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.
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).
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.
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.