Photos by Pino Ruggiero
Donald Dettore figures he’s had his eye on his 1954 Kaiser-Darrin roadster for about five decades, give or take a year or two. For most of that time, he tracked the car from afar as it changed owners multiple times. When he finally had his chance to bring home his own copy of the famous, and some would say star-crossed, two-seater, there was no hesitation.
“I followed the car for about 35 years,” admitted Dettore, a retired physician from Hinsdale, Ill. “It was picked up by a friend of ours on the East Coast, and the car was a blue metallic color. He eventually died and the car went into his estate and was purchased by a buddy of mine — and most Kaiser-Frazer guys in the Midwest — George Buchinger. George never really did anything with the car… It just sat. It was kind of in disarray, but everything was there.
“Then when he died in 1990, I picked up the car from his son. I got my ’51 Frazer Manhattan the same way.”
Since there were only 435 built, any Darrin is unique, but Dettore’s roadster is particularly unusual because it wears a fiberglass hardtop — a sort of pseudo aftermarket accessory that wasn’t officially offered by the factory, but that was actually designed by the car’s famed architect, Howard “Dutch” Darrin. The story goes that Darrin made molds for the tops and kept them at his shop in California. Eventually, the molds were sold to a Chicago man and his son, who produced a small number of the lids.
Dettore liked the idea and the look of the fiberglass top, and he keeps his on the car nearly all the time, even though the Darrins came with a soft convertible top that could actually be fixed in two positions. That gives Dettore a bunch of options if he wants to change the look of his Darrin. “All the hardtops of the Darrins were black. It changes the lines of the whole car,” he said. “Those of us who know the Darrins know Dutch Darrin made some of these hardtops that were a little longer than some of the other ones, and I have one of the longer ones… There are only about five of them that I know of in the United States right now, and most of them are hidden. There is one in California — it’s a red Darrin with a black top. And I know there is one on the East Coast. Nobody has one around the Midwest at all.
“It really does change the car. It doesn’t really disturb the car because you just set it on top of the vehicle, and you can take it off the car like a Corvette or Thunderbird, and it’s easy to handle. With a regular convertible Darrin, you can have the top halfway up in the tonneau position with the area over the seats exposed… So you’ve really got three ways to look at the Darrins themselves, and when you have the hardtop, that really makes it four cars in one.”
Dettore knows he’s one of the lucky ones that has gotten a second chance when it comes to Darrins. He had another one years ago and wished later he had never sold it. “I had one back when I was in medical school,” he recalled. “I should have kept that car, but you go through things as time goes by and you look back and wish you would have kept things, you know?
“A guy gave me $10,000 and a Lincoln Continental. It must have been around ’76. I had a series of cars in between, but couldn’t quite find one to buy. They’ve gotten harder to find.”
The Darrins, of course, are some of the most memorable, interesting and short-lived “orphans” ever born in U.S. auto factories. Dutch Darrin had been designing cars over the years for Kaiser and on his own time, worked up a prototype of a fiberglass two-seat car that he was convinced could shake up the U.S. car market. In January of 1954, the car was made available for sale, and though it was beautiful, cool and cutting edge, the Darrin never caught on, and didn’t survive to make it to a second model year.
The Darrin barely beat the Corvette to market, but where the ’Vette had Chevrolet and GM standing behind it, the Darrin had financially strapped Kaiser, and the company did not have the time, or finances, to see the Darrin through its rocky beginnings. Dettore is one of those guys who figures if more Americans had given the cars a try when they were new, the Darrin’s fate may have been different. He liked the cars when they were young, and his opinion hasn’t changed.
“It’s easy to drive, and it sits really low,” Dettore noted. “With the door open — and you can drive it with the door open — it’s like a motorcycle. The ride isn’t as harsh as you’d think. It’s not as smooth as a [Jaguar] XKE, but the XKE, of course, is 10 years younger.
“They’re fun cars and you can drive them at highway speeds. You can drive them 70, that’s no problem. They’ll top out at 90, 95, and they get excellent gas mileage. Oh, and with 161 cubic inches and overdrive, the acceleration and throttle response is almost instantaneous. She goes up to 3,000 [rpm] immediately.”
The Willys six-cylinder breathed through a one-barrel carburetor and was rated at 90 hp. This modest output was mated to a three-speed manual with overdrive. The top speed was about 95 mph.
The exterior was where the Darrins were particularly interesting, however. The low-slung body was made of molded fiberglass — the first American car to feature fiberglass construction, and the radical doors slid forward into the front fenders — another first in the U.S. car world. A tiny, “puckered mouth” fan-shaped grille was truly a unique touch — and a far cry from the Corvette’s toothy front end.
The cars were built on the same chassis that had been introduced in 1951 on the Henry J model and were assembled in Kaiser’s Jackson, Mich., facility. The wheelbase was 100 inches, and the cars stretched 184 inches from tip to tip. Overall weight was 2,176 lbs.
Hydraulic drum brakes did the stopping at all four corners. Suspension was handled by a live axle and leaf springs in back, and coil springs in front.
Dettore’s car had been driven sparingly over the years and didn’t need a lot of work when he finally bought it. The bad news was that it had been a bit neglected, he said. He opted to return the Darrin to its factory white exterior and red interior after he took ownership. He also had some wear and tear on the fiberglass body repaired. “It was never in a wreck or anything, but it was put aside and nobody ever touched it,” he said. “It had some fiberglass cracks that I repaired.
“We had to go through it. You have to pull the engine and check it all out and put it all back together. Then you do the overdrive transmission, the brakes and brake lines… I had to have a new latch made for the hood because it was frozen from sitting. It has the original interior in it, which I’ve babied along.”
Dettore pretty much “babies” everything on his Darrin these days. The car has only 30,000-plus miles on it, and he doesn’t add much to the odometer. “I take it out on dry, sunny days only,” he laughs. “I always have it out on the Fourth of July because we have a parade that always goes right by, and I have it out in the yard.
“I don’t throw it out on the road like I used to. They’ve gotten too valuable. You hate to have them out in traffic too much.
“I don’t let too many people drive it, but I’ve had a lot of fun with it. People are always impressed with it … then when you show them the sliding doors, they’re doubly impressed!”
If you don’t subscribe to Old Cars Weekly magazine, you’re missing out on the only weekly magazine in the car hobby. And we’ll deliver 54 issues a year right to your mailbox every week for less than the price of a oil change! Click here to see what you’re missing with Old Cars Weekly!
Got a car you’d like us to feature as our “Car of the Week“? We want to hear from you! E-mail us and tell us all about it.
The Big Book is back! Get your copy of the ultimate auto reference book: Standard Catalog of American Cars: 1805-1942
The Old Cars Nation!