1954 Kaiser Darrin
On loan from: Lester Becker family, Exeter, NE
Original price:$3,668.00 (Average car cost, 1954: $1,700; average cost of a house: $10,250; cost, gal. of gas: 22 cents)
Number made: 435; produced for only one year
Engine, etc.: 6 cyl.; 90 hp; 161 cu. in.; 4-speed manual transmission; 100 in. wheelbase; 2.175 lbs.
The Kaiser-Darrin was created to compete with Chevrolet’s Corvette in the growing sports car market. It was styled by Santa Monica-based Howard ‘Dutch’ Darrin who had also designed for Packard and Studebaker. Darrin tried to create the first automatic transmission (which didn’t work) and then started an airline (which literally crashed). He finally started designing cars.
In 1954, the model’s only year of production, a mere 435 cars were built in addition to an estimated six pre-production prototypes.
Unusual for the time, the Kaiser-Darrin had a fiberglass body, the first production sports car to use fiberglass in the U. S. and the world. It beat the Corvette to market by one month. Research into reinforced plastics for automobiles was motivated by finding a substitute for steel, in short supply after the Second World War.
The Darrin had a three-position top (up, down, and halfway) and perhaps its most unusual design feature, sliding doors that disappeared into the front fenders when opened.
Darrin and the company president, Henry J. Kaiser, though they worked together at times, had also been at odds and didn’t particularly see eye-to-eye most of the time. Darrin had grown frustrated by compromises that resulted when his designs conflicted with corporate priorities. In 1952 he set out to create a new sports car in secrecy. Using his own time and money, he created a prototype fiberglass car – a striking two-seat sports car based on the 100-inch wheelbase of the Henry J small car. It was long, low, and utterly unique in appearance. When shown Darrin’s prototype in 1954, Kaiser wasn’t all that interested. Henry’s wife, however, thought it was one of the most beautiful designs she had ever seen. His wife’s impression led Kaiser to decide in favor of Darrin’s roadster and production began.
Bodies were supplied by Glasspar, a pioneer in using fiberglass for boat hulls and kit cars. Several of the most distinguishing features of Darrin’s design remained intact: the unique “pursed-lips” grille that was said to look like it wanted to give you a kiss, the sliding doors, and the three-position top. His car designs all had a hallmark design “dip” with a fender line that swept back along the car, gently descending to reach the rear fender. The cars came with extras such as a tachometer and tinted windshield. The unique sliding doors caused several issues with production which led to constant and significant delays. Options included wire wheel covers, heater, and seat belts.
Unfortunately, Mrs. Kaiser’s enthusiasm wasn’t shared by the general public. The Darrin cost about $150 more than a Corvette but had 60 less horsepower, and it cost nearly as much as a Cadillac. Its high style wasn’t matched by performance. The 90 hp engine wasn’t quite enough for a 2,175 lb. car.
The car was launched as Kaiser’s fortunes were waning. As the company faded, Darrin himself bought about fifty of the leftover cars and reworked them with higher powered engines. These more potent Darrins were the last of the total run of 435 cars. There are only a few Darrins still in existence, each one a rare car. They can bring $100,000 at auction now.
http://uniquecarsandparts.com/lost_marques_kaiser.htm (Company history)
See also: http://www.oldcarbrochures.com/static/NA/Kaiser-Frazer/1954_Kaiser/1954_Kaiser-Darrin_Assembly_Line/dirindex.html (Original 1954 brochure)
http://www.oldcarbrochures.com/static/NA/Kaiser-Frazer/1954_Kaiser/1954%20Kaiser%20Darrin%20Folder/index1.html (Original dealer’s brochure)