What Henry Kaiser Gave Up
to Make Jeeps


1954 Kaiser Darrin
1954 Kaiser-Darrin 161 Roadster, total production 435.

Kaiser Buys Willys

The Kaiser-Frazer Corporation was the last new American auto maker to attain large-volume production of cars, building over 800,000 vehicles between 1946 and 1955.

Meanwhile, Willys-Overland was losing money when it was sold to Kaiser in 1953, and in 1954 the Willys division again suffered a net loss of $35 million. But by late 1956, Business Week magazine reported the company had been turned around, although it did not publish any profit figures. ("Pulling Willys Off the Rocks", Business Week, 15 December 1956, pp.111-112.)

According to Norton Young's Willys-Overland Production Figures, over 11,000 CJ-3Bs were produced in 1956, representing sales of perhaps $15 million. With advertising and production of the new CJ-5 model in full swing that year, it seems likely that many of those 3B's were sold to export markets, and indeed Business Week estimated that 50% of a total of $140 million in sales by Willys in 1956 were from exports.

Build Jeeps, Not Cars

In addition to strong export sales, analysts credited the financial turnaround to Kaiser's decision to concentrate on production of Jeeps at the Toledo plant, while selling off other manufacturing facilities, including the large Willow Run plant sold to General Motors in 1953 for $26 million (see Jeeps and Flying Boxcars on CJ3B.info.) And, they said, "The keystone of the whole new structure, of course, was the decision of the Kaisers, who bought Willys for an estimated $62 million, to take the company out of the passenger car business."

Henry Kaiser took not only Willys, but also his parent company, out of the car business. The last Willys automobile was built in May 1955, and the last Kaiser was built a month later. The last new Kaiser design had been introduced at the 1954 Chicago Auto Show. Promotional material sent to Kaiser-Frazer automobile dealers had this to say about the prototype of the Kaiser-Darrin 161 roadster:

DKF161 Prototype
"Low, sweeping lines mark Kaiser-Frazer's new sports car, the DKF-161, which will be the first automobile with a Fiberglas reinforced plastic body to be placed in volume production. Designed by Howard A. Darrin, internationally famed custom car stylist, the sleek sports model is engineered with distinctive safety features as well as high power-to-weight performance."

The Darrin Close Up

Darrin interior These photos of a Darrin 161 with customized gold trim, preserved in a private collection, were taken by Dave Hatch who describes some of the styling of the car as anticipating the '57 T-Bird. The sliding doors, patented by Howard "Dutch" Darrin, are evident in this shot of the interior.

See also a front view (40K JPEG) of the roadster.

Darrin engine The Darrin was powered by a Hurricane 6 engine, so we have to give the designer some marks for practicality. (But the gold-plated air cleaner makes even the F-head look slightly decadent.) Cadillac V8's were later put in some of the Darrins, which gave them plenty of power for racing.

Jeeps Are Fun Too

The Jeep business looked healthy in 1956, not only because of exports, but because at the time, the Big Three automakers were not expected to get into competition with Willys in the market for small four-wheel-drive vehicles. Business Week noted that the only significant competitor was International Harvester. This market position had helped make it possible for Willys to nearly double the number of dealers selling Jeeps full-time, to 1700 dealers in North America.

The Business Week article was illustrated by a photo of the new Forward Control FC-150 truck, which had been released earlier in that same week in 1956. The FC-150 was a fun, practical and innovative vehicle designed largely by Brooks Stevens, who had worked at Willys since World War II. Stevens had been responsible for the earlier truck and station wagon designs, as well as the 1948 Jeepster. He was an innovator par excellence, but also knew how to make his designs attractive to a corporation by making maximum use of existing components, perhaps unlike the bold designs of Howard Darrin.

Rear of the DarrinHenry Kaiser saw the writing on the wall, so he did his corporation a favor (and did us all a favor) by saving the Jeep name from an uncertain fate. But he must have had a few moments of regret as he gave up on the last of the Kaiser automobiles.

The Darrin 161 was one of five sports cars of the 1950s included on a set of stamps (70K JPEG) issued by the U.S. Postal Service in 2005.

Thanks to Dave Hatch for the photos, and Reed Cary for finding the Business Week article. -- Derek Redmond

Also on CJ3B.info, see a Darrin promoting a world movie premiere, in On the Line in Toledo.

Elsewhere on the web, see:

Kaiser-Frazer sign

Kaiser-Darrin, 1954 at WeeklyDriver
Kaiser-Darrin at HowStuffWorks


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Last updated 1 December 2005 by Derek Redmond redmond@cj3b.info
All content not credited and previously copyright, is copyright Derek Redmond