According to the Washington Post (July 21, 1935 issue), Twenty-five thousand Americans were engaged in professional activities in Paris in the boom years of 1927 and 1928, but by 1925 that colony has dwindled to a mere 7,000. The deteriorating situation in Germany, combined with the fact that many of Fernandez & Darrin’s customers were of Jewish decent, began to put a severe damper on their business, so Darrin made the prudent decision to move to Hollywood midway through 1937.
Darrin was not without friends in the movie making capital of the world, and chief among them was Hollywood mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck. Darrin had met him on one of the film executive’s trips to Paris, and the two avid polo players became good friends. By 1937, the former Warner Bros, executive had become vice-president of Twentieth Century Fox Studios and was in a good position to introduce his old friend Dutch to Hollywood’s celebrities.
Once he got to Hollywood, Darrin wasted no time, and started making the rounds of the Hollywood nightspots and restaurants where he was introduced as Howard Darrin of Paris. Darrin became friends with Los Angeles restaurateur and Jensen importer Percy Morgan, who offered to help finance his new business.
Darrin had the ability to turn off and on an authentic-sounding French accent if the situation warranted. Consequently many of his Hollywood customers were convinced he had spent his entire life on the Continent, unaware of the fact he had been born and raised in New Jersey. Darrin jokingly attributed a large part of his success on his suave ‘Darrin of Paris’ persona, rationalizing that it was a more useful sales tool than portfolios of his previous work.
Darrin’s first customer was Dick Powell, one of Warner Bros. top stars, who commissioned Darrin to customize his 1937 Ford sport phaeton. The resulting European looking roadster was built under the direction of Crown Coach’s Charles Rotzenberger at Crown’s East Los Angles factory as Darrin hadn’t yet hired any staff nor found a suitable location for business.
Finding qualified coachbuilders was not a problem in Los Angles and within a few short weeks, Paul Erdos was hired as Darrin’s first employee. He served as shop foreman until Rudy Stoessel was hired away from Standard Auto Body at the beginning of 1938.
Darrin’s next customer was RKO leading man Chester Morris, who ordered a roadster very similar to Powell’s Ford although he wanted it built on the new Packard one-twenty chassis. Darrin’s crew had outworn their welcome at Crown Coach, so the moved operations to A1 Auto Body, a small Los Angeles collision shop and auto re-builder. Morris’ car became the prototype Packard-Darrin.
Darrin’s next commission would turn out to be his last on a Classic-era European chassis.
A pair of streamlined Coupe Chauffer Limousine bodies built by Fernandez & Darrin in 1934-1935 served as a major inspiration for a more conservatively-styled Sedanca Deville that Darrin constructed for the socialite-spy Countess Carlo Dentice di Frasso (née Dorothy Caldwell Taylor).
The car was started at Crown Coach during the fall of 1937, and replaced an existing limousine body on her 1933 Rolls-Royce Phantom II chassis.
Darrin had met Dorothy Di Frasso while attending a Hollywood party thrown by Clark Gable. She engaged Darrin to come up with a new body for her Rolls-Royce that would attract more attention than the Brewster-bodied Phantom II Town Car recently purchased by her good friend Constance Bennett.
Midway during construction, Darrin moved operations into a leased building at 8660 W. Sunset Blvd in West Hollywood, and that’s where the car was completed. Darrin delivered to the Countess one of the most striking Town Car coachwork ever built for the British manufacturer, and considered it one of his finest designs.
The Di Frasso Rolls-Royce closely resembled another Fernandez & Darrin Town Car built on a 1938 Buick chassis. The car was commissioned during the summer of 1937 and was reportedly finished at Franay as the Fernandez & Darrin works shut down before it was completed.
Soon after Dick Powell’s Ford was completed he ordered a Packard One-Twenty roadster for his wife actress Joan Blondell. The vehicle was mentioned by gossip columnist May Mann in a December 20, 1937 story in the Ogden (Utah) Standard Examiner.
By early 1938 the former Sunset Blvd. bottle factory had been transformed into “Darrin of Paris”.
In an interview with automotive historian Richard M. Langworth, Darrin recalled:
By this time, Darrin’s staff had grown substantially and now included Rudy Stoessel, Paul Erdos, Joe Mechelli and Carl Korn - all former employees of Walter M. Murphy and/or J. Gerard Kirchoff, two old-school coachbuilders that were formerly located in Pasadena, California.
Stoessel was one of the best millwrights/body framers in the business and Erdos was equally proficient at metal fabrication. They were also joined by Crown Coach’s Charles Rotzenberger, Harry Fels, a former Auburn/Central Manufacturing body man and Oscar Haskey, a talented metal fabricator who had worked with Stoessel at O.R. Fuller’s Wilshire Blvd. Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg dealership.
The front office and sales department was headed by super-salesman Burton K. Chalmers. Burt, as he preferred to called, had been selling custom-bodied cars – Cadillac, Citroen, Renault, Cord, Auburn, Duesenberg - in and around Los Angles for many years and had good connections within the film community. He came highly recommended and had previously worked with Rudy Stoessel and Oscar Haskey at O.R. Fuller/Auburn-Fuller.
In a 1987 interview with automotive historian/photographer Dennis Adler, Darrin of Paris’ shop foreman, Rudy Stoessel recalled his former employer:
Only sixteen Packard-Darrins were built by Darrin in California, fourteen Victorias, one four-door sedan and one sedanca coupe. Twelve of the fourteen Victorias were built on the one-twenty chassis, two on the super-eight. Over half of the cars were sold to well-known celebrities who included Clark Gable, Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn, Chester Morris, Al Jolson, Rosalind Russell, Ruby Keeler (Mrs. Al Jolson), Preston Foster, Ann Sheridan, Constance Bennett and Gene Krupa.
Although the Packard-Darrin’s looked custom built, they actually used quite a few stock Packard parts as the donor cars were off the lot Packard one-twenty business coupes purchased from a dealer in Texas for $1,100. A completed Packard-Darrin wholesaled to regional Packard dealers for around $3,200-$3,300. When they finally got up to speed, Darrin’s crew could turn a stock Packard coupe into a Packard Darrin in two weeks time.
When the coupes arrived at Darrin of Paris, the tops were cut off, the doors removed, the cowl, windshield and both running boards discarded. The rear fenders were removed, slightly modified and reattached so that they slanted slightly forward. The front fenders were also patched so that no traces of the running boards remained.
The rear package shelf and deck panel were removed and an ash frame was inserted to support the convertible top mechanism, then new sheet-metal was welded in place to cover the bracing. A six inch sill was also welded below the door openings to strengthen the body.
A San Francisco foundry supplied Darrin with the distinctive Stoessel-engineered cast aluminum window frames and three-piece cowls which gave the car a distinctive appearance. Stoessel also fabricated the cut-down door frames which were then covered in doors skins fabricated by California Metal Shaping. The new cowl necessitated lengthening the hood by nine inches, and the radiator shell and hood were sectioned by three giving the car a long and low European stance. As profits accrued, Darrin was able to purchase a used power hammer, and all sheet metal work was built in the Wilshire Blvd, factory thereafter.
The seats were re-mounted on substantially shortened seat frames and recovered in leather in order to match the padded dash which was continued onto the tops of the doors. During inclement weather, the occupants were protected by a lightweight fabric top which was raised using an awkward convertible top mechanism that resided behind the occasional rear seat. Packard enthusiast Robert F. Mehl describes it:
The Packard-Darrins built for Clark Gable, Errol Flynn and Rosalind Russell utilized the chrome-finished hides that debuted on Greta Garbo’s Fernandez & Darrin-bodied Duesenberg. The swept-down doors, called the “Darrin Dip” in the trade, were the car’s most eye-catching feature. The car’s dash utilized the aircraft style crash pads Darrin had developed in France, which was another one of the vehicle’s strong selling points. Retail prices ranged from $4200-$5200 per vehicle, roughly three times the price of a standard, and more structurally sound, Packard 120 Convertible.
The first two examples, built at A1 Auto Body and sold to Chester Morris and Clark Gable, were structurally different from the remaining fourteen cars built at the Sunset Blvd. plant. They both included running boards and a standard coachbuilt cowl assembly (ash framed, aluminum covered) as Stoessel had not yet developed the thee-piece aluminum cowl.
Some questionable structural changes were made including the removal of the radiator cradle in order to relocate the stock radiator three inches lower in the frame. The first few cars passenger compartments were almost completely surrounded by wood – wood-framed doors, wood framed cowl and the integral wood-framed rear seat and convertible top crossmember – and the cars suffered from significant front-end vibration, door alignment problems (they sometimes flew open when rounding a corner at speed) and ‘leaked like a sieve’ whenever it rained.
Things improved somewhat when Stoessel’s cast aluminum cowl was introduced on cars built at the Sunset Blvd. workshop. Many surviving Darrin’s have had there cast aluminum cowls repaired as they have a tendency to crack due to the great strain placed upon them.
When production was shifted to Central Manufacturing Co. in Connersville, Indiana, the body was further strengthened and the bottom of the doors extended to meet the makeshift rocker panels. Other improvements included heavier body mounts and a front-end kit that provided additional bracing between the front fender brackets, frame and radiator support.
One Darrin of Paris employee who would go on to bigger things was Art M. Fitzpatrick. Fresh from a stint working at Briggs under John Tjaarda, Fitzpatrick was hired by Darrin in 1938 to serve as the firm’s in-house artist and delineator. Fitzpatrick (or Fitz to his friends) is credited with designing the striking and seldom-seen Packard-Darrin convertible sedans and 4-door hardtops that were built in Connersville. When the Darrin operations were taken over by Packard, Fitzpatrick went to work for Werner Gubitz, the automaker’s styling chief and had a hand in the design of the 1942 Packard Clipper.
Fitz also ran errands for his boss, and once drove a Packard-Darrin all the way to Detroit for exhibition at a Detroit Packard dealer council meeting at the Packard proving grounds. In his Automobile Quarterly article, ‘My American Safari’, Darrin recalled the event:
The car was still drivable, so the pair continued on to the proving grounds and parked it against a wall with the unaltered side facing out. The vehicle was a major topic of discussion at the event although it further alienated Darrin with Packard management.
At that time Clark Gable was Hollywood’s number one star and he’d just been chosen to star in ‘Gone With the Wind’. Anything associated with the star was news and United Press’ Hollywood correspondent, Frederick C. Othman, wrote the following column on November 16, 1938.
With the free nationwide publicity and mounting interest from Packard dealers, it came as no surprise to Darrin that Packard President Alvan Macauley scheduled a visit to the Darrin of Paris shops on a subsequent visit to California Packard distributor, Earl C. Anthony in early 1939.
Macauley had been well-briefed and queried whether the Darrin’s body met with Packard’s stringent standards. Darrin got up on the cowl of an adjacent Packard-Darrin and began to jump up and down, creating no serious damage. Darrin recalled the event in Automobile Quarterly: "I asked if he thought it was strong enough. That was how I got Packard to approve the Darrin Victoria for production."
Over the objections of his body engineers, Macauley green-lit the Packard-Darrin for inclusion in Packard’s 1940 catalog providing that Darrin agreed to build it using Packard’s Super-Eight chassis.
Darrin had nothing to lose and everything to gain and signed an agreement whereby Packard would handle the distribution and manufacturing of the vehicle and in return Darrin would receive a flat fee for every vehicle sold. Darrin agreed to help advertise the vehicle and to oversee its production in Connersville.
Three models were to be produced, the already popular convertible Victoria, the limited production convertible sedan and the very exclusive four-door sports sedan. All three models were included in Packard’s 1940 model year catalog and Packard started running a series of print advertisements for the vehicle in Fortune and the Saturday Evening Post to create interest in the showroom.
The largest problem facing Darrin and Packard, was where to build the vehicles. Briggs Manufacturing, Packard’s main body supplier, had no interest in the project as they were all booked up for the foreseeable future. A current Darrin of Paris employee named Harry Fels had formerly worked for Auburn Automobile Co. at their Central Manufacturing body division in Connersville, Indiana and suggested that Darrin give Auburn’s President Roy Faulkner a call.
By that time, Auburn had already filed for bankruptcy, and was desperate for business, particularly when a financially responsible Detroit automaker was paying the bills. Darrin’s wooden body dies were shipped to Connersville at the end of July and on August 1, 1939, operations concluded at Darrin of Paris’ Sunset Blvd. shops. A couple of key men were offered jobs in Connersville, but not surprisingly, nobody wanted to leave southern California.
Four of Darrin’s key employees, Burt Chalmers, Rudy Stoessel, Paul Erdos and Charles Rotzenberger, established Coachcraft, Ltd. during the winter of 1939-1940. The four partners leased quarters in West Hollywood, just a few blocks away from their former employer, at 8671 Melrose Avenue, and started applying their trade to lower-cost Ford, Mercury, and Studebaker chassis as well as to the more up market models, Packard in particular. Coachcraft’s business grew to the point that they were eventually able to hire all of the former Darrin of Paris crew.
Production of the first Packard-Darrin’s commenced at Central Manufacturing in early September. It wasn’t a huge contract, but every little bit helped, and Central’s workers were happy to work on something other than kitchen cabinets and refrigerators.
As Darrin had vested interest in promoting the sales of the Packard-Darrins, both he and his creations maintained a high profile back home in Los Angeles:
Darrin submitted the convertible Victoria to the US Patent Office on November 27, 1939, however Art Fitzpatrick’s convertible sedan and 4-door sport sedan designs were never submitted to the USPTO.
During 1940, Packard’s Custom Super Eight One-Eighty came in eleven variations on a variety of wheelbases, 127”, 138” and 148”. Six different custom bodies were available, three from Darrin, and three from Rollson.
The model 1806 Super Eight Convertible Victoria by Darrin sold for $4750, the Sport Sedan for $6100 and the Convertible Sedan for $6300. A budget-priced $3800 Darrin was made available later in the year that was built on the less-expensive one-twenty chassis.
A single model 1806 Darrin Coupe de Ville was built for that winter’s auto show circuit, but was never included in the catalog or in dealer price lists. When the car was retired it was sold to Mrs. Jack Oakie (née Venita Varden), a little known actress who married film comedian Jack Oakie in 1936. Several others were reportedly built on 1941 Packard 1906 chassis, but their provenance and current whereabouts are unknown.
As part of his agreement with Packard, Darrin was asked to contribute designs proposals for upcoming Packards, and was involved in the design that would finally emerge in 1942 as the Packard Clipper, although he never received official credit (or payment) for it.
A letter from Alex Tremulis to Darrin discussing the Clipper appeared in the September 1977 issue of The Classic Car:
Packard dealers who were fortunate enough to secure a Darrin for their showroom reported traffic increases of up to 300% and were more than happy to keep a Darrin on display for the required 30 days stipulated in the sales contract, regardless of whether it was sold or not.
In his Automobile Quarterly article Darrin recalled: “I figured I'd hit the big time. Packard was the most prestigious luxury car manufacturer in the country, and they would certainly take every Darrin I could hand them.”
Unfortunately for Darrin, Central Manufacturing was awarded a huge contract to build military Jeep tubs (bodies) in May of 1941, and production of the low-volume Packard-Darrins became a low priority. Darrin recalled: “We were soon hopelessly backlogged and I went to Detroit looking for more production facilities."
Sales of Detroit’s automobiles were at an all-time high, and nobody was willing to take such a low-volume enterprise. The logical choice would have been the Henney Motor Car Company, but they were backlogged with orders for their popular Henney-Packard professional cars. Luckily another pro-car builder located in Cincinnati, was looking for additional projects.
Production of the all-new 1941 Packard Series 1906 Darrin Convertible Victoria commenced at the Cincinnati, Ohio plant of the Sayers and Scovill Company that summer. Darrin recalled:
The cars built in Cincinnati differed from the Connersville cars in a number of areas. Most noticeable was the introduction of the 19th series Packard front end styling in which the headlights were finally built into the redesigned front fenders, instead of residing in the pods used on the 1940 edition. Additional items included redesigned rear fenders and the introduction of distinctive chrome moldings that now resided on the trailing end of the front and rear fenders. Structurally the bodies were more structurally sound and the formerly rear-hinged doors were now attached at their leading edge with only the lower hinge remaining visible.
Based on published accounts, total production of all Packard-Darrins, including all body variations, totaled 114. Most historians agree that sixteen Convertible Victorias were built in Hollywood. In Connersville, the commonly quoted totals are two 4-door sport sedans, five 4-door convertible sedans and forty convertible Victorias – plus the single Coupe deVille show car. The number of Darrins constructed in Cincinnati was about the same; thirty-five on the 1941 Packard Series 1906 chassis and fifteen on the 1942 Packard Series 2006 chassis, all Convertible Victorias, all built on the Super Eight chassis. Except for slight variations in trim (fendertop parking lights added in 1941, bilateral lower grilles in 1942), the vehicles produced in Indiana and Ohio were identical.
The introduction of the 1942 Clipper and the US involvement in World War II doomed the Packard-Darrin project, and Howard Darrin joined the war effort in an aeronautical capacity.
Many sources mention a Hollywood-built coupe DeVille being built in 1939, however that car is most likely the Connersville-built DeVille showcar that was sold to Mrs. Jack Oakie. Darrin is supposed to have built a few non-Packard automobiles during 1939-1940. Mounted on Cadillac and Lincoln chassis, they were likely built by Coachcraft, if they were built at all. In any case, neither Darrin nor Stoessel have ever mentioned them in any published interviews.
Another source mentions a custom-bodied 1942 Packard Clipper built for Errol Flynn. If actually built, it was mostly likely a customized Clipper rather than a custom-bodied vehicle. Sources may be confusing Flynn with Preston Foster, who did have an original 1937 Packard-Darrin which was extensively modified and updated by Coachcraft using 1941 Packard Super Eight front end sheet metal, grille, bumpers, and headlamps. Foster’s car currently resides at the Blackhawk Museum in Danville, California.
The Packard-Darrins spawned many imitators. Bohman & Schwartz. Rollson, and Alexis de Sakhnoffky all produced Convertible Victorias on low-priced American chassis during 1939-1941.
Encouraged by Dutch Darrin's success with Packard Darrins, Bohman & Schwartz built a series of similar European-style convertibles on various chassis. A 1939 LaSalle and two '40 Cadillacs were built on speculation (i.e., without a firm order), in conjunction with designer W.E. Miller.
By late 1939, Thompson Motors, the Pasadena, California Packard dealer had become frustrated with their inability to procure new Darrins through regular channels, so they ordered half a dozen Darrin clones from Bohman & Schwartz. Built on 1940 Packard one-eighty chassis, the 4-place convertible Victorias included cut-down doors and speedster windshields and were virtually indistinguishable from the Darrin’s.
Rollson also built a Packard Convertible in 1940 that’s virtually indistinguishable from those built by Dutch Darrin, but upon closer inspection, the higher-quality of Rollson’s bodywork is immediately apparent. It’s unknown how many were built, but at least one of the cars still exists.
A Rollson rendering of a 1941 Clipper Convertible Victoria exists, although it’s not known whether it was ever actually built. The rendering depicts a lower grille molding that extends around the front of the fenders to the wheel openings that is similar to another Clipper designed by Derham during the same time period.
Nash went so far as to put in production an obviously Darrin-influenced Special Cabriolet in 1940 on their top of the line Ambassador chassis. The car was designed for them by Alexis de Sakhnoffky and included cut-down doors and a speedster windshield.
Unlike the other clones, Nash neglected to go to the expense of cutting down the radiator shell and sectioning the hood and body, so their awkward-looking body profile easily distinguishes them from the Darrins.
Nash took off-the line 1940 Series 81 Ambassador Eight Convertibles and sent them to United Body Company in Chicago where the cars were slightly lowered (¼” in front, ¾” in the rear), stripped of their exterior brightwork, repainted and reupholstered.
United Body also removed the running boards and installed rear fenders skirts and wide whitewall tires. Half of the vehicles were reported to have had the interior brightwork re-plated in Duragold.
Of the twenty Special Cabriolets produced, only eleven were sold, and the remaining cars were returned to Nash. According to Reggie Nash, an owner of one of the three known survivors, unsold Cabriolets were returned to the factory, restored to their original configuration and resold as standard Series 81 Convertibles.
Hopefully Nash made a tidy profit on the few Special Cabriolets as they sold for a reported $5,000, a mark-up of $3,700 over the $1,295 production Ambassador convertible.
In an interview with film historian Todd Doogan, Hollywood actor/singer and automobile enthusiast James Darren (née James William Ercolani) confessed that the Darrin was the inspiration for his screen name.
Many became acquainted with the Packard-Darrin during the early 70s when it starred as a recurring character on the 1972-1974 NBC Mystery Movie series, Banacek. The main character, a Boston-based insurance investigator portrayed by George Peppard, used an old 1941 Packard-Darrin 180 convertible Victoria for daily transportation. While traveling to and from the airport or on out-of–town investigations, Banacek was piloted by Jay, his opinionated chauffeur (played by Ralph Manza) in a 1973 Cadillac Fleetwood 75.
© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com