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Missed Opportunity: 1954 Kaiser-Darrin

1954 Kaiser Darrin Driver Grill

We have featured a couple of Kaiser-Darrins in the past, but they were all in need of some serious help. It may be a little rough around the edges, but this 1954 Kaiser-Darrin looks complete and should make an excellent restoration candidate or could even be left as-is. These cars were special for so many reasons and we cant help but wonder what they might have been if their weak points would have been addressed before going into production.

1954 Kaiser Darrin Driver Front

Howard Darrin was a talented designer who ran a few coach building firms between the wars. In 1952 he built a fiberglass sports car body which he stuck on a Kaiser Henry J chassis. The Kaiser-Darrin was born and boy, was it innovative. The lightweight fiberglass body was cutting edge for the time and the styling was even more so. The design may not have appealed to everyone’s taste, but we personally wish cars had this much character today.

1954 Kaiser Darrin Driver Sliding Door

We have all witnessed suicide doors and maybe even gull wing doors, but when was the last time you saw sliding doors on a sports car? The sliding doors of the Kaiser-Darrin were one of its most characteristic features. Some buyers were not convinced that the doors made the car worth more than a Cadillac or a Lincoln though. After building 435 cars the factory halted production.

1954 Kaiser Darrin Driver Engine

Here is one of the reasons this car never reached the level of success that it was destined for. Even with its lightweight bodywork and innovative features, customers could just not let go of the fact that this sports car was gutless. It was powered by a 90 horsepower 2.6 litre straight six which was connected to a three-speed manual. This combination only provided subpar performance which was not inline with the overall image of the car.

1954 Kaiser Darrin Driver Rear

We can’t help but wonder what might have happened if Howard had placed a peppier powerplant under his creation. He did give us a glimpse of what things could of been like though. After Kaiser collapsed, Howard purchased the remaining bodies and mated them with 5.5 litre Cadillac V8s. This engine provided the much needed power to make the car a success. In fact, it has been claimed that these cars could reach 135mph and go from 0 to 60mph in 10 seconds. A few of these cars were even successful in racing, but the death blow had already been dealt.

1954 Kaiser Darrin Driver Interior

This particular car is sadly not one of the V8 monsters, but it still represents one of the great production sports cars of the 1950s. It is currently listed for sale here on eBay with the bidding starting at $48,000 and the reserve not met. Unfortunately the seller does not provide much information about the condition of the car. We would highly recommend inspecting this one in person before bidding to confirm the integrity of the body and frame. We would still love to have this sitting in the garage even with the straight-six. Would you be tempted to shove a V8 under the hood after learning what could have been though?


  1. J. Pickett

    Pretty car, Other than getting into a disagreement with Joe Frasier, Henry Kaiser’s biggest mistake in the auto business in my opinion was wasting money developing the Henry J. instead of developing a V8. It was the wrong time for compacts, and the beginning of the horsepower race.

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  2. Bear

    Cool Car!BUT it needs a V8 in it!!I’d pull the stock 6cyl & trans, & drop in a HEMI + 4-speed!!(of course without molesting the body or chassis in any way that would prevent me from perhaps one day returning it to the original configuration…)Store the original parts somewhere safe, and DRIVE THE PISS OUT OF IT!!

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  3. Charles Hixon

    Used the best engine Kaiser had available from the newly acquired Willys with their new F-head engine and had plenty of power compared to other sports cars of the time. The Corvette introduced soon after also had a 6-cylinder but with a 2-speed automatic. The Kaiser-Darrin could out-perform the Corvette.

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  4. Scott

    These cars did not have a three speed automaticThey had three speed manual transmissions with a floor mounted gear shift.Still did not help with the rather anemic 6 cyl power plant.

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  5. Gary

    Someone should reproduce these bodies like the cobras.

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  6. J. Pickett

    3 speed stick with a non-synchro 1st gear does not do well as a sporting trans. Even Austin Healey had a synchro low gear on the 100, Of course that’s because they used a trans totally unsuitable for the car and simply blocked off 1st, because it was too low. So it was with the 55 and 56 vettes. No real potential on track till the 4 speed in 57.

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  7. Barn Finds

    You guys are correct, it was a three-speed manual. The post has been updated. Thanks for catching that.

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  8. Pat

    Put in a 1994-96 Jeep 4.0. Should look close to the same and a bunch more power and torque. I think the bell housing has the same bolt pattern and the EFI is very simple to hook into that old wiring loom if it gets converted to 12 volt….

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  9. gary

    Very nice car ! my aunt worked for a K+F dealer back then and i got to sit in them as a kid never did get a ride though. It was a shame that the motor was such a disappointment performance wise, but as was posted above there was not much out there that would have been a better fit in its day other than maybe the jag six and its 4 speed with overdrive, that would have sold cars lol. the 8’s of the day were way too heavy for the Henry J’s frame,suspension and brakes and it would never had been able to get around a corner.i agree that its a looker and should have been a kit of it.Gary

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  10. J. Pickett

    Sadly most of the engines with any performance potential from the time would have been too heavy. Perhaps he should have gotten together with Powell Crosley and made a v8 out of two of Crosleys ohc fours.

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  11. Gary

    I could see a reproduction body on a tube chassis with Mustang II front end, narrowed 9 inch rear T5 trans and something light under the hood, maybe a Buick 215 Aluminum V8, or a Turbocharged 3800 V6 ? Maybe a SBC with Turbo, or a 4.6 Ford V8 ?

    Like 1
  12. J. Pickett

    The sbc only if it was an aftermarket aluminum unit. A Land Rover v8 pre bmw is a modified Buick 215 Alum. later enlarged to 4.0 by Rover, and used in some Brit sports cars up to 4.5 ltrs and well over 300 hp.

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  13. gary

    that was almost a reality picket ,crosley did have a mirrored block in production for there export models (crosmoblie) and there was a hope that the Austin 4 speed trans was to go in also that may have saved them but sales by 52 were very low but later years saw that motor sold as an opposed flat 8 mostly for use in boats by some one buying the spares after crosley went under .not sure of the name but peek or pike seems to ring a bell. gary

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  14. gary

    that buick 215 would be a very nice fit i think but if your going to update i think a BMW 6 (2,500-3,000 cc)with the suspention,brakes,5 speed trans the whole nut from a donner would be sweet

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  15. Gary

    I wonder who owns the legal rights to those bodies, would make a great kit car. Sure has got my mind working !

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  16. J. Pickett

    When it comes to a kit, those door mechanisms are cool, but would they replicate easily?

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  17. gary

    thats what makes it such a cool car lol .if its worth doing then you will find a way ,hey Darrin figured it out it cant be that hard just copy what he did its already been done.

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  18. carguy455

    Modern slides and roller bearings would probably make a better door nowadays. I bet a reproduction body could be made tighter and better than the origional.

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  19. Fast Eddie

    In 1955-56, I was 15-16 years old and I went with my father to look at one of these cars, as I recall, it was white. He was considering this as a second car that we could share. Didn’t work out, I ended up with with 1953 Dodge Hemi convertible. Three years later the Dodge was traded for my HS graduation present; a white 57 T-Bird.

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  20. Darrin502

    here is my Darrin with a 502 Big Block in it.this is the kind of motor this car should have. http://www.hubgarage.com/mygarage/vehicles/70531/photos/3959053

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  21. Bob Shuman

    I knew Dutch Darrin in California back in the 70’s. I never heard of him being called Howard, it was always Dutch We produced a car show in Pasadena highlighting a couple of dozen of his designs. He had a V-8 Darrin and a Packard Darrin at the show. The show was called “Show Car Finals” and it was in May of ’76. We also held a birthday tribute dinner for Dutch at the Proud Bird Restaurant Sunday, May 16, 1976. Dutch could tell amazing stories and was a fun-loving guy. I have commemorative plaques from both events, and photos of myself, Dutch and co-producer Al Neuman all leaning on Dutch’s Packard Darrin.

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  22. Barn Finds

    That’s great Bob. I would love to see a few of those photos.

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  23. Gary Fogg

    Ya Bob would love to learn more about Dutch, post or email them to us my email is carguy455 at yahooGary

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  24. Marc Purello

    I don’t know how true it is, but one of the reasons Kaiser went under was Henry’s supposed stubborness in not offering a V-8 in all his cars.

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