If asked to name the first production American sports car with a convertible top, inline six-cylinder engine and a fiberglass body, most enthusiasts will immediately identify the Chevrolet Corvette, launched in 1953. While this is correct if the qualifier is first-to-market, it’s incorrect if the qualifier is first-shown-to-the-public; in fact, the Kaiser Darrin 161 was shown to the public at the 1952 Petersen Los Angeles Motorama, held nearly two months before the January 1953 introduction of the Chevrolet Corvette in New York City. Had the Darrin 161′s manufacturer, Kaiser-Frazer, been in better financial condition, perhaps the stylish and innovative sports car that bore the company’s badge would be more than just a footnote to history.
Many argue that Kaiser-Frazer was the last independent automaker to give the Detroit “Big Three” a run for their money. Formed in July of 1945, the start-up company combined the talents of shipbuilder Henry J. Kaiser and automotive veteran Joseph W. Frazer, whose resume included executive leadership positions with Chrysler, Willy-Overland and Graham-Paige. As post-war America’s appetite for the automobile grew, Kaiser-Frazer offered family sedans across a variety of price points, and the company’s growing sales reflected this sensible approach to business. By 1949, all-new designs from the Big Three automakers began to severely impact Kaiser-Frazer’s business, and one counter-punch to declining sales was the automaker’s first compact car, the 1950 Henry J two-door sedan.
Not everyone tied to the Kaiser-Frazer organization believed that a small and inexpensive automobile was the path forward, however. Designer Howard “Dutch” Darrin, who had contributed to pre-war Packard designs and had part ownership in a Parisian coachbuilding firm before being hired by Kaiser-Frazer in 1949, believed that a small American-made sports car was exactly what Kaiser-Frazer needed to distinguish itself from other domestic marques. Knowing that registration data on Jaguar and MG automobiles would not be enough to convince Kaiser-Frazer management to stray from its family-car mission, Dutch Darrin spent his free time designing and building a convertible sports car on the Henry J chassis, which he believed capable of far more than its economy-car mission. In addition to stylish and contemporary lines that still bore a resemblance to Kaiser-Frazer’s sedans, the sports car would carry doors that opened in a rather unconventional manner; instead of swinging outward, the convertible’s doors would slide on tracks, disappearing into the front fenders (a design that Darrin had patented in four-door form in 1948). It would wear a three-position convertible top as well, with functional landau bars that allowed opening the front of the roof for quiet and calm ventilation. By the end of the summer of 1952, Darrin was ready to present his design to Kaiser-Frazer management.
To say the car was not well received is a gross understatement. As author Richard M. Langworth cites in his book, Kaiser-Frazer – The Last Onslaught on Detroit, Henry J. Kaiser exclaimed:
Dutch, what is the idea of this? Who authorized this? We’re not in the business of building sports cars. I cannot forgive your audacity in going ahead without our authorization.
Dutch countered by explaining that the convertible was developed on his own time, using his own money. Adamant in his belief that a convertible sports car was exactly what Kaiser-Frazer needed to begin rebuilding sales, Darrin reportedly told Kaiser that he had backing to produce the car himself if his employer wasn’t interested. It was then that Kaiser’s new wife intervened, saying:
Henry, this is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I don’t understand why you say you’re not in the business of building automobiles whether they are sports cars or conventional cars. I don’t think there will be many companies, after seeing this car, that won’t go into the sports car business.
Perhaps subscribing to the adage of “happy wife, happy life,” Kaiser had a change in heart, immediately giving the project a green light. In November of 1952, the Kaiser Darrin 161 (named for its designer and the cubic-inch displacement of its Willys-sourced inline six-cylinder engine) first appeared at the Petersen Publishing-sponsored Los Angeles Motorama, some two months before the Chevrolet Corvette would make its official appearance at the GM Motorama in New York City. Had the Darrin beaten the Corvette to market, perhaps the car would have had a larger impact on automotive history. Instead, Kaiser-Frazer became bogged down in the acquisition of (and merger with) Willys-Overland, and the Kaiser Darrin 161 would not appear on the market until January of 1954 (although production reportedly began at the firm’s “Special Products” plant in Jackson, Michigan, in September of 1953).
Though the number of prototypes constructed is unclear (ranging from 12 to 62), early models were tested with a variety of engines, including at least two equipped with a McCulloch supercharger. Others used a Willys L-head engine, complete with three single-barrel carburetors, a hot cam, headers and dual exhaust (yet producing a somewhat mild 100 horsepower), but the production version would come with the 161-cu.in. Willys F-head engine, rated at 90 horsepower. Thanks to a curb weight of just 2,175 pounds, this was still enough to return reasonable, if not impressive, performance: According to period publication Motor Life, the run from 0-60 MPH went by in 16.3 seconds, while Motorsport magazine clocked it at a slightly more impressive 13.8 seconds. As for handling, the Darrin’s economy-car roots (including its live rear axle and leaf spring rear suspension) relegated it more into the “sporty” car category than the sports car category.
Just as the Darrin’s overall performance didn’t win over many buyers, its pricing also failed to help make a case for that car. At $3,668, the Darrin was $145 more expensive than the Chevrolet Corvette, a car that was also more powerful (its larger Blue Flame six-cylinder made 150 horsepower), quicker to 60 MPH (by some four seconds) and blessed with a higher top speed (106 MPH for the Corvette, versus 98 MPH for the Darrin). Though the Darrin was better equipped than the Corvette, buyers avoided Kaiser Motors (the post-1953 name for Kaiser-Frazer) for another reason: By 1954, the company was in deep financial trouble, and consumers didn’t want to buy an expensive sports car from a manufacturer that seemed doomed to failure.
The Kaiser Darrin 161 was dropped from the company’s lineup after a single year on the market, and assembly ended by late summer 1954 with just 435 production versions assembled. With Darrin models stacking up at the factory and on dealer lots, the company quickly increased dealer discounts on the two-seat convertible, and even allowed dealers to offer a $700 trade-in on the purchase of one. Even these incentives didn’t help, and Kaiser was left with an inventory of about 100 Darrin models at its Willow Run plant. Stored outside, uncovered, these convertibles were reportedly discovered by Dutch Darrin, who promptly cut a deal to buy 50 of his namesake cars back.
To increase the car’s appeal, Darrin reportedly pulled the anemic Willys engine and dropped in a Cadillac V-8 for customers willing to pay the $4,350 asking price. One of these buyers was reportedly Briggs Cunningham, and his wife used the car in SCCA and hillclimb competition with some measure of success. Other versions (now simply called Darrins) kept their inline-six engines, but were fitted with superchargers, and late in the car’s life Dutch Darrin even constructed a removable fiberglass hardtop for the car. Struggling to sell the 50 he had repurchased from Kaiser Motors, Dutch Darrin ended his experiment in the car-building business when the inventory was depleted.
Of the 435 examples constructed, about 280 remain today. Like other small-company attempts to build a sports car (like the Edwards America Coupe, or even the Cunningham C3), the Kaiser Darrin 161 was never a commercial or financial success. Still, many of its features (lightweight fiberglass body, inline six-cylinder engine, convertible top) mirrored those appearing in the independently developed Chevrolet Corvette (and later, other sports cars); it can be argued that Dutch Darrin had indeed found a recipe for success, even if he did offer that recipe to a manufacturer not able to deliver that success.
Article courtesy of Hemings Daily.