From Wreck to Riches

W hile reading the March 22 issue of Old Cars, I was surprised to see my Kaiser Darrin as the “Wreck of the Week.” The photos were taken the morning after the wreck. The information with the photo indicates that my brother Paul Benz was the owner and driver. This is incorrect. I have to take credit as the driver. I was also the owner, and the car remains in my possession. I also want to share the rest of the story.

Red & White Darrin, Bob Benz 1963.jpg
The Darrin and Bob Benz before the car accident.

    I was on leave from Lowry Air Force Base in Denver and Aurora, Colo., which accounts for the Colorado license plates. The accident occurred late at night on Route 94, one mile north of Warwick, N.Y., and about a half mile from our family home. This was in the winter of 1963. Another car was pulling out of a side road and was blocking the road. I unsuccessfully attempted to bear left onto that side road. The Darrin nosed into a culvert and twisted end-over-end in a flip, hitting the tree upside down about 6 feet off the ground. Impact with the tree occurred at the left rear wheel (I still have the dented wheel cover). It then pivoted around the tree and fell into the ditch.

Red & White Darrin 1963 wreck, pic 1.jpg

Red & White Darrin 1963 wreck, Bob Benz & onlookers, pic 2.jpg

Red & White Darrin 1963 wreck, Bob Benz & onlooker, pic 4.jpg
In the winter of 1963, Bob Benz rolled his Kaiser Darrin. Remarkably, he was not hurt in the accident, and the Kaiser was saved. After these pictures were taken, the car was stored in a barn, and a body-off-frame restoration ensued. Benz still has the car and is completing its second restoration.

    I feel my life was saved by the seat belts (very unusual in 1963), the fact that the ditch provided extra clearance under the Darrin and a great deal of luck. A bandage on the back of my head and a week of healing was all that it took to get me back in shape. The car was another matter.

    The morning after the accident, we returned with a farm tractor, rolled the car right-side up and towed it home. It was not a pretty sight. However, a Kaiser Darrin is not the type of car that is junked if there is any possibility of saving it, as only 435 were built. It was put into our barn to protect what was left.

    Over the next couple of years, I disassembled it down to the bare frame. The damage was so extensive, there was nothing left on the frame that could be unbolted!

Red & White Darrin 1963 wreck, pic 7.jpg
Even though the Darrin’s fiberglass body was torn up, the cockpit remained intact.

    The frame was taken to a shop and straightened, but the rest of the work was done at a farm. All components were sandblasted and painted. We didn’t have a paint booth, so our method was to “hang it from the maple tree and paint.” Damaged parts were replaced, as were any worn components. Eventually, I had a pretty nice running chassis and a pretty awful body. About that time, I was able to obtain another wrecked Darrin, though it wasn’t damaged nearly as bad as mine.

    I learned a lot more about fiberglass as I repaired the body from the second car, but it was painted at a professional paint shop. By 1968, the restored car was back on the road. The bent frame from the second car and my original badly damaged body were sold. Remarkably, it was also repaired by others and still exists today.

Red & White Darrin as repaired in 1968 [after 1963 wreck].jpg
Following its first restoration in 1968, the car was repainted a dark color, but will soon be returned to its original white color.

    I drove the Darrin as my regular driver for a number of years. With the need for a family car, it was put in a damp storage place where it sat for 19 years. When it next saw the light of day, the motor was stuck, the wheels were stuck and the mice had eaten the upholstery and top. The second restoration was started.

    This restoration has been undertaken at a different barn and a different maple tree, but essentially, the same procedure as the first restoration is being followed. The chassis is now completely rebuilt, painted and running. The project has been on hold for a few years, but with my retirement, more time should allow its completion. It will be returned to the original white with red upholstery and top.

    Those who know Kaiser Darrins will note that the engine is different. The giveaway is in the “before” wreck picture, where an air cleaner can be seen sticking up through the hood. In 1962, the original Willys six-cylinder F-head engine blew up and was replaced with a 1956 Oldsmobile V-8 with a Hydra-Matic transmission, and the rear end was replaced with a Kaiser sedan unit to better handle the increased power. It is not one of the 50 or so Darrins that Howard Darrin built with V-8 engines after Kaiser ceased production. The current restoration is being completed with the Oldsmobile engine. It is the engine that has been in the car for 45 years, and it deserves to stay there. Besides, it makes the car go as fast as it looks, like it should. Hopefully, it will not find any more trees.

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