Car Show Classic: 1954 Kaiser-Darrin – Willow Run’s Corvette

(first posted 7/22/2013)    Finding any Kaiser-Frazer automobile is not easy these days, but the rarest of all is likely the Kaiser-Darrin sports car, a fiberglass two-seater meant to draw folks into K-F showrooms to ooh and aah over, and maybe drive out in a Manhattan or Special sedan. But it was too little, too late.

Henry J. Kaiser may have been a shipbuilding maven, but when it came to selling cars to the public, he was a babe in the woods. He complicated matters by binding the hands of the one person who actually knew the car business, Joseph Frazer, largely because Henry J’s ego got in the way. Amid this drama of Frazer’s exit, crashing sales and hundreds of unsold cars sitting around the massive Willow Run factory came the Darrin.

It was announced on September 26, 1952, but the gestation period drew on and on, and an actual car was not even shown until February 1953. Production versions finally appeared in November of that year, about two months after production had begun. And you still couldn’t buy one–K-Ds were not available for retail sale until January 6, 1954, or sixteen months after the car was announced. Much like the Avanti ten years hence, the drawn-out process did not help sales, as folks who wanted one had most likely moved on.

And in 1954 most folks–even the few who still wanted a Kaiser-Darrin–were not sure about Kaiser Motors themselves. Sure, they had purchased Willys-Overland in ’53, but Willys was no sales ball of fire either. So by the time the sportster hit the dealers, even its sleek Dutch Darrin-penned lines only went so far.

Aside from its fiberglass construction, the most novel thing about the Darrin was the doors that slid into the front fenders. It was a quirky feature, but apparently they did not work all that well, with a reputation for binding up in their tracks. It also had a three-position top, with open, closed and “Landau” configurations, the latter one leaving the portion over the seats open.

It may have looked good on the outside, but the sad fact was that it was powered by a 161 CID inline six cylinder. Motivation was leisurely with 90 hp and a one-barrel (!) carburetor. Why they didn’t put the 140-hp supercharged L-head six as used in the regular Kaisers is beyond me–maybe they didn’t fit?

At any rate it didn’t matter. It was too late for Kaiser-Willys in the U.S. by that point, as they were already preparing to move the car lines to Argentina and focus on Jeeps only in the States. The K-D was discontinued in mid-’54, after 435 of the $3655 roadsters had been made. Dutch Darrin bought the remaining K-D inventory and parts and sold additional units himself, shoehorning Caddy V8s and superchargers in them instead of the anemic straight six. About 50 of these much-livelier “Kaiser-Dutches” were sold.

K-F may have been on the way out when the Kaiser-Darrin debuted, but their scarcity, cool lines and those intriguing sliding doors make them a prized collector car today, as evidenced by this pristine red one seen at the AACA Grand National, held June 29th in Moline. Though it rained off and on the whole time, this lovely K-D and other flawless (and, might I add, non-hot rodded) cars were a real treat to see!