America's First Fiberglass Sports Car Was a Beautiful Failure

Illustration for article titled Americas First Fiberglass Sports Car Was a Beautiful Failure
Photo: Getty

Quick: what was America’s first fiberglass sports car? If you just said the Corvette, you would be wrong—but don’t worry, it’s a pretty big misconception (although, you’d be correct if you were assuming the first fiberglass sports car on the market). The Kaiser Darrin 161 hit the scene a year before the Corvette, at the 1952 Petersen Los Angeles Motorama.

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As with a lot of really cool cars, the Kaiser Darrin might have had a much different fate if its manufacturer, Kaiser-Frazer, had actually, y’know, had money. According the Hemmings, Kaiser-Frazer was one of the last independent automakers to give the Detroit “Big Three” some competition.

This beauty was designed by Howard “Dutch” Darrin in his California studio out of a collection of parts that would have made it something special indeed. It used the Kaiser 100-inch Henry J chassis that was fitted with a pretty low horsepower Willys side-valve engine—at 161 cubic inches, this six-cylinder bad boy only produced a whopping 90 horsepower.

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But it was a damn light car (only 2,200 pounds) which meant its zero to sixty mph time was 15.1 seconds. With a top speed of just shy of 100 miles per hour, this wasn’t going to be setting any land speed records any time soon—but it was certainly a beauty to look at.

Illustration for article titled Americas First Fiberglass Sports Car Was a Beautiful Failure
Photo: John Lloyd (Wikimedia)

With low-slung curves and a puckered-kiss fender that could rival Bettie Page and paint jobs that matched all over the car (and I’m talking all over, interior, exterior, and cloth convertible top), it was guaranteed to be a show stopper no matter where you took it. But it also had one unique feature: its sliding doors. Yes, folks. Sliding doors. You’d quite literally slide the door forward into the front fender, which is the coolest damn thing I’ve ever heard. And, its convertible top had three positions: totally down, totally up, or in an intermediate position, which is incredibly classy. I’m having genuine fantasies about me behind the wheel of one of these bad boys, convertible top halfway up.

Illustration for article titled Americas First Fiberglass Sports Car Was a Beautiful Failure
Photo: Alexandre Prévost (Wikimedia)
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As with a lot of independent manufacturers, though, the Kaiser-Darrin was pretty expensive—$3,668, which was more than the Corvette. Only 435 of them were made, but not all of them sold. Realizing that he was going to have some leftovers on the market, Howard Darrin purchased about 100 of the leftovers. He outfitted them with Cadillac V8 engines. That vastly upped the power, but by then it had already fallen too flat to save its reputation.

It’s a gorgeous model, but it wasn’t destined to be America’s show-stopping fiberglass car, a title we still afford to the far more successful Corvette.

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

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DISCUSSION

ranwhenparked
ranwhenparked

Kaiser-Frazer was the last newly established American automaker to reach mass production, until Tesla. They were incorporated during the war, and took over a surplus wartime aircraft plant in Michigan and came out with the first all-new postwar car designs when the Big Three had to reintroduce their warmed-over 1942 models.

K-F were the ones that popularized the smooth, slab side look, as well as the 3-box notchback sedan that everyone wound up copying. They succeeded (for a time) simply because Henry J. Kaiser was one of the wealthiest industrialists in America (steel, aluminum, shipbuilding, heavy construction and engineering, healthcare, hotels, and, briefly, aircraft) and was in a position to pump his own fortune into propping up a new car company.

They ultimately failed mainly because Kaiser-Frazer was always just too small to generate the economies of scale needed to keep pace with the Big Three in terms of annual styling changes, multiple body styles, V8 engines, automatic transmissions, etc. Once the bigger companies got their own new postwar designs on the market in the late ‘40s, Kaiser started losing ground. Then, GM and Ford started a massive price war between each other in an effort to goose their sales coming out of the Korean War, and Kaiser and the other independents just had too high cost structures to compete with that.

Anyway, they really don’t get enough credit or recognition these days. They did a lot with comparatively little resources, and, for a time, really did seem like they were on their way to becoming America’s 4th big auto giant.

They did sort of survive, of course, by buying out the financially ailing Willys Overland and carrying on with only the Willys Jeep business and military contracts, though their passenger car operation was kept in Argentina.