I love the history of Howard “Dutch” Darrin and his postwar sports cars – most of them built in fiberglass.
Although we mostly know him for the Kaiser Darrin sports car with sliding doors, he actually designed and built a number of different fiberglass sports cars from 1946 to 1962 and probably beyond. For these reasons, I have begun to refer to Darrin as the “Rock Star of Postwar Fiberglass.”
Click here to review some of the different cars that Darrin designed and built in the postwar era.
One of the most interesting stories about the Kaiser Darrin is that it actually had 3 different lives – and 2 different name. Here’s the history of his Darris Sports Car – a car we know as the Kaiser Darrin:
- 1952: Darrin created his car known as the “Darrin sports car” as a concept for Kaiser to consider. Which….they did and in early 1953 it was announced as their new upcoming sports car
- 1953: Official announcement of the Kaiser Darrin sports car – also known as the DKF X-161 and the KD-161
- 1954: Production models of the Kaiser Darrin reach showrooms
- 1955: Kaiser-Willys Corporation ceases sales of production cars in America
- 1955: Howard “Dutch” Darrin buys back unsold Kaiser Darrin sports cars and begins to sell them – once again – as Darrin sports cars.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll share the history of Darrin’s sports cars after Darrin took back the reins of his car from Kaiser in 1955 and began offering cars himself.
And away we go…
Motor Trend: April, 1955
Early in 1955, we find the following short piece in Motor Trend Magazine. This is the earliest reference found to date of Darrin offering his own sports car under his own name.
Howard “Dutch” Darrin has established his fame time and time again: in Europe as “Le Roi des Carrossiers” (King of the Coachbuilders; Motor Trend, February, 1953); then in the U.S as creator of the late classic Darrin Packards and of all the Kaisers and their offspring, the Kaiser-Darrin 161.
Now officially built and sold by Darrin himself, the roadster has dropped the rest of its name; it has gained a Darrin-conceived fiberglass hardtop that actually improves its appearance; and a Cadillac engine gives it the US’s top power to weight ratio.
Classified Ad By Darrin for Prototype Cadillac-Powered Sports Car
Motor Trend: November, 1955
Late in the same year, we find that the Cadillac-powered prototype hardtop with 500 miles is for sale at Darrin’s Santa Monical Blvd, California shop:
Darrin’s Santa Monica Shop With Cadillac Powered Sports Car in Window: 1955
Here we see a photo of a Darrin sports car in the window – for sale. What’s more interesting are the close-ups of parts of the photo – also shown below. In these photos you can see the following items of interest:
- A Darrin sports car in the window with the words “Kaiser-Darrin” displayed prominently above it
- Window advertisement which identifies engine options: Either the original Kaiser motor now referred to as a Darrin Modified Motor that produces 135 horsepower and can reach speeds of 124.5 mph or a Darrin Cadillac motor rated at 270 horsepower
(Note: According to letters written by Kaiser historian Ted Dahlmann, Cadillac horsepower in 1955 was rated at 270; horsepower in 1956 was rated at 305hp; in 1957 it was 325 horsepower and in 1958 it was 335 horsepower. These ratings help us match the year of the Darrin sports car when identified in a vintage story which show the photo above to be from 1955).
- A small sign titled “Darrin Trade-Ins” showing a phone number “Call H0-5-5822. As best I can tell, there is a “Ford 53” listed on the sign as well as a “Studebaker 54.” I cannot decipher the bottom line of the sign. Best guess is that these “trade-ins” are probably being offered for sale)
Letter From Darrin: May 28, 1955
Here’s a letter from Dutch Darrin in 1955 talking about the upgrades to make to a pre-1955 Darrin to prepare it for a Cadillac engine. This shows that Darrin wasn’t the only one modifying Kaiser Darrin sports cars to accept Cadillac motors, and in fact he was helping by providing advice.
Below the image is a translation of what’s shown in the letter.
Darrin Parris Carrosserie D’automobile
Est. 1932 May 28, 1955
Many thanks for your letter of the 24th and the nice things you said about the Darrin Sports Car.
Regarding the Cadillac installation for your car, the motor will drop in by simply altering motor mounts and building new exhaust headers. Reinforcing bracket should be made under Gear Box serving as rear motor mount and reinforcing bracket. As soon as latest prints are available we will mail them to you.
Regarding the hardtop we furnish top unpainted but with rear window installed for $193.00. The side windows enclosures cost $160.00. You can put your own windows in with drawings we send you.
Howard Darrin (signature)
Design studio 8006 Santa Monica Blvd – Hollywood – Hillside 2668
So that’s our first salvo which focuses on what’s know about Darrin sports cars in 1955. We’ll be on the lookout for more information from the 1955 launch, and as we find it we’ll share it here with you. In our next iteration of this story, we’ll jump into 1956 and see what things have changed for Darrin and his sports car.
Hope you enjoyed the story, and remember gang…
The adventure continues here at Forgotten Fiberglass.
I own a Kaiser Darrin that is currently undergoing a complete restoration. I’d love to see your car.
That is interesting information. If Dutch said that he did three cars then that must be the truth. We know that he did at least one and the serial numbers should be late in the model run if done by Dutch himself as they would have been unsold left overs. Keep the good information coming!
Steven Karlock here…I am the owner of the Darrin CADILLAC that Mel Francis talked about…according to Gordie Chamberlin, the one that does not exist!!!I was lucky enough to have known and talked to Dutch many times before his death…showed the modifications to the car on the frame and suspension…not only did he verify the car as one of 3 he finished but his good friend Alex Tremulus also saw and verified the vehicle for him…the car is on display in Hannibal,MO at KARLOCKS KARS and Pop Culture……
Any chance you could e- mail to me some photos of your darrin ?
I OWNED A K D 1954 MODEL WITH A CHEVY SMALL BLOCK PUNCHED OUT TO 283 C.I. WE HAD THREE CARBS AND A
DUNTOV CAM RATED AT 10.5 COMPRESSION RATIO. WITH ONLY 2200LBS IT WAS A SCREAMER IN A STRAIGHT LINE BUT WAS HARD TO KEEP ON THE ROAD FROM A STANDING START. THE SUSPENSION WAS RUDIMENTARY AT BEST. I HAD CUSTOM TORSION BARS BUT IT NEEDED A LOT MORE TO KEEP IT ON THE ROAD . IT WAS NEVER A SPORTS CAR BUT IT COULD HAVE BEEN GREAT DRAG RACER–REMBER IT WAS BASED ON A HENRY J
I am familiar with Maxine Elmer’s car, outfitted with the Cadillac engine. Steve Karlock of Thousand Oaks, CA, brought it to me in the late 80s for a complete restoration. I have several photos of the car, with its Cadillac engine installation, plus the restoration story that goes with them.
Looking back at the SCCA’s entry list for the 1955 Palm Springs road race March 26-27 1955, Howard Darrin entered two Darrins. Number 162 driver was Maxine Elmer [Briggs Cunningham’s wife], and it was Cadillac powered. The second 163 driver was Ralph Sinatra Jr. and it was a supercharged F- Head 161. Maxine Elmer made almost one lap and returned to the pits with no brakes, and Ralph Sinatra rolled his car over during the race. There were a couple of Darrins entered in SCCA races in later years up to 1957, but no mention of owners, just drivers. Makes me think Howard Darrin only had access to less than a handful of Kaiser Darrins and what became of them is speculation. Kaiser Darrin X serial number cars have been in the Darrin registry[DKF-X6 and KF-547-X8], very rare, but no Darrin sold cars have been heard from. As to fifty unsold Kaiser Darrins being available, I doubt that ever happened. I think Henry and Edgar Kaiser would have been too savvy to overproduce a vehicle that was not selling and was expensive to make.
The website that has footage of the SCCA Palm Springs March 1955 race is : http://thechicaneblog.com/?s=palm+springs+1955 . Darrin 162 is not in the footage because she went out early, but there is footage of Darrin 163 rolling over and later being uprighted.
I would really be surprised if Darrin did more than one Cadillac conversion and I don’t think that he bought fifty Darrin’s from Kaiser-Willys in 1955. Fifty cars would have been a huge investment and adding a Cadillac engine would have made the selling price prohibitive. Most of the Darrins’ have been accounted for and no legitimate cars are known to exist.
This should have been the car that led to more great fiber glass cars . That is why they are still popular today .
I did not know Dutch was up to all that! , love the hardtop but most of all the Cadillac engine.