By the late 1950s, Daimler was an storied and formerly prestigious brand looking for a new role and a niche. The days of the Royal household exclusively using Daimler were long gone; Rolls-Royce had taken that slot, with the prestige and recognition that came with it. Jaguar was in the ascendant as the glamorous owner-driven luxury-sporting brand, and brands like Rover, Sunbeam–Talbot and Triumph had challenged Daimler’s more modest Lanchester models after the war, contributing to that brand’s demise in 1950. It was time to try something new.
Daimler, based in Coventry, was part of the BSA (or Birmingham Small Arms) Group – a collection of businesses also producing military and sporting guns and motorcycles (BSA, Triumph, Norton and Villiers were all in the BSA group) and had a product range that included a full range of buses, competing with Leyland and AEC, as well as the luxury cars.
Daimler’s history was one the proudest of all British manufacturers and one of the oldest, having been founded in 1896 to exploit Daimler Motoren Gesellshaft’s German patents in Britain, using the Daimler name. To clarify, it was a separate company that had access to the Daimler name.
Daimlers were first used by the British Royal Family in 1900, after selling a car to the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, who awarded Daimler the coveted Royal warrant in 1902. However, the top slot of State Limousine went to Rolls Royce in 1950 and more recently to Bentley, with a specially commissioned car supplied in 2008. The cars above are on display at the museum at Sandringham House, the Queen’s country retreat.
During the 1950s, Daimler and BSA made several attempts to recover the situation, partly by trying to compete with Jaguar–which proved difficult given Jaguar’s higher volumes, lower costs, strong image and motorsport successes–and partly by trying to go upmarket, aiming at the glamour image and niche, with the series of special cars that became known as the Docker Daimlers. These were named after the Chairman of BSA, Sir Bernard Docker and his, er, characterful and strong minded wife, Lady Norah Docker.
One direction Daimler elected to pursue was a sports car, using a new 2.5 litre V8 engine designed by Edward Turner. He had led the motorcycle companies within BSA, and in 1956 became Chief Executive of the Automotive Divison of BSA, comprising by then BSA, Ariel and Triumph motorbikes, Daimler cars and buses, and Carbodies, building the London taxi.
Turner’s background was in motorcycle engine design and this was evident in the engine selected for the new car. (This photo is from another CC Daimler) The little 2.5 litre hemi-head V8 used a cylinder head and cylinder very similar to his legendary Triumph motorcycle twin cylinder engines, with hemispherical combustion chambers and an included angle of 90o. The valves were all driven off a single camshaft positioned centrally, high up in the V. It also looks rather like a baby Chrysler Hemi V8. The engine debuted in the Daimler Dart and, later in 4.5 litre form, in the traditional DR450 Limousine and Majestic Major saloon.
The Dart sports car had a fibreglass body over a traditional chassis, and was first shown in 1959 at the New York Motor Show. Daimler had to quickly change the name to SP250, as Chrysler made a fairly predictable objection. Colloquially, the Dart name stuck in the UK though.
It was essentially a very simple car – a conventional ladder frame chassis, reportedly copied from the Triumph TR3, semi elliptic rear suspension, coil front suspension, four speed gearbox, all round disc brakes and recirculating ball steering, coupled with the intriguing V8 engine and that distinctive styling. Early cars were notoriously flexible, with doors coming open regularly.
It launched onto the British market in 1959 and was tested as a 120 mph car, with strong acceleration. It was good in a straight line, but the flexible chassis and heavy steering made it an unrewarding car for a cross country blast.
On 1960, Jaguar bought Daimler from BSA, not for the product, but for the production capacity. Jaguar’s Chairman William Lyons had elected to obtain additional capacity not by building a new facility but by buying Daimler and their facilities, which was close to Jaguar in Coventry, an area in which Jaguar would have had huge difficulties in getting the necessary approvals to build capacity. This was the era of the dispersal of the British industry from the industrial West Midlands, with facilities such as Rootes in Linwood, Scotland, Ford and GM in North West England and Rover’s transmission factory on South Wales being established.
Jaguar’s purchase of Daimler short circuited that process, and allowed the phased elimination of the dated Daimler products. Jaguar quickly stiffened up the chassis of the SP250 with some additional bracing between the A posts and added bumpers, creating the B series, as seen here.
When Jaguar launched the E type in 1961, and it was clear that the Daimler SP250’ss fate was sealed. There was a final set of minor revisions in 1963 but production ended in 1964, after just 2,645 had been built.
This example is a 1962 series B, with the additional bracing and bumpers but lacking the final luxuries of the series C. It has been slowly and carefully restored to the condition shown here over the last few years and is on the final run to being usable – the biggest tasks left are adding seatbelts and the trim details that are visibly incomplete. And it shares a garage with an 1973 MG BGT.
The 2.5 Litre engine was used by Jaguar in a version of the Jaguar Mk2, known as the Daimler DS250 until 1968. Apart from the engine and an non optional gearbox, it was effectively identical to the Jaguar Mk 2, though more expensive and less numerous. And it was a bit of an embarrassment to Jaguar’s 2.4 liter Mk.2, as the Daimler V8 was decidedly more powerful and faster.
The Daimler SP250 is an odd looking sports car, and had distinct weaknesses, but its lusty little V8 engine most certainly wasn’t one of them.