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. 

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.

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