Early in 1923, Paul Ostruk (1886-1967) , New York ‘s Minerva distributor, ordered two bodies through LeBaron that he wanted to have built by Van den Plas in Brussels, as the bodies could be built for far less in Europe due to the current strength of the dollar. LeBaron was thinking along the same lines and wished to procure a Hispano-Suiza distributorship in New York and also wanted to look into the possibility of opening a branch office in Europe. As Hibbard spoke French, it was decided that he would travel to Europe that March to oversee the construction of the bodies as well as to arrange for the distributorship and to scout for a suitable address for LeBaron. As money was always tight at LeBaron, Roberts remembered apologizing to Hibbard about the third class steamship ticket he was given for the journey. Hibbard invited a new friend of his named Howard A. “Dutch” Darrin along for the trip.
Ideally, LeBaron wanted to get the chassis on consignment, however that notion failed to fly with Hispano-Suiza executives, however they were offered a New York distributorship for $10,000. Hibbard wired the LeBaron office with the good news, but Dietrich and Roberts were unable to secure the needed financing in time and the deal fell through. Hibbard remained in Europe ostensibly to stay until the bodies were finished, however he had other plans.
Enter Howard A. “Dutch” Darrin (1897-1982). Darrin was a multi-talented athlete, inventor and entrepreneur from Cranford, New Jersey, who joined the staff of Automobile Topics at the tender age of 10. The magazine was run by a friend of his father’s named Frank Roach, and Howard was allowed to help out by cutting out newspaper clippings for its editors. Darrin also developed an appetite for football and even attended the Carlisle, Pennsylvania football camp run by the legendary Glenn “Pop” Warner. Although he never played professionally, he played lots of football while serving in the U.S. Signal Corps. during WWI.
Darrin's family was financially involved in the Automatic Switch Company of Florham Park, New Jersey. Founded in 1888, ASCO engineers are credited with inventing the solenoid valve, and the firm manufactured automatic switches for elevators, compressors, and generators and is still in business today as a division of Emerson Electric.
Darrin had assumed that he would be an electrical engineer, and as an intern found employment with Westinghouse's engineering dept. In 1916, just prior to his Army service, Howard had been approached by John North Willys, who asked him to see if he could come up with an electric gearshift. According to Darrin "It was Mr. Willys farsighted belief that a simple automatic gearshift could be installed in an automobile. At this time he was building 1,500 Willys cars a day, but the greatest sales obstacle was the new customer who had never driven a car before."
Willys shipped a car to Darrin, who, after looking at the gearbox, decided that the installation of two small reversible electric motors would enable the car to be shifted by two buttons mounted at the center of the steering wheel. He claimed that the shifter was going to be used on the 1917 Willys, but for a number of reasons, no automatic Willys were produced using his dual motor arrangement. Soon afterward, Darrin enrolled in the Aviation Division of the U.S. Signal Corps., and after a few short weeks of training was dispatched to France where he served for the next two years.
After his discharge in 1919, Darrin used some money he had saved to help found Aero Limited, one of the nation’s first scheduled airline carriers. Using surplus Curtis HS-2L sea planes, Darrin and his partners offered air mail and passenger service between Atlantic City, New Jersey, Nassau (Bahamas) and three Florida cities, Palm Beach, Miami and Key West. The airline was successful until four of their pilots perished when the plane ferrying them between Palm Beach and Miami crashed at sea. Darrin and his partners sold the entire operation to another operator and Dutch returned to New York in 1921 and tried his hand at selling stocks, bonds and pre-enjoyed luxury cars.
Darrin had purchased two Delage chassis from Walter P. Chrysler - who at that time was experimenting with imported chassis in the Elizabeth, New Jersey Willys plant - and made the rounds of New York’s body builders looking for suitable bodies to complete the vehicles. It was in this capacity that he was introduced to Thomas L. Hibbard by his friend “Tiny”, another car broker/dealer who frequented the LeBaron office. Hibbard was impressed by the entrepreneur’s impeccable taste and intuition for all things esthetic and the pair soon became friends. It’s not known whether Darrin commissioned those bodies from LeBaron, but both were sold, one to Al Jolson who was starring in Bombo at the time. Although Darrin was supposedly married in 1919, he rarely mentioned it, and in fact, enjoyed quite a reputation as a ladies man through most of his life. The shy and reserved Thomas L. Hibbard fully expected to have a very good time in Europe with his more outgoing companion.
The pair sailed for Paris in the spring of 1923, and after surveying the wealth of business opportunities available they decided to stay in Europe to form a partnership to sell luxury motorcars in Paris. Hibbard & Darrin, not LeBaron, would open up a design office in Paris and design bodies to be built in Brussels, and then offer them to wealthy Europeans in their Minerva showroom.
Darrin recalled the pair’s good fortune:
The early LeBaron business model was closely adhered to and Carrosserie Hibbard et Darrin leased a storefront just off of the Champs Elysees at 12 rue de Berri, just across the street from the showroom of Société Kellner Frères, one of Paris’ best-known coachbuilders. The pair designed a few striking bodies for a couple of used Minerva chassis they had acquired, and commissioned a couple of Belgian coachbuilders, including Van den Plas in Brussels, to construct the coachwork.
Coincidentally, Hibbard happened to be in Van den Plas’ Brussels office in late 1923 when a young Russian artist named Alexis de Sakhnoffsky came by looking for work. Surprisingly, his portfolio did not contain any renderings of automobiles rather it consisted of detailed drawings of women's clothing and accessories as his only work up until that time had been for department stores. However his talents were obvious and he was eventually hired by Van den Plas make customer sales sketches.
Sales picked up and a Minerva distributorship was awarded them, as Paris had been without a Minerva dealer since the start of the First World War. Word soon got around with visiting Americans that Hibbard & Darrin could furnish them with a new coachbuilt Minerva for a fraction of what the car sold for in the States. Shortly after Hibbard was introduced to de Sahknoffsky, Hibbard & Darrin moved the firm’s coachwork from Van den Plas to the d'Ieteren Freres works in Brussels, Belgium.
Although Hibbard and Darrin started out using Minerva chassis, they also built on other chassis including Excelsior, Rolls-Royce and Isotta Fraschini. By 1926 bodywork took up most of the firm’s business and the partners relocated to a more prestigious showroom located at 135 Avenue des Champs Elysees.
With funding from W.G. Brokaw, Hibbard & Darrin built a factory in the interior courtyard of a solid block of apartments located on Rue de la Republique in the industrial commune of Puteaux, Seine, a Western suburb of Paris.
William Gould Brokaw was a well-known playboy, yachtsman and racecar owner/driver who split his time between Paris and Nirvana, his Great Neck, Long Island estate. He participated in early land speed record attempts at Ormond Beach, Florida and also owned a number of Hibbard & Darrin-bodied automobiles. Brokaw’s fortune was made by his father, William Vail Brokaw, and uncle, Isaac Vail Brokaw, who founded Brokaw Bros., a well-known Manhattan clothier that was founded in 1856.
Hibbard recalled working conditions at the Puteaux factory in a 1966 article in The Classic Car:
Hibbard & Darrin’s Puteaux factory soon employed 100 hands and was producing bodies for many of the world’s finest chassis including, Maybach, Renault, Mercedes-Benz, Hispano-Suiza, Packard, Stutz and Rolls-Royce.
Unlike most other coachbuilders, Hibbard & Darrin built all their own wood cabinets and interior trim at their Puteaux factory. A number of the firm’s town cars and limousines employed very elaborate inlaid burl walnut panels and vanity/liquor cases. Even the folding occasional seats were sometimes concealed behind wooden roller curtains, just like those found on a roll top desk.
They became agents for Rolls-Royce and became known as the firm’s official Parisian coach builder. The 20/25 hp chassis was never well-accepted in Europe and Hibbard & Darrin bodied mostly Derby-built 40/50 hp Phantom I’s. They also built a total of 35 bodies for Rolls-Royce’s Springfield, Massachusetts subsidiary that were shipped to Brewster in-the-white for use in Rolls-Royce’s Custom Coach Work (RRCCW) program. The Manhattan Hispano-Suiza dealer, Clarke Pease, was another good customer and by the start of 1929 the Puteaux factory employed 200.
As was the custom in Europe, Hibbard & Darrin rarely advertised, relying instead on their Salon and Concours d’Elegance appearances for new business. Hibbard & Darrin were represented at the 1928 Paris Auto Salon and every Hibbard & Darrin-bodied chassis was sold by the end of the show. Bill Black and Geo Ham (1929 only) were employed to create color illustrations for the firm’s corporate clients or hard to please customers whenever Hibbard or Darrin were too busy. Things were going so well that they even leased a large residence just off the Avenue des Champs-Elysees at 43 Avenue de Friedland to house their administrative offices and design studio.
The firm’s greatest sales asset was one of it founding partners, Howard A. Darrin. Darrin was a knowledgeable antiques collector, polo player, World War I fighting ace and an accomplished ladies man. In a few short years he became well acquainted with Parisian high society which brought a steady stream of American ex-patriots, tourists and wealthy Europeans to the firm’s showroom.
One of Hibbard & Darrin’s lasting legacies is their barrel-sided dual cowl phaeton, easily distinguishable by its snug fitting all-weather top and unusual trapezoidal door glass. The main and tonneau windshields sloped rearwards so that they fit flush against the leading edge of the trapezoidal door glass.
When the top was up, an inverted triangular flap dropped down from the convertible top to cover the gap between the rear of the driver’s window and the leading edge of the rear windscreen. The flap was fastened to the body with snaps and could be affixed out of sight to a top bow if the trapezoidal windows were lowered.
Howard A. Darrin developed the body while Hibbard was on vacation in the south of France and deserves full credit for it. Most of the firm’s business was building chauffeur-driven town cars and limousine, and very few examples of the trapezoidal phaetons were built. However the design furnished the firm with much-needed publicity and they successfully licensed it to la carrosserie Castagna, in Milan, the Derham Body Co. in Philadelphia (Rosemont, Pa.) and T.H. Gill & Co. of Paddington, London. Many of the trapezoid tops included a novel laminated silk canvas that was not only impervious to water marks but had a satin sheen as well.
Another unusual Hibbard & Darrin innovation was the rumble-seat equipped Convertible Victoria. At least three examples were built, the first on a Packard chassis, the second on a Bugatti, the third on a Renault. The passenger compartment was fitted with the requisite sliding front buckets and rear bench seats, followed by the rumble seat for two which was located as the very rear of the body to allow for as much legroom as possible. If all seats were occupied during a weather emergency, the removable side glass could be used to enclose the exposed occupants of the rear seat. Hibbard recalled that the complex and expensive body was not really worth the effort as they had trouble selling the three they built.
The firm also built a number of traditional Convertible Victorias, one of which appeared at the 1929 New York Auto Salon. Built on a Stutz chassis, the striking close-coupled convertible was painted oyster white with matching pontoon fenders and a hood that extended all the way back to the windshield, giving the car a more aerodynamic stance. Two spare tires were mounted at an angle behind the removable trunk which was mounted behind the tonneau, creating a long profile for the standard wheelbase chassis. The interior was trimmed in natural tan hides with front bucket seats that automatically slid forward for easy access to the rear whenever the seatbacks were tilted. The rear seat passengers had plenty of head room as the footwells were sunk deep into the chassis. During fair weather, they also enjoyed a good view even with the top up as a V-shaped flap positioned adjacent to the trailing edge of the side windows could be opened when the windows were dropped.
Hibbard & Darrin were also early proponents of lighter colors for formal body styles. Up until that time, Town Cars and limousines were typically painted in dark colors, usually black, maroon, blue, gray or green. Hibbard & Darrin promoted their own shades of green-gray (almond), tile red, sandy beige and yellow with limited success. However, five years into the future, those very same colors became popular on production automobiles on both side of the Atlantic.
Hibbard’s favorite bodystyle was a close-coupled, 4-pass touring with a sloping back and disappearing top that they built for a Phantom II Rolls chassis. The body was painted light blue-grey and the fenders, moldings and leather hides were finished in a medium dark blue.
Hibbard & Darrin would even paint a vehicle to match a customer’s article of clothing, so when movie actress/chanteuse Hope Hampton wished her new Rolls-Royce to match a pair of her favorite stockings they complied. They even painted it a second time when the demanding actress complained that the shade didn’t quite match.
In a 1966 article for the Classic Car, Hibbard discussed the Puteaux factory’s paint department in great detail:
Hibbard and Darrin weren’t afraid to “borrow” good ideas from other builders and a few years after Barker of London introduced the first all-weather town car or Sedanca in 1924, they introduced an improved version which introduced a hinged compartment residing above the partition window for storage of the chauffeur’s canopy when not in use. Brunn & Co of Buffalo, N.Y. developed a similar system at much the same time.
A useful automotive accessory popularized by Hibbard & Darrin was the polished spun aluminum wire wheel cover. Although the concept originated with Cornercroft Ltd. who introduced their Ace patent Super Discs in the mid twenties, Hibbard & Darrin began producing them for their own use then started supplying them to coachbuilders and luxury car dealers across the continent, and even sold a few to Hibbard’s old friend LeBaron.
Hibbard & Darrin’s wheel discs differed from the "Ace" discs in that they were secured to the wheel by means of a cast aluminum locking nut that was covered by a plated, detachable cover shaped like a flattened hour glass. Aside from their obvious aesthetic qualities, the easily cleaned discs helped chauffeurs reduce the time needed for wheel maintenance. Although very early discs were fabricated from aluminum, manufacturers soon discovered that brass discs could be more easily plated and painted to match the bodywork. Consequently most original disc wheels were made from brass although aluminum and even steel could be specified for certain applications.
Some early Hibbard & Darrin bodies featured a molding that Hibbard had used earlier at LeBaron which started out with a 1” wide molding that grew wider as it ran along the side of the hood. When it reached the cowl it split into two branches, the first crossing the cowl just in front of the windshield, the second continuing along the side of the body until it wrapped around the rear of the body.
Typically made from 3/16” aluminum sheet stock, it was typically painted using a contrasting or sympathetic color however it was especially striking when it was highly polished and left in its natural state. Some versions of the molding included a leading edge that featured an up- or down-turned barb or arrowhead, a design that was used to great effect on their Duesenberg bodies. It was used on other bodies and was later seen on some Packard production bodies. It was widely imitated by others, including Cadillac, even though Darrin held a patent on it in France. The firm’s Sylentlyte bodies also included a modified version of it, which was cast directly into the panels.
During the late twenties, some of the firm’s convertible coupes and Victorias started using a distinctive 3” wide belt molding that ran in a straight line from the radiator to the rear of the door, then dipped to follow the seam between the top and body before it swept back up and across the rear tonneau. It was frequently made from polished sheet aluminum although when Darrin started working with M. Fernandez, he began to make it from polished brass which resulted in a very distinctive belt molding, not seen on other builder’s automobiles.
Hibbard & Darrin also fabricated frequently-used hardware such as interior and exterior door handles, window regulators and spare tire brackets and mirrors. Their disc wheel covers became so popular that they had to farm out the work to a larger supplier who could handle the business.
Hibbard & Darrin began producing their own interior hardware, window regulator and doors handles following a visit to the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. They were cast in textured metal and employed an antique silver finish which looked right at home in the firm’s town cars and limousines.
On chassis that were supplied without running boards, Hibbard & Darrin fabricated their own using a sandwich of hardwood and/or rubber separated by vertically oriented corrugated metal strips that allowed dirt and moisture to fall through the gaps onto the ground. The hand-made running boards often included tool boxes made from matching materials or painted to match the body.
They also fabricated fenders and spare tire brackets for chassis that didn’t include them. They devised a theft-proof system similar to that used on their disc wheel covers whereby the wheels were fastened to dummy hubs using a shrouded 5-sided nut that required a corresponding wrench to remove them.
Minerva’s New York City distributor Paul Ostruk was very much aware that many of his customers were buying Minervas from Hibbard & Darrin while vacationed in Paris. The pair could offer the chassis for a fraction of the price a Minerva sold for in Manhattan, and the beautiful Hibbard & Darrin bodywork usually sealed the deal. Ostruk was not happy about it and according to Hugo Pfau, Ostuk made several complaints to the Minerva executives, who suggested that he offer to buy out the coachbuilder’s Parisian Minerva’s agency.
By 1928, sales of the Minerva chassis had been on the decline so they gladly sold Ostruk their franchise and even allowed him to take over the lease on their exclusive Champs Elysees showroom. Over the coming months he returned the favor by ordering a large number of Hibbard & Darrin bodies for his Minerva customers in Paris and New York.
Hibbard & Darrin’s first showroom at 12 rue de Berri was later occupied by the Parisian Duesenberg agent, Edmond Z. Sadovitch, who was an enthusiastic Hibbard & Darrin salesman. At least 12 Model J’s were bodied by Hibbard & Darrin including J-254, a convertible town car built for Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst’s tour of Europe and Africa.
Other celebrity Hibbard & Darrin customers included actresses Kay Aldridge, Hope Hampton, Gloria Swanson and Pearl White, the great Broadway producer George White and King Alphonse XIII of Spain. Wealthy customers included the Beistegui Brothers of Spain (silver & gunsmiths), “Tin King” Simón Iturri Patiño, Sherman Mills Fairchild of Fairchild Aviation and Michel and André Lazard of Lazard Frères & Cie, the French investment bankers.
A fair number of Cadillac’s were bodied by the firm including a 1928 all-weather Phaeton for Spencer Penrose (Broadmoor Hotel, Colorado Springs, CO.) and a 1928 Town Car for Fred J. Fisher (Fisher Body). Hibbard & Darrin also designed production bodies for the 1930 Renault Nervastella, and created an entire line of bodies for Moon Motors’ 1929 Windsor White Prince.
According to Gene Bordinat, Mrs. Alfred P. Sloan happened to walk by the Hibbard & Darrin showroom in Paris and was quite impressed by the work of the two Americans. During the next Paris Auto Salon, Alfred P. Sloan, William S Knudsen and Harley J. Earl paid a visit to their offices and commissioned them to design and build five sample bodies for placement on a couple of General Motors 1928 chassis. According to Hibbard, Earl took him aside during the visit and cautioned him not to waste too much time on the project. Although GM didn’t use any of their designs, Sloan did not forget the visit and saw to it that Cadillac hired Hibbard as its chief designer after Hibbard & Darrin went out of business.
Hibbard estimated that close to 50% of the firm’s coachwork was purchased by American citizens, although many of those vehicles were kept in Europe for continental touring. The Parisian Packard distributor, Monsieur Barbezat, sold a number of Hibbard & Darrin bodied Parkards to Argentinean nationals.
In 1928 Hibbard & Darrin introduced a new body structure consisting of aluminum castings that they called Sylentlyte – concocted from the words "silent" and "light”. Sylentlyte was a thin-walled aluminum casting system developed by William G. Brokaw and Thomas Hibbard of Hibbard & Darrin for use in building automobile bodies. For a four-door convertible, 10 main Alpax castings were used to form the body structure which was topped off with a convertible top that featured hollow metal bows instead of the heavier wooden ones. Four-door sedan bodies used the open car’s 10 castings mated to a separately cast roof assembly that bolted to it. Alpax was an aluminum alloy used by the Montupet Foundry that was widely used in France for pistons and other highly stressed cast aluminum parts.
Since most large European and American cars of the late 1920s were similar in size, a single set of castings, with minor alterations, could be fitted to all of them by using a sandwich of long wooden shims. Aluminum sheet stock was used to cover the exposed shims prior to mounting the bodies.
At the same time, the firm’s two designers were also busy furnishing designs, body drafts and prototype bodies for many of the world’s top auto manufacturers. Clients included Armstrong-Siddeley, Auburn, Dodge, General Motors, Moon, Renault and Stutz.
In the March, 1930 S.A.E. Journal Hibbard related (note: this piece was written prior to Black Friday – Oct 29, 1929):
There was considerable interest in the trade, and Hibbard & Darrin leased a showroom on 57th Street in New York to promote the idea to American coachbuilders and manufacturers. Unfortunately the showroom opened a few weeks before the 1929 market crash and hopes of licensing the system in the US vanished almost overnight. Additionally the benefits of the system - lightweight, rust-proof and rattle-free – couldn’t outweigh its many problems. Each cowl and front door assembly had to be hand-made in order to match the many different lengths and brands of chassis and the molds needed to form the panels were very difficult to make and the resulting castings were often seriously flawed. The biggest problem was that the bodies were very expensive to make and after a handful were built, Hibbard & Darrin closed down the Sylentlyte production line in 1929.
The Sylentlyte system was not the first time cast-aluminum was used for auto bodies. From 1910-1919 Pierce-Arrow built all of their bodies using cast aluminum body panels affixed to a wooden frame. The patented system was eventually licensed to la carrosserie Castagna, in Milan, Derham Body Co. in Philadelphia (Rosemont, Pa.), Barker & Co. in London (Covent Garden, Middlesex) and carosserie Henri Chapron (Levallois-Perret) and carosserie Gallé (Boulogne) in Paris although few were built outside of the Hibbard & Darrin factory.
Two large Geo Ham watercolors - one a Rolls and the other a Duesenberg - were displayed in the window of Hibbard & Darrin’s 57th St. Sylentlyte showroom which was established midway through 1929 to help popularize the Sylentlyte body system in the United States and to help sell Hibbard & Darrin coachwork in Manhattan.
It was financed by William May Wright, a wealthy stock broker whose main claim to fame was his marriage to the famous New York chanteuse, gossip columnist and party-giver Cobina Wright. Their daughter, Cobina Wright Jr. was a member of the Bob Hope radio show and was signed to 20th Century Fox where she portrayed scores of debutantes in the early forties.
Unfortunately the Manhattan showroom opened the week prior to Black Tuesday (October 29, 1929). Although Thomas L. Hibbard had temporarily relocated to New York to oversee the new venture, business failed to materialize, and he returned to Paris. Wright’s brokerage house was hit hard by the crash and he soon lost interest in the project and the office was abandoned before the end of the year.
The market crash couldn’t have happened at a worse time for the firm as the Puteaux factory was in the midst of changing over from composite wood and aluminum coachwork to all Sytlentlyte production. During late 1929 and early 1930, a fair number of orders were cancelled, and the few who could still afford the firm’s coachwork became hesitant to order new automobiles, and Hibbard & Darrin’s sales suffered.
Although the June 1929 issue of Autobody magazine reported that the firm sold $1,000,000 worth of coachwork during 1928, in reality the enterprise was never well capitalized, and as they entered the new decade they found themselves short on cash. W.G. Brokaw, the American who held the mortgage on the firm’s Puteaux workshops, not only refused to lend them any money, but made it quite clear that he expected the partner’s obligations to paid regardless, thereby placing the proverbial nail in Hibbard & Darrin’s coffin.
Many years later Hibbard recollected that if Brokaw had been more reasonable, the firm might have survived, at least for a couple more years. Unfortunately, Brokaw was not a reasonable man, and during the first few weeks of 1931 the firm closed its doors and auctioned off what few assets remained. Unfinished bodies were completed by Felber Freres, who also hired some of Hibbard & Darrin’s best men. Felber Freres (later Felber et Fils) were an old established Parisian coachbuilder who had a showroom nearby Hibbard & Darrins on the Champs-Élysées.
Hibbard & Darrin hit upon the novel idea of exhibiting American movies - sans translation – to the throngs of American tourists and ex-patriots that inhabited Paris. They converted an unused dance hall on the rue de Magellan into the Washington Palace movie theatre and enjoyed a brisk business exhibiting first and second run Hollywood features and shorts. A second theatre called le Studio Diamant was also leased from the French film maker Henri Diamant-Berger and the two movie houses kept Hibbard & Darrin and a few of their old employees afloat for well over a year.
During his sojourn into movie exhibition, Hibbard was introduced to Henry Ainsworth, the managing director of Hotchkiss et Cie, and old French automobile and munitions manufacturer that was located in the Saint-Denis section of Paris. Ainsworth offered Hibbard a part-time job designing automobiles for the firm.
Darrin had much better luck, in early 1932 he became partners with a wealthy Argentinian-born Parisian banker named J. Fernandez, who had his own body works in the Parisian suburb of Boulogne-sur-Seine. The partners went under the name carrosserie Fernandez et Darrin and from 1932-1937 built custom coachwork on the following chassis: Bentley, Bugatti, Buick, Delage, Delahaye, Duesenberg, Hispano-Suiza, Isotta-Fraschini, Maybach, Mercedes-Benz, Packard, Panhard, Renault, Rolls-Royce and Voisin.
Although Hibbard & Darrin produced as many as 500 bodies during their seven-year life span, very few survive. Like Holbrook and Willoughby in the United States, the majority of Hibbard & Darrin’s clients commissioned chauffeur-driven town cars and limousines, bodies that were frequently discarded in favor of open body styles when surviving chassis were restored in the second half of the twentieth century.
Carrosserie Fernandez et Darrin - 1932-1937, Boulogne-sur-Seine, Paris, France
In late 1931, Howard A. Darrin met J. Fernandez, a wealthy Argentinian-born Parisian banker and furniture maker, at one of the many Concours d' Elegance held in and around Paris. Fernandez had a large shop in the Parisian suburb of Boulogne-sur-Seine near Long-champs where he manufactured custom built furniture and the occasional auto body for the local Isotta-Fraschini distributor and other Parisian distributors.
J. Fernandez’s factory included a beautiful 12’x 30’ marble showroom plus a main showroom on Avenue des Champs-Elysées, near the Arc de Triomphe de l'Etoile, just across from Kellner et Cie, and just down the street from Hibbard & Darrin.
Although J. Fernandez was keenly interested in the design and construction of his coachwork, his other business obligations took up most of his time, and the firm’s products suffered as a result. The partnership proved beneficial to both parties as Darrin’s salesmanship and design work complimented Fernandez’ business prowess.
One great advantage of a well-heeled partner was that Darrin could now afford to keep an inventory of ready to sell automobiles, as the firm preferred to purchase their chassis outright from the distributor, giving them an added profit on the sale of the chassis in addition to the revenue generated from the coachwork.
According to Darrin, decisions at Fernandez & Darrin were made with an absolute disregard for cost. Beauty, utility, and safety were the firm’s prime considerations, so it’s not surprising that a staff of 200 produced less than ten finished bodies per month. Darrin recalled that most of the firm’s sales were in the 125,000 to 1,000,000 francs range, roughly $10,000 - $40,000, depending on the body style and whether the customer supplied the chassis or not.
The firm’s most popular chassis were built by Delage, Hispano-Suiza and Isotta-Fraschini. They even produced a small series of semi-custom bodies for Isotta that were sold by the firm’s European and British distributors although prohibitive tariffs prevented the coachwork from imported to Italy. They also built on Bentley, Bugatti, Buick, Delahaye, Duesenberg, Hispano-Suiza, Maybach, Mercedes-Benz, Packard, Panhard, Renault, Rolls-Royce and Voisin chassis.
J. Fernandez et Cie had been building coachwork since 1926 or 1927 and had the finest woodworking equipment available. As the majority of their customers were Continental, Darrin abandoned his cast aluminum Sylentlyte system in favor of the standard metal on wood composite body construction. They were amongst the earliest bespoke coachbuilders to use heated paint booths and offered their customers the option of steel or aluminum paneling.
Some Fernandez & Darrin bodies included the signature Hibbard & Darrin molding that had been introduced by Thomas L. Hibbard while he was still working at LeBaron. It started out at the radiator with a 1” wide spear that grew wider as it ran along the side of the hood. When it reached the cowl it split into two branches, the first crossing the cowl just in front of the windshield, the second continuing along the side of the body until it wrapped around the rear of the body.
Typically made from 3/16” aluminum sheet stock, it was typically painted using a contrasting or sympathetic color however it was especially striking when it was highly polished and left in its natural state.
Darrin continued using the Hibbard design as well as the distinctive 3” wide belt molding that had first appeared on Hibbard & Darrin’s convertible coupes and Victorias. The molding traveled in a straight line from the radiator to the rear of the door, then dipped to follow the seam between the top and body before it swept back up and across the rear of the tonneau.
However, it was only after he started working with J. Fernandez, that he began to fabricate it from solid brass which was then highly polished producing a very distinctive belt molding, not seen on other builder’s automobiles. The firm’s windshields and door hinges were supported by sturdy brass castings and their streamlined running boards featured solid rubber treads and cast aluminum end caps.
Each body style had a serial number as well as individually numbered pieces which were assembled using a clever sequential numbering system, which also aided collision shops when they had to order replacement parts from the factory.
The wheel discs originally used by Hibbard & Darrin were also used by Fernandez & Darrin, although they were now available in aluminum or brass which could be painted or plated using chromium, gold, silver or copper.
In order to protect their customer’s considerable investment, they also built and designed their own spring-steel bumpers which featured an integral oval-shaped recoil spring that offered superior impact absorption when compared to most chassis standard offerings.
In 1930 Howard A. Darrin was awarded a French patent (Brevet d'Invention) for an aircraft-style padded dashboard/under cowl steering wheel design which provided a modicum of safety to a vehicle’s operator in what was, in hindsight, a very unsafe era in automobile engineering. It was one of the first times that the upper rim of a vehicle’s steering wheel was placed below the top of the cowl.
The benefits of the resulting “aircraft vision” (which significantly reduced the driver’s field of vision) were dubious, however the padded leather dash or “crash pad” provided some additional safety to front seat occupants in a front-end crash. Hibbard & Darrin ended before a prototype could be constructed, however Fernandez & Darrin offered the system on a handful of closed bodies starting in 1933.
In 1934 the partners relocated their Avenue des Champs-Elysees showroom to Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré, an elegant street of high-end shops just off des Champs-Elysees near la Place Vendôme, in order to be closer to their clients favored hotels which included the InterContinental le Grand, le Meurice and Hôtel Ritz.
J. Fernandez had a good friend in London who ran a Fernandez & Darrin permanent salon which produced over 30% of the firm’s sales. The firm’s most valuable customer was the Argentinean playboy Martin Máximo Pablo de Alzaga Unzue, who was popularly known as "Macoco". Originally from Buenos Aires, de Alzaga inherited a family fortune and spent a great deal of it on luxury automobiles and racecars. De Alzaga campaigned an all-Bugatti racing team at the 1923 Indianapolis 500 and once bought every Fernandez & Darrin car on display at the Paris Salon. According to Darrin de Alzaga would eventually purchase twenty-six Fernandez & Darrin-bodied automobiles.
One of the firm’s most well-known creations was a 1933 Duesenberg convertible created for the screen goddess, Greta Garbo. It included torpedo-shaped running boards made from mahogany and chrome, a built-in trunk with fitted Louis Vuiton luggage and an interior trimmed in chrome-finished leather. A similar vehicle was also built for the son of the Nazir of Hyderabad (India), Prince Azur.
In March of 1934, Anthony Gustav de Rothschild ordered a matched set of Hispano-Suizas, one for formal occasions, the other for cruising around town. Fernandez & Darrin were selected to furnish the bodies, which were to be finished in identical colors and complimentary styles.
The most striking was the Coupe Chauffeur limousine which was built for the long wheelbase (146 ½”) K6 chassis. The body featured a teardrop–shaped closed passenger compartment whose raked windscreen matched that of the open chauffeur’s compartment. On the shorter J12 chassis, a matching teardrop-shaped 4-passenger coupe was built.
The popularity of the Rothschild Coupe Chauffeur limousine resulted in a small series of commissions for similar bodies, most of which were built on Rolls-Royce chassis, although one was built for Louis Renault for use on the automaker’s new Nervastella chassis.
The design also inspired a more conservatively-styled Sedanca Deville that Darrin constructed for the socialite-spy Countess Carlo Dentice di Frasso (née Dorothy Caldwell Taylor). Built in Darrin’s Hollywood, California shops during 1937-1938, the Sedanca replaced an existing limousine body on her 1933 Rolls-Royce Phantom II.
Darrin’s 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.
Other noteworthy Fernandez & Darrin customers included the movie star Lili Damita and a seemingly endless list of millionaires such as Count Armand de la Rochefoucauld, Lady Davis (Wife of Mortimer B. Davis, Montreal) and Madame Badollet (wife of the Parisian watchmaker). While working with Fernandez, Darrin also designed a sedanca de ville for Lord Mountbatten’s Rolls-Royce Phantom II that was constructed by Barker as it would have been unfathomable for a member of the Windsor family to have a body built outside the country.
Although Fernandez & Darrin produced as many as 300 bodies during their seven-year life span, very few survive. Like their antecedent, Hibbard & Darrin and the American firms of Holbrook and Willoughby, the majority of Fernandez & Darrin’s clients commissioned chauffeur-driven town cars and limousines, bodies that were frequently discarded in favor of open body styles when surviving chassis were restored in the second half of the twentieth century.
According to the Washington Post (Jul 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.
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.
In 1941 Darrin became involved with the Canadian Aviation Bureau recruiting office in Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel. For a number of years he had been a member of the California State Guard’s Mounted Calvary, which was headquartered at Hollywood’s Riviera Polo Club. In 1942 he attained the rank of Captain in the largely ceremonial organization that was largely staffed by celebrity polo players.
Darren got more serious in 1943 and joined the Army Air Corps as a flight instructor. He held the position of Field Commander and was initially assigned to the Corps Boulder, Colorado flying school. He eventually was reassigned to the Corps Las Vegas, Nevada flight school, which was much closer to his second wife, whom he married in 1943.
At war’s end, Darrin purchased a few surplus Boeing trainers and established a small crop-dusting business at the Willows Glen Airfield which was located just off Rte 5 in Willows, California, a small town located 80 miles northwest of Sacramento. He also kept his hand in the automobile business, submitting design proposals to Joseph Frazer, Powell Crosley and the French automaker Mathis.
He was also busy working on a fiberglass-bodied automobile to be built by the Darrin Motor Car Company. He established a business office at 8534 Sunset Blvd. in West Hollywood and sent out a large number of press releases during the fall of 1946.
The car would “compete with the most luxurious cars on the market” and be priced at $2,800 in its 123 ½” wheelbase edition. A shorter wheelbase (115”) 90hp version would be available at a later date. The project garnered lots of publicity and articles and renderings of the vehicle appeared in Autocar, Automotive & Aviation Industries, Esquire, Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines.
The Darrin Motor Car was prominently featured in the October 1946 issue of Popular Science:
The first iteration of the Darrin Motor Car never materialized, however many design elements of the proposed long wheelbase version showed up in the production 1947-1950 Kaiser and Frazer. Darrin’s original 1945 design proposal was further refined by Kaiser-Frazer stylists Robert Robillard and Herbert Weissinger. When John Maxwell Associates, a Detroit engineering consultancy, prepared the blueprints for the production bodies, some details of Darrin’s original design were further modified, however the car retained the large greenhouse, exceptionally wide seating and slab-sided fenders that were present in Darrin’s original renderings.
The cars included a small Darrin badge on the right decklid and period advertising made light of the fact that the vehicles featured “Body styling by Darrin”.
When Kaiser-Frazer began plans for their redesigned 1951 models, Darrin was once again called upon to assist Kaiser-Frazer’s Duncan McRae in its design. Darrin really delivered the goods this time, delivering one of the most memorable designs of the early fifties. The former model’s boxiness was replaced by a sensuous beltine and characteristic ‘Darrin Dip’ in the rear door (or quarter panel on the two-door versions).
The top of the windshield featured another ‘Darrin Dip’ or what would be more commonly called a widow’s peak. A limited edition of the Kaiser Deluxe called the Golden Dragon sported gold-plated trim and faux bamboo-vinyl roofs supplied by Ionia Manufacturing Co in Ionia, Michigan. The Dragon’s trim was designed by color and trim specialist Carleton Spencer, and Darrin had little to do with the project.
Darrin was called upon to try to make the firm’s budget-priced Henry J more attractive, which was a tall order. The far from attractive bodywork had been designed with economy in mind by one of Kaiser’s suppliers, the American Metal Products Co. of Detroit.
The Henry J was a 4-cylinder economy car built on a 100” wheelbase using a $44 million loan from the federal government’s Reconstruction Finance Corp. that stipulated that it cost no more than $1300. Consequently, early versions of the vehicle excluded common amenities such as a rear truck lid, glove box and passenger side sun visor.
Darrin gave the car a little “Darrin Dip”, and did his best to make the car more attractive, however the dimensions of the awkward car were already set in stone and not much could be done to make the foreshortened two-door economy car attractive.
Darrin was convinced that given a free hand, he could come up with an attractive body for the 100” Henry J’s chassis and he set about designing a fiberglass-boded sports car that incorporated ideas he had developed for use in the stillborn Darrin Motor Car.
He had been an early proponent of FRP (fiberglas-reinforced plastic) bodies and was well aware of the pioneering Glasspar G2 Sportscars built by Bill Tritt in his Santa Ana, California workshop. Using Tritt’s G2 body as a starting point, the final design included a three-position Victoria top and low-cut sliding doors that disappeared into the fenders. Mounted on a six-cylinder Henry J chassis, the body was finished off with taillights and other accessories taken from the Kaiser-Frazer parts bin.
Darrin oversaw production of the prototype body at Glasspar and completed it in his own Santa Monica workshop during 1952 and invited Henry J. Kaiser to see the completed vehicle.
Kaiser was not impressed, and accused Darrin of squandering the firm’s money stating:
Darrin produced evidence that the car was produced using his own (Darrin’s) resources and stated that he would produce the car on his own if Kaiser wasn’t interested. It was fortunate for everyone involved that Kaiser had been accompanied by his wife Alyce. She loved the car stating:
Kaiser had recently remarried (1951), and found it in his best interests to cede to his new wife’s wishes. He gave preliminary approval to Darrin for production of the sportscar and commissioned him to build a four-door prototype that incorporated the sliding doors.
The car entered into production in late 1953 powered by a 6-cyl, 161-cu.in. Willys F-head producing 90hp. The fiberglas body weighed 300 lbs. and the completed vehicle weighed in at 2,175 lbs. and sold for $3,668.
Glasspar built the body up using a front and rear casting that was fastened together at the A-pillar. The remaining 5 pieces were attached to the main body assembly using hardware jointly developed by Darrin and Kaiser’s body engineers.
The first twelve cars were built and assembled by Glasspar, then assembly transferred to a facility leased by Darrin in Santa Monica, California. Using FRP subassemblies supplied by Glasspar, approximately fifty cars were assembled by Darrin during 1953 before production was transferred to Kaiser’s Jackson, Michigan Trim plant.
The initial 62 Kaiser-Darrins built in California differed slightly from the 435 built in Michigan during 1954. Kaiser needed to raise the headlights to make the car legal in all 50 states, and replaced the former’s split windscreen with a one-piece curved windshield.
When Kaiser shut down their Jackson, Michigan trim plant in late 1954, approximately fifty unsold Kaiser-Darrin’s were transferred to Willys’ Toledo, Ohio assembly plant for storage. Unfortunately the cars were stored outside during a particularly harsh Ohio winter and when uncovered in early 1955, they were thought to be too water-damaged to be salable.
Darrin had a friend at the plant who alerted him to the vehicles’ predicament, and he offered to buy the lot for pennies on the dollar. By that time Willys management had little concern for anything with a Kaiser badge, so they accepted the offer and shipped the cars off to Darrin’s shop in Santa Monica, were his small crew refurbished them and sold them as new.
The car had been underpowered from day one, and a number of his customers requested upgraded power-plants. Darrin’s crew installed 270 hp Cadillac V-8s in at least six of the cars which were sold as Darrin-Cadillacs as the new powerplant required that the chassis be substantially upgraded to handle the increased power.
A number of the Cadillac-powered Darrins competed in southern California club racing during the mid-to-late 50s. Both Laura Maxine Elmer (the future wife of Briggs Cunningham) and Ray Sinatra Jr. (son of bandleader Ray Sinatra, who was a cousin of Frank Sinatra) entered Darrin-Cadillacs in the 1955 Palm Springs Road Race. Lance Reventlow is also known to have campaigned a Cadillac powered Darrin.
In the mid-to-late 50s Darrin contributed a few design proposals to Panhard, DKW, Willys and Kaiser of Argentina, He also designed a sports car for an Israeli automaker in 1960 and claims to have had had something to do with the Jeep Wagoneer although Brooks Stevens is normally credited with its design.
In the mid-sixties Darrin proposed the production of coachbuilt Rolls-Royce Silver Shadows that were to be marketed by Southern Californian Rolls-Royce dealers and in 1965 was honored by Syracuse University as one of the Twentieth Century’s top 15 industrial designers. He spent the rest of his life in Southern California and was a much in demand judge and guest speaker at various classic car events and Concours d’Elegance. He passed away in 1992.
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.
© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com