1954 Kaiser Darrin 161, serial number 161.001001. Photos courtesy Bonhams.
Introduced at the 1952 Petersen Los Angeles Motorama, the Kaiser Darrin was the first fiberglass-bodied convertible sports car from an American manufacturer to make its public debut. Though the Chevrolet Corvette would beat it into dealer showrooms, the Kaiser Darrin was still a bold roll of the dice for independent automaker Kaiser, one that ultimately proved unsuccessful in reversing the company’s fortunes. On January 28, the very first production Kaiser Darrin convertible crossed the auction block in Scottsdale, where it sold for a fee-inclusive price of $198,000.
Based on the compact Henry J, the Kaiser Darrin (or the Kaiser Darrin 161, its official model name) sprung from the drawing board of Howard “Dutch” Darrin, an industrial designer who’d contributed to Packard’s prewar designs before becoming a partner in a Parisian coachbuilder. In 1949, Darrin was hired by Kaiser-Frazer, and soon after began working on a side project that would become the Kaiser Darrin.
Seeing the popularity of sports cars from manufacturers like MG and Jaguar, Darrin believed the time was right for an American equivalent. Working off the clock, Darrin developed the Kaiser Darrin on the Henry J chassis, using the car’s 90hp 161-cu.in. Hurricane inline six-cylinder engine for propulsion. The styling bore a resemblance to Kaiser’s sedans, but the car carried one very unique design trait: Instead of opening outward, the convertible’s pocket doors slid forward, into the front fenders. Its convertible top was unusual as well and could be partially opened to improve ventilation while reducing cabin turbulence.
In late summer 1952, Darrin pitched his sports car prototype to Kaiser management, and it was not well received. Chastised by Henry J. Kaiser for overstepping his bounds, Darrin explained that the car had been developed in his free time, and with his own money. Boldly declaring that he would produce the car with our without Kaiser’s involvement, Darrin found an ally in Henry J. Kaiser’s new wife, who proclaimed it “the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.”
Shortly after, the project was given the green light, and in November of 1952 the Kaiser Darrin 161 made its public debut in Los Angeles, scooping the Chevrolet Corvette by roughly two months. The merger with Willys-Overland would ultimately delay the Kaiser Darrin’s launch until January of 1954, but it isn’t likely this had a significant impact on the car’s ultimate fate.
Though the Kaiser Darrin may have looked like a sports car, its humble origins limited performance. The live axle and leaf spring rear hardly delivered stellar handling, and the four-wheel drum brakes were not designed with track days in mind. Mated to a three-speed manual transmission, the Hurricane six delivered a 0-60 time that ranged from 13.8 seconds (according to Motorsport magazine) to 16.3 seconds (by Motor Life’s stopwatch). Its top speed didn’t even crack the ton, with period tests showing a 98 MPH maximum.
Its pricing wasn’t necessarily attractive, either. At $3,668, the Kaiser Darrin was $145 more than the Corvette, which boasted quicker acceleration and a 106 MPH top speed. The Kasier Darrin was better equipped, and had the automaker been on firmer financial footing, perhaps the comfortable and stylish convertible would have had more of an impact on the market. Instead, it remained in Kaiser’s lineup for just one year, and a mere 435 production examples were assembled in this time. Of these, roughly 280 remain today.
As the first production example, chassis 161.001001 may well be the most historically significant Kaiser Darrin remaining. Shown at the 1953 Los Angeles Auto Show and used in the 1953 Rose Parade, the car was acquired by the Finch family in 1956, and remained in their care until purchased by the consignor in 2013. In 1973, it was restored by Kaiser Darrin expert Buddy Holiday, and in 2013 it was given a fresh restoration that stretched into 2015. Offered for sale at Mecum’s 2015 Monterey auction, the car failed to meet its reserve and was not sold. At Bonham’s 2016 Scottsdale sale, however, the Kaiser Darrin went home with its next steward.
This 1973 BMW 3.0 CSL sold for $341,000.
Lots in the top-10 at Bonhams Scottsdale event included a 2015 McLaren P1, which sold for $2,090,000; a 1962 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Roadster, which sold for $1,485,000; a 1971 Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Daytona Berlinetta, which sold for $1,155,000; a 1928 Mercedes-Benz 630K La Baule Transformable, which sold for $973,500; a 1935 Hispano-Suiza K6 cabriolet, which sold for $869,000; a 1965 Aston Martin DB5 sports saloon, which sold for $781,000; a 1962 Porsche 356 Carrera 2 GS coupe, which sold for $627,000; 1973 Porsche 911 Carrera RS 2.7, which sold for $525,000; a 1955 Aston Martin DB2/4 drophead coupe, which sold for $396,000; and a 1973 BMW 3.0 CSL “Batmobile,” which sold for $341,000.
For complete results from Scottsdale, visit Bonhams.com.