Gear Head Tuesday – The Kaiser-Darrin

Gear Head


With the Darrin-designed ’51 Kaisers in production along with the new Henry J small car, Dutch Darrin turned his attention to building a sports car for Kaiser on the Henry J chassis.

However, Darrin was not the only designer who saw potential for a sports car in the Henry J chassis, powered by rugged, dependable Willys engines. Brooks Stevens bought three Henry J chassis and running gear and made up aluminum-bodied roadsters fitted with cycle fenders and pitched the car to the Kaisers. Stevens called this Henry J-based sports car the Excalibur J. Most of us recall that Stevens was successful in the mid-1960s in marketing an Excalibur that he originally built on a Studebaker chassis powered with an Avanti engine. But seldom remembered now is Stevens’ effort to build the Henry J-based Excalibur some ten + years earlier with Kaiser. Stevens approached several car magazines with the Excalibur idea hoping to drum up enough enthusiasm for the project that, if not the Kaisers, another manufacturer would build the car, but didn’t have any takers. Despite his lack of success in getting his Excalibur into production, Stevens believed in the concept and he began campaigning the cars in races.

Stevens-Excalibur J

Brooks Stevens with an Henry J-based Excalibur J.

The Stevens-designed Excalibur J ran its first SCCA race in July 1952, taking second in its class. Stevens raced the Excalibur Js in some two dozen events in the 1952 and 1953 seasons, winning nine of them and regularly besting Jaguars, Ferraris and Alfa-Romeos. He continued to campaign his Excaliburs through the 1957 racing season.

The next use of the Excalibur name by Stevens was on a rear engine, Lincoln V-8 powered sports car that is largely forgotten. In the mid-60s when Stevens was going “pedal-to-the-metal” trying to save Studebaker, he once again used the Excalibur name on a ’29 Mercedes-Benz SSK knock-off built on a Studebaker convertible chassis and powered by an Avanti V-8. This version of the Excalibur actually went into a production line set up by Stevens’ sons, but was powered by a Chevrolet V-8. This Excalibur was in production for many years.

In the meantime, Darrin was doodling with the idea of a Henry J-based sports car. In the Spring of 1952, Darrin and his son Bob developed a clay model of a sleek sports car that (naturally) used the “Darrin dip” in the sides, and incorporated another favored Darrin idea, sliding doors.

Darrin working on the Kaiser-Darrin

Dutch Darrin working on the clay model of what became the Kaiser-Darrin. Note the Budweiser box on the floor holding supplies between Darrin and the clay model.  Evidently, this was not a publicity shot as it is unlikely an empty beer box, regardless of its current function, would have been left in a publicity shot!

Darrin’s original proposal included a retractable hard top but that was rejected in favor of a three-position Deauville-style canvas top. That decision was based on cost and packaging considerations. Cost considerations also dictated that the body for the proposed sports car be of fiberglass.

With the clay model completed, Southern California-based Darrin approached another Southern California firm, Glasspar, about producing the fiberglass body for the prototype. Glasspar’s principal business was building fiberglass boats, but its owner, Bill Tritt was also selling fiberglass bodied kit cars – his own Glasspar G2 and the Woodill Wildfire, which used a Willys chassis and running gear.

Woodill Wildfire

A Woodill Wildfire. Note the ’34 Packard to the right.

The prototype was completed in September of 1952. Darrin showed it to Henry J. Kaiser and his new wife, Alyce.

Alyce Chester had been working as a nurse at the Kaiser Permanente Clinic in Oakland, California when Henry Kaiser’s wife, Bess Fossburgh Kaiser became seriously ill in 1949. Chester became the Kaiser’s live-in nurse and served Mrs. Kaiser until her death in March, 1951. It came as a great shock to the Kaiser family and to Oakland society when the bald, rotund, almost 69 year-old Henry J. married the tall, slim and much younger Alyce only 27 days after Bess Kaiser’s death. Despite the odds being against such a marriage working, Henry J. Kaiser and Alyce remained together and were devoted to each other until Henry J’s death in 1967.

Henry J. blew his stack when Darrin presented the prototype sports car. He berated Darrin for building the prototype without authorization and declared that Kaiser was not interested in marketing such a car. Then Alyce said words to the effect: “If Kaiser isn’t building such a car, it should be” – and added that she liked the car. With that, Henry folded and, once he cooled off, saw the sports car as being a traffic builder for his beleaguered dealers.

The prototype was shown to the public in November of 1952 at the International Motorama in Los Angeles. It received an enthusiastic response both from the public and the press. It was next shown at the New York auto show in January, 1953. Glasspar was commissioned to build a number of other prototypes for the auto show circuit. Kaiser announced that the car was planned to go into production in the Fall of 1953.


The Kaiser-Darrin at an auto show. Note the Packard display behind the Kaiser-Darrin

Final sorting out of the engine for the production model placed the Willys F-head “Hurricane” six under the hood. While the “Hurricane,” typical of Willys engines was rugged and dependable, at only 90 horsepower it was hardly a hurricane of power although it was more robust than the L-head engine used in the Henry J.

Just as the engine choice had been made and production scheduled, the United Auto Workers Union local at the Willow Run plant walked out, delaying production of the new car, which after some wrangling about the name, had been labeled Kaiser-Darrin. With Willow Run closed by the strike, pilot assembly of the new Kaiser-Darrin was begun in August at the Kaiser parts warehouse in Jackson, Michigan where the few ’51 Frazers that were built had been assembled from leftover ’50 models. Full production began in December of 1953.

Originally, Kaiser planned to label the car “KFD 161” – Kaiser-Frazer-Darrin 161, the 161 being the displacement of the engine. Then it was pointed out that Volkswagen originally had been called by the Nazis der K-d-F Wagen so they changed it to DKF 161, but Darrin thought it sounded too much like the Dutch-built DKW. Then Henry J ordered the car to be called the Kaiser-Darrin 161.

Darrin wanted to use the peaked windshield similar to the production Kaiser, the design that echoed the “Darrin dip” in the doors, but the production car used a one piece windshield that did not have the dip in the center. The front fenders had to be raised some 4 inches to meet various state laws about the minimum height for headlamps. When raising the fenders, the Kaiser engineers and designers did so without consulting Darrin and they added turn signals, now required by many states, below the headlamps. The hot-headed Darrin threw a fit about not being consulted about the changes.


The “kiss me” grill has always been a controversial point of the design.

An always controversial point of the design is the “kiss me” grill. Regardless of the esthetic merits – or demerits – of the grill, its design makes the car instantly identifiable.

The Kaiser-Darrin was supposed to be a traffic builder for the dealers. By the time the car actually went into production, there were few dealers left – and the few dealers left didn’t order very many of the nifty new roadsters. Kaiser and its dealer body was crumbling fast in 1954. Only 435 of the roadsters were built. Months later, Darrin discovered some 100 of them sitting outside the Toledo Willys plant. They had been left outside in the winter and had been subjected to all of the winter elements.

Darrin bought about half of them and had them shipped to Southern California where he cleaned them up and sold them from his own showroom. Some were fitted with McCullough superchargers and others were fitted with the V-8 from a Cadillac Eldorado. By 1957, Darrin had sold all of the roadsters he rescued from Toledo where they were scheduled to be written off.



While Henry Kaiser had initially been against the car until his new wife changed his mind, once he “signed on” to it, he backed it 100% and even talked to Darrin about developing a four door hardtop long wheelbase version. With Kaiser’s car business crumbling around him, this version never got any further than conversation. There was no money to develop another version of the roadster. An intriguing footnote is that in April, 1954, Packard approached Darrin about building a four door hardtop on a Packard chassis. A mock up was built, but the project was shelved.

kaiser-darrin-rear view

The Kaiser-Darrin roadster is the most memorable of the cars produced by the short-lived Kaiser-Frazer car operations. The cars today are highly collectable and, when they come to market, often bring six figures.



Next: Kaiser’s fabulous interiors and Frank Hershey’s designs for ’58




Add yours →

  1. jack darnell 17/05/2016 — 05:57

    Thanks for the history lesson. MOST of this I had no idea.
    reference the clay model, that part of auto design and planning has always amazed me.




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