In February, 1953, Motor Trend magazine declared Dutch Darrin to be the
“King of the Coachbuilders.”
Howard “Dutch” Darrin with a phototype Kaiser-Darrin sports car. The production car did not have the “Darrin Dip” in the windshield. The height of the production car was raised and turn signals (shaped to mimic the “kiss-me” grill) were added to meet state regulations.
A prominent figure in our Gear Head Tuesday series on the cars of Kaiser-Frazer is designer Howard “Dutch” Darrin. In today’s post, we will look at Darrin’s life in detail.
Darrin was a multi-talented athlete, inventor and entrepreneur from Cranford, New Jersey, who joined the staff of Automobile Topics at the tender age of 10. The magazine was run by a friend of his father’s named Frank Roach, and Howard was allowed to help out by cutting out newspaper clippings for its editors. Darrin also developed an appetite for football and even attended the Carlisle, Pennsylvania football camp run by the legendary Glenn “Pop” Warner. Although he never played professionally, he played lots of football while serving in the U.S. Signal Corps. during World War I.
Darrin’s family was financially involved in the Automatic Switch Company of Florham Park, New Jersey. Founded in 1888, ASCO engineers are credited with inventing the solenoid valve, and the firm manufactured automatic switches for elevators, compressors, and generators.
Darrin had assumed that he would be an electrical engineer, and as an intern found employment with Westinghouse’s engineering dept. In 1916, just prior to his Army service, Howard had been approached by John North Willys, who asked him to see if he could come up with an electric gearshift. According to Darrin “It was Mr. Willys’ farsighted belief that a simple automatic gearshift could be installed in an automobile. At this time he was building 1,500 Willys cars a day, but the greatest sales obstacle was the new customer who had never driven a car before.”
Willys shipped a car to Darrin, who, after looking at the gearbox, decided that the installation of two small reversible electric motors would enable the car to be shifted by two buttons mounted at the center of the steering wheel. He claimed that the shifter was going to be used on the 1917 Willys, but for a number of reasons, no automatic Willys were produced using his dual motor arrangement. Soon afterward, with World War I ripping the heart out of the European continent and the entry of the U.S. into the war, Darrin enrolled in the Aviation Division of the U.S. Signal Corps. After a few short weeks of training he was dispatched to France where he served for the next two years.
After his discharge in 1919, Darrin used some money he had saved to help found Aero Limited, one of the nation’s first scheduled airline carriers. Using surplus Curtis HS-2L sea planes, Darrin and his partners offered air mail and passenger service between Atlantic City, New Jersey, Nassau (Bahamas) and three Florida cities, Palm Beach, Miami and Key West. The airline was successful until four of their pilots perished when the plane ferrying them between Palm Beach and Miami crashed at sea. Darrin and his partners sold the entire operation to another operator and Dutch returned to New York in 1921 and tried his hand at selling stocks, bonds and “previously enjoyed” luxury cars.
Darrin had purchased two Delage chassis from Walter Chrysler – who at that time was experimenting with imported chassis in the Elizabeth, New Jersey Willys plant – and made the rounds of New York’s body builders looking for suitable bodies to complete the vehicles. It was in this capacity that he was introduced to Thomas Hibbard (who was working for the LeBaron body building firm) by another car broker/dealer who frequented the LeBaron office.
Hibbard was impressed by the Darrin’s impeccable taste and intuition for all things esthetic and the pair soon became friends. It’s not known whether Darrin commissioned the bodies for the two Delage chassis from LeBaron, but both were sold, one to Al Jolson who was starring in “Bombo” at the time.
Early in 1923, Paul Ostruk, New York ‘s Minerva distributor, ordered two bodies through LeBaron that he wanted to have built by Van den Plas in Brussels, as the bodies could be built for far less in Europe due to the current strength of the dollar. LeBaron was thinking along the same lines and wished to procure a Hispano-Suiza distributorship in New York and also was looking into the possibility of opening a branch office in Europe. As Hibbard spoke French, it was decided that he would travel to Europe that March to oversee the construction of the bodies as well as to arrange for the distributorship and to scout for a suitable address for LeBaron. Hibbard invited Darrin along for the trip.
Ideally, LeBaron wanted to get the chassis on consignment, but that notion failed to fly with Hispano-Suiza executives. However they were offered a New York distributorship for $10,000. Hibbard wired the LeBaron office with the good news, but LeBaron was unable to secure the needed financing in time and the deal fell through. Hibbard remained in Europe ostensibly to stay until the bodies were finished, but he had other plans.
Upon their arrival in Paris, Hibbard and Darrin after surveying the wealth of business opportunities available, decided to stay in Europe to form a partnership to sell luxury motorcars in Paris. Hibbard & Darrin, not LeBaron, would open up a design office in Paris and design bodies to be built in Brussels, and then offer them to wealthy Europeans.
Carrosserie Hibbard et Darrin leased a storefront just off of the Champs-Élysées at 12 rue de Berri, just across the street from the showroom of Société Kellner Frères, one of Paris’ best-known coach builders. The pair was awarded a Minerva distributorship. Paris had been without a Minerva dealer since the start of the First World War. They designed a few striking bodies for a couple of used Minerva chassis they had acquired, and commissioned a couple of Belgian coachbuilders, including Van den Plas in Brussels, to construct the coachwork. Word got around with visiting Americans that Carrosserie Hibbard et Darrin could furnish them with a new coachbuilt Minerva for a fraction of what the car sold for in the States.
Although Hibbard and Darrin started out using Minerva chassis, they also built on other chassis including Rolls-Royce and Isotta Fraschini. By 1926 bodywork took up most of the firm’s business and the partners relocated to a more prestigious showroom located at 135 avenue des Champs-Élysées.
Hibbard & Darrin’s first showroom at 12 rue de Berri was later occupied by the Parisian Duesenberg agent, Edmond Sadovitch, who was an enthusiastic Hibbard & Darrin salesman. At least 12 Model J’s were bodied by Hibbard & Darrin including J-254, a convertible town car built for Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst’s tour of Europe and Africa.
The Marion Davies-William Randolph Hearst Duesenberg J bodied by
Carrosserie Hibbard et Darrin
Hibbard estimated that close to 50% of the firm’s coachwork was purchased by American citizens, although many of those vehicles were kept in Europe for continental touring. The Parisian Packard distributor, Monsieur Barbezat, sold a number of Hibbard & Darrin bodied Parkards to Argentinean nationals.
The Crash of 1929 took a large toll on the custom coachwork business for cars and Hibbard & Darrin did not escape unscathed. They were forced to close in 1931, but they hit upon the novel idea of exhibiting American movies – sans translation – to the throngs of American tourists and ex-patriots that inhabited Paris. They converted an unused dance hall on rue de Magellan into the Washington Palace movie theatre and enjoyed a brisk business exhibiting first and second run Hollywood features and shorts. A second theatre called le Studio Diamond was also leased from the French film maker Henri Diamant-Berger and the two movie houses kept Hibbard & Darrin and a few of their old employees afloat for well over a year.
During his sojourn into movie exhibition, Hibbard was introduced to Henry Ainsworth, the managing director of Hotchkiss et Cie, a French automobile and munitions manufacturer that was located in the Saint-Denis suburb on the northeast side of Paris. Ainsworth offered Hibbard a part-time job designing automobiles for the firm.
Darrin had much better luck. In early 1932 he became partners with a wealthy Argentinian-born Parisian banker named J. Fernandez, who had his own body works in the Parisian suburb of Boulogne-sur-Seine. The partners used the name Carrosserie Fernandez et Darrin and from 1932-1937 built custom coachwork on chassis from Bentley, Bugatti, Buick, Delage, Delahaye, Duesenberg, Hispano-Suiza, Isotta-Fraschini, Maybach, Mercedes-Benz, Packard, Panhard, Renault, Rolls-Royce and Voisin.
In 1934 the partners relocated their avenue des Champs-Élysées showroom to rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, an elegant street of high-end shops just off the Champs-Élysées near la Place Vendôme, in order to be closer to their clients favored hotels which included le Grand, le Meurice and Hôtel Ritz.
Fernandez had a good friend in London who ran a Fernandez et Darrin permanent salon which produced over 30% of the firm’s sales. The firm’s most valuable customer was the Argentinean playboy Martin Máximo Pablo de Alzaga Unzue, who was popularly known as “Macoco”. Originally from Buenos Aires, de Alzaga inherited a family fortune and spent a great deal of it on luxury automobiles and racecars. De Alzaga campaigned an all-Bugatti racing team at the 1923 Indianapolis 500 and once bought every Fernandez et Darrin car on display at the Paris Salon. According to Darrin, de Alzaga would eventually purchase twenty-six Fernandez et Darrin-bodied automobiles.
One of the firm’s most well-known creations was a 1933 Duesenberg convertible created for the screen goddess, Greta Garbo. It included torpedo-shaped running boards made from mahogany and chrome, a built-in trunk with fitted Louis Vuiton luggage and an interior trimmed in chrome-finished leather.
Greta Garbo’s Fernandez et Darrin-bodied Duesenberg
In March of 1934, Anthony Gustav de Rothschild ordered a matched set of Hispano-Suizas, one for formal occasions, the other for cruising around town. Fernandez & Darrin were selected to furnish the bodies, which were to be finished in identical colors and complimentary styles.
Stunning: the Rothschild Fernandez et Darrin-bodied Hispano-Suizas at Pebble Beach, 2014
The most striking was the Coupe Chauffeur limousine which was built for the long wheelbase (146 ½”) K6 chassis. The body featured a teardrop–shaped closed passenger compartment whose raked windscreen matched that of the open chauffeur’s compartment. On the shorter J12 chassis, a matching teardrop-shaped 4-passenger coupe was built.
The popularity of the Rothschild Coupe Chauffeur limousine resulted in a small series of commissions for similar bodies, most of which were built on Rolls-Royce chassis, although one was built for Louis Renault for use on the automaker’s new Nervastella chassis.
The design also inspired a more conservatively-styled Sedanca de Ville that Darrin constructed for the socialite-spy Countess Carlo Dentice di Frasso (née Dorothy Caldwell Taylor). Built in Darrin’s Hollywood, California shops during 1937-1938, the Sedanca replaced an existing limousine body on her 1933 Rolls-Royce Phantom II.
Other noteworthy Fernandez et Darrin customers included the movie star Lili Damita and a seemingly endless list of millionaires such as Count Armand de la Rochefoucauld, Lady Davis (Wife of Mortimer B. Davis, Montreal) and Madame Badollet (wife of the Parisian watchmaker). While working with Fernandez, Darrin also designed a Sedanca de Ville for Lord Mountbatten’s Rolls-Royce Phantom II that was constructed by Barker as it would have been unfathomable for a member of the Windsor family to have a body built outside the country.
Lord Mountbatten’s Rolls-Royce was fitted with a Fernandez et Darrin-designed body
According to the Washington Post (21 July 1935), “Twenty-five thousand Americans were engaged in professional activities in Paris in the boom years of 1927 and 1928, but by 1935 that colony has dwindled to a mere 7,000.” The deteriorating situation in Germany, combined with the fact that many of Fernandez et Darrin’s customers were of Jewish decent, began to put a severe damper on their business, so Darrin made the prudent decision to move to Hollywood midway through 1937.
Darrin was not without friends in the movie making capital of the world, and chief among them was Hollywood mogul, Darryl Zanuck. Darrin had met him on one of the film executive’s trips to Paris, and the two avid polo players became good friends. By 1937, the former Warner Bros. executive had become vice-president of Twentieth Century Fox Studios and was in a good position to introduce Darrin to Hollywood’s celebrities.
Once he got to Hollywood, Darrin wasted no time, and started making the rounds of the Hollywood nightspots and restaurants where he was introduced as Howard Darrin of Paris. Darrin became friends with Los Angeles restaurateur and Jensen importer Percy Morgan, who offered to help finance his new business.
Darrin had the ability to turn off and on an authentic-sounding French accent if the situation warranted. Consequently many of his Hollywood customers were convinced he had spent his entire life on the Continent, unaware of the fact he had been born and raised in New Jersey. Darrin jokingly attributed a large part of his success on his suave “Darrin of Paris” persona, rationalizing that it was a more useful sales tool than portfolios of his previous work.
Darrin’s first customer was Dick Powell, one of Warner Bros. top stars, who commissioned Darrin to customize his 1937 Ford sport phaeton. The resulting European looking roadster was built under the direction of Crown Coach’s Charles Rotzenberger at Crown’s East Los Angeles factory as Darrin hadn’t yet hired any staff nor found a suitable location for business.
Actor Dick Powell’s ’37 Ford as rebuilt by Darrin
Soon after Dick Powell’s Ford was completed he ordered a Packard One-Twenty roadster for his wife, actress Joan Blondell. The vehicle was mentioned by gossip columnist May Mann in a 20 December 1937 story:
Joan Blondell and Dick Powell
Special Car Built
“Dick Powell is having a special cut-down car built – so he says –for Joan Blondell’s Christmas present. But on examination the car is entirely un-feminine – and one suspects that Mr. Powell will do most of the driving. It is a two bucket seat affair on a 120-inch Packard chassis. Howard Darrin, of Paris, designed it and has been hard at work on it for six months.”
By early 1938 a former bottle factory on Sunset Blvd. Darrin had chosen to become his showroom and shop had been transformed into “Darrin of Paris.”
“After fixing the place up I didn’t have money to spend on plate glass windows,” he said, “so we placed a plywood partition 10 feet behind the store front and displayed our new cars in the open. You could stand there at night and hear the screech of brakes and see cars backing up and people getting out to examine our wares.”
The overall shape of Dick Powell’s Ford and the Packard One-Twenty Darrin built for Joan Blondell proved to be the forerunners of the cars Darrin is often remembered by more than his work for Kaiser, the Packard-Darrins. The Packard-Darrin story is a chapter all by itself and we will get to it in two weeks.
A 1940 Packard-Darrin
The Packard-Darrins’ swept-down doors we know as “the Darrin Dip” were the car’s most eye-catching feature. The car’s dash utilized the aircraft style crash pads Darrin had developed and patented in France. This padded dash was another one of the vehicle’s strong selling points. Retail prices ranged from $4200-$5200 per vehicle, roughly three times the price of a standard Packard One-Twenty Convertible.
With Europe plunged into war, Darrin became involved in 1941 with the Canadian Aviation Bureau recruiting office in Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel. For a number of years he had been a member of the California State Guard’s Mounted Calvary, which was headquartered at Hollywood’s Riviera Polo Club. In 1942 he attained the rank of Captain in the largely ceremonial organization that was staffed mostly by celebrity polo players.
In 1943 Darrin joined the Army Air Corps as a flight instructor. He held the position of Field Commander and was initially assigned to the Corps’ Boulder, Colorado flying school. He eventually was reassigned to the Corps Las Vegas, Nevada flight school.
A long way from Hollywood: the Willows-Glenn County Airport 80 miles northwest of Sacramento where Darrin established a crop dusting business after World War II.
At war’s end, Darrin purchased a few surplus Boeing trainers and established a small crop-dusting business at the Willows Glen Airfield which is located just off the present day Interstate 5 in Willows, California, a small town located 80 miles northwest of Sacramento. He also kept his hand in the automobile business, submitting design proposals to Joseph Frazer, Powell Crosley and the French automaker Mathis.
He aspired to produce his own car. From his “Darrin of Paris” office at 8534 Sunset Blvd. in West Hollywood he sent out a large number of press releases during the fall of 1946 about his proposed car.
The proposed Darrin fiberglass bodied “luxury” convertible.
Despite its proposed fiberglass body – not considered to be the material from which a luxury car should be built – Darrin boasted that the car would “compete with the most luxurious cars on the market” and be priced at $2,800 in its 123 ½” wheelbase edition. A 115″ wheelbase version was also proposed. The project garnered lots of publicity and articles and renderings of the vehicle appeared in Autocar, Automotive & Aviation Industries, Esquire, Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines.
The Darrin Motor Car was prominently featured in the October 1946 issue of Popular Science:
“The new Darrin saves 600 pounds by novel design.
“For 20 years crack designer Howard Darrin engineered cars for the big manufacturers – and dreamed of producing his own. Now the dream has come true in a new superlight car of novel design, with a plastic body and hydraulically powered labor-saving gadgets.
“By careful design Darrin has cut the weight of his dream car from the usual 30 to 24 pounds per horsepower. Six inches trimmed from the normal height and width save pounds – and gasoline – while bringing the center of gravity down to mid-axle. To permit three to sit comfortably in front, the 60-inch seat is extended to the extreme outer edge of the car. The 115-inch wheelbase carries a 185-inch body.
“Hayes Manufacturing Company will build the body of unstressed removable panels of Fiberglas. Four stampings are used instead of the usual 15. The curved windshield is a single unit. The chassis is rectangular, its box-section siderails, which form part of the outside structure of the car, serving as car bumpers. The front wheels are individually sprung on torsions bars with wishbone upper arms and I-beam section lower arms. In the rear, the drive is carried through semi-elliptic springs.
“Hydraulic systems operate windows, erect top, lift hood, adjust front seat, and drop jacks to hoist the car for tire repairs.
“An outstanding feature is the use of standard parts and equipment. The power package, including a 100-hp, Continental engine, is a separate assembly. An L-head valve arrangement is used and the pistons are aluminum.
“Darrin, who designed the Kaiser-Frazer bodies and the $6,000 Darrin Packard, expects his new car to sell for less than $2,000, hopes to build 30,000 in 1947.
“The hood and front fenders of the Darrin are in one piece. Hinged at the front instead of the rear, they are lifted by hydraulic power to permit motor inspection.
“The Fiberglas body is unusually low, improving riding qualities. The convertible model shown carries five passengers, three in front two in the rear. The turning radius is 20 feet.”
Darrin designed and patented a complex electric sliding door for the short-wheelbase Darrin coupe and continued to promote the vehicle into 1948.
The first iteration of the Darrin Motor Car never materialized, however many design elements of the proposed long wheelbase version showed up in the production 1947-1950 Kaiser and Frazer. When John Maxwell Associates, a Detroit engineering consultancy, prepared the blueprints for the production bodies, many details of Darrin’s original design were modified to the detriment of the cars’ appearance. However the production car retained the large greenhouse, exceptionally wide seating and slab-sided fenders that were present in Darrin’s original renderings.
The design kinship of the proposed Darrin fiberglass car and the production Kaisers and Frazers is seen in these images.
When Kaiser-Frazer began plans for their redesigned 1951 models, Darrin was once again called upon to assist Kaiser-Frazer’s Duncan McRae in its design. Darrin really delivered the goods this time, delivering one of the most memorable designs of the early fifties. The former model’s boxiness was replaced by a sensuous beltine and characteristic “Darrin Dip” in the rear door (or quarter panel on the two-door versions). The top of the windshield featured another “Darrin Dip” which was repeated in the rear window.
Darrin was called upon to try to make the firm’s budget-priced Henry J more attractive, which was a tall order. The far from attractive bodywork had been designed with economy in mind by one of Kaiser’s suppliers, the American Metal Products Co. of Detroit whom had planned to build the car themselves.
The Henry J was a 4-cylinder economy car built on a 100” wheelbase using a $44 million loan from the federal government’s Reconstruction Finance Corp. that stipulated that it cost no more than $1300. Consequently, early versions of the vehicle excluded common amenities such as a rear truck lid, glove box and passenger side sun visor.
Darrin gave the car a little “Darrin Dip,” and did his best to make the car more attractive, however the dimensions of the awkward car were already set in stone and not much could be done to make the foreshortened two-door economy car attractive.
Darrin was convinced that given a free hand, he could come up with an attractive body for the 100” Henry J’s chassis and he set about designing a fiberglass-boded sports car to that end.
He had been an early proponent of FRP (fiberglas-reinforced plastic) bodies and was well aware of the pioneering Glasspar G2 Sportscars built by Bill Tritt in his Santa Ana, California workshop. Using Tritt’s G2 body as a starting point, the final design included a three-position Victoria top and low-cut sliding doors that disappeared into the fenders. Mounted on a six-cylinder Henry J chassis, the body was finished off with taillights and other accessories taken from the Kaiser-Frazer parts bin.
Darrin oversaw production of the prototype body at Glasspar and completed it in his own Santa Monica workshop during 1952 and invited Henry J. Kaiser to see the completed vehicle.
Kaiser was not impressed, and accused Darrin of squandering the firm’s money stating:
“We are not in the business of building sports cars.”
Darrin produced evidence that the car was produced using his own (Darrin’s) resources and stated that he would produce the car on his own if Kaiser wasn’t interested. It was fortunate for everyone involved that Kaiser had been accompanied by his new wife, Alyce. She loved the car stating:
“This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, I don’t see why you aren’t in the business of building sports cars, Henry.”
As we saw in an earlier post about the history of Kaiser cars, the then-69 year old Henry J. had married Alyce less than a month after the death of his first wife, and found it in his best interests to cede to his bride’s wishes. He gave preliminary approval to Darrin for production of the sportscar and commissioned him to build a four-door prototype that incorporated the sliding doors.
The car entered into production in late 1953 powered by a 6-cyl, 161-cu.in. Willys F-head producing 90hp. The fiberglas body weighed 300 lbs. and the completed vehicle weighed in at 2,175 lbs. and sold for $3,668. Beating Chevrolet’s Corvette to market, the Kaiser-Darrin became America’s first production sports car – and the first fiberglass-bodied production car.
The first twelve cars were built and assembled by Glasspar, then assembly transferred to a facility leased by Darrin in Santa Monica, California. Using FRP subassemblies supplied by Glasspar, approximately fifty cars were assembled by Darrin during 1953 before production was transferred to Kaiser’s Jackson, Michigan Trim plant.
The initial 62 Kaiser-Darrins built in California differed slightly from the 435 built in Michigan during 1954. Kaiser needed to raise the headlights to make the car legal in all states, and replaced the former’s split “Darrin Dip” windshield with a one-piece curved glass.
When Kaiser shut down their Jackson, Michigan trim plant in late 1954, approximately fifty unsold Kaiser-Darrin’s were transferred to Willys’ Toledo, Ohio assembly plant for storage. (Some sources state that the number of cars was 100 rather than 50.) Unfortunately the cars were stored outside during a particularly harsh Ohio winter and when uncovered in early 1955, they were thought to be too water-damaged to be salable.
Darrin had a friend at the plant who alerted him to the vehicles’ predicament, and he offered to buy the lot for pennies on the dollar. By that time Willys management had little concern for anything with a Kaiser badge, so they accepted the offer and shipped the cars off to Darrin’s shop in Santa Monica, were his small crew refurbished them and sold them as new. By 1957, Darrin had sold all of them.
The car had been underpowered from day one, and a number of Darrin’s customers requested upgraded power-plants. Darrin’s crew installed 270 hp Cadillac V-8s in at least six of the cars which were sold as Darrin-Cadillacs as the new powerplant required that the chassis be substantially upgraded to handle the increased power.
A number of the Cadillac-powered Darrins competed in southern California club racing during the mid-to-late 50s. Both Laura Maxine Elmer (the future wife of Briggs Cunningham) and Ray Sinatra Jr. (son of bandleader Ray Sinatra, who was a cousin of Frank Sinatra) entered Darrin-Cadillacs in the 1955 Palm Springs Road Race. Lance Reventlow is also known to have campaigned a Cadillac powered Darrin.
In the mid-to-late 50s Darrin contributed a few design proposals to Panhard, DKW, Willys and Kaiser of Argentina, He also designed a sports car for an Israeli automaker in 1960.
In the mid-sixties Darrin proposed the production of coachbuilt Rolls-Royce Silver Shadows that were to be marketed by Southern Californian Rolls-Royce dealers. In 1965 he was honored by Syracuse University as one of the Twentieth Century’s top 15 industrial designers. He spent the rest of his life in Southern California and was a much in demand judge and guest speaker at various classic car events and Concours d’Elegance. He passed away in 1982.
Darrin sculpting a clay model of the Kaiser-Darrin sports car, assisted by his son.
Much of this post was adapted from a history of Darrin posted at Coachbuilt in 2004. Other sources include a 1953 article in Motor Trend about Darrin and articles in Hemmings Motor News.