Cars We Love: Dutch’s Dream–the 1954 Kaiser Darrin

Cars We Love Dutch’s Dream–the1954 Kaiser Darrin
Cars We Love Dutch’s Dream–the1954 Kaiser Darrin

It was an ominous beginning for the Kaiser Darrin. As designer Howard “Dutch” Darrin was demonstrating` the prototype of his dream car to Henry J. Kaiser and his entourage, including Mr. Kaiser’s wife Alyce, the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation chief had a major meltdown! Reportedly, he told Darrin in no uncertain terms that a sports car was a scatterbrained idea. Despite Darrin’s attempted explanations, Kaiser was adamantly against the new sports car–until his wife spoke up. “Oh Henry” she said, “it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” Following Alyce’s remarks, Darrin’s sales pitch carried the day and the Kaiser Darrin went into production in 1954.

The Kaiser Darrin Sports Car

The Kaiser Darrin was an eye-catching two-seat sports car that went on sale in January of 1954. Noted automotive designer Howard “Dutch” Darrin designed a low, sleek body made of fiber-reinforced plastic, better known as FRP or fiberglass, to attract attention of the increasing number of potential buyers in the burgeoning American sports car market  of the early 1950s.  The Kaiser Darrin set itself apart from other cars on the road with unique features such as a three-position convertible top, doors that opened by sliding into the front fenders, and bucket seats. For about $3,700 buyers could have a Kaiser Darrin in any color they wanted as long as it was “Champagne” (white), “Pine Tint” (light green), “Red Sail” (red), or “Yellow Satin” (yellow).

Cars We Love Dutch’s Dream–the1954 Kaiser Darrin
Cars We Love Dutch’s Dream–the1954 Kaiser Darrin

Powered by a Willys flathead inline six-cylinder engine displacing 161 cubic inches and  producing 90 horsepower with 127 pound-feet of torque, the Darrin could go from zero to sixty miles per hour in 14.6 seconds, cover the standing quarter mile in 19.8 seconds with a terminal speed of 70 mph, and had a top speed of 117 mph. Not astounding performance specs for today, but not bad for the mid-fifties. Darrin designed the body to fit on a Kaiser-built Henry J compact car chassis with a 100-inch wheelbase, wishbone and coil spring front suspension and semi-elliptic springs supporting a live rear axle. Standard features included a padded dash, an under-dash heater, a dash-mounted rear-view mirror, and removable side curtains. Ahead of its time, the Kaiser-Darrin could be equipped with options such as seat belts, power brakes, power steering, air conditioning, whitewall tires, and tinted glass.

The K-FXP Sports Car

Howard A. “Dutch” Darrin was a multi-talented inventor and serial entrepreneur born in Cranford, New Jersey in 1897. After serving in the American Expeditionary Forces in France as a  pilot during World War I, Darrin settled in Paris and established his car design bona fides by working with Parisian design houses and French auto manufacturers. As the Great Depression decimated luxury car sales in Europe, Darrin packed up and returned to the United States in 1937. He established a working relationship with Packard and designed a series of successful Packard-Darrin convertibles that competed with the Lincoln Continental into the early 1940s when all automobile production was halted by World War II.

Cars We Love Dutch’s Dream–the1954 Kaiser Darrin
Cars We Love Dutch’s Dream–the1954 Kaiser Darrin

After the end of WW II hostilities, Darren worked with Kaiser-Frazer Corporation to oversee the creation of their 1947 to 1950 models. While remaining active with Kaiser-Frazer, he tried several times to launch various small car and coachbuilding ventures of his own with mixed success. One of those ventures was a two-seat sports car that made its public debut in November, 1952 at Petersen’s Motorama in Los Angeles as the Darrin K-FXP. The K-FXP was a big hit at the Motorama show with its beautiful fiberglass body and unique sliding doors described by show reports as “real crowd-stoppers.”

Darrin’s Dream Enters Production

The K-FXP name was an abbreviation for Kaiser-Frazer Experimental. Darrin was aiming for the K-FXP to be produced by Kaiser-Frazer, but at the time of the Los Angeles Motorama show, production was still a Darrin dream. It wasn’t until February 22, 1953 at the New York Auto Show that Kaiser-Frazer announced that it would produce a fiberglass-bodied sports car called the Kaiser Darrin.  Darrin’s dream had come true and the Kaiser Darrin, nee K-FXP, went into production during January of 1954.

Cars We Love Dutch’s Dream–the1954 Kaiser Darrin
Cars We Love Dutch’s Dream–the1954 Kaiser Darrin

The first twelve cars were built and assembled by Glasspar, an early maker of fiberglass car bodies, then assembly was transferred to a facility leased by Darrin in Santa Monica, California. Approximately fifty cars were assembled by Darrin before production was again transferred, this time to Kaiser’s plant in Jackson, Michigan. The initial 62 Kaiser-Darrins built in California differed slightly from the 435 built in Michigan during 1954. Kaiser raised the headlights on the production cars to make them legal in all states and replaced the show car’s split windscreen with a one-piece curved windshield.

Kaiser-Frazer Corporation Slowly Sinks

Wealthy industrialist Henry J. Kaiser and automotive executive Joseph W. Frazer thought they had a prime chance to make their marks in the post-war automotive world when they formed the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation in 1945. And for a time following the introduction of the Frazer and Kaiser models in 1947 they were flying pretty high. Kaiser-Frazer was one of the few companies producing and selling newly designed cars to starved automobile enthusiasts in the immediate post-war period. Other, established car companies who had devoted their factories to war materiel production could offer only warmed-over 1941 and 1942 car designs.

Cars We Love Dutch’s Dream–the1954 Kaiser Darrin
Cars We Love Dutch’s Dream–the1954 Kaiser Darrin

By 1949, the established companies had caught up with Kaiser-Frazer and flooded the car market with new designs with the latest engineering features taking the wind out of Kaiser-Frazer’s sales. The company’s problems were magnified by repeated disagreements between Messrs. Kaiser and Frazer until finally Joe Frazer had enough and left the company in 1951, which then became Kaiser Motors. All the corporate turmoil, coupled with shrinking Kaiser-Frazer sales and the increased costs of establishing new production facilities for the Kaiser Darrin put a huge strain on the company’s finances.

A Short Life Span & a Harsh Winter

Production of the Kaiser Darrin started in January of 1954 and lasted until August of that year. Only 435 Darrins were produced before production was halted due to the dwindling demand for Kaiser products. About fifty unsold Darrins were stored on the grounds of Kaiser’s Jackson, Michigan plant late in 1954. When Kaiser’s financial position deteriorated further, forcing the company to close the Jackson plant, the fifty stored Darrins were shipped to the Kaiser-owned Willys’ plant in Toledo, Ohio. Unfortunately, all fifty cars were stored outside during a particularly harsh Ohio winter and when they were uncovered in early 1955, they were too water-damaged to be sold as new cars.

Cars We Love Dutch’s Dream–the1954 Kaiser Darrin
Cars We Love Dutch’s Dream–the1954 Kaiser Darrin

When “Dutch” Darrin became aware of the plight of “his” cars, he bought all fifty Kaiser-Darrins from Henry Kaiser at “cut-rate prices” and had them shipped to his shop in California. Dutch and his crew refurbished the Darrins with many being upgraded with new engines, triple-carburetor manifolds, and superchargers. Six Darrins are known to have received 270-horsepower (some sources say 305-horsepower) Cadillac Eldorado V8 engines. Sold as Darrin-Cadillacs, the chassis were also upgraded to handle the increased power. Darrin managed to eventually sell all of the fifty Kaiser-Darrins, the last one in 1957 marking the official end of Dutch’s dream.

Kaiser Darrin Values

Despite its short life, the Kaiser-Darrin retains a significant market value thanks to its many unique design features, such as fiberglass body, sliding doors and three-position top, and its rarity, as only 435 were ever made. According to our friends at Hagerty, the average value of a Kaiser-Darrin is $87,500 ranging between $174,000 for a Kaiser-Darrin in number one concours condition to $54,000 for one in number four fair condition.

Epilogue

U.S, production of the rest of Kaiser’s cars, the Henry J, the Manhattan, and the Special, ceased in 1955, but production of the Kaiser Manhattan continued in Argentina until 1962. In 1955, Kaiser bought Willys-Overland and by 1956 Kaiser’s new company built only Jeep utility vehicles. The Kaiser-Jeep Corporation ceased operations in 1970 when it was bought by American Motors Corporation.

In 1965 “Dutch” Darrin was honored by Syracuse University as one of the Twentieth Century’s top fifteen industrial designers. He spent the remainder of his life in Southern California and was much in demand as a judge and speaker at numerous classic car events until his death in 1982.

 

SOURCES:
A CENTURY OF AUTOMOTIVE STYLE, Michael Lamm & Dave Holls, © Copyright 1996-2015, Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc
WIKIPEDIA – KAISER-FRAZER CORP.:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaiser-Frazer
KAISER PERMANENTE: https://about.kaiserpermanente.org/our-story/our-history/howard-a-dutch-darrin-kaiser-frazer-car-designer
COACHBUILT: http://www.coachbuilt.com/des/d/darrin/darrin.htm
KAISER PERMANENTE: https://about.kaiserpermanente.org/our-story/our-history/kaiser-built-1954-sports-car-delights-todaye28099s-collectors
UNDISCOVERED CLASSICS: https://www.undiscoveredclassics.com/forgotten-fiberglass/plastic-henry-j-the-kaiser-darrin-kf-161-popular-science-may-1953/
MOTORTREND: https://www.motortrend.com/vehicle-genres/collectible-classic-1954-kaiser-darrin/
UNDISCOVERED CLASSICS: https://www.undiscoveredclassics.com/forgotten-fiberglass/the-1952-petersen-motorama-an-automotive-smorgasbord-auto-sport-review-march-1953/
UNDISCOVERD CLASSICS: https://www.undiscoveredclassics.com/forgotten-fiberglass/the-four-cylinder-club-introduces-the-kaiser-darrin-sports-car/
HAGERTY VALUES: https://www.hagerty.com/apps/valuationtools/1954-kaiser-darrin
WIKIPEDIA: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaiser_Motors
CONCEPT CARZ: https://www.conceptcarz.com/s1723/kaiser-darrin.aspx

 

Bruce Troxell Bio

“There’s no shortage today of enthusiast automotive writers and bloggers. Bruce Troxell, however, is unique. He writes with an understanding of what truly makes cars and car people tick. Bruce is a storyteller, not just a writer. Once you start reading his lead, you can’t stop.”  Martyn Schorr – Editor, CarGuyChronicles.com

Bruce Troxell is a professional freelance writer who has been contributing articles on automotive and aviation topics to a variety of websites and print publications since 2009. Following careers as an engineer with a major automobile manufacturer and as a lawyer in private practice, Bruce discovered the joys of writing and has never looked back. He brings a unique perspective and an engaging conversational style to all his writings.

Bruce is a creative automotive storyteller always looking for the stories of the people behind the automobiles. His expertise in storytelling has been recognized by the Automotive Heritage Foundation in their annual journalism competition. In 2020, his story The Day Corvette Became a World Class Sports Car was awarded a Silver medal in the Best Heritage Motorsports Story category. In 2018, his blog Cars We Love came home with a Bronze Medal in the Best Blog or Column category.

An avid sports car fan since he saw his first professional race at Watkins Glen, New York, Bruce’s car interests have blossomed to include vintage cars, hot rods, and custom cars. He has participated in numerous vintage car rallies and is a concours veteran.

Born and raised in New Jersey, he and his wife Cindy now live in bucolic central Virginia with Max, a prescient stray cat who wandered into their lives several years ago and decided to stay.