Howard “Dutch” Darrin was a designer of custom auto bodies for the well-to-do who thought cars should be graceful, muscular animals stalking the streets with sinuous, swoopy lines. Then he met Henry Kaiser. Hired to add pizzaz to Kaiser’s dowdy, slab-sided post-war sedans, Darrin penned a wide, low-slung shape that purred with modernity. Henry Kaiser went along though his own in-house designers were upset with being over-ridden by an outside consultant.
Kaiser pushed a pet project that helped doom his company, a little econo-pup called the Henry J. Though Darrin submitted a sleek proposal with styling derived from the company’s popular full-sized cars, Kaiser chose a design from another stylist. Kaiser’s production Henry J rolled off the lines looking like a shrunken ’49 Caddy Sedanet from another, sadder dimension.
Challenged by the dumpy Henry J, Darrin decided to show what he could do by spending his own money to build a running sports job prototype on its chassis. Sliding pocket doors and a three position top were classic Darrin touches. When he showed it to Henry Kaiser, the old man grumped, “We are not in the business of building sports cars.” Then, once again, Mrs. Kaiser spoke up. “Why Henry, I think that’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” And Henry agreed once again to make Darrin’s dream come true.
Production cars only differed slightly from Darrin’s prototype–unfortunately. The car’s outdated, wheezy little six cylinder engine couldn’t walk the hot love that Darrin’s slick design talked. Though the 161 looked sleek as a cheetah, it’s chest hid the tiny, over-worked heart of a chihuahua.
A year after the 161’s introduction, Kaiser was finished in the auto business and the Kaiser-Darrin was toast, with just 435 examples built. Costing more than a new Cadillac or Lincoln, the underpowered dreamboats found little favor in the market place. Fifty leftovers were left out in the snow and severly deteriorated before they were sold to Darrin who cleaned them up and marketed them on his own.
Of the 435 Kaiser-Darrins built 412 are accounted for, with the majority surviving to star in museums, shows, and classic car auctions from sea to shining sea. Starved as we are for new cars with distinctive character, the doomed little Kaiser-Darrin 161s speak of a time when style was spelled s-w-a-n-k-y..
For more info please check the slideshow and links below:
Kaiser-Fraser: Capsule history of an American classic
Woodil Wildfire: Do-it-yourself Jaguar makes history
The Gaylord: America’s finest sports car of 1957?
FIrst Corvette: The good, the bad, the ugly
1955-57 Ford Thunderbird: Taking the world by storm
Archive of past classic car posts