In the bustling years after World War II, American manufacturers quickly saw the value in adding a sports car to the regular lineup. Sports cars were gaining in popularity rapidly, but none of Americas automakers had the time or resources to develop a ground up car to complete with the ever-increasing number of European invaders. Ford and GM started work on their own ideas of a sports car, based on existing passenger car platforms. Performance seemed to take a back seat to style, as these new cars were meant more as image-enhancers to boost showroom traffic.
In the early 1950s, the famed industrial designer Howard “Dutch” Darrin, who had to previously been employed by Kaiser, now operated out of his own showroom in LA, where he took it upon himself to design a sports car for the Kaiser Corporation based on the compact Henry J. chassis. He invited top company brass to view the car but instead got a rather brusque response from Henry Kaiser himself, who informed Darrin that Kaiser was in the family car business, NOT the sports car business. But Darrin persisted and finally a meeting was set. Upon seeing the car for the first time, it was actually Henry Kaiser’s wife who insisted the car go in to production.
Mrs. Kaiser got her way and the first prototype appeared at the New York Auto Show in 1953, just beating Chevrolet’s Corvette to become America’s first fiberglass production sports car. Beyond the sweeping profile and heart-shaped grille, the Kaiser-Darrin 161 was most famous for its innovative pocket doors that disappeared into the front fenders on sliding tracks. Construction of the fiberglass bodies was outsourced to Glaspar of California, who had previous experience with making a sporty car under their own name. Power was courtesy of the Hurricane F-head inline six producing about 90 horsepower. Unfortunately, Kaiser Motors Corporation could not compete against the marketing might of GM and Ford, and after just 435 Darrins were built (all sold as 1954 models), Kaiser dropped out of passenger car production altogether.
But the story did not end there as Dutch Darrin was able to procure a handful of late production models that were left unsold at Kaiser’s Willow Run factory. He brought the cars to his Los Angeles showroom where they were refurbished, where some were modified with V8 engines and sold as the Darrin Sports Car.
Our featured Kaiser-Darrin, chassis number 161-1389, is an exquisitely presented example that features a number of rare options. There are some experts that believe this car to be one of the few cars sold through Dutch Darrin’s own showroom, though conclusive evidence is lacking thanks to limited records. Finished in original Yellow Satin with a white interior, this outstanding Darrin has been treated to a full restoration to concours standards in 2014 by Dan Green Restorations of Salt Lake City, Utah and presents in stunning condition today. It features an extremely rare optional removable hard top, as well as a centrifugal supercharger on the “Hurricane” F-head inline six, both of which were accessories that Darrin offered through his Los Angles dealership. The quality of the restoration is first rate and the car presents in striking order with impeccable paint, chrome and detailing, looking fabulous with the hard top in place and fitted with cool period-correct accessory wheel covers. While undergoing restoration, numerous original date markings and stamps confirm this is a highly original, late-production body.
The calling card of the Kaiser-Darrin is of course those unique forward-sliding pocket doors, which function properly on this car, revealing a beautifully restored interior. Part of the design brief by Darrin was that the interior would remain simple and elegant, not to overpower the purity of the body design. This car’s off-white upholstery complements the soft yellow paintwork, while new black carpets provide some contrast. The instrument panel is finished in body color fiberglass, with an upholstered pad covering the rest of the dash as original. Instruments, switches and controls have all been restored to a high standard, and the interior still appears very fresh in the time since the restoration was completed. Beneath the very rare matching hard top is a folding soft top in white vinyl, as original.
Lifting the hood reveals Kaiser’s robust but somewhat curious “F-Head” inline six. The engine is fully detailed to a very high standard, and presented with correct colors, labels and fittings. As a passenger car engine, the Hurricane six was strong, reliable and reasonably efficient. But in standard form it lacked a bit of grunt for sports car duty, with just 90 horsepower on tap from 161 cubic inches. In an effort to improve performance in an increasingly competitive market, Dutch Darrin offered buyers an optional supercharger, which was originally developed for the four-door Kaiser Manhattan, which boosted output to nearly 140 hp. This car features that rare and desirable blower, complete with the unique “Darrin” script cast intake plenum. The engine mates to a three speed manual transmission with overdrive. The sale will include an original owner’s manual, photos documenting the restoration, period literature, historical documentation and a set of original and important two-piece Kaiser-Darrin wire wheel covers.
Without a doubt one of the best Kaiser Darrins available, car number 1389 benefits from long-term care in a major collection of important automobiles. It has been expertly restored with little regard to cost, and remains fresh and ready for enjoyment in any number of concours events or out on the road where the truly unique style and character can be appreciated by all.
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