Disappearing Doors: 1954 Kaiser Darrin – SOLD!

by | Feb 2023 | Craigslist ClassiFINDS, Topless Thursday

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February 12, 2023 Update – The seller had this Kaiser Darrin listed briefly on Craigslist for $99,900 before getting the car listed on Bring a Trailer.  The car sold for $74,500 on that website, much lower than the six-figure results of similar examples on that site.

Automobile manufacturers historically develop and build limited-production “Halo” cars to increase dealer showroom traffic.  The theory is that if consumers visit the dealership to see the halo car, many will be convinced to buy the carmaker’s regular production models. The independent domestic automaker Kaiser Motors subscribed to that theory when, with the encouragement of Henry J. Kaiser’s wife, launched the stylish and innovative 1954 Darrin 161 sports car.  A variety of factors detailed below ended up limiting the Darrin’s production run to just one model year and only 435 units.

One of those 435 1954 Kaiser Darrin sports cars was listed on Craigslist in January 2023 in Magnolia, Texas (Houston) before the seller could get it listed for auction on Bring a Trailer.    A pretty satin yellow example (one of only four colors offered), the seller reports everything works, including the overdrive transmission. The seller also completed a tune-up and several other key component rebuilds to prepare for the sale.

Currently offered for $99,000, Classic.com, the analytics and search engine for the collector car market, confirms the ask falls within the one-year low ($35,000) and high ($137,500) range of this guide’s summary for 1954 Kaiser Darrins.  By clicking on the green dots in the graph below, you can navigate to each comparable car sold as a way to help you evaluate the price of the yellow satin example featured here:

As a second data point, the  Collector Car Market Review Online Tool reveals the seller’s ask falls between this guide’s #2 Very Good” estimate of $91,500 and its #1 “Excellent” appraisal of $138,000.

The 1954 Darrin 161 was a two-seat American sports car designed by Howard “Dutch” Darrin for Kaiser Motors. Heavily based on Kaiser’s Henry J compact, the Kaiser Darrin was one of its designer’s final achievements.  Production delays forced the Darrin to be the second fiberglass-bodied American car offered for sale. However, it’s worth noting Kaiser debuted the Darrin prototype at the 1952 Los Angeles Motorama, two months before Chevrolet introduced its fiberglass-bodied Corvette.

American manufacturers took notice of many returning servicemen purchasing European sports cars following World War II. Dutch Darrin believed that the Henry J he helped design would benefit from a sleeker-bodied sports car version.  Rather than seek Henry J. Kaiser’s approval first, Dutch took the “beg for forgiveness” route by personally funding the project and working on it in his spare time.

While the Darrin featured an attractive design featuring innovative pocket doors and a three-way convertible top, the Willys “Hurricane” inline six the company eventually settled on using was woefully underpowered.  The production complexities of manufacturing the fiberglass body and complex door mechanisms forced Kaiser to offer the Darrin for $3,688.  In 1954, that base price was higher than either Cadillac’s Series 62 or Lincoln’s Capri, though it did offer such luxuries as a tachometer, electric windshield wipers, tinted windshield, windings, and whitewall tires.

Sales proved abysmal due to the high price, slow performance, and a propensity to understeer. Positives included a comfortable ride and great brakes sourced from the company’s Manhattan line.  Despite being very innovative, the Darrin’s pocket doors provided very narrow openings and, in practice, were susceptible to jamming if dirt accumulated in the door tracks.  Making matters worse was a leaky, ill-fitting folding top and side curtains combined with an inadequate heater.

While one could argue the Kaiser 435 launch-year production outpaced the Corvette’s 1953 300-unit production run, Kaiser’s crumbling corporate finances, pending loss of assembly facilities, and even a freak snowstorm reportedly ruined fifty of the cars all conspired to terminate the program after only one year.  Kaiser’s hope that the Darrin would entice dealers to order more of the company’s standard models did not prove true. By early 1954, many Kaiser franchises had either switched to other automakers or had gone out of business. Few ordered any Darrins at all. Since consumer confidence in Kaiser’s future had become low, buyers generally did not want to purchase any Kaiser, let alone one that, while attractive, also seemed impractical and was priced as a luxury item. By 1955 Kaiser exited automobile production entirely.

The Hagerty YouTube Channel features this modern ride-along driving video of the one-year-only 1954 Kaiser Darrin:

This 1954 Kaiser Darrin for sale appears to be a nicely detailed example featuring recent mechanical sorting in preparation for sale.  The interior appears original, but you’ll need to confirm with the seller whether that is the case, along with whether the car has ever been repainted.

Here’s the seller’s description:

“This is a Kaiser Darrin, an American car made for only one year, in 1954. They made 435 of them. This car is in excellent condition and runs and drives well. The paint is excellent but does have some slight flaws. The engine runs well and has good compression. Even the overdrive works. An interesting feature, the doors slide into the fender, they don’t swing open. The body of the car is fiberglass, and this was the first production car with fiberglass it beat the corvette by a month. The convertible top has three positions: up, down, and Targa position.

 

I’ve replaced a lot of parts recently to get it ready for sale:

Four new white wall tires from Coker.
Master Cylinder, all four brake cylinders, and shoes all around.
Spark plug, spark plug wires, points, distributor cap, rotor, and ignition coil.
The radiator has been flushed, new coolant and thermostat replaced. Temp is solid at 170.
The fuel pump has been rebuilt.
The carburetor has been rebuilt.
Oil change and new filter.

My plan is to put it on Bring a Trailer if it doesn’t sell from this ad.​

Show or go: What would you do with this 1954 Kaiser Darrin For Sale?  Please comment below and let us know!

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