Collectible Classic: 1954 Kaiser Darrin

Andrew Trahan

The decades following World War II are remembered as a golden age for America's automakers. And for three of them, they were. For everyone else -- the Packards, Nashes, and Hudsons of the world -- these were years of brutal attrition. That's not to say that the little guys didn't have their moments of glory, however. One of the most beautiful and least known of those moments is the Kaiser Darrin.

The story began during World War II with industrialist Henry Kaiser. Even as his San Francisco shipyards churned out Liberty ships at a breakneck pace, Kaiser recognized that huge demand would emerge for new cars after hostilities ended. Following the motto that had carried him from rags to riches -- "Find a need and fill it" -- he began to search for an opportunity to break into the auto industry. It arrived in the form of veteran Detroit marketer Joe Frazer, owner of the nearly defunct but well-staffed automaker Graham-Paige. Frazer's resume highlights included working on the industry's first financing model (GMAC), suggesting the name Plymouth to Walter P. Chrysler, and trademarking the Jeep name. In July 1945, less than three months after VE Day, the two men established the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation. In an unlikely coup, the newly minted company secured a cheap lease from the government for Willow Run -- the enormous wartime facility in Michigan that had produced 9000 B-24 bombers.

And so, when peacetime production restarted, Kaiser-Frazer came out guns blazing with a brand-new lineup. The buying public responded exactly as Kaiser had hoped, snapping up almost 140,000 1947 models, mostly large four-door Kaiser Specials and luxurious Frazer Standards.

By 1949, however, the Big Three had reloaded with all-new products. Henry Kaiser didn't help matters by overriding the objections of his more experienced partner and ramping up production. The resulting glut of unsold vehicles ravaged the company's finances.

To effect a turnaround, Kaiser enlisted the assistance of flamboyant California-based designer Howard "Dutch" Darrin, a World War I fighter pilot who'd spent much of the 1920s and '30s working for coachbuilders in France. Darrin had worked on early Kaisers only to see his styling watered down in the rush to production. Now he was given a freer hand. (Mr. Frazer had been pushed out and his eponymous sub-brand was eliminated after 1951.)

Still, Kaiser was reluctant when Darrin proposed a radical two-seat roadster with a fiberglass body. And no wonder -- not only were sports cars inherently risky and fiberglass still an unproven material, but the styling was otherworldly. The Darrin, as it would be called, is unabashedly effeminate and sensual, with an exaggerated Coke-bottle figure, a sharply dipping character line, a heart-shaped grille, and elegant eyelashes over its gauges. And then there's the party trick: sliding doors that disappear into the front fenders.

Kaiser's wife loved it. The car debuted at the 1952 Los Angeles Motorama -- two months before Chevrolet showed the Corvette -- and went into production in late '53. The Darrin you see here rolled out of a Jackson, Michigan, plant in 1954 and not long after that entered the life of its current owner, Terry Trasatti, now a retired General Motors engineer.

"This was the first car I legally drove," he says. Trasatti's father bought the Darrin used in 1956 and passed away ten years later. The car then sat as family members feuded over its ownership.

By the time Trasatti got to work on the car in earnest around 2005, there was almost nothing left of it. The engine had seized and the fiberglass was badly rotted. Trasatti spent five years painstakingly restoring a car for which there exist no build manuals and very few parts -- he had to go to heroic lengths to source a correct exhaust. The affirmation of his work came in the form of a blue ribbon at the Meadow Brook Concours, but that doesn't keep him from driving the car or letting us get behind the wheel. "It's been rained on fourteen times," he states proudly.

We weren't exactly overwhelmed with excitement when we learned that the Darrin used a 90-hp Willys engine -- Kaiser bought the Jeep producer in '53 -- but the in-line six proved more than adequate for the 2175-pound Darrin. The car also handles capably considering that it's based on a utilitarian compact (the Henry J, one of which Trasatti also owns) and that Kaiser never took it racing. Still, the Darrin is clearly more relaxed than, say, an MG TD, with its easy steering and a smooth, light manual shifter. Publicity photos of a glamorous woman behind the wheel seem plausible, although she probably had trouble squeezing through the small door opening.

Much like the early Corvette, the Darrin's low power and high price -- as much as some 1953 Cadillacs -- didn't resonate with buyers. Unlike Chevrolet, Kaiser was hardly able to persist with such an endeavor. Even a man of means like Henry Kaiser could not stand up to the Big Three's massive resources and economies of scale. Kaiser ceased U.S. sales of passenger cars in 1955 and eventually sold his auto interests to American Motors Corporation. (His health-insurance business, known today as Kaiser Permanente, did much better.) Darrin production ended in 1954 and totaled fewer than 500.

Trasatti is happy to own one, even if it means constantly explaining what it is.

"I love showing the Darrin -- and letting people know the Corvette wasn't first," he says.


THE SPECS

ENGINE 2.6L F-head I-6, 90 hp, 135 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION 3-speed manual with overdrive
DRIVE Rear-wheel
SUSPENSION, FRONT Control arms, coil springs
SUSPENSION, REAR Live axle, leaf springs
BRAKES Drums
WEIGHT 2175 lb


THE INFO

YEAR PRODUCED 1954
NUMBER PRODUCED 435 (excluding prototypes and fifty leftover cars sold by Dutch Darrin)
ORIGINAL PRICE $3655
VALUE TODAY $75,000-$100,000
WHY BUY? It's both cheaper and rarer than the best Chevrolet Corvettes from the same period and has those crazy pocket doors to boot. Be prepared to spend more on a proper restoration, however. Flowing original hard tops are particularly attractive. Some early prototypes were supercharged, and later models sold by Darrin featured Cadillac V-8s.

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