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1934 Rolls-Royce Fernandez & Darrin : Classic Cars

Although Carrosserie Fernandez et Darrin was based in Paris, France, it was founded by Howard A. ”Dutch” Darrin, and was for all intents and purposes a continuation of Hibbard & Darrin, which was founded by two Americans, financed by a third, and sold close to 50% of their coachwork to American citizens.

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. The two cars were ordered through Hispano-Suiza’s London Agent, J. Smith & Co. Ltd. and Fernandez & Darrin were selected to furnish the bodies, which were to be finished in identical colors and complimentary styles. The cars were completed in six months and delivered to the Rothschilds at the end of September.

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 J-12 coupe was sold by the Rothschild family to industrialist A. J. McAlpine in 1949 for his personal use. McAlpine was plagued by the cars’ poor rearward vision and had teardrop-shaped windows installed the blind rear quarters and had the car repainted in cream. The H-6 coupe chauffeur remained with the Rothschild family until 1984 when Christies auctioned off the car for Anthony de Rothschild's son, Evelyn. 70 years later, the two siblings were restored to their original condition and reunited at the 54th Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance.

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.

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 one of Hollywood’s greatest moguls, Darryl F. Zanuck. He had met Zanuck 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.

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.

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Sources : 1934 Rolls-Royce Fernandez & Darrin Photo | 1934 Rolls-Royce Fernandez & Darrin Article


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