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THE TERM custom coachwork may not resonate with the name Ford as readily as with Roll-Royce, Duesenberg or Packard. Nor does a relocation from Paris to Los Angeles seem the ideal business model for a custom coachbuilder. However, this 1937 Ford Darrin Cabriolet is an elegant counterexample.
The coachwork of Fernandez & Darrin of Paris is featured at the 2014 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, Sunday, August 17. My favorite interactions with the works of Howard “Dutch” Darrin came years ago, at 2003 Pebble Beach and in the late 1950s.
Though much of his fame came under the sobriquet “Darrin of Paris,” Dutch was born in Cranford, New Jersey. He flew in France during World War I and, briefly afterward, ran Aero Limited, an airline serving New Jersey, Florida and the Bahamas.
In 1923, Dutch and U.S. Army Signal Corps colleague Thomas Hibbard returned to France to form Carrosserie Hibbard et Darrin. One of their customers was William Randolph Hearst, for whom they built a Duesenberg Model J convertible town car.
Hibbard et Darrin introduced an innovative construction technique called Sylentlyte, as in silent and light. Thin-wall aluminum castings replaced the traditional wooden structure perched atop the rudimentary chassis of the era. Body panels were attached to the castings for a lightweight, rattle-free assembly. The technique was expensive, however, and by 1929 was abandoned.
Custom coachwork had challenging times in the Great Depression. Hibbard et Darrin closed its doors in 1931. From 1932 into 1937, Dutch partnered with J. Fernandez to form Carrosserie Fernandez et Darrin. One of the firm’s creations was a 1933 Duesenberg convertible said to be for Greta Garbo.
According to the Washington Post, July 21, 1935, during the boom years of 1927 and 1928, more than 25,000 Americans worked in Paris. By 1935, this had dwindled to 7000.
Darrin sensed the coming of war and returned to the U.S. in 1937. He was good friends with Hollywood types such as movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck, so establishing Darrin of Paris made excellent sense in this California locale. Indeed, it’s said Dutch had the ability to turn on an authentic French accent if warranted, and his business flourished. (See http://goo.gl/z34Xje for a history of the firm.)
A first customer was movie star Dick Powell (http://wp.me/p2ETap-2kZ) who commissioned Darrin to customize his 1937 Ford.
Some sources suggest the result is the Ford Darrin Cabriolet shown here; others suggest this car was commissioned by Hollywood restaurateur/English Jensen importer Percy Morgan. Either way, the car is a wonderful example of subtle customization of a Ford Model 78 Deluxe.
Darrin of Paris and its special-bodied Packards attracted Hollywood celebrities, including noted car guy Clark Gable (http://wp.me/p2ETap-4k), Carol Lombard, Errol Flynn, Rosalind Russell and Al Jolson.
Darrin maintained an active consulting role with Packard into the onset of World War II. During the war, he served as a contract flight instructor for the U.S. Army.
Post-war, Dutch worked as a design consultant for Kaiser Frazer. One of his memorable designs was the 1954 Kaiser Darrin, a two-seat sports car based on the company’s Henry J small car. It had a fiberglass body (one of the first, along with the 1953 Chevrolet Corvette’s) and innovative doors that opened by sliding forward into the front flanks.
In 1965, Darrin was honored by Syracuse University as one of the top 15 industrial designers of the 20th century. He died in 1982. In 2010, he was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.
My first drive of a sports car of any sort was in 1958 when I briefly piloted a Kaiser Darrin. Other than my dad’s 1950 Ford, on which I learned to drive, it was only the second car of my experience with a stick shift. The car’s owner (a friend’s friend) was kind in not criticizing my ineptitude. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014