The stunning 1954 Kaiser-Darrin DKF-161 sports car is a rare auto that doesn’t look like anything else. It has a long, sleek hood, a small and exquisite “pursed-lips” grille, sliding doors and three-position folding top.
The beautifully proportioned two-seater also has tapering rear fenders and large teardrop taillights that smoothly blended with its lines. The grille looks like it “wants to give you a kiss,” one car designer quipped. Laudau irons let the folding soft top be locked in an intermediate position, leaving the rear section erect for open-air driving without rear drafts.
The Kaiser-Darrin’s picture was put on U.S. postage stamps several years ago, an honor shared with only a few other classic American sports cars.
Most of the 435 Kaiser-Darrins built reportedly survive because it had a then-novel, no-rust fiberglass body, rugged engine and strong frame. And it never was a car you wanted to throw away. Most were sold in California, so they’re in better-than-average condition.
The Kaiser-Darrin was called the “Sports Car The World Has Been Waiting For.” It was shown in prototype form in late 1952 — shortly before America’s first major sports car, the Chevrolet Corvette, was unveiled as a fiberglass-body auto show car.
But problems related to the decline of the Kaiser-Darrin’s producer — the Kaiser-Frazer Corp. (called Kaiser Motors near its end) — delayed the car’s arrival in showrooms until early 1954.
Headed by U.S. industrial tycoon Henry J. Kaiser, Kaiser-Frazer was a full-line automaker started just after World War II. It was known for innovative, sharply designed full-size family cars, besides one of the country’s first small economy cars — the appropriately named 1951-54 Henry J.
The automaker initially was successful, but giant U.S. car producers eventually caused Henry J. Kaiser to quit the auto business in America in 1955. That gave the Kaiser-Darrin a very short life.
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You could have bought a Kaiser-Darrin for a fairy low price in the 1960s, when it was largely forgotten. However, it’s now valued at $51,000 in good condition and at $91,800 in excellent shape, says the Cars of Particular Interest price guide. However, one Darrin sold for a $176,000 a few years ago at a Barrett-Jackson collector car auction in Scottsdale, Ariz., partly because it was owned by the auto’s colorful designer, Howard “Dutch” Darrin.
Darrin was a design consultant to nearly every major automaker, from Packard and General Motors — to Kaiser-Frazer, where he helped design its best-looking family cars.
A New Jersey native, Darrin was a worldly wise bon vivant and champion polo player. He left his successful Paris auto customizing operation because movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck told him polo was better in California.
Darrin — also a top salesman — soon made friends with Hollywood’s free-spending movie crowd and designed and sold them his customized cars. He set up his own design facility on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip.
Those autos had Darrin’s trademark body beltline “dip,” where the front fenders met the rear ones at the door edges. Packard–the most prestigious major automaker of the 1930s — even sold Darrin’s thoughtfully restyled Packards, at the urging of Packard dealers.
The Kaiser-Darrin was a tougher sell, although Henry J. Kaiser liked Darrin.
Sports cars were new to America in the 1950s and were mostly British. But Darrin was a visionary who correctly predicted there would be a lucrative market for U.S. sports cars. He felt such a car would help Henry J. Kaiser’s faltering auto operation. So he developed a sports car on his own time, with his own money. It had a fiberglass body because Darrin had designed one of the first cars ever built from fiberglass, a slick 1940s convertible.
After finishing his sports car, which utilized a used Henry J chassis, Darrin invited Kaiser and his wife and son to look at the auto in late 1952, when it was nearly ready for display at a Los Angeles auto show.
“Dutch, what’s the idea?” Kaiser snapped after seeing at the car. “Who authorized this? We’re not in the business of building sports cars.”
But Kaiser’s new wife (his first had died) saved the day. “Henry,” she said. “This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” She told her husband an automaker should build a variety of models, including a sports car.
Kaiser and his son soon agreed. Darrin, of course, quickly explained he’d built the car on his own time, using his own money. Accustomed to dealing with wealthy, powerful clients, Darrin immediately delivered a sales pitch for his car that even left Henry J. Kaiser considering a four-passenger version.
Kaiser executives had a hard time finding a name for the new car. Most voted to call it “DKF” for Darrin, Kaiser, Frazer. But Henry J. Kaiser then quietly said he hadn’t voted, which shut everyone up. “We’re calling it the Kaiser-Darrin,” he said, with a wink at Darrin. And that was that.
Besides the “Darrin dip,” the Kaiser-Darrin had long, forward-jutting front fenders to house the Darrin-patented sliding doors he felt were more sensible than regular swing-out doors. (Chrysler minivans would use sliding doors, decades later.) The fiberglass body came from Glasspar, a pioneer in the use of fiberglass for specialized cars.
The Kaiser-Darrin had bucket seats, full sports-car instrumentation and a floor shifter, as did popular foreign sports cars. At $3,668, the car cost a few dollars more than it chief rival, the Corvette, but nearly as much as an entry level Cadillac Series 62 sedan. The price discouraged some potential buyers.
Moreover, by 1954, many car buyers weren’t sure Henry J. Kaiser could keep his auto company alive. The Corvette came from huge General Motors, which dominated the market.
The Kaiser-Darrin’s thickly padded dashboard was an unusual safety feature for the early 1950s, and it was only the second U.S. car (behind Nash) to have seatbelts.
The car’s Henry J chassis was rugged, and the prototype had a sturdy 80-horsepower Henry J inline six-cylinder engine. About 100 were ordered with a few custom features, but the only paint colors were Champagne (an off-white), Pine Tint (light green), Red Sail and Yellow Satin, which was the color of the car that sold for $176,000 at the Barrett-Jackson auction.
To help his company survive, Henry J. Kaiser bought Willys, another independent automaker, so the Henry J. engine was replaced in the production Kaiser-Darrin by the more powerful, 90-horsepower Willys inline six-cylinder.
Acceleration was lively enough for the time with the standard three-speed manual overdrive transmission because the car only weighed 2,75 pounds. And it delivered 30 mpg. But the Kaiser-Darrin was more of a stylish cruiser than an outright sports car, with plenty of luggage space. And it could hit nearly 100 mph.
Darrin was unhappy with the way Kaiser-Frazer stylists had tampered with his designs for the 1946 and pacesetting 1951 Kaiser sedans before they were produced. He was particularly unhappy when the automaker selected an inferior design over his for the Henry J model. Persistent Darrin partly based the Kaiser-Darrin on the Henvy J chassis because he thought the Henry J. “deserved better” and “decided to make a sports car out of it.”
Kaiser-Frazer stylists also tampered with Darrin’s design for the Kaiser-Darrin. A one-piece windshield replaced the stylish split windshield he had used, and separate lids for the trunk and top replaced the prototype’s single rear-hinged cover.
Front fenders were mildly redone to put headlights at state regulation height, which led Darrin to correctly remark that larger tires were all that were needed to raise the headlights to meet 48-state requirements. But it was a good idea to place gauges directly ahead of the driver instead of spreading them across the dashboard.
The changes were fairly minor, and the Kaiser-Darrin look fabulous.
Darrin was the country’s top Kaiser-Darrin dealer, working from his Hollywood shop, so he bought about 50 leftover models after finding more than 100 indifferently laying around getting weather beaten at the factory when the automaker folded. Kaisser-Darrin production had ended in mid-1954.
Darrin sold them all through 1957 at his shop, equipping a few with a sleek removable fiberglass hardtop he designed. He also installed power-boosting superchargers on some to get 135 horsepower and a 304-horsepower Cadillac V-8 in others. The V-8 models sold for $4,350 and had a top speed of nearly 140 mph.
Mrs. Briggs Cunningham, wife of wealthy auto racer and low-volume sports car builder Briggs Cunningham, raced a Caddy powered Kaiser-Darrin with fair success on a few Sports Car Club of America tracks. She took first in class in one road race and second overall at a New York hillclimb event.
Henry J. Kaiser’s company produced a good number of innovative autos, but the Kaiser-Darrin is the most prized of all. They’ll surely never build anything like it again.
Dan Jedlicka has been an automotive journalist for more than 40 years. To read more of his new and vintage car reviews, visit: www.danjedlicka.com.
Article Last Updated: September 5, 2012.
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A sports, travel and business journalist for more than 45 years, James has written the new car review column The Weekly Driver since 2004.
In addition to this site, James writes a Sunday automotive column for The San Jose Mercury and East Bay Times in Walnut Creek, Calif., and a monthly auto review column for Gulfshore Business, a magazine in Southwest Florida.
An author and contributor to many newspapers, magazines and online publications, James has co-hosted The Weekly Driver Podcast since 2017.