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.”
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.