(first posted 2/23/2017) As we saw yesterday, Armstrong Siddeley stopped making cars in 1960, having weathered the ‘50s with increasing doubts and dwindling sales. That same year, another British automotive icon also went six feet under: Daimler were bought out by Jaguar. The fall had been a big one: from unchallenged royal barge in 1950 to the big cat’s dinner ten years later. But this Deadly Sin had more to do with people than with actual cars.
In the beginning, there was Daimler. The German company sprouted a British subsidiary in 1896, just when Parliament relaxed its laws on horseless carriages. The parent company and its British offshoot soon diverged, the former morphing into Mercedes and the latter being taken over by Birmingham Small Arms (BSA) in 1910. BSA was by then a well-established 50-year-old company that made everything from handguns to bicycles and small cars. Under BSA, Daimler cars flourished, becoming the official vehicles of the English monarchs for decades. Daimler became a proponent of the Knight sleeve-valve system for many of its cars, as well as a keen user of the Wilson pre-selector gearbox, combined with Daimler’s own “fluid flywheel”. The BSA group bought Lanchester in 1931, which focused on mid-sized cars. Under the BSA marque, the group marketed smaller cars, as well as FWD three-wheelers and a line of highly praised motorcycles.
Despite the total destruction of the Coventry factory in 1940, Daimler kept calm and carried on. The 2-litre (10 HP) Lanchester LD10 was the BSA Group’s cheapest 1946 offering, a pre-war chassis with a new Briggs body. Well above, the prestigious Daimlers reigned supreme. The only real domestic competition were Rolls-Royce/Bentley. But Daimler had a fuller range than Rolls: they produced the modest 2.5 litre DB18 (renamed Consort in 1948), the swanky 4.1 litre DE27 and the gargantuan 5.5 litre 150 bhp DE36 straight-8, which was bigger, longer and even more expensive than the Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith.
Daimler outsourced much of their body production, even post-war: Daimler’s only in-house design was the DB18 saloon. Hooper, which had been acquired by BSA (along with Barker and Carbodies), was particularly associated with the big Daimlers – and was, “By Appointment to H.M. the King,” the coachbuilder of reference. This was the age of “razor edge” design, when Britain’s large cars held on to conservative mid-‘30s styling with flowing fenders, massive chromed headlamps and upright grilles. This look suited Daimlers rather well, but it would have to evolve someday.
Sir Bernard Docker (1896-1978) became the chairman of BSA in 1940. His father, Dudley Docker, had masterminded BSA’s take-over of Daimler back in 1910. The only son of a millionaire, Sir Bernard was a renowned playboy and big spender (he commissioned the Shemara yacht, one of the largest of its time, for £800,000 in 1938), but also a capable administrator.
In 1948, Sir Bernard wanted something with a bit more pizazz than the usual staid Daimler style, something more contemporary. He commissioned Hooper to create a 20-foot green convertible on a DE36 chassis as a show car. The Green Goddess was hailed as a triumph of post-war British style and Hooper received orders for about eight copies. Sir Bernard kept the first one for his personal use, but at least Daimler got a few straight-8 sales out of the operation. But soon, Sir Bernard’s private life was to take a major turn, one that would also affect the future of BSA and Daimler.
Nora Turner was born in 1906 to a working class family in Derby. She became a dancer and hostess in London in the ‘20s, displaying a talent for attracting older rich men: “Through my life, I set both my sights and my price high.” She was married to Clement Cullingham, the (greying) head of Henekeys wine and spirits, from 1938 to his death in 1945, leaving her £1.5 million. Soon, she remarried to Fortnum & Mason and Cerebos Salt Co. chairman Sir William Collins. “He was 69; I married him for his money,” Nora later admitted. When he died two years later, she was £6 million the better for it. She lived the high life in her Mayfair flat, where she entertained the West End’s glitterati in her own inimitable style: crude and nouveau-riche to some, fresh and lively to others. It was there, in 1948, that her famous pink diamond ring was stolen, later to inspire the first Pink Panther film. That year, she met Sir Bernard Docker and he soon proposed; they were married in February 1949.
Keen to bring “a bit of glamour to the business of making motorcycles,” Lady Docker took an immediate interest in her husband’s business empire, particularly its luxury automobile branch – and he listened. There was legitimate cause for concern: by 1950, Daimler sales were slipping noticeably. The cars remained ensconced in pre-war style and technology, and competition was heating up.
Potentates and monarchs were being tempted by Cadillac and Rolls-Royce; Lord-Mayors and plutocrats were increasingly eyeing Austin Sheerlines or Humber Pullmans. Although several crowned heads (the Emperor of Japan, the King of Thailand or the Queen of the Netherlands) still ordered the odd DE36, the model’s intrinsic qualities were marred by occasional breakdowns, which started to erode that exclusive clientele’s loyalty. The 2.5 litre range was threatened by Lagonda, Alvis and Jaguar, all of which had powerful new engines.
Daimler engineers needed time to respond to these challenges. In the meantime, Lady Docker decided to emulate Sir Bernard’s Green Goddess. At the 1951 Earl’s Court Motor Show, the Daimler stand hosted the first of the “Docker Daimlers” – the Gold Car, a DE36 chassis clad in a Hooper saloon body with £900’s worth of gold plating and 7000 six-pointed gold stars. Now people were finally going to notice Daimler! This was Lady Docker’s main gripe with the marque: “Whenever it is admired by the Italians or the French, they call it a Delahaye,” she despaired. That was quite true: Daimlers were virtually unknown in mainland Europe and the United States.
Sir Bernard put his wife on Hooper’s board of directors. The fox was now right in the chicken coop. From now on, at every London Motor Show, a new Hooper-bodied show car would grace the Daimler stand, as Lady Docker sought to “bring glamour and happiness into drab lives. The working class loves everything I do.”
In 1952, the new Docker Daimler was the “Blue Clover” DE36 coupé, which featured lizard skin inserts on the seats, dash and around the steering wheel. This was only the beginning of Lady Docker’s reptilian genocide…
In 1953, the new Daimler 3 litre Regency chassis was graced with an aluminum coupé body with metallic grey and sky blue paint: the “Silver Flash”. Most of the interior (along with the bespoke luggage) was finished in crimson crocodile hide.
The 1954 Docker folly was called “Stardust”. It was a four-door saloon on the new large Daimler chassis, the DK400. Its body looked similar to the 1951 Golden Daimler, though the new chassis was noticeably smaller than its straight-8 predecessor. It reportedly cost £12,500 and featured 5000 silver stars on the doors and rear fenders, as well as a set of four specially-made suitcases finished in blue crocodile skin to match the interior. Seats were upholstered in fine brocatelle.
Lady Docker outdid herself for 1955 with the “Golden Zebra” DK400 coupé. Again, all the brightwork was gold-plated. But this time, the star attraction was the genuine zebra skin interior (because, as she said, “Mink is too hot to sit on.”) Furthermore, the wood inserts were replaced by ivory. Like the other Docker Daimlers, the Golden Zebra was featured at length in the period press – even US magazines could not avoid mentioning it, tongue firmly in cheek.
It’s fair to say polite society in Britain was appalled by the Docker Daimlers. They were seen as vulgar and excessive, the essence of the Ladyship’s parvenue attitude. The cars were featured in the tabloids as much as they were in the automotive press. Sure, it put Daimler’s name in the papers. But it also put a lot of people off the cars themselves, not least the Windsors, who switched allegiance to Rolls-Royce – at a time when these things mattered a great deal to quite a few potential customers. The working class, despite Lady Docker’s opinion, was probably just as disgusted by the Docker Daimlers as the aristocracy.
Meanwhile, Sir Bernard’s stewardship of BSA and Daimler was proving less than wise. The bottom rung of the ladder, the 14 HP Lanchester, was too expensive, bulky and slow; production was stopped in late 1953 for good. Daimler still needed a smaller car, so they took the Lanchester’s Barker body, grafted a Daimler grille a lights on it and called it the Daimler Conquest. It inherited the Consort’s old 2.5 litre 6-cyl. but sold poorly, still too expensive and now rather ungainly. A twin-carb version, the Conquest Century, was also offered. Feeling the trend for sporty open-top cars, Daimler also tried to market the Conquest Roadster, whose massive fluted grille and tacked-on rear fins looked like they belonged on other cars.
The upper-mid-range car, the 3.5 litre Regency, was hardly a success in its segment in the UK or abroad. At the top of the range, the 4.5 litre DK400 now punched below Rolls-Royce (or even Armstrong Siddeley) in terms of quality and speed, laboring under Hooper’s flowing “Empress” bodies.
But it wasn’t so much the cars as the image that the Dockers projected that BSA shareholders found increasingly objectionable. Also, the Dockers were costing the company a pretty penny. The Golden Zebra had cost a bundle in itself, but then Lady Docker (as in previous years) had it shipped to the French Riviera, drove it to Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly’s wedding in Monaco and when she returned to London, she sent hotel, casino, fuel, clothing and restaurant bills to BSA. She viewed it as a PR exercise. They started viewing it as taking the mickey.
The inevitable showdown took place at the BSA annual general meeting of 30 May 1956. A group of key investors, including several large banks and insurers, were keen to tempt the Dockers out with a ‘50s version of the golden parachute, drafting a face-saving statement explaining Sir Bernard was to retire “on health grounds”. The offer came back within ten minutes with the word “BALLS!” scrawled on the page in red lipstick. The gloves came off and Sir Bernard was voted out without a penny – instead being presented with a £70,000 bill for his wife’s extravagant cars and dubious tax deductions. Lady Docker was chiefly miffed because it forced her to cancel her elaborate plans for her 50th birthday party.
Daimler tried to redress the situation by hiring Edward Turner to develop a family of new engines. The hemi V8s were finally launched in new Daimlers by 1959, but to little effect. The company’s bottom line had been too badly eroded by a decade of stagnation and decreasing sales. Besides, the new cars had brilliant engines, but they still had Daimler/Hooper styling, which remained atrocious.
BSA were unravelling and started selling off parts of itself: in 1957, BSA Bicycles had been bought by Raleigh and BSA now needed to sell Daimler and its Coventry factory to salvage the consortium’s other operations. A deal was struck with Jaguar in June 1960, which spelled the end of Daimler as an independent automaker.
BSA and Triumph motorcycles lasted through to the ‘70s, but that branch also went under. All that remains of the once mighty BSA Group today is a small shotgun and air rifle factory in Birmingham. Hooper also closed its doors after having designed and built a handful of ghastly coupés based on the new Daimler V8 roadster (itself no oil painting), ending their glorious 150-year history on a sour and clumsy note.
The Dockers, for their part, continued making headlines for a number of years. They were banned from Monaco in 1958 after Lady Docker tore up a paper Monegasque flag at a party because of a perceived snub from Prince Rainier. The couple gradually sold most of their possessions to pay for their Champagne-fueled lifestyle, ultimately moving to Jersey as tax exiles. They were booted out when Lady Docker was reported to have said that the islanders were “the most frightfully boring, dreadful people that have ever been born.” The Dockers spent their twilight years in relative discretion in Mallorca; he died in a nursing home in England in 1978 and she passed away in London five years later.
Daimler-badged cars remained in production for a long time after the Jaguar buy-out. Some argue the best Jaguar Mark 2s were the Daimler-badged models, whose 2.5 litre hemi V8 was a much better engine in many ways than the 2.4 litre Jaguar six. Jaguar kept the bizarre SP250 fiberglass roadster on the production lines for a while, as well as the 4.5 litre Majestic Major – the last “real” Daimler saloon, which had been launched just before the takeover.
By 1969, the Daimler V8s were no more and the marque became a badge-engineered Jaguar – with the exception of the DS420 limousine, which was Jaguar-based but had unique sheetmetal. Daimler continued as a zombie marque for the next 40 years before Jaguar’s new owners, Tata, decided to mercifully put it to sleep in 2009.
Thank you for reading these British Deadly Sins. I’m sure there will be other installments coming soon, as the UK is a rich tapestry of automotive dreams and nightmares. Somebody could get the ball rolling on BL – lots to be said there. I will try to explore other smaller automakers and their DSs. A German edition is also probable…