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. 

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.”

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