Kaiser Darrin: America’s First Sports Car?

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It’s ironic that the car helping to keep Henry Kaiser’s name alive is the one he didn’t want to build.

1954 Kaiser Darrin
1954 Kaiser Darrin

Back in the early 50s Howard “Dutch” Darrin was working for Kaiser and not happy about it. His designs were falling by the wayside as other styles he considered not nearly as good were going into production. In secret, he started working on something completely different. A two door sports car built on Kaiser’s Henry J chassis. As the story goes, it was built on his own time with his own money.

1954 Kaiser Darrin
Darrin’s Pocket Door

What Darrin came up with was a two seat convertible with some unique touches. Most notable today are the pocket doors. Instead of swinging out, the doors slide forward. The convertible top also had three positions which allowed the driver to vary both the look, and comfort factor. And then there was the grill. While everyone else was trying to emulate Ferrari, Darrin made his small and distinctive. You knew it the moment you saw one. Dutch decided fiberglass was the way go before the folks at Chevrolet chose that route with the soon to debut Corvette. Together, it all comes together to create a beautiful car.

1954 Kaiser Darrin Interior
1954 Kaiser Darrin Interior

As the legend goes, when Kaiser first saw the design, the carmaker made it clear that he had no interest in building a sports car. But afer Kaiser’s wife started raving about the looks, Henry relented. Just that fast, Kaiser Motors was in the sports car business.

1954 Kaiser Darrin and its Distinctive Front End
1954 Kaiser Darrin and its Distinctive Front End

Unfortunately, the Kaiser Darrin arrived at exactly the wrong time. Kaiser Motors was already in trouble. Whether it was a lack of resources or a lack of foresight, the company didn’t have the right direction. Kaisers suffered from stodgy styling and engines that didn’t have the horsepower needed to compete in the marketplace.

1954 Kaiser Darrin motor
Kaiser Motor Didn’t Have Enough Horsepower

By the time the Kaiser Darrin arrived in 1954 it was too little and too late. While it could have been the car of tomorrow, Kaiser couldn’t survive today. Kaiser Motors stayed alive by purchasing Willys-Jeep, but it stopped building passenger cars after 1955.

435 Kaiser Darrins were ultimately built. The last 50 or so were actually sold by Dutch himself. They had been left outside in a snow storm and when the company decided to scrap them, Dutch objected. He bought them and shipped them to California where he put in a variety of engines to make them  more appealing.

1954 Kaiser Darrin at Barrett Jackson
1954 Kaiser Darrin at Barrett Jackson

We regularly see them show up at Barrett Jackson auctions. Properly restored they bring big bucks. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Most folks who rebuild them spend a lot of time either searching for parts or manufacturing their own.These days the Kaiser Darrin directory lists less than 200. That means either half of them have been scrapped, or there are still some barn finds floating around out there. It also means that buying one puts you into a pretty exclusive club.

Not bad for a car Henry never wanted to build.

 

 

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