In the early 1950s, the major car manufacturers reckoned that small cars meant small profits, so low priced transportation was left to independent companies like Nash, Willys, and Kaiser-Frazer. In 1951, a streamlined, Frazer-less Kaiser launched “America’s Most Important New Car,” the Henry J. An 80 bhp six-cylinder “Supersonic” engine gave the Corsair frugal fuel consumption, with Kaiser claiming that every third mile in a Henry J. was free.
“The sports car the world has been awaiting” was a monster flop. Designed by Howard “Dutch” Darrin, Kaiser’s odd hybrid came about in 1953 as an accident. Henry J. Kaiser, the ill-mannered chairman of the Kaiser Corporation, had so riled Darrin that he disappeared into his California studio, spent his own money, and created a purse-lipped two-seater that looked like it wanted to give you a kiss.
Its futuristic fiberglass body rode on a Henry J. chassis and was powered by a Willys sixpot mill. Alas, the body rippled and cracked, the sliding doors wouldn’t slide, and the weedy 90 bhp flathead was no match for Chevy’s Corvette. At a costly $3,668, the Darrin was in Cadillac territory, and only 435 found buyers. Late in ’54, Kaiser-Willys went under, taking the Darrin with them. Few mourned either’s demise.
A TRUE CLASSIC
The Darrin was beautifully styled and, unlike most visions of the future, has hardly dated at all. The Landau top could be removed and a hardtop attached, and, with its three-speed floor shift and overdrive, it could return up to 27 mpg (9.6 km/l).
Rear fender and taillight treatment is restrained for the year and redolent of an XK Jaguar.
Rear fender tapers upward to create a fine torpedo-like shape.
Darrin bodies were made by boat-builders Glasspar.
Howard Darrin first conceived his contentious sliding doors back in 1922. The trouble was that they rattled, jammed, and didn’t open all the way.
The six-cylinder unit produced a top speed of only 100 mph (161 km/h).
Ads called it “the outstanding pleasure car of our day.”
Standard equipment included electric wipers, tachometer, and a European-style dashboard, with leather trim an optional extra. Whitewall tires and a one-piece windshield were also standard.
The Darrin took its time coming. It was first announced on September 26, 1952, with 60 initial prototypes eventually displayed to the public on February 11, 1953. Final production cars reached owners as late as January 6, 1954.
Undeniably pretty, the fender line slopes down through the door and meets a dramatic kick-up over the rear wheel arch.
Swiveling Plexiglas side windows reduced cockpit buffeting.
Stock Henry J. chassis and engine didn’t do much for the Darrin’s bloodline.
Front aspect looks very much like an early VW Karmann Ghia.
The Darrin was remarkable for being only the third US production car to feature seat belts as standard. The other two cars were a Muntz and a Nash.
Hardtop made the cabin much less claustrophobic and cramped than that of the soft-top model.
The prototype headlight height was too low for state lighting laws, so Kaiser stylists hiked up the front fender line for the real thing.
AN UNHAPPY ALLIANCE
Henry J. Kaiser was livid that Howard Darrin had worked on the car without his permission. In the end, the Darrin was actually saved by Henry J.’s wife, who reckoned it was “the most beautiful thing” she’d ever seen.
Rear aspect is surprisingly British-looking for a California design.
The 90 bhp Darrin cost $145 more than the 150 bhp Chevy Corvette.
Kaiser opted for an F-head Willys version of the Henry J. six-pot motor; but with just one carb, it boasted only 10 more horses than standard. After the company folded, Darrin dropped 300 bhp supercharged Caddy V8s into the remaining cars, which went like the wind.
S P E C I F I C A T I O N S
MODEL Kaiser Darrin 161 (1954)
PRODUCTION 435 (total)
BODY STYLE Two-seater sports.
CONSTRUCTION Fiberglass body, steel frame.
ENGINE 161cid six.
POWER OUTPUT 90 bhp.
TRANSMISSION Three-speed manual with optional overdrive.
SUSPENSION Front: coil springs; Rear: leaf springs.
BRAKES Front and rear drums.
MAXIMUM SPEED 100 mph (161 km/h)
0–60 MPH (0–96 KM/H) 15.1 sec
A.F.C. 27 mpg (9.6 km/l)