Q: Dear Greg, I enjoy reading your articles in Auto Round-Up
every two weeks. In 1982, I was in Hastings, NE, visiting a former US Navy shipmate of mine. While there he took me to visit a friend of his that had a welding shop.
During this visit the owner took us out to see his antique car collection that he had accumulated over the years. Most of them were of Kaiser manufactured cars, including four complete and running Kaiser Darrin fiberglass-bodied sports cars.
The doors slid into the front fender, which I had never seen before or since. He said that only a few hundred were manufactured. Can you tell me more about these Kaiser Darrin fiberglass body sport cars? Gordon D. Clark, Forest Lake, PA.
A: Gordon, I’d be glad to as I also had a similar experience when my friends and I visited a car collector’s collection in Ohio. But he only had one Kaiser Darrin!
To be specific on your question, the 1954 Kaiser Darrin was the brainchild of the late Howard Darrin, Kaiser's chief designer and personal friend of Henry J. Kaiser. Darrin created a clay model in 1952 with full backing from Kaiser, and worked with his son in California on the car. The duo selected the company's Henry J chassis and a 90-horsepower Willys 161-inch six-cylinder engine for power.
As you note, the Darrin was produced for only one year in 1954 and only 430 Kaiser Darrins were ever built. Rumors have five 1953 pre-production models assembled, although only one pre-production model has even been documented.
Ultramodern for its day in every sense of the word, Darrins featured a two-seat fiberglass body, Cyclops style front grille, thee sliding forward doors you note, one piece tinted windshield with wipers and washers and a three-position Landau hood (to name but a few of Darrin's many innovations). It is regarded as one of America's most unique sports cars, and only one year behind the introduction of the 1953 Corvette. Only four colors were initially available: off-white, light green, red and yellow. Later in the year, special order colors were accepted.
Sadly, Kaiser gave up on automobile production in mid-1954 to concentrate on "non-car" vehicles. Darrin himself purchased the last 100 Kaiser Darrins from Kaiser-Willys, and then added way more power to the remaining Darrins by ordering and installing powerful 331-inch Cadillac V8 engines. He sold the remaining V8 Darrins through his personally owned dealership in Los Angeles, CA.
The V8-powered Darrin could do 145 mph, and sold for $4,400 while the 90-horsepower version, which could do just over 90-mph top speed, sold for $3,600. Also, two of the production 1954 models came equipped with supercharged 6-cylinder engines, making it a fast sports car and extremely rare.
Car collectors lucky to own a Kaiser Darrin have a very unique piece of automotive history on their hands, be it a 6-cylinder or the V8. As for current prices at Mecum and Barrett-Jackson auctions, 6-cylinder original to fully restored Darrins can go from $90,000 to $150,000 or more. As for the supercharged Darrin, one went for $220,000 at a Barrett-Jackson Auction back in 2010. I’m waiting for a V8 Darrin to cross the national auctions one day in 2014, and feel it could bring $250,000 to $300,000, maybe more. (My personal opinion.)
Experts say 300 Darrins remain in the hands of serious car collectors, so keep your eye open for Darrins at upcoming Mecum or Barrett-Jackson auctions.