Q: Greg, I enjoyed your recent articles on Kaiser-Frazer and Willys-Jeep vehicles. My uncle owned a Henry J back in 1953 and I remember him telling me about the Kaiser sports car ready to come out in 1954, namely the Kaiser Darrin. Can you give your memories and info of the 1954 Kaiser Darrin?
Charles L., Worchester, Massachusetts
A: Charles, it’s almost like clockwork that every two or three years, I’ll receive a letter from a Kaiser Darrin fan. And, I’m happy to oblige your question about this Kaiser sports car.
The Kaiser Darrin was the brainchild of the late Howard “Dutch” Darrin, Kaiser’s chief designer and personal friend of company founder Henry J. Kaiser. Kaiser is best known for his World War II shipbuilding efforts, which led to the implementation of the first-ever health maintenance organization (HMO) for his workers. His healthcare company still exists to this day and insures over 8.5 million people and is called Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Sidney Garfield also receives credit in assisting Kaiser in the HMO initiative.
Although off topic a bit but important to Kaiser’s future auto building, Kaiser formed his HMO because many of his workers were not eligible for active military duty due to 4F rating, as 4F is the classification given to those trying to join the military but are unacceptable due to medical reasons. Many of these same workers were employed when Kaiser started his car business in July 1945 known as Kaiser-Frazer Motors. Darrin, meanwhile, created a clay model of the new sports car in 1952 with full backing from Kaiser. Other Kaiser corporate heads and managers knew of this Kaiser dream car during the development stage but were not keen on it. Those managers had concerns about both the Darrin and Henry J, and were aligned more in theory with Joseph Frazer, the original partner of Kaiser-Frazer. Frazer, who wanted larger, more powerful cars, left the company in 1951 after one too many disagreements with Kaiser.
Darrin worked with his son in California on the new sports car and utilized the company’s Henry J chassis and the 90-horsepower Willys Hurricane 161-inch 6-cylinder engine. In retrospect, this was not a great choice for a new performance-oriented sports car as they were slow and unimpressive. However, they indeed looked great.
By 1954, production was underway for what would be the first and only year of Darrin assembly. Only 430 Darrins were produced, although there is some proof that a few 1953 pre-production models were also built, perhaps five, bringing the total production to 435. However, only one pre-production 1953 has even been documented, so if there were four other 1953 models, they were most likely upgraded to 1954 specs. Also, two of the 1954 models had supercharged 6-cyilnder engines, making it a faster sports car and really pepping up the performance.
Futuristic for its day in every sense, the Kaiser Darrin featured a two-seat fiberglass body, Cyclops style front radiator opening, sliding doors, one piece tinted windshield with wipers and washers, and a three-position Landau hood (to name but a few of Darrin’s many innovations). It was truly one of America’s unique sports cars, and just one year behind the introduction of the ‘53 Corvette as Darrin production began in January 1954.
As for colors, only four were initially available: off-white, light green, red or yellow, although special order colors were later accepted.
Although the car was intriguing in every manner, the Kaiser car company gave up on car production entirely in 1954 to concentrate on “non-car” vehicles, especially Jeeps. So, Darrin purchased the last 100 Kaiser Darrins directly from Kaiser.
Not to be deterred, Darrin added more power to the remaining 100 Darrins via superchargers and multi carburetors and then installing powerful 331-inch Cadillac V8 engines in six Darrin V8 Specials. He then sold the remaining Darrins through his personally-owned dealership in Los Angeles. At this point, the Darrin V8 would easily outrun a 1954 Corvette, which still relied on a Chevy Stovebolt 6-cylinder engine while his 6-cylinder Darrins would now easily top 100 mph.
The V8 powered Darrin could do 145 mph, and sold for $4,400 while the 6-cylinder sold for $3600. Those lucky to own a Kaiser Darrin have a very unique piece of automotive history on their hands, be it a 6-cylinder or the rare V8.
As for current prices, a supercharged 6-cylinder Darrin did $220,000 at a Barrett-Jackson Auction not that long ago. It is said that 300 Darrins remain in the hands of serious collectors, so keep your eyes open for Darrins at Mecum or Barrett-Jackson televised auctions.
In ending, the Kaiser Darrin is so rare and desirable, it was one of the few cars that received its own United States Postal Service stamp back in 2005 called “America on the Move, 1950s Sporty Cars.” This five-stamp set included the 1954 Darrin, the 1952 Nash-Healey, 1953 Corvette, 1953 Studebaker Starliner and 1955 Thunderbird.
Thanks for your letter Charles and have a nice upcoming holiday season.
Greg Zyla writes weekly for More Content Now and GateHouse Media. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, PA 18840.