Mention a fiberglass American sports car, and most car enthusiasts will immediately conjure images of the Chevrolet Corvette — and they wouldn’t be wrong. Depending on the age of the audience, that car might be a classic Corvette roadster from the 1950s with sculpted sides; or it might be a sleek split-window coupe from the early 1960s; the long-nosed Stingray of the 1970s; or maybe the latest world-class super car the ‘Vette has become.
It is the rare classic car aficionado whose mind would wander to the obscure Kaiser Darrin. But indeed this last-ditch effort to put Kaiser Motors on the map was once in the same league as the Corvette, targeting the imported European sports cars that were finding their way to our shores at the time.
Soldiers who spent time in Europe during World War I were introduced to the spry driving experience of sports cars and demand in the U.S. reflected that involvement.
Henry J. Kaiser was an industrialist who built the Hoover Dam, Liberty ships in record numbers for the allied powers during World War II and originally developed the Kaiser Permanente health-care system for his workers.
Sensing the need for new cars following the war, Kaiser partnered with experienced automotive man, Joseph Frazer to form Kaiser-Frazer Corp. and leased the gigantic Willow Run factory in Ypsilanti, Mich., from Ford, where the B-24 Liberator heavy bombers were produced during the war at a rate of nearly one every hour.
Willow Run’s record setting aircraft manufacturing didn’t translate to Kaiser-Frazer’s success, and by 1951, Joe Frazer was out of the picture, perhaps a victim of Kaiser’s ego or hubris.
Henry Kaiser reorganized as Kaiser Motors, installing his son to manage it, but K.M. never reached the status of the big players in the car game like General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.
Still, in an effort to remain relevant he brought in noted automotive designer Howard “Dutch” Darrin. Dutch had spent time in Paris designing coachwork for affluent European automakers before returning to the U.S. to put his talents to use for elite Hollywood stars like Errol Flynn, Al Jolson and Clark Gable, who commissioned Dutch to transform a Packard Eight into a convertible and in the process became a close and longtime friend.
Beginning with the economy-minded Henry J sedan stripped to the chassis and running gear, Dutch created a fiberglass-bodied roadster with swooping lines, small grill, a three-position “baby buggy” soft top — up, down and Landau, which left the portion over the seats open. When folded down, the top hid under a hard tonneau cover.
Perhaps the most unique feature were the two pocket doors that slid forward into the front fenders.
The car was dubbed the Kaiser-Darrin 161 — though 161 is rarely used, it is an indicator of engine displacement.
Sports cars of the 1950s were lightweight, open-topped two-seaters intended to handle well and be fun to drive. High engine performance didn’t come until later.
In fact, the Kaiser-Darrin’s competition, the Chevy Corvette introduced the year before, was powered by a basic straight six-cylinder engine and two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. Roll-up windows weren’t available until 1957. So the K-Ds' anemic 161-cubic-inch straight six engine and single-barrel carburetor wasn’t really out of place at the time for its genre, though it didn’t do much to help them sell.
Meanwhile, hot on the heels of the Corvette in 1953, and the Kaiser-Darrin in 1954, Ford brought forth the Thunderbird in 1955.
Less of a true sports car and more of a personal roadster, the T-Bird was outfitted with the amenities most American car buyers had come to expect, and though it really wasn’t direct competition for the earlier two roadsters, it did fill the niche for Ford carved out by Chevy and Kaiser.
The Thunderbird went on to become larger and more luxurious while the Corvette went in the direction of horsepower and handling.
As interesting as the Kaiser-Darrin’s design was, it was too late to have any real impact on Kaiser Motors. While Chevy beat the Kaiser-Darrin to market and their pockets were deep enough to keep the Corvette alive through its initially low sales numbers, Kaiser had moved onto acquiring the Jeep line from Willys and had planned to move car manufacturing to Argentina.
The Kaiser-Darrin was discontinued in 1954, after about a year and 435 units produced. Dutch purchased the remaining unsold inventory from Kaiser, adding more powerful Cadillac engines, and selling them from his Hollywood location.
Eric and Michelle Meltzer own and operate Fryeburg Motors, a licensed, full-service automotive sales and service facility at 299 Main St. in Fryeburg, Maine. More than a business, cars are a passion, and they appreciate anything that drives, rides, floats or flies.