1960 Daimler SP250
1960 Daimler SP250, click image to enlarge
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

The Daimler name goes back to the dawn of automotive history; in 1886 Germans Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler introduced to the world what were recognized as the first true motor cars.

Daimler and some partners soon formed a car-building company, and in 1893 the Daimler Motor Syndicate Ltd. – later Daimler Co. Ltd. – was established in Coventry, England, to manufacture the German cars under licence.

The English company was soon making cars of its own design, and in 1900, the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, bought a Daimler, establishing an association with the British crown that would last more than 50 years.

Befitting royalty, Daimlers evolved into mostly quiet conservative vehicles, exemplified by the adoption of the Knight sleeve-valve engine in 1909. The 12-cylinder Double Six Daimler, introduced in 1927, was much favoured by the royal family.

Daimler continued in its staid ways for a while following the Second World War, then reorganized in the 1950s. It began to take a broader market view, and brought out the sporty Conquest. It also noted the rising popularity, particularly in North America, of British sports cars like MGs, Jaguars, Triumphs and Austin-Healeys.

Seeking hard dollars, Daimler entered the sports car business. Given the company’s reputation, it was a most unexpected decision.

B.S.A., the famous firearms manufacturer, better known for its motorcycles than for its cars, had owned Daimler since 1910. To design the sports car, motorcycle engineer Edward Turner was brought over from B.S.A. as managing director. He developed two new V-8s, a 2.5 litre for the sports car, and 4.5 litre for the big sedans.

With little in the way of sports car background, it’s not surprising that the Daimler staff looked around to see how others were doing it. Of particular interest was Triumph, also of Coventry, and it was no coincidence that the Daimler’s chassis bore a striking resemblance to the Triumph TR3A.

The front coil springs and A-arms were the same as the Triumph’s, for example, and the four-speed manual transmission was similar. The Daimler later offered an automatic, which the Triumph didn’t. Brakes were quite advanced, being four-wheel discs.

The heart of Daimler’s sports car was its engine. Turner designed a 90-degree overhead valve V-8 with cross-flow, light alloy heads and hemispherical combustion chambers. Induction was through two SU carburetors.

The styling bore no similarity to the Triumph. It had a large rounded hood that sloped down to a wide, oval, eggcrate grille. This was dominated by a big “V” to advertise the rare, for Britain, V-8 engine. Familiar Daimler flutes surrounded the grille.

Styling character lines, probably more for body stiffening than for character, curved over the front and rear fenders. In an era of tailfins, the Daimler had them. Most observers didn’t call the Daimler beautiful, but a least it offered the comfort of roll-up windows.

Because Daimler didn’t plan large scale production, and to save money on metal stamping dies, the body was made of glass fibre. This was a fairly rare, although it had been used by Chevrolet for the Corvette, and by Lotus.

Daimler introduced a pre-production example called the Dart at the New York Auto Show in April, 1959. It drew an immediate response from the Chrysler Corporation, which had used the Dart name on a concept car, and planned to launch the name on a 1960 Dodge production car. Daimler renamed its car the SP (for sports) 250 (2.5 litre engine).

Sales began in the late fall of 1959. The car magazine testers found the engine a delight, but criticised the lack of body stiffness and poor workmanship on the fibreglass. The SP250 suffered badly from cowl shake, and the British Autocar’s tester had the disconcerting experience of having the driver’s door pop open twice during hard turns.

When the SP250 got to North America it suffered the same criticism. Road & Track’s testers found cowl shake the single biggest criticism of the Daimler. But they loved the engine, finding the V-8 “… without a doubt the outstanding feature of the machine.”

It developed 140 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 155 pounds-feet of torque at 3,600, enough to propel the 1,025 kg (2,260 lb) car from zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in a respectable 9.1 seconds. They reported a top speed of 196 km/h (122 mph).

The SP250 got off to a somewhat slow start, in part because of quality problems with its body. Then in 1960 B.S.A. sold Daimler to Jaguar, and with Jaguar’s new E-type just months away, there were other priorities.

In spite of the emphasis being placed on Jaguars, however, the company upgraded the SP250 in 1961 by stiffening the body and making bumpers standard equipment. It was further improved in 1963, but its early slow start and poor quality reputation seemed to plague it to the end, which came quietly in mid-1964. Just 2,648 had been built, and Daimler was out of the sports car business as quickly as it had entered it.

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