November 22, 2013

Howard A. “Dutch” Darrin - Kaiser-Frazer car designer

Howard "Dutch" Darrin sculpting clay on model of Kaiser Darrin sports car, circa 1953.

Howard "Dutch" Darrin sculpting clay on model of Kaiser Darrin sports car, circa 1953.

Kaiser Permanente Heritage Resources published a story in 2010 on the Kaiser Darrin sports car (“Kaiser-built 1954 sports car delights today’s collectors"), but history never sleeps, and we’ve recently digitized some slides buried in our archive of the designer in the process of creating the prototype.

Howard A. “Dutch” Darrin (1897-1982) was a World War I aviator, inventor, and automobile designer. After WWII, when Henry J. Kaiser entered the automobile industry, Darrin was brought in as a freelance consultant and he worked on several designs. But Kaiser-Frazer's last automobile gasp was to be a sleek convertible sports car with a fiberglass body and sliding doors — designed by Dutch Darrin.

The predecessor to that vehicle was called the Darrin Motor Car, featured in the October, 1946 issue of Popular Science: “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.” That car never happened, but the seed had been planted and it blossomed soon afterwards.

The new Kaiser Darrin on display, unknown auto show, circa 1954.

In 1950 the Kaiser-Frazer automobile company asked Darrin in to improve the styling of the “Henry J” budget car. The meagre production budget afforded little latitude, so Darrin’s improvements were minor, but he convinced Henry J. Kaiser to let him create a more attractive car on the Henry J chassis. At first Henry Kaiser didn’t like Darrin’s long, sculpted convertible, but his new wife Alyce (“Ale”) loved it. The project got the green light.

These photographs show Darrin sculpting the clay on a full-size mockup, most likely in his workshop in Santa Monica, California. For more on Darrin’s long design history, see this article by automotive journalist Mark Theobald.