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Kaiser Capers: Memories of Howard A. “Dutch” Darrin, Part 3

Kaiser Capers: Memories of Howard A. “Dutch” Darrin, Part 3

Kaiser-Fraz­er, the post­war won­der com­pa­ny, pre­sent­ed Dutch with many opportunities—and as many frus­tra­tions. Con­clud­ed from Part 2

Part 3

Excerpt: For the com­plete arti­cle and illus­tra­tions, refer to The Auto­mo­bile, May 2017. To order, click here.

Postwar Kaiser and Frazer

Kaiser
1947 Fraz­er: a stretched sales illus­tra­tion; if it actu­al­ly had those pro­por­tions, it would have been sen­sa­tion­al.

Dutch had an earthy vocab­u­lary, and his meth­ods of work were forth­right with a touch of reck­less­ness. He need­ed these qual­i­ties when, after the war, he pre­sent­ed him­self to his old friend Joe Fraz­er, father of the wartime Jeep, to offer designs for the all-new cars Fraz­er was plan­ning, in part­ner­ship with Hen­ry J. Kaiser. His basic lines were accept­ed, but mod­i­fied on the way to pro­duc­tion. Dutch furi­ous­ly quit, say­ing the engi­neers “bent the god­dam thing all out of shape,” and demand­ing his name, which K-F had agreed to put on every pro­duc­tion car, be removed. Nev­er­the­less, those ear­ly Fraz­ers and Kaisers offered the first straight-through body­line in a pro­duc­tion auto­mo­bile.

Dutch’s Seminal ’51 Kaiser

Kaiser
The design team after the ’51 Kaiser received the Grand Prix d’Honneur at Monte Car­lo. L-R: Bob Robil­lard, Clyde Trombly, Buzz Grisinger, E.H. Daniels, Car­leton Spencer, H.V. Lind­bergh, Howard Dar­rin and Herb Weissinger.

In 1948 they need­ed a new design, and Dutch returned to intro­duce “Speed-Styling,” on what he called the “Con­stel­la­tion.” A fresh approach in auto­mo­tive archi­tec­ture, its ultra-low aspect was achieved by new depar­tures —a spare tire mount­ed under the trunk floor, curved doors extend­ing into the roof, a chas­sis con­tour allow­ing a much low­er rear seat, unprece­dent­ed glass area.

At Kaiser-Fraz­er, design­ers Dun­can McRae and Herb Weissinger sculpt­ed the final lines. Bob Robil­lard, E.H. Daniels and Buzz Grisinger con­tributed design details, Car­leton Spencer some vivid inte­ri­ors. Chief engi­neer Ralph Isbrandt, under Engi­neer­ing chief H.V. Lind­bergh, gave it fine han­dling and a smooth ride. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, those beau­ti­ful cars were pow­ered by six­es not V-8s, and sales suf­fered, as time went on, through their lack of per­for­mance. The shape, how­ev­er, endured. A hand­some facelift car­ried it into 1955—and then from 1958 through 1962, when Kaiser car pro­duc­tion moved to Argenti­na. That was quite a long life for any car design in the Fifties and Six­ties.

Kaiser-Darrin Sports Car

Kaiser
Pro­duc­tion Kaiser-Dar­rin #1 made $198,000 at auc­tion recent­ly. (Hem­mings Motor News)

When left to him­self, Dutch was capa­ble of pro­duc­ing sen­sa­tion­al shapes, but they weren’t always entire­ly prac­ti­cal. Per­haps today, with mod­ern mate­ri­als and ser­vo-assists, the Kaiser-Darrin’s famous slid­ing doors would work bet­ter. Even then, the shape wasn’t right. They didn’t fit peo­ple with long legs, and folk of all sizes found it dif­fi­cult to exit and enter.

The Kaiser Dar­rin DKF-161, to use its for­mal name, was nev­er­the­less a dra­mat­ic piece of styling. Com­pared to the first Corvette, which appeared around the same time, it was sleek­er, clean­er, unclut­tered. Like the Corvette its body was fiber­glass, and like the first Corvette it was under­pow­ered, by a lit­tle Willys F-head six. But as a design state­ment it was sen­sa­tion­al. Sad­ly, by the time they got into pro­duc­tion, the com­pa­ny was head­ed for obliv­ion. Only 435 Kaiser Dar­rins were built. The vast major­i­ty have sur­vived.

To Hen­ry Kaiser’s cred­it, he did insist on includ­ing “Dar­rin” in the sports car’s name—as he had grant­ed the use of a lit­tle plaque, read­ing “Dar­rin Styled,” on the ear­ly 1947-48 cars and 1951 Kaiser. Ray­mond Loewy’s name nev­er appeared on his auto­mo­biles. “He asked me how I was able to do it,” Dutch said. “Actu­al­ly it was thanks to a very gen­er­ous con­tract Joe Fraz­er had writ­ten for me ear­ly on.”

Last Thoughts

Ear­ly after the war, Dar­rin designed an all-new body for the home­ly Crosley, but Pow­ell Crosley nev­er want­ed to spend the mon­ey. Final­ly he was involved in design­ing what became the Jeep Wag­oneer—a big suc­cess for Jeep Cor­po­ra­tion, which made up nice­ly for the sad fail­ure of Kaiser-Fraz­er.

Push­ing sev­en­ty, he wan­dered into Auto­mo­bile Quar­ter­ly one day and began to rem­i­nisce. Grad­u­al­ly the light dawned. “Are you by any chance Howard Dar­rin?” edi­tor Don Vor­der­man asked. Yes, it was he. “Wait, let me fetch a tape recorder!” Don began recit­ing what he thought he knew about who cre­at­ed which great cars, and Dutch would some­times take adamant excep­tion. He nev­er hid his light under a bushel, and if writ­ers altered his ver­sion of auto­mo­tive his­to­ry, he was hap­py to lend them a piece of his mind.

“We Happy Few”

Kaiser
Dutch Dar­rin, Richard Lang­worth, Bill Tilden (https://richardlangworth.com/tilden), Alame­da, 1972.

In the Sev­en­ties I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to work close­ly with Dar­rin over my first book, on that same post­war com­pa­ny where Dutch had had so many tri­umphs and dis­ap­point­ments. It was some­times exas­per­at­ing; it was nev­er dull. He had very firm ideas about auto­mo­tive archi­tec­ture and his role in it. On these he sailed con­fi­dent­ly for­ward, and once arrived in his port of con­clu­sion, no attack was suf­fi­cient to dis­lodge him.

Dutch was a man of strik­ing contrasts—funny and seri­ous, reck­less and capa­ble, diplo­mat­ic and head­strong, inspired, com­plex, vast­ly tal­ent­ed. If there was one qual­i­ty which set him off from oth­ers in his trade, it was his char­ac­ter­is­tic way of stand­ing back and look­ing at him­self as he hoped his­to­ry would. “How will I look if I do this?” he seemed to ask him­self. He was always look­ing around for finest hours, and if one was not imme­di­ate­ly avail­able, his impulse was to cre­ate one. In the process, he gave us some of the most beau­ti­ful cars in the world.

Above all, of course, Dutch was supreme­ly for­tu­nate. The most warm­ing thing about him was that he nev­er ceased to say so. “Whomev­er thought that a dumb kid like me would fall into the straw­ber­ry patch?” he said. “I can describe my life in one word—happy. I’ve spent it doing the three things I most enjoy: build­ing cars, fly­ing air­planes and play­ing polo. Com­bine that with being mar­ried to a ter­rif­ic woman—and what more can any man ask?”

KaiserWe hap­py few who knew him all remem­ber some inci­dent, a kind­ness graced with the cour­tesy of a past gen­er­a­tion, going far beyond the nor­mal calls of acquain­tance­ship. In the midst of all the trib­utes paid to him, I know the epi­taph Dutch would have cho­sen for him­self: “He was a good auto­mo­bile man.”

The Packard Adventures of Howard A. “Dutch” Darrin, Part 2

The Packard Adventures of Howard A. “Dutch” Darrin, Part 2

A chance met­ing with Dar­ryl Zanuck brought Dar­rin back to America—at exact­ly the right time. The cus­tom coach­build­ing busi­ness was wan­ing, semi-cus­toms were in, and Packard need­ed a new body style. Con­tin­ued from Part 1

Part 2

Excerpt: For full text and illus­tra­tions and a ros­ter of Packard Dar­rins, see The Auto­mo­bile, May 2017. To order, click here.

Dar­rin fre­quent­ly hob­nobbed with the Good and the Great. One day in 1934, at the Paris Polo Club, a club direc­tor approached: “There’s an Amer­i­can out on the play­ground with a horse and polo mal­let; please see if you can help him.” Dutch went out and met film pro­duc­er Dar­ryl Zanuck—who invit­ed him to Hol­ly­wood. Lady Luck had struck again.

Ever the show­man, Dar­rin arrived in Hol­ly­wood fly­ing a de Hav­il­land Puss Moth he’d shipped over from Europe, plas­tered with the leg­ends “Paris,” “Lon­don,” “New York,” “South Bend”—even though he’d not flown transat­lantic. “Every­one knew it was a gag,” Dutch recalled, “but it was all fun…. To be enter­tained by Dar­ryl Zanuck was an expe­ri­ence I will nev­er for­get, and prob­a­bly the rea­son I decid­ed to return to Amer­i­ca in 1937. The polo in Cal­i­for­nia was pret­ty good, too.”

Iden­ti­fy­ing him­self as “Dar­rin of Paris,” and deploy­ing a French accent when­ev­er he felt the need to impress, Dar­rin got right to work. His first project was a two-seater sport con­vert­ible on a Ford chas­sis, for Welsh crick­et star Per­cy Mor­gan; then a Packard con­vert­ible with cut­away doors and a long hood, for actor Dick Pow­ell. Soon he hired two gift­ed crafts­men, Paul Erdos and Rudi Stoes­sel; they rent­ed a large build­ing on Sun­set Strip, and began “prod­i­fy­ing” cars for Hol­ly­wood soci­ety.

The Darrin Packards

Darrin
The rak­ish beau­ty of the Packard Dar­rin was achieved with remark­ably lit­tle struc­tur­al changes. (Hem­mings Motor News)

The age of full-cus­tom bod­ies was wan­ing. Dutch decid­ed to build “semi-cus­tom” Packards, which were rel­a­tive­ly inex­pen­sive yet dis­tinct. Packard’s clas­sic styling and “parthenon” grille were the right start­ing points. He sold the first Packard Dar­rin to actor Dick Pow­ell in late 1937. Dutch learned a great deal from the car, which had too much body flex and suf­fered from nigh-uncon­trol­lable water leaks. Rudi Stoes­sel sealed the leaks and fit­ted a cast alu­minum cowl to cope with the flex prob­lem.

Despite Stoessel’s fix, con­tro­ver­sy con­tin­ues over the Packard Darrin’s struc­tur­al rigid­i­ty. Pierre de Beau­mont, a Packard engi­neer, said the com­pa­ny had to pro­duce kits to improve the frontal strength, since Dutch had removed the radi­a­tor cra­dle to low­er the grille. But there is no doubt that they were spec­tac­u­lar look­ing cars, cer­tain­ly among the most exot­ic of the semi-cus­toms.

Production Darrins

Darrin
Con­cept draw­ing of the Dar­rin sport sedan. They built only a few of these dra­mat­ic mod­els.

They built about twen­ty Packard Dar­rins in 1938-39. A keen recep­tion con­vinced Packard to offer reg­u­lar pro­duc­tion mod­els in 1940. Dutch built them at the idle Auburn plant in Con­nersville, Indi­ana. Packard Chair­man Alvan Macauley insist­ed he use the Super Eight chas­sis for pres­tige and prof­it, though Con­nersville did turn out a few One Twen­tys. The cat­a­logued mod­els were a con­vert­ible vic­to­ria, four-door con­vert­ible and four-door sport sedan.

Pro­duc­tion for 1940 com­prised five four-door con­vert­ibles and forty vic­to­rias. For 1941-42, fifty more vic­to­rias were built by Say­ers & Scov­ille in Cincin­nati before World War II shut down pro­duc­tion. In all, Dutch built about 150 Packard Dar­rins. Noth­ing became him as those glam­orous cars, sleek and low-slung, sans run­ning boards and bright­work. At one time or anoth­er Clark Gable, Car­ole Lom­bard, Ann Sheri­dan, Gary Coop­er and Errol Fly­nn owned one.

Darrin’s Clipper

Darrin
A col­lec­tor recre­at­ed Darrin’s Clip­per, built for Errol Fly­nn, with the fend­er sweep wash­ing out behind the front door, as Dutch had wished. (Pho­to­graph by Rex Gray – Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

Nine­teen forty brought a chance to design for mass pro­duc­tion: the Packard Clip­per. Packard want­ed a new, mod­ern body. Dutch pro­duced a dra­mat­ic clay mod­el. Brig­gs Body Com­pa­ny had the pro­duc­tion con­tract, and Alex Tremulis, then with Brig­gs, accom­pa­nied chief design­er John Tjaar­da to see it. Tremulis told this writer:

I won the guess­ing game by say­ing it had all the fin­ger­prints of Dutch. There was the down­ward-swept belt­line and blind quar­ter, with a notch­back roof flow­ing into an ele­gant­ly swept rear end, with a front fend­er flow that washed itself out on the front door at the char­ac­ter­is­tic angle.

Darrin
My friend Jeff God­shall drew this con­cept of a facelift­ed Clip­per, which would have bet­tered what Packard actu­al­ly built in the 1948-50 mod­el years. (The Packard Cor­morant)

Body engi­neers made some changes, the most seri­ous of which was fore­short­en­ing the sweep of the front fend­ers to wash out on the front doors, which pre­dictably incurred Dutch’s wrath. But there was no doubt that he had suc­cess­ful­ly trans­lat­ed Packard’s design hall­marks from the upright style of the 1930s to the enve­lope body. Packard should have kept the orig­i­nal Clip­per shape, instead of load­ing on sheet met­al for the “preg­nant ele­phant” cars of 1948-50.

con­tin­ued in Part 3.

All the Luck: Howard A. “Dutch” Darrin, Part 1

All the Luck: Howard A. “Dutch” Darrin, Part 1

DarrinDutch Dar­rin was supreme­ly lucky—and one of the most charm­ing things about him was that he nev­er ceased say­ing so.

Part 1

Excerpt only. For full text and illus­tra­tions and a ros­ter of Packard Dar­rins, see The Auto­mo­bile, May 2017. To order, click here.

Look­ing back on the pre­vi­ous cen­tu­ry, the his­to­ri­an Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. reflect­ed that indi­vid­u­als do make a dif­fer­ence: “In Decem­ber 1931 Churchill, cross­ing Fifth Avenue in New York City, looked in the wrong direc­tion and was knocked down by an auto­mo­bile. Four­teen months lat­er Franklin Roo­sevelt was fired on by an assassin….Would the next two decades have been the same had the car killed Churchill in 1931 and the bul­let killed Roo­sevelt in 1933?”

Auto­mo­tive his­to­ry is replete with reminders of Schlesinger’s axiom. It is cer­tain, for exam­ple, that the his­to­ry of Packard would have been less glo­ri­ous with­out the Dar­rin Packards. Were it not for Dutch Darrin’s gar­ru­lous, quar­rel­some, self-pro­mot­ing per­sis­tence with a con­ser­v­a­tive man­age­ment, they would not exist. I do not of course com­pare him with glob­al fig­ures like Churchill—but the auto world with­out him would be a poor­er place.

“A Little Dutchman”

Born in Cran­ford, New Jer­sey in 1897, Dutch (nick­named when his father said he looked “like a lit­tle Dutch­man”) man­i­fest­ed an ear­ly inter­est in motor­ized transport—newer then than the Inter­net is today. A friend of his father’s found­ed Auto­mo­bile Top­ics, and took him on a ten-year-old dogs­body; young Howard pur­sued tech­ni­cal train­ing and joined West­ing­house, who also hap­pened to be work­ing for John North Willys, America’s num­ber two car pro­duc­er.

Willys, Dutch learned, was look­ing for an auto­mat­ic gearshift—the very thing for car buy­ers going horse­less for the first time. Dutch so per­suad­ed Mr. Willys that he could build one that he sent him a car. Real­iz­ing he knew “noth­ing what­so­ev­er about build­ing an elec­tric gearshift,” he eye­balled the trans­mis­sion, and cob­bled togeth­er two small elec­tric motors acti­vat­ed by but­tons on the steer­ing col­umn. The gad­get actu­al­ly worked. Willys hoped to mass-pro­duce it in 1917, but tabled it when pro­duc­tion was cut as Amer­i­ca entered the Great War. “Dis­as­ter is my busi­ness,” Dutch quipped lat­er. In fact, luck was with him: much greater things lay in store.

In ear­ly 1918 Dar­rin joined the U.S. Air Ser­vice, fly­ing com­bat mis­sions over France, part of a force that shot down 756 ene­my air­craft. Dis­charged, he returned to New Jer­sey and found­ed Aero Lim­it­ed, America’s first sched­uled air­line. Con­nect­ing Atlantic City with Flori­da and Nas­sau, he used a fleet of con­vert­ed army-sur­plus fly­ing boats. Then he pur­chased a pair of Delage chas­sis and built his first cus­tom bod­ies, sell­ing one to singer Al Jol­son. That, he decid­ed, was more fun and more prof­itable than the air­line business—and gave him more time to play polo, which he loved. Luck­i­ly he met Tom Hib­bard, founder of LeBaron, the dis­tin­guished coach­builder whose bod­ies graced the finest mar­ques of Europe and Amer­i­ca.

Hibbard & Darrin

Darrin
This atyp­i­cal­ly rak­ish 1927 Rolls-Royce
Phan­tom I is a fine exam­ple of ear­ly Hib­bard
& Dar­rin coach­work. (The Auto­mo­bile)

Both Fran­cophiles, Dar­rin and Hib­bard wished to seek their for­tunes in Paris, a city attempt­ing to reestab­lish the Belle Époque after five years of World War I. Dutch want­ed to open a Min­er­va deal­er­ship, using its chas­sis to mount cus­tom bod­ies for vis­it­ing Amer­i­cans. Min­er­va was sell­ing only a hand­ful of cars in France, but the young entre­pre­neurs con­vinced the Bel­gian com­pa­ny that their plan would work. In 1922 they found­ed Hib­bard & Dar­rin coach­works. Rent­ing a show­room, they dec­o­rat­ed it with fine paint­ings and tapes­tries, bor­rowed from Paris antique deal­ers with the promise of pub­lic­i­ty. At the age of 25, Dutch was a coachbuilder—more or less.

“Believe me, we weren’t genius­es,” Dar­rin said. “We thought ideas should be young, and old cus­toms dis­re­gard­ed.” H&D min­i­mized struc­tur­al wood, which they con­sid­ered old-fash­ioned. In 1929 they intro­duced a new alu­mini­um alloy, Alpax, from which they made thin, light alu­minum body sheet­ing called Sty­lent­lyte, to enable more elab­o­rate and rak­ish body styling. Hib­bard and Dar­rin soon con­sult­ed for the world’s top man­u­fac­tur­ers: GM’s Al Sloan, Stutz’s Fred Moscov­ics, Louis Renault, Sir Hen­ry Royce, André Cit­röen, Sir John Sid­de­ley.

In Paris Dutch made con­tacts with key Amer­i­cans, friends he would rely on lat­er. When Edsel Ford dropped by to order six cus­tom Lin­colns, Dar­rin harangued him about redesign­ing the Mod­el T. Affront­ed, Edsel insist­ed the Tin Lizzy would nev­er change. Two years lat­er, after Ford had lost mil­lions stop­ping “T” pro­duc­tion while tool­ing up for the Mod­el A, Edsel said, “Dutch, why didn’t you hit me over the head with your polo mal­let?”

Fernandez & Darrin

Darrin
Fer­nan­dez & Dar­rin built this attrac­tive coach­work on a Rolls-Royce 20/25 in 1934. With its first own­er, the Comtesse Char­lotte van Lim­burg-Stirum. (The Auto­mo­bile)

Tom Hib­bard was also mak­ing friends, and because of Dutch’s colour­ful sales­man­ship, Detroit moguls tend­ed to regard Tom as the design­er of the duo. In late 1931, the Depres­sion cut into the cus­tom body busi­ness. Hib­bard returned home to work for Gen­er­al Motors. Dutch stuck it out, team­ing with the banker J. Fer­nan­dez, who offered him a mod­ern fac­to­ry and a beau­ti­ful show­room on the Champs Elysées. Lack­ing funds, Hib­bard & Dar­rin had always made their clients sup­ply their own chas­sis; Fer­nan­dez enabled Dar­rin to buy chas­sis out­right. Dutch also con­tin­ued to con­sult with vol­ume man­u­fac­tur­ers. For André Cit­roen in 1932, he built a pro­to­type for the 1934 Trac­tion Avant, first car with a mass-pro­duced unit body.

con­tin­ued in Part 2