1954 Kaiser-Barrin DFK-161 Review

1954 Kaiser-Barrin DFK-161 - The first American sports car?


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The stunning 1954 Kaiser-Darrin DKF-161 sports car is one of those rare autos that doesn't look like anything else, with its long, sleek hood, a small and exquisite "pursed-lips" grille, sliding doors and three-position folding top. The beautifully proportioned two-seater also had tapering rear fenders and large teardrop taillights that smoothly blended with its lines. The grille looked like it "wanted to give you a kiss," one car designer quipped. Laudau irons let the folding softtop be locked in an intermediate position, leaving the rear section erect for open-air driving without rear drafts.

The Kaiser-Darrin's picture was put on U.S. postage stamps several years ago; an honor shared with only a few other classic American sports cars. In fact, most of the 435 Kaiser-Darrins built reportedly survive because it had a then-novel no-rust fiberglass body, rugged engine and strong frame. And it never was a car you wanted to throw away. Most were sold in California, so many are in better-than-average condition.

The Kaiser-Darrin was called the "Sports Car The World Has Been Waiting For" when it was shown in prototype form in late 1952 -- shortly before America's first major sports car, the Chevrolet Corvette, was unveiled as a fiberglass-body auto show car. But problems related to the decline of the Kaiser-Darrin's producer--the Kaiser-Frazer Corp (called Kaiser Motors near its end) -- delayed the car's arrival in showrooms until early 1954.

Headed by U.S. industrial tycoon Henry J. Kaiser, Kaiser-Frazer was a full-line automaker started just after World War II and was known for innovative, sharply-designed full-size family cars, besides one of the country's first small economy cars -- the appropriately named 1951-54 Henry J. The automaker initially was successful, but giant U.S. car producers eventually caused Henry J. Kaiser to quit the auto business in America in 1955. That gave the Kaiser-Darrin a very short life.

You could have bought a Kaiser-Darrin for a fairy low price in the 1960s, when it was largely forgotten. However, its median price is $332,500 to $425,500 says the Sports Car Market price guide.

The auto's colorful designer was Howard "Dutch" Darrin. He was a design consultant to nearly every major automaker, from Packard and General Motors -- to Kaiser-Frazer, where he helped design its best-looking family cars. Darrin, a New Jersey native, was a worldly wise bon vivant and champion polo player. He left his successful Paris auto customizing operation because movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck told him that polo was better in California.

Darrin -- also a top salesman -- soon made friends with Hollywood's free-spending movie crowd and designed and sold them his customized cars. He set up his own design facility on Hollywood's Sunset Strip. Those autos had Darrin's trademark body beltline "dip," where the front fenders met the rear ones at the door edges. Packard -- one of the most prestigious major automakers of the 1930s -- even sold Darrin's thoughtfully restyled Packards, at the urging of Packard dealers.

The Kaiser-Darrin was a tougher sell, although Henry J. Kaiser liked Darrin.

Sports cars were new to America in the 1950s and were mostly British. But Darrin was a visionary who correctly predicted there would be a lucrative market for U.S. sports cars. He felt such a car would help Henry J. Kaiser's faltering auto operation. So, he developed a sports car on his own time, with his own money. It had a fiberglass body because Darrin had designed one of the first cars ever built from fiberglass, a slick 1940s convertible. After finishing his sports car, which utilized a used Henry J chassis, Darrin invited Kaiser and his wife and son to look at the auto in late 1952, when it was nearly ready for display at a Los Angeles auto show.

"Dutch, what's the idea?" Kaiser snapped after seeing at the car. "Who authorized this? We're not in the business of building sports cars." But Kaiser's new wife (his first had died) saved the day. "Henry," she said. "This is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen." She told her husband that an automaker should build a variety of models, including a sports car.

Kaiser and his son soon agreed. Darrin, of course, quickly explained that he'd built the car on his own time, using his own money. Accustomed to dealing with wealthy, powerful clients, Darrin immediately delivered a sales pitch for his car that even left Henry J. Kaiser considering a four-passenger version.

Kaiser executives had a hard time finding a name for the new car. Most voted to call it "DKF" for Darrin, Kaiser, Frazer. But Henry J. Kaiser then quietly said he hadn't voted, which shut everyone up. "We're calling it the Kaiser-Darrin," he said, with a wink at Darrin. And that was that.

Besides the "Darrin dip," the Kaiser-Darrin had long, forward-jutting front fenders to house the Darrin-patented sliding doors he felt were more sensible than regular swing-out doors. (Chrysler minivans would use sliding doors, decades later.) The fiberglass body came from Glasspar, a pioneer in the use of fiberglass for specialized cars.

Like many popular foreign sports cars, the Kaiser-Darrin had bucket seats, full sports-car instrumentation and a floor shifter. The Kaiser-Darrin's thickly padded dashboard was an unusual safety feature for the early 1950s, and it was only the second U.S. car (behind Nash) to have seatbelts.

The car's Henry J chassis was rugged, and the prototype had a sturdy 80-horsepower Henry J inline six-cylinder engine. About 100 were ordered with a few custom features, but the only paint colors were Champagne (an off-white), Pine Tint (light green), Red Sail and Yellow Satin.

To help his company survive, Henry J. Kaiser bought Willys, another independent automaker, so the Henry J. engine was replaced in the production Kaiser-Darrin by the more powerful, 90-horsepower Willys inline six-cylinder.

Because the car only weighed 2,175 pounds, acceleration was lively enough for the time with the standard three-speed manual overdrive transmission. And it delivered 30 mpg. But the Kaiser-Darrin was more of a stylish cruiser than an outright sports car, with plenty of luggage space. And it could hit nearly 100 mph.

Darrin was the country's top Kaiser-Darrin dealer, working from his Hollywood shop, so he bought about 50 leftover models after finding more than 100 indifferently laying around getting weather-beaten at the factory when the automaker folded. Kaiser-Darrin production had ended in mid-1954.

At $3,668, the car cost a few bucks more than its chief rival, the Corvette and nearly as much as an entry level Cadillac Series 62 sedan.

The price discouraged some potential buyers. Moreover, by 1954, many car buyers weren't sure that Henry J. Kaiser could keep his auto company alive. The Corvette came from huge General Motors, which dominated the market.

Darrin sold them all through 1957 at his shop, equipping a few with a sleek removable fiberglass hardtop he designed. He also installed power-boosting superchargers on some to get 135 horsepower and a 304-horsepower Cadillac V-8 in others. The V-8 models sold for $4,350 and had a top speed of nearly 140 mph.

Mrs. Briggs Cunningham, wife of wealthy auto racer and low-volume sports car builder Briggs Cunningham, raced a Caddy powered Kaiser-Darrin with fair success on a few Sports Car Club of America tracks. She took first in class in one road race and second overall at a New York hillclimb event.

Henry J. Kaiser's company produced a good number of innovative autos, but the Kaiser-Darrin is the most prized of all. They'll never build anything like it again.

Dan Jedlicka

Dan Jedlicka's Website

Dan Jedlicka joined the Chicago Sun-Times in February 1968 as a business news reporter and was named auto editor later that year. He has reviewed more than 4,000 new vehicles for the Sun-Times--far more than any newspaper auto writer in the country. Jedlicka also reviewed vehicles for Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Autos Internet site from January, 1996, to June, 2008.

Jedlicka remained auto editor at the Sun-Times until October, 2008, and continued writing for the newspaper's AutoTimes section, which he started in 1992, until February, 2009. While continuing his auto writings at the Sun-Times, he served as assistant financial editor of that newspaper from 1970 to 1973, when he began his automotive column.

He has appeared on numerous radio and television shows, including NBC's "Today," ABC's "20/20" and "The CBS Evening News." He was a host, consultant and writer for Fox-TV Channel 32's 1991 New Car Preview show and that Chicago-based station's 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995 Chicago Auto Show Previews.

Jedlicka's auto articles have been printed in national magazines, including Esquire and Harper's. His auto columns have been reprinted in U.S. government publications and economic textbooks and he is profiled in the "World's Greatest Auto Show" history book about the Chicago Auto Show. In late 1975, Jedlicka was host and technical advisor for three one-hour television specials, "Auto Test 76," which aired nationally on PBS and were the first nationally televised auto road test shows.

In 1995, Jedlicka was the recipient of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois Inc.'s Consumer Education Award, given annually to a person who has gained distinction in the field of consumer education. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Media category and inducted into the Legends of Motorsports Guild at the Carquest World of wheels custom car show in Chicago in January, 2006.

Jedlicka was a member of the North American Car and Truck of the Year jury, composed of a select number of auto journalists from throughout the country, from 1995 until 2009. From 2010 to 2012, he was a member of Consumer Digest magazine's auto experts panel that gave Best Buy new vehicle recommendations.

He is a 1987 graduate of the Bob Bondurant Race Drivers School and later of the BMW "M" and Skip Barber Advanced Driving schools. He was a member of the U.S. team that participated in the 1987 1,000-mile Mille Miglia race/rally in Italy and has been a race winner at the Chicago area's Santa Fe Speedway.

Jedlicka has owned 25 classic cars, including 1950s and 1960s Ferraris and 1950s and 1960s Porsches, a 1965 Corvette, a 1967 Maserati and a 1957 Studebaker supercharged Golden Hawk. Jedlicka resides with his wife, Suzanne, in the Frank Lloyd Wright historic district of Oak Park. They have two children, James and Michele.

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