Meet the unusual Kaiser-Darrin
It started as a popular compact car, but failed as a sports car
If you’ve never heard of Kaiser Motors, that’s fine. It was an old American company that used to make some rather nice cars that looked similar to Studebakers and Chryslers at the time. Their leading designer was Howard “Dutch” Darrin, who wasn’t so respected by the company. They weren’t following his steps when it came to details and sometimes were rejecting his entire projects.
So, in 1952, Darrin had enough of it and resigned. That year, Kaiser made a new model called Henry J, named after the founder of the company Henry J. Kaiser. The Henry J model was Darrin’s idea, but the company rejected it and made the styling themselves.
Kaiser Motors Henry J. Credit: Bring a Trailer
However, Darrin saw that this compact car deserved something better and decided to make a sports car out of it…without the company’s authorization. He spent his own money to make a clay model in 1952. A year later, the first running prototype was finished.
Kaiser-Darrin prototype. Credit: Wheelsage
When Darrin presented the car to Henry Kaiser, he received some bad criticism. Kaiser was claiming that the car wasn’t for them, and that they weren’t in the sports car business. But, he changed his mind when his wife walked in. She saw the car, and said that it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. She also told Henry that he should accept the project, because other companies could beat him to it.
So, thanks to Henry’s wife, the Kaiser-Darrin was born. It was meant to rival European roadsters, being a 2-seater convertible with some unusual features. It was the first American sports car made out of fiberglass, beating the Corvette by one month. It also had a 3-position folding roof and quite cool sliding doors. To get in, you needed to slide the doors towards the front wheels into the long fenders. Darrin patented these doors in 1946, showing how much he didn’t like the standard ones.
The overall styling was rather nice. The front was a bit weird; some people said that the front of the car looks like it wants to give you a kiss, but that doesn’t really ruin the car's charm. Some changes were made to the prototype to make the car more practical, such as separate lids for the roof and trunk, one-piece windshield, more serious interior with vinyl upholstery (the prototype had leather trim), and a new dashboard with gauges in front of the steering wheel.
When it reached showrooms, the Kaiser-Darrin had a price tag of $3.668 (more than some Cadillacs and Lincolns), but at least it had a lot of equipment. For that money, you got a 3-speed manual transmission, electric wipers, tachometer, windwings and more. But, there were problems. Customers were not really confident in its capabilities, and with a high price tag came low sale numbers.
In 1955, Kaiser bailed out of the US market due to financial issues. But, they still had a big number of these roadsters in their storage. And all of them were saved by Howard Darrin, who even grabbed the ones that were written-off (about 50 of them were totaled). He brought them to the Toledo plant where he offered them for sale from his Hollywood showroom. Several of them were fitted with superchargers and extra carburetors, which resulted in better performance and output of 304hp. He said that if the cars were going to be changed, he would be the one to change them.
The supercharged Darrins had a price tag of $4.350, which is a lot more than the standard ones. But they had good performance figures for that time. The top speed was 160 km/h (100 mph) and 0-100 km/h time was around 10 seconds. Some of them were tuned even more for racing, and were capable of reaching 233 km/h (145 mph). The Specials (as the race versions were labeled) were raced by Lance Reventlow and Frank Sinatra's cousin Ray.
By 1957, all of the Darrins were sold. In total 435 units were made, and 300 of them are still alive. It may look a bit unusual, but it’s the most prized car to come out of the Kaiser factory, and Howard Darrin was proud of it until he died in 1982.