Home Page About Us Contribute




Escort, Inc.





Tweets by @CrittendenAuto






By accessing/using The Crittenden Automotive Library/CarsAndRacingStuff.com, you signify your agreement with the Terms of Use on our Legal Information page. Our Privacy Policy is also available there.

Kaiser Darrin

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Darrin
Vehicle Model

Topic Navigation
Wikipedia: Kaiser Darrin

Page Sections
History
Images
A car produced by Kaiser, 6 prototypes and 435 production Darrins were built for the 1954 model year.

History

The following section is an excerpt from Wikipedia's Kaiser Darrin page on 6 June 2017, text available via the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

The Kaiser Darrin, also known as the Kaiser Darrin 161 or in short as the Darrin, was an American sports car designed by Howard "Dutch" Darrin and built by Kaiser Motors in 1954. Essentially a revamp of Kaiser's Henry J compact, the Kaiser Darrin was one of its designer's final achievements and was noted for being the first American car equipped with a fiberglass body and doors that slid on tracks into the front fender wells. The car was named both for Henry J. Kaiser, head of Kaiser Motors, and Darrin.

The Darrin was conceived as part of a movement in Detroit to compete head-to-head with European roadsters being imported to and sold in the United States in the post-World-War-II period. Among other products developed were the Ford Thunderbird in its initial two-seat form and Chevrolet Corvette. While the Darrin was designed attractively, it was also underpowered and, while a good performer overall, did not measure up to foreign vehicles such as the Nash-Healey or Triumph TR2. The Darrin's high price tag, lack of consumer confidence in Kaiser's viability and practical challenges with the car's design resulted in low sales, though sports cars at the time were generally not fast sellers.

Only 435 production Darrins and six prototypes were built. Crumbling corporate finances, pending loss of assembly facilities and a freak snowstorm that reportedly ruined 50 of the cars all conspired to terminate the program. Darrin bought those 50 vehicles and whatever others Kaiser had left in storage and sold those from his Hollywood, California showroom. Many of the cars' engines were retrofitted with superchargers and multiple carburation to improve performance. Six were re-engined with Cadillac Eldorado V-8 units; one of these was reportedly raced.

Design

Along with Darrin's trademark fender line, the Kaiser Darrin had entry doors that, instead of being hinged to open outward, slid on tracks into the front fender wells behind the front wheels. Fueled by Darrin's dislike for conventional doors, the designer had taken out a patent on the sliding auto door concept in 1946. To keep the door assembly as simple as possible, no side windows were built into them. The car was equipped with a three-position Landau top, which was also considered novel, and the design on the whole considered by industry critics and writers as beautifully proportioned. The only flaw was considered the car's front grille. High and shell-shaped, it looked as though the automobile "wanted to give you a kiss," as one writer commented.

As with the prototype, the body for the production Kaiser Darrin was made of fiberglass. More resilient than aluminum, fiberglass did not rot or corrode, was lightweight and more pliable than steel to mold into shape. The molds were far less expensive than the tooling needed to bend and shape steel. This could theoretically make a fiberglass-bodied car economical for a small private manufacturer such as Kaiser to produce. The body was molded in two sections, minus deck lid, doors and hood. Underneath, the frame rails of the Henry J were modified to allow for a lower ride height, the steering ratio altered and the spring and damping rates changed to match the lighter body. The car was offered initially in four colors—Champagne Lacquer (white), Red Sail Lacquer, Yellow Satin Lacquer, and Pine Tint Lacquer (green)—with lacquer paints specified because fiberglass could not withstand the temperatures needed to bake enamel onto it. Tritt's company, Glasspar, was commissioned to produce bodies for the production model. However, Glasspar produced only a handful of these. The remaining 435 were produced in-house by Kaiser. Glasspar did continue to produce the deck lids (truck, top compartment, and engine hood) and doors.

Several changes were necessitated to put the car into production. Only two of these angered the designer but were deemed necessary to meet vehicle regulations in several states—raising the headlights four inches and adding turn signals below them. Other alterations included separate lids for the trunk and top well instead of the one-piece lid on the prototype, a one-piece windshield without a "sweetheart dip" in place of a split windshield, an amended interior and a dashboard display with the instruments clustered ahead of the steering wheel instead of spread across the panel. Interior features included color-keyed vinyl bucket seats, available in red, white, black, or Pine Tint (green), and a carpeted floor. Seat belts, which were not widely available on American cars at this time, were listed as an option, however, there were no attachment points built into the frame or body.

Production

Delays

The prototype Darrin was unveiled to the public in September 1952 (two months before General Motors debuted the Corvette) at the Los Angeles Motorama, an event founded by Hot Rod and Motor Trend publisher Robert E. Petersen in 1950 to cater to hot rod and custom car enthusiasts. Public and media response to the Darrin was positive, with the roadster dubbed "the sports car that everyone has been waiting for." At the 1953 New York Auto Show, Kaiser Motors announced that the Darrin would be available by that autumn. However, production models did not reach showrooms until January 1954, after the Corvette had entered the market.

Among the factors that caused delay was the lack of an adequate powerplant. While the prototype had used a standard Henry J drivetrain, even Kaiser himself realized that a sports car needed more power than that engine could offer. Kaiser engineers had developed an overhead-valve V8 engine but the company had lacked the money to build it. Kaiser had then turned to Oldsmobile but the price for its 303-cubic-inch Rocket V8 became prohibitive when Olds raised its price halfway through negotiations. For the Darrin, Kaiser engineers modified a Henry J engine, giving it a high compression aluminum head, a hotter camshaft and a three-carburetor set-up. These changes added 25 horsepower to the output but increased valve and piston damage and affected drivability negatively.

In March 1953, Kaiser merged with Willys-Overland in 1953 to form Willys Motors Incorporated. Kaiser subsequently moved production to the Willys plant in Toledo, Ohio. The merger also offered an alternative engine choice for the Darrin. When the modified Kaiser J engine did not prove practical, Kaiser engineers decided to try the F-head six-cylinder Willys Hurricane. The Hurricane offered only six horsepower more than the Kaiser engine but was built more strongly and seemed to hold up better to the increased forces of supercharging. Unfortunately, just as the engine issue was being resolved, a labor strike shut down the Willow Run plant where the engine was made. Pilot production on the Darrin did not commence until August 1953. Full production finally began that December.

Slow Sales and Design Flaws

When the car finally hit the market, its price, at $3668, was higher than the Cadillac 62 or Lincoln Capri luxury cars but came equipped with tachometer, electric windshield wipers, tinted windshield, windwings and whitewall tires. Because of the car's price and lack of performance, sales were low. The Darrin's unexceptional road performance did not help. A Willys Hurricane-6 produced 90 bhp, which allowed the car to reach a top speed of just 95 miles per hour (153 km/h) and go from 0 to 60 miles per hour (97 km/h) in around 15 seconds. While this was faster than the inexpensive MG TF, it was slower than the Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider and Triumph TR2. Compared to the larger-engined Corvette, Nash-Healey and Jaguar XK120, the Darrin was completely outclassed. Also, while the Darrin possessed quick steering, it understeered considerably with brisk cornering and was not as agile overall as its European rivals. The ride, however, was comfortable for a sports car. Its brakes, borrowed from the much heavier Kaiser Manhattan, were excellent and the car proved easy to drive.

Problems with the design also became apparent as the Darrin entered the market, especially regarding its sliding doors. While interior space was adequate, entering or exiting through the narrow door openings could prove awkward. Doors on early production vehicles tended to jam. A switch to nylon roller bushings (retrofitted to early cars) corrected the problem to some extent but owners still had to keep door tracks free of dirt, mud or debris. Also, the folding top and side curtains leaked and the heater proved inadequate. While these last two problems plagued sports cars of the time in general, they also limited the Darrin's marketability. Kaiser dealers were reluctant to order them.

End of Production

Kaiser's hope that the Darrin would entice dealers to order more of the company's standard models did not prove true. By early 1954, many Kaiser franchises had either switched to other auto makers or had gone out of business. Few ordered any Darrins at all. Since consumer confidence in Kaiser's future had become low, buyers generally did not want to purchase any Kaiser, let alone one that, while attractive, also seemed impractical and was priced as a luxury item. A lack of orders prompted Kaiser in July to reduce the Darrin's wholesale price by about five percent. Later that month, the company's general sales manager, Roy Abernethy, offered substantial dealer incentives on all Kaisers. These included a $700 trade-in allowance on any Darrin.

While Kaiser had set a goal of selling 1,000 Darrins a year, production had not reached half that number and the factory where the Darrin was manufactured was backlogged with unsold cars. The lease on that plant, located in Jackson, Michigan, was about to expire. Either a renewed lease on that facility or the establishment of a new assembly line elsewhere would be needed if Darrin production was to continue past the end of 1954. Given this and the fact that neither dealer orders nor sales showed any signs of improving, Kaiser stopped production in August 1954.

Another factor in the Darrin's demise was a freak snowstorm that hit Toledo in the winter of 1953-54. Fifty Darrins had been stored in the yard of the Kaiser-Willys plant there remained buried in snow for several months. When they were finally dug out, their fiberglass bodies were deemed too deteriorated to sell as new and Kaiser ordered them scrapped. At this point, Darrin intervened, demanding that the company not scrap his creation. Since Darrin had retained rights to the car's design, which Kaiser had built under license, Kaiser offered him the cars at a token price as an appeasement. Darrin bought them and had them shipped to Santa Monica.

Aftermath

As Kaiser exited the US consumer car market in 1955 it still had a number of Darrins in storage in its remaining facilities. Howard Darrin collected as many of them as he could and, along with the 50 write-offs that he had brought from the Toledo plant, offered them for sale from his Hollywood showroom. He retrofitted the engines of several cars with McCulloch superchargers and multiple carburetors to improve their performance. He replaced the powerplants of six cars with V-8 engines, rated at 305 bhp, used by General Motors for its Cadillac Eldorado. Darrin sold the latter as Kaiser-Darrin Specials at $4350 each.

Both of these conversions improved the Darrin's performance dramatically. Tests of the supercharged factory prototype made at Kaiser showed that the supercharged cars could go from zero to 60 miles per hour (97 km/h) in around 10 seconds and had a top speed of over 100 miles per hour (160 km/h). The Cadillac-engined Darrin Specials, according to automotive author Martyn L. Schorr, "combined the best attributes of a highly stylized sporty car with those of a hot rod." With a top speed of more than 145 miles per hour (233 km/h), some of them competed in SCCA events in the hands of owners like Laura Maxine Elmer (later to become Briggs Cunningham’s second wife), race driver Lance Reventlow and Ray Sinatra (cousin of Frank Sinatra). By 1957, the last of the roadsters had been sold.

Darrin also tried to interest the Studebaker-Packard Corporation in the four-door version suggested when he had unveiled the prototype Kaiser Darrin to Henry J. Kaiser. A single hardtop mock-up with an extended wheelbase, front and rear sliding doors and a redesigned front end was built. Studebaker-Packard, itself ailing financially, passed on the design. The whereabouts of Darrin's mock-up is unknown.


Images

1954 Kaiser Darrin with Cadillac engine #51 w/Cadillac engine
Photo ©2017 Bill Crittenden
Green Street Cruise Night: 5 June 2017
View photo of 1954 Kaiser Darrin with Cadillac engine - 3.1MB
1954 Kaiser Darrin with Cadillac engine #51 w/Cadillac engine
Photo ©2017 Bill Crittenden
Green Street Cruise Night: 5 June 2017
View photo of 1954 Kaiser Darrin with Cadillac engine - 3.1MB
1954 Kaiser Darrin with Cadillac engine #51 w/Cadillac engine
Photo ©2017 Bill Crittenden
Green Street Cruise Night: 5 June 2017
View photo of 1954 Kaiser Darrin with Cadillac engine - 3.2MB
1954 Kaiser Darrin with Cadillac engine #51 w/Cadillac engine
Photo ©2017 Bill Crittenden
Green Street Cruise Night: 5 June 2017
View photo of 1954 Kaiser Darrin with Cadillac engine - 3.0MB
1954 Kaiser Darrin with Cadillac engine #51 w/Cadillac engine
Photo ©2017 Bill Crittenden
Green Street Cruise Night: 5 June 2017
View photo of 1954 Kaiser Darrin with Cadillac engine - 3.1MB
1954 Kaiser Darrin with Cadillac engine #51 w/Cadillac engine
Photo ©2017 Bill Crittenden
Green Street Cruise Night: 5 June 2017
View photo of 1954 Kaiser Darrin with Cadillac engine - 3.1MB
1954 Kaiser Darrin Photo ©2013 Bill Crittenden
2013 The Cars Time Forgot
View photo of 1954 Kaiser Darrin - 3.4MB
1954 Kaiser Darrin Photo ©2013 Bill Crittenden
2013 The Cars Time Forgot
View photo of 1954 Kaiser Darrin - 3.0MB
1954 Kaiser Darrin Photo ©2013 Bill Crittenden
2013 The Cars Time Forgot
View photo of 1954 Kaiser Darrin - 2.8MB
1954 Kaiser Darrin Photo ©2013 Bill Crittenden
2013 The Cars Time Forgot
View photo of 1954 Kaiser Darrin - 2.5MB
1954 Kaiser Darrin Photo ©2013 Bill Crittenden
2013 The Cars Time Forgot
View photo of 1954 Kaiser Darrin - 2.9MB
1954 Kaiser Darrin Photo ©2013 Bill Crittenden
2013 The Cars Time Forgot
View photo of 1954 Kaiser Darrin - 2.5MB
1954 Kaiser Darrin Photo ©2013 Bill Crittenden
2013 The Cars Time Forgot
View photo of 1954 Kaiser Darrin - 4.4MB
Kaiser Darrin Drawing Premier Model Kit Box
View Kaiser Darrin Drawing - 174KB


Connect with The Crittenden Automotive Library

The Crittenden Automotive Library on Facebook The Crittenden Automotive Library on Instagram The Crittenden Automotive Library at The Internet Archive The Crittenden Automotive Library on Pinterest The Crittenden Automotive Library on Twitter The Crittenden Automotive Library on Tumblr


The Crittenden Automotive Library

Home Page    About Us    Contribute