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Unique Kaiser-Darrin Sports Convertible Featured Sliding-Doors

Howard “Dutch” Darrin, was an internationally famed American automobile stylist who also operated his design studio in Paris, France for a time. “Dutch” designed the unique coachwork for the Kasier-Darrin, which was located in Jackson, Michigan. Earlier he signed a post-war contract with the automaker to work as a freelance coachwork design consultant on all of it’s new models.

Later in the early-1950s, he penned the design for the distinctive Kaiser-Darrin sports convertible that featured a fiberglass body shell produced by Glasspar, which featured sliding doors, and a three-position convertible top.

The 1954 production model DKF-161 built by Kaiser Motors, is based on the Kaiser Henry J economy car chassis (1951 to ’54) powered by an F-head six. Chevrolet beat Kaiser in the race to bring to market the first fiberglass-bodied production car, the Corvette in 1953. Only 435 of the Kaiser-Darrin convertibles were produced before the automaker closed its doors for good in 1955.

Pictured here are expandable views of the original prototype constructed in 1952. Differences noted are: a vee-shaped divided windshield with a curved top trimmed in red leather, seats which have a vertical pattern, lack of front turn signals, and (below) wire wheel hubcaps and side trim on the lower part of the body.

Share with us what you find of interest in the images or can add to the story. The photographs are courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

42 responses to “Unique Kaiser-Darrin Sports Convertible Featured Sliding-Doors

  1. My apologies to the Kaiser fans out there, but I never did warm up to these very much. Probably because they always looked like they were a patched-together creation out of left-overs in the parts bin. The sliding doors are way too narrow an opening to me too. As for the 3-position folding top, it has a “baby carriage” look to it I never cared for.

    • Will, I agree. I’m a jazz fan, and you’re “supposed” to love Billie Holiday. She never did much for me. Same here. We’re “supposed” to love the K-D, but it never did much for me, either.

      I don’t warm up to the looks. I’ve seen several in my time, but never got into or out of one but I imagine either is difficult. I also imagine those doors leaked like sieves.

      And, I’m with you, the three position top it never made much sense to me, either.

      • You may not warm up to it Mike, but I am pretty sure that car warmed up pretty fast with that suckin lemon radiator intake. Wonder how long the car lasted before Old Faithful would erupt in traffic. Form over function gone mad IMHO

        • The grille shape is an artistic representation of a heart–one of the “signatures” of Dutch. Realizing of its limited air flow, there is an air scoop just below the front bumper. Additionally, the radiator is an oversized one from military jeeps. I have driven mine in the Woodward Dream Cruise in 80+ deg. without any boil over.

          • A Ferrari shaped grill would have made a world of difference. I’ve always loved the concept, and courage of the Kaiser-Darrin, but that is one of the ugliest front ends ever. The recent Lexus grill is right there and reminds me of the face of Arnold Swazenegger nemesis in the film, ‘The Predator’.

  2. As Will Fox said, no one warmed up to this design. I remember thinking ….sliding doors…ugly grille work…….plastic body…. At this time we had a design from Ford that even today, would have great appeal . The Ford Vega, ” A miss by Henry II, who had gone to Europe to find new direction, came back to make an MG type envelope body using the V8-60 power…..

    • How many of the Ford Vegas were built? I remember a silver one at Hershey about 20 years ago. I do have to disagree with most of you. While these Darrins were just a restyled HJ I like them, especially in the pastel green.

  3. I read the doors were troublesome, kind of like that sliding patio door that doesn’t quite work right, no matter how you adjust it, and the anemic power plant, the outdated Willys flathead 6. Just about every sports car, except the MG could beat it. Should have gone with the Olds V8, but was deemed too expensive. Hello, it failed anyway.

  4. What a delight to see the Kaiser Darrin featured here. Never before have I seen an image of the prototype, so this post is particularly pleasing to me. The ‘Darrin Dip’ makes the designer’s identity clear.

    The story goes that old man Kaiser and Dutch clashed over the rendering. Henry J adamantly refused to produce the car, and Dutch threatened to build it himself. It was finally Kaiser’s wife that prevailed, convincing the old man to build it.

    Back in the day there was a KF agency in Milwaukee, Wisconsin at 35th and Burnham, Bob Smith Motors. Bob’s daughter was a classmate of mine. One day in 1955 my friends and I were outside the school building waiting for the bell, and seemingly out of nowhere this magnificent little white two seater appeared at the curb. Much to our amazement our classmate pulled the passenger door into the rear fender and hopped out. We were speechless.
    Such was my first encounter with a Kaiser Darrin.

  5. I can never understand why this car sells for so much. There is nothing unique about the chassis or power train, and the styling is rather bizarre.

    • Supply and demand. Thing that bothers me about this car, not so much the styling, the sky was the limit in the 50’s, but what kind of dumb decision was it to go with the Willy’s flathead, when the market was wide open. American’s lusted for roadsters, and Kaiser could have scored big, if it only had something in the right foot to brag about. I know they were in uncharted territory, but come on, a flathead 6, when all the rage was in V8’s. Didn’t help the Nash-Healey either.

      • Don’t underestimate the humble inline 6. The Hudson Hornet comes to mind. The car pretty much dominated AAA racing in the early 50s, notwithstanding the Rocket 88s etc. Granted the Nash Healy 6 had an overhead valve configuration, but third place for a lowly production six at LeMans in 1952 is not to shabby. Regarding the choice of engine, what you are probably overlooking is the weak KF financial position at the time. Using what they had on the shelf under those circumstances made perfect sense. Remember, the first Corvette came with a tweaked Chevy truck engine dating to 1929. With an automatic transmission to boot. Hardly the stuff a sports car is made of. Dutch himself ended up with a large number of Darrins after production ceased, and dropped a Cadillac V8 into one. The car proved a success on the track. Who knows what might have been had KF had ample R and D money.

        • Actually the Cadillac V8 engine swap was quite common to these cars. The stories I heard was that Dutch converted many, most or all of his leftovers to this engine.

      • Why does everyone keep saying “flathead 6”?? It was the Willys F-head six–not flathead. Intake valves were in the head on these engines, while exhaust valves were in the block!

        The F-head was actually quite peppy for it’s time–a time before Chevrolet had their small-block V8–a time when the same-year Corvette also ran an inline 6!

  6. My apologies. The years are catching up to brain function. The door went into the front fender, not the rear. I’ll take the ten lashes.

  7. I remember one of these being stored in some extra garage space that my in-laws had in Sidney,Ohio in the 1980’s. Bizzare little car that surely got your attention if you ever saw one.

  8. I had the privilege of riding in a Kaiser Darrin. even if the circumstances were somewhat dubious. I was living in an apartment in the hills above Hollywood back in the mid-50’s, and one of my neighbors was Al Bromley, who owned a Kaiser Darrin . Al and I were part of a crowd that gathered ’round the apartment house’s swimming pool on the weekends. It was during this time that a sign appeared at the pool forbidding I-can’t-remember-what, but we were all highly indignant, not least Al. He decided to take the sign down and get rid of it, and I said I’d act as his lookout. So it was that late one night, I stood out in front of the pool while Al unscrewed the sign. We piled in his Kaiser Darrin, I slid my door shut (wow!) and we roared off to a remote part of Hollywood, where we threw the sign over a fence into a vacant lot (imagine finding a vacant lot in Hollywood these days!). I don’t remember much about the ride, except that as the owner of a used Nash Metropolitan, I felt pretty cool cruising around Hollywood in that Kaiser Darrin. A word on the car’s styling: it definitely looked much better ‘in person’ than it does in the photos. – I liked it. The problem was that it was a sports car body on an economy car chassis; in other words, it was gutless. And by the way, if you’re out there, Al, get in touch.

  9. To clarify some points. The Kaiser Darrin was indeed the first “production” USofA fiberglass sports car. The ’53 Vettes were garage built for promotion, not for the public, giver to execs and movie stars. Darrin was in production one month before the ‘Vette.

    The basis of the Darrin was the Glasspar G2, not the Henry J. The kit car G2 was designed to drop onto a Henry J frame. Dutch started with a G2 and modified into a Darrin.

    The “problem” with the door sliders is corrected by using proper plastic materials.

    ‘yall can have your thoughts, but drive one anywhere, and you may change your mind after all the adoration you will get. As for driving, my favorite ride thus far has been the “Tail of the Dragon”!

  10. I was at a show in central WI one summer when two of them arrived together. They both drove onto the show field with the doors in the open position and the tops in the mid position. That certainly drew a lot of attention. There was also a Deloren there that drove onto the field with his doors raised.

  11. Other than the pinch-mouth grille, the proportions and surface development are among Darrin’s best work. Next time you encounter one, take time to study the body forms to appreciate it more.

    Like myriad other dying independent automakers, when their primary line was fading, Kaiser-Willys produced a glamorous sports car to whip up interest. In every case, the effort produced no savior but interesting collector cars now.

  12. Although credited to “Sidney Nobbs,” it will probably remain unknown if the “Dutch” knew about the experimental car built in 1949 by the British insurance agent when Darren designed the sliding door on his diminutive Kaiser. Unlike some of the others here, I like the little glass sports car. I will admit that I’ve never seen one of those ‘baby carriage” top assemblies which have been criticized along with the tiny pucker of a grill. I don’t mind the grill; my eye stops at the Frieda Kahlo eyebrows which trace the line at the top of the windscreen and doesn’t appear to have anything to do with the other lines of the car.

  13. Quite a long time ago I did see a Kaiser Darrin with a Paxton, at least I think it was a Paxton, belt driven supercharger. The owner said it was a factory option, meaning it was probably dealer installed. He was happy with it and drove the car quite a bit. The blower made the car rather perky and a surprise in a stop light drag race.

    In 1960 I was 14 and bought my first car, a 1946 Ford Coupe, for $40. There was a Darrin sitting in the back line of the used car dealer’s lot next to the Ford. I thought it was too ugly to look at then. Can’t remember the price, but I’m sure it was cheap. Maybe I bought the wrong car?

  14. Actually the Cadillac V8 engine swap was quite common to these cars. The stories I heard was that Dutch converted many, most or all of his leftovers to this engine.

  15. All of you can say what you want about the doors, the small grill opening and the body shape of this car, but I think the tennis player in the first photo has pretty legs.

  16. Although there have been several articles written about the “left over” Darrins that Dutch purchased and the subsequent Cadillac V8 engine swap, they are urban legends. I approached Dutch’s son for confirmation of the many reports. He talked with other family members and let me know the truth. Only 1, as in one, was repowered with a Caddy V8…now you know the rest of the story.

  17. Early promotional pics were shot on the U of M campus in Ann Arbor. Young Ellen Burstyn was the model, but not in this tennis pic.

  18. All the objections aside, I think the styling is timeless and unique, especially as viewed from the side. And as mentioned here, the car does look better in person. From a strictly visual standpoint, perhaps a few design elements as suggested by the shadows in the in the first prototype pic, might have improved the unadorned, somewhat slab-like body style.

    My friend Henry M. Kaiser III told me years ago he has one stashed in a garage somewhere here in the SF Bay Area.

  19. At the time the car was introduced, I was about twelve. Being an avid sports car fan, my first impression was the car looked ungainly. The grill was controversial and the pinched waist and narrow sliding doors made little sense at the time. It was considered a personal car as opposed to a sports model. The fake wire wheels really looked ugly, like something out of an old Moon catalog. There appear to be a number of modifications to the prototype version. In my opinion, the production version was more attractive. which is seldom the case. At no time did it really compete with the Corvette which was more conventional and far more attractive. Believe they came in four colors, white, red, yellow and mint green. White was the most seen

  20. Say — I think you’re a little out of the money on this one, Peter.,… Blackie’s was a MUNTZ Jet somewhat customized.

    And that’s straight from the shoulder, Kid
    ‘Ya get me?
    Blackie

  21. With a more powerful engine and a better grill in place of the small snout up front, it would have been a whole different story… IMHO.

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