War, Darrin was involved with the “Canadian Aviation Bureau” recruiting centre in Hollywood, and then served as an American Army Air Corp instructor. At its end, he developed a fibreglass sports car design and became involved with Kaiser-Frazer.
The Kaiser-Darrin 161, that would emerge from that relationship in 1953, was based on the Henry J, a humble, low-priced model introduced by Kaiser-Frazer in 1950.
Darrin tossed its dowdy steel body and replaced it with curvaceous fibreglass, two-seat roadster bodywork. Its most novel features were those sliding doors that slid forward into pockets in the front fenders (a design Darrin had explored on his earlier sports car) and the three-way landau convertible top. Its half-open position was presumably suitable for cruising the Sunset Strip – slowly.
The mechanicals were all Henry J, and thus not too exciting, a steel ladder frame with independent front and live axle rear suspension, drum brakes. It weighed in at 2,176 pounds and was powered by a 90-hp, 161-cubic-inch displacement, F-head, inline-six sourced from Willys-Overland that came with a three-speed manual gearbox (some were later equipped with 135-hp supercharged versions).
The rival Corvette, which it beat to market by just weeks, was similar in concept, construction and components, and powered by a 235-cubic-inch, 150-hp six with two-speed automatic. The Kaiser-Darrin was priced at a premium $3,668, a bit more than the $3,498 being asked for a Corvette.
An article by one authority says 62 Kaiser-Darrins were built in California in 1953 before production shifted to Kaiser’s Michigan plant, where another 435 were built before the project was wound up in 1954 (Kaiser itself ceased operations a year later). A number of unsold Kaiser-Darrins were purchased by Darrin, and sold from his California operation, some fitted with Cadillac V-8 engines.
The Kaiser-Darrin was Darrin’s last hoorah. He went on to work for a few car companies in the 1950s and 1960s, and was then involved with the classic car scene before passing away in 1992.
First-batch 1953 Corvettes have sold at auction for up to $1-million, but might-have-been Kaiser-Darrins command a bit less. The example pictured here was sold at a recent Auctions America sale for $80,000.
|Back in 1953|
American test pilot and racer Jackie Cochran becomes the first woman to break the sound barrier, hitting 652 mph in a Canadair F-86 Sabre, borrowed from the Canadian Air Force.
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Elvis Presley makes his first recordings, The Platters get together in Los Angeles, Patti Page hits the charts with The Doggie in the Window, Dean Martin with Amore, and Hank Williams with Your Cheatin’ Heart.
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