TAKING AIM

By Graeme Hurst with photography by Oliver Hirtenfelder

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British marques were at the top of the sports car game in the 1950s with the likes of Austin-Healey, MG and Triumph, but they had some competition that could’ve given them a run for their money if it had only left the drawing board sooner.

It’s all too easy to get caught up in stereotypes while enjoying the classic car hobby... think of Porsche and the image of Butzi’s iconic 911 shape probably springs to mind, along with the acoustics of its howling flat-six. Ferrari? Anything red with a V12 up front or a V8 amidships, while the mention of the word ‘Jaguar’ will no doubt have you picturing an E-Type or the bank robber favourite, the 3.8-litre MkII. And Daimler? That’ll be the Coventry Cat’s softer, more luxurious range of saloon cousins... only you’d be wrong. The prestigious British luxury brand once had a sports car in its stable. What’s more, it boasted a home-grown V8. And it was rather good! If the name Daimler conjures up images of leather and walnut finishes, you’ll be surprised to know the story involves glassfibre and a motorcycle engine designer. Confused? Let me explain…

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The 1950s was a difficult time for the British motor industry. With post-war rationing in full force, car makers had adopted the government’s ‘export or die’ mantra big time in order to obtain steel. And the economically thriving US – full of returning GIs rather smitten with British sports cars – was the most important market. The MGA, Austin-Healey 100 and Jaguar XK120 were all penned with that in mind, and history records that each of those ended up with five-figure production runs. Other makes such as Daimler weren’t enjoying such buoyant balance sheets, however.

Once the epitome of luxury and a popular choice for coach-built limousines and royalty, it was caught out by the emergence of the owner/driver customer (as opposed to chauffeured) and the efficiencies of all-steel construction by the 1950s. The company had also been somewhat at odds with its chairman, Sir Bernard Docker, who favoured extravagant and often flamboyant products that sold with huge price tags but only rolled out of the factory in tiny numbers. Daimler’s attempt at open-top motoring, the Conquest Drophead Coupé, was clumsy from a styling perspective and failed to inspire. Its saloon variant did better but it was rather a staid, three-box affair and hardly export calibre. Production never got out of four figures and, as a result, the company’s balance sheet was starting to look seriously red by the middle of the decade.

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A change in leadership, when Jack Sangster ousted Docker in 1956, was the brand’s saving grace. (Actually a stay of execution, as it would turn out, but more on that later.) Sangster had joined the BSA group – Daimler’s parent company – after selling his Ariel and Triumph motorcycle companies to them. Less than two years on (in May ’58) he convinced his board to go for a sports car that would allow Daimler to get a slice of the hugely profitable action across the pond. His brief was simple: it had to appeal to American tastes, be reliable, easy to service and a joy to drive. Most importantly, it was to be powered by an all-new V8 engine. And it’s the latter where the story really begins.

Sangster astutely hired a gifted motorcycle engine designer by the name of Edward Turner. The duo had worked together for years under Sangster’s Ariel and Triumph hats and Turner was responsible for landmark two-wheel engine prodigies such as the Ariel Square Four and the Triumph Speed Twin engines. Conditioned to extracting power from small capacity engines by optimising combustion, and a stickler for ‘less is more’ from a weight perspective, Turner limited the requested V8’s capacity to 2.5-litres and used conventional pushrod overhead valve gear but added alloy heads (the block was cast-iron) with hemispherical combustion chambers. Quite unusual when V8s – typically from Detroit’s big three – were running at twice that capacity.

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Despite the diminutive cylinders, his unit pumped out an impressive 140bhp. Proof that Turner was mindful of what was needed (and not totally fixated by small engines) was his 4.5-litre version created for the company’s rather hefty Majestic Major saloon. That was good for 220bhp but it was the smaller, much lighter unit that Daimler was keen to market in sports car-guise. So, in tandem, Daimler got to work creating a body, although its shape was influenced by the hand of manufacturing economics: with tooling for steel deemed too costly for the company’s finances, the board opted for the newfound technology of fibreglass. That made styling easier, sped up development time and simplified production. It was also arguably a chance for something spectacular, yet Daimler ended up creating one of automotive history’s design curiosities.

With America rapidly becoming addicted to sharp wing lines and oodles of chrome on its cars, Sangster’s team felt compelled to meet their tastes by adding a set of fins at the rear and plenty of chrome up front on an otherwise conservative body characterised by two headlamp pods. The rather awkward result looked more like a car designed by a committee than the pen of a single designer. Under the fibreglass shape was a conventional ladder chassis (a copy of the Triumph TR design) with disc brakes all round – fairly novel for a late 1950s car – while the four-speed gearbox had an overdrive unit.

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Named the Dart, it was launched at the New York show in April 1959. The reception was less than ideal. Chrysler’s Dodge, for one thing, quickly threatened legal action over the use of the name, which they had the rights to, and the public wasn’t all that enthused over the car’s looks. After the show, Daimler came up with the more prosaic SP250 moniker, but it never adorned the car which only ever wore the Daimler badge. In reality the model has always been known affectionately as the Dart, after the press latched onto the name change. And they were actually quite effusive about the Dart’s performance. With just 1 008kg to lug around (thanks to the fibreglass), Turner’s prodigy could propel it to 60mph in a fraction under nine seconds and top out at a heady 123mph. This at a time when a Big Healey could only just do the top (100mph) and an MGA couldn’t get out of two figures.

The figures weren’t lost on the police either, with London’s Metropolitan unit placing an order for 26 Darts in 1961 in a bid to catch London’s ‘café racers’, who were infamous for attempting to complete a section of the city’s North Circular before their favourite jukebox track finished. These cars were specced with the optional automatic transmission as the mileage and nature of patrol journeys was deemed too taxing on a clutch unit. Interestingly, the Dart set the tone for fast patrol cars: the Met would later order a fleet of Sunbeam Tigers, which gave way to Rover 3500s by the end of the 1960s – all three fine choices for pursuing Ronnie Biggs and Bruce Reynolds-style bank robbers!

It was the Dart’s role as a patrol car that later helped improve the product after the Met complained about doors flying open in high-speed cornering – the chassis being notably wobbly at the best of times. That led to some stiffening with an under-dashboard hoop to give the scuttle more rigidity (known as B-spec cars). But that was after the wheel of fortune had turned. Barely a year after the Dart’s launch, the company was sold to Jaguar.

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The purchase was an astute one by Jaguar boss William Lyons, who was actually really after the increased production space. But that didn’t mean wielding the axe – Dart production carried on for a while and Jaguar even added luxury offerings such as a heater and cigarette lighter as standard (C-spec cars). But Lyons was weary of trying to turn a fibreglass product into a mass production exercise – one that needed a lot of serious R & D to avoid it damaging Jaguar’s reputation. More importantly, he wasn’t keen on going to all that effort only to compromise the E-Type’s market share, so Daimler’s sports car had to get the chop.

But that didn’t stop him from hatching a plan for its gem of an engine. Turner’s unit was used to keep the Daimler name alive by transplanting it into the popular MkII body shell to create the V8-250. It was a move that would lead to three decades of brand engineering. The 2.5-litre V8 stayed in production to power the V8-250 until 1969, but the last Daimler Dart rolled out of the factory in 1964 after a mere 2 654 had been made. By regular 1950s/’60s standards that makes it a rare thing (Lyons made over 70 000 E-Types, ditto Donald Healey and his Big Healeys).

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Get up close to one now and you’ll probably be warmed by its guppy looks and unique styling. It’s fairly detailed too, with the Majestic’s parking lights mounted above the light pods, the Daimler emblem embossed on the taillight surrounds and of course the marque’s trademark ‘crinkle’ finish to the grille surround. Inside there’s a padded leather dashboard and centre aluminium instrument panel to add to the period English feel, along with wind-up windows. It’s comfortable, if a little cramped, without being too luxurious, but then a Dart isn’t coveted for its looks or finishes: it’s all about that engine. And it doesn’t disappoint. With a rev limit of 6000rpm (comfortably 1000rpm up on most Yank small blocks) and less inertia for its mechanical innards to overcome – thanks to its small capacity – the response to a prod from your right foot is instant and the engine feels like it’ll spin to eternity. And the gloriously creamy V8 sound you are rewarded with from the exhaust makes hitting the redline almost addictive.

But it’s not just about noise: a Dart is impressively quick off the mark even by modern standards, while the gear change is nice and rifle-bolt sharp. Only you won’t get to use it as much you might think, as the 2.5-litre unit has a wide torque band – another excuse to revel in that fine aural accompaniment. Driving one over five decades after launch is a chance to reflect how the Dart really is one ʼ50s sports car that punched above its weight. It’s just a shame that it never got to run with the rest of the pack. Perhaps if Daimler’s board hadn’t entered the great ‘British sports car export club’ so late, the model might have had a chance to be the first in a line of sports cars. Instead it ended up as the last of a line of true Daimler-designed-and-built cars from a once-celebrated marque – one that now sadly only resides as a nameplate in Jaguar’s company vault.

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Comments

Bard
Bard
1 week, 6 days ago

Great research and a great read. I always wondered how a 2.5 V8 engine landed up in the Mk2 Jag.


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