Welcome to Thursday Trivia where we offer up a historical automotive trivia question and you try and solve it before seeing the answer after the jump. It’s like a history test, with cars!
This week’s question: Why did “Dutch” Darrin purposely park his coachbuilt Darrin Packard off to the side of the 1938 Packard Dealer Council Show?
If you think you know the answer, make the jump and see if you’re right.
Most of us probably know the Kaiser Darrin, the ’50s sporty car with the unique sliding doors and the puckered grille, but do you know the history of model’s designer and namesake, Howard “Dutch” Darrin? His story goes back decades before partnering with Kaiser, to the heyday of the American coachbuilding era when his company catered to the Hollywood elite.
Darrin was an inventor, designer, and entrepreneur: the prototypical Renaissance Man of the early 20th Century. Originally from Cranford, New Jersey he became a player in the American Coachbuilding scene in the ’30s, while actually starting out in Paris France. He had been invited to Europe by a friend, Thomas L Hibbard as part of a scouting expedition for the coachbuilder LeBaron. That company was seeking a foothold on the continent to sell its services. Hibbard and Darrin abandoned that effort and instead founded Carrosserie Hibbard et Darrin to design bodies which would be built in Brussels and shown in the Minerva showroom.
The company eventually expanded beyond both the Brussels works and Minerva chassises by building a factory in Paris and taking commissions to build custom bodies on Rolls Royce, Isotta Fraschini and Excelsior platforms. They eventually became the Paris agents for Rolls Royce and the company’s official Parisian body maker.
By the late ’30s however the business climate in Europe was in decline as the looming war approached. Darrin had the prescience to get out and in 1937 moved his operations to Hollywood California. He already was friends with a number of heavy hitters in the film industry and those connections allowed the coachbuilder access to the industry’s biggest stars.
Now basing most of his custom bodies on America’s best, the Packard, Darrin counted celebrities such as Clark Gable, Dick Powell, Errol Flynn, Rosalind Russell, Tyrone Power, Al Jolson and his wife, and band leader Gene Krupa as both his acquaintances and his customers. So arresting were Darrin’s designs that one of his first customers, actor Dick Powell had to sell his Darrin Packard shortly after purchasing it due to the unwanted attention it garnered.
Darrin himself engendered notice as he was quite the salesman and a creative showman. The story about his participation in the 1938 Packard Dealer Council show contains examples of both these attributes and is a funny anecdote about how Darrin adapted to an unfortunate situation.
In 1938, he convinced the Detroit Packard dealer council to commission a Darrin for their annual show at the Packard Proving Grounds — the company’s home turf. It was another safari into what Dutch always called “my adventures in the American automotive jungle.”
“Art Fitzpatrick, who achieved fame as a commercial artist for Pontiac, was working for me at the time,” Dutch wrote in Automobile Quarterly in 1972. “He and a friend drove day and night to get there in time. They ran into a drunk driver who smashed one whole side of the car.”
It was still driveable, so Darrin had his boys drive it (unauthorized) onto the Proving Grounds and park it off to one side with the undamaged side showing. “A great deal of enthusiasm was created,” continued Dutch, but “Packard brass were furious and wouldn’t speak to me for awhile.” At first the Company refused to catalogue Darrins, but dealers finally raised so much clamor that Packard chairman Alvan Macauley called on Dutch to talk things over on one of his trips to California.
Years later Darrin would partner with another American manufacturer, Kaiser to build the Darrin 161. That car was designed to take on the European sports cars like the Jaguar XK120 and Nash-Healey, but while did so on looks, it’s performance was never up to snuff. Kaiser’s tenuous financial situation at the time prevented the Darrin from taking off, or adopting any performance enhancements. Only a little over 400 were built before Kaiser pulled the plug. Today they command big bucks, as do Darrin’s earlier works, even those that may have been sideswiped by a drunk.