Kaiser Darrin KF-161 Cadillac V8

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Kaiser Darrin


KF-161 Cadillac V8





The Kaiser Darrin, also known as the Kaiser Darrin 161 or in short as the Darrin, was an American sports car designed by Howard "Dutch" Darrin and built by Kaiser Motors in 1954. Essentially a revamp of Kaiser's Henry J compact, the Kaiser Darrin was one of its designer's final achievements and was noted for being the first American car equipped with a fiberglass body and doors that slid on tracks into the front fender wells. The car was named both for Henry J. Kaiser, head of Kaiser Motors, and Darrin.

The Darrin was conceived as part of an movement in Detroit to compete head-to-head with European roadsters being imported to and sold in the United States in the post-World-War-II period. Among other products developed were the Ford Thunderbird in its initial two-seat form and Chevrolet Corvette. While the Darrin was designed attractively, it was also underpowered and, while a good performer overall, did not measure up to foreign vehicles such as the Nash-Healey or Triumph TR2. The Darrin's high price tag, lack of consumer confidence in Kaiser's viability and practical challenges with the car's design resulted in low sales, though sports cars at the time were generally not fast sellers.

Only 435 production Darrins and six prototypes were built. Crumbling corporate finances, pending loss of assembly facilities and a freak snowstorm that reportedly ruined 50 of the cars all conspired to terminate the program. Darrin bought those 50 vehicles and sold those and whatever others Kaiser had left in storage from his Hollywood, California showroom. Many of the cars' engines were retrofitted with superchargers and multiple carburation to improve performance. Six were re-engined with Cadillac Eldorado V-8 units; one of these was reportedly raced.

Along with Darrin's trademark fender line, the Kaiser Darrin had entry doors that, instead of being hinged to open outward, slid on tracks into the front fender wells behind the front wheels. Fueled by Darrin's dislike for conventional doors, the designer had taken out a patent on the sliding auto door concept in 1946. To keep the door assembly as simple as possible, no side windows were built into them. The car was equipped with a three-position Landau top, which was also considered novel, and the design on the whole considered by industry critics and writers as beautifully proportioned. The only flaw was considered the car's front grille. High and shell-shaped, it looked as though the automobile "wanted to give you a kiss," as one writer commented.

As with the prototype, the body for the production Kaiser Darrin was made of fiberglass. More resilient than aluminum, fiberglass did not rot or corrode, was lightweight and more pliable than steel to mold into shape. The molds were far less expensive than the tooling needed to bend and shape steel. This could theoretically make a fiberglass-bodied car economical for a small private manufacturer such as Kaiser to produce. The body was molded in two sections, minus deck lid, doors and hood. Underneath, the frame rails of the Henry J were modified to allow for a lower ride height, the steering ratio altered and the spring and dampening rates changed to match the lighter body. The car was offered initially in four colors—Champagne Lacquer (white), Red Sail Lacquer, Yellow Satin Lacquer, and Pine Tint Lacquer (green)—with lacquer paints specified because fiberglass could not withstand the temperatures needed to bake enamel onto it. Tritt's company, Glasspar, was commissioned to produce bodies for the production model. However, Glasspar produced only a handful of these. The remaining 435 were produced in-house by Kaiser. Glasspar did continue to produce the deck lids (truck, top compartment, and engine hood) and doors.

Several changes were necessitated to put the car into production. Only two of these angered the designer but were deemed necessary to meet vehicle regulations in several states—raising the headlights four inches and adding turn signals below them. Other alterations included separate lids for the trunk and top well instead of the one-piece lid on the prototype, a one-piece windshield without a "sweetheart dip" in place of a split windshield, an amended interior and a dashboard display with the instruments clustered ahead of the steering wheel instead of spread across the panel. Interior features included color-keyed vinyl bucket seats, available in red, white, black, or Pine Tint (green), and a carpeted floor. Seat belts, which were not widely available on American cars at this time, were listed as an option, however, there were no attachment points built into the frame or body.

The prototype Darrin was unveiled to the public in September 1952 (two months before General Motors debuted the Corvette) at the Los Angeles Motorama.

As Kaiser exited the US consumer car market in 1955 it still had a number of Darrins in storage in its remaining facilities. Howard Darrin collected as many of them as he could and, along with the 50 write-offs that he had brought from the Toledo plant, offered them for sale from his Hollywood showroom. He retrofitted the engines of several cars with McCulloch superchargers and multiple carburetors to improve their performance. He replaced the powerplants of six cars with V-8 engines, rated at 305 bhp, used by General Motors for its Cadillac Eldorado. Darrin sold the latter as Kaiser-Darrin Specials.

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