There have been many great automobile designers who have left their mark on the motoring landscape. Among these greats would have to be the contributions of Howard “Dutch” Darrin, whose design talent was favored among many of Hollywood’s elite. Quite simply, if you were famous and you wanted a car with a bit more flair, Howard Darrin was the man to see. Toward the end of his career, Darrin formed an alliance with Kaiser-Frazer, and it was a contentious relationship at best. Henry Kaiser favored the functional and utilitarian look of the automobile, while Darrin still longed for the sleek and sexy design work to which he was so accustomed. Built on the utilitarian Henry J chassis, Darrin used this foundation to come up with what would be the swan song of his design career, the sporty Kaiser-Darrin. In the end, only 435 Kaiser-Darrin cars were built, making them rare indeed. Darrin’s most masterful work is alive and well, as the doors slide into the front fenders for a smooth and seamless look. This fine example of Darrin’s work deserves to be driven and admired by enthusiasts everywhere.

SCM Analysis


This car, Lot 35, sold for $90,000, including buyer’s premium, at Worldwide Auctioneers’ sale on August 31, 2013, at the National Auto and Truck Museum in Auburn, IN.

Howard “Dutch” Darrin, while living in Paris, was responsible for some of the most dramatic and stunning automotive designs of the classic era. In the 1920s he was in partnership with Thomas Hibbard, who left and co-founded LeBaron with Raymond Dietrich.

Darrin then formed Fernandez & Darrin, which received acclaim for their designs for a Hispano-Suiza coupe and a 1933 Duesenberg for Greta Garbo. When that firm closed its doors in 1937, Darrin returned to the United States and opened a custom shop — Darrin of Paris — in Los Angeles, where he catered to the exotic whims of the movie-star community. His clients included Dick Powell and Clark Gable.

His Packard designs caught the eye of Packard President Alvan Macauley, and Darrin was persuaded to join Packard as chief designer. Not only were the Packard Darrin cars now built in-house, but Darrin was heavily involved with the first Packard Clipper.

After World War II, Darrin entered a tumultuous relationship with Kaiser-Frazer as a freelance consultant. He was paid a 75-cent royalty for each Kaiser-Frazer car built. He quickly resigned when his design for the 1946 sedan was altered. However, Darrin returned in 1948 to style the 1951 Kaiser. When Kaiser chose a clumsier design for the Henry J rather than his proposal, Darrin was out the door again, this time, he stated, for good.

Sliding doors and a guppy’s mouth

Dutch Darrin was stubborn, proud and persistent — and could not let the Henry J design go. In the early part of 1952 he built a clay mockup of a sleek sports car on the Henry J chassis. He did this without the knowledge or approval of the Kaiser people, and he financed the project out of his own pocket. He enlisted Glasspar to body his project using fiberglass-reinforced plastic, and when it was completed he invited the Kaisers to view the prototype.

Henry J. Kaiser went ballistic, fuming: “What’s the idea of this? We are not in the business of building sports cars!” His wife, however, loved the car and said, “This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen…I don’t think there’ll be many companies after seeing this car that won’t go into the sports-car business.”

Thus the Kaiser-Darrin was born, although Henry J. had to overrule his department heads, who wanted to call it DKF for Darrin-Kaiser-Frazer.

The fiberglass body was certainly novel, beating the Corvette to the market by several months. The sliding doors that Darrin had patented in 1946 flowed into the long front fenders. The three-position top had functional landau irons, and the high shell-shaped grille is thought, by some, to resemble a guppy’s mouth. It was powered with the 161-ci Willys “Hurricane” 6-cylinder engine with a 3-speed manual transmission. Its performance was, for the most part, not a drawback.

It was expensive. Priced at $3,668, it cost more than a Cadillac Series 62 or a Lincoln Capri. By 1955, Kaiser-Willys had left the U.S. market. With only 435 Kaiser-Darrins produced, the car is a one-year footnote in automotive history.

A market-correct sale

The first 100 or so Kaiser-Darrins produced were noted for having very thin fiberglass. When undergoing restoration, their bodies typically need to be removed and reinforced. Our subject car was number 253, so that was not an issue.

Our man at the auction noted a respray that was off a shade or so — and some modern fuzzy carpet. He was not enthralled with the overall presentation, especially compared to the offerings a month earlier at Monterey.

There are about half a dozen Kaiser-Darrin recent sales noted in the SCM Platinum Auction Database, and with rare exception, they hover around the $100k mark. Exceptional cars bring more — and those with serious needs less — but this example was respectable. As such, it sold for a market-correct number. Looks all square with the world here. ♦

(Introductory description courtesy of Worldwide Auctioneers.)


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