Finding any Kaiser-Frazer automobile is not easy these days, sixty-three years after the last U.S. made motorcar was sold to its new owner. But the rarest of all is likely the Kaiser-Darrin sports car. A fiberglass two-seater meant to draw folks into K-F showrooms to ooh and aah over, and maybe drive out in a Manhattan or Special sedan. But it was too little, too late. By the time of its debut, the writing was already on the wall for K-F.
Henry J. Kaiser may have been a shipbuilding maven, but when it came to selling cars to retail customers, he was a babe in the woods. He complicated things by binding the hands of the one person who actually knew the car business, Joseph Frazer, largely because Henry J’s ego got in the way. “The Kaisers NEVER retrench!” as he was fond of saying, despite the evidence of lackluster sales in 1949-1950. Amid this drama of Frazer’s exit, crashing sales and hundreds of unsold cars sitting around the massive Willow Run factory, came the Kaiser-Darrin!
It was announced in September of 1952 and first appeared at the Los Angeles Motorama. But things grew frustrating for those who wanted to buy one. The gestation period drew on and on. Production versions finally appeared in November ’53, about two months after production had begun.
And you still couldn’t buy one, even then. Kaiser-Darrins were not available for retail sale until January 6, 1954, or sixteen months after the car was first announced to the public. Much like the Studebaker Avanti ten years hence, the drawn-out process did not help sales, as folks who wanted one had most likely moved on to other rolling stock.
And in 1954 most people, even the few who still WANTED a Kaiser-Darrin–were not so sure about the longevity of Kaiser Motors themselves. Sure, they had purchased Willys-Overland in ’53, but Willys wasn’t exactly setting the sales charts afire either. So by the time the sports job finally started arriving at dealerships, even its sleek Dutch Darrin-penned lines only went so far.
Of course, the really interesting thing about the Kaiser-Darrin were those intriguing doors, which slid on tracks into the front fenders for ingress and egress. Very cool!
It was a quirky feature, but apparently they did not work all that well, with a reputation for binding up in their tracks. It also had a three-position top, with open, closed and “Landau” configurations, the latter one leaving the portion over the seats open.
It may have looked good on the outside, but unfortunately, it was powered by a 161 CID “Supersonic” six. Motivation was, ahem, leisurely with 90 hp and a one-barrel (yes, really) carburetor.
At any rate it didn’t matter. It was too late for Kaiser-Willys in the U.S. by that point, as they were already preparing to move the car lines to Argentina and focus on Jeeps only in the States. The K-D was discontinued in mid-’54, after 435 of the $3655 roadsters had been made.
Dutch Darrin bought the remaining unsold Kaiser-Darrin inventory and parts and sold additional units himself, shoehorning Caddy V8s and superchargers in them instead of the factory four cylinder. About 50 of these much, MUCH livelier “Kaiser-Dutches” were sold. This handsome white over red example was spotted by your author and a friend at a car musuem in downtown Hannibal, Missouri, back in May 2017. The Caddy V8 was most certainly an improvement over the Kaiser-made Darrins!
K-F may have been on the way out when the Kaiser-Darrin debuted, but their scarcity, cool lines and those intriguing sliding doors make them a prized collector car today, as evidenced by this pristine red one seen at the AACA Grand National, held in downtown Moline, IL several years ago. Though it rained off and on the whole time, this lovely K-D and other flawless classic cars were a real treat to see!