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. 

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

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

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

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