1959-1964 Daimler SP250


The 1959-1964 Daimler SP250 sports car could be likened to a dog walking on its hind legs -- it was not done well, but most people were very surprised to have seen it done at all.

Since the Daimler marque is largely unknown or misunderstood in the USA, a word of explanation might be in order. Beginning in the 1890s, the German Daimler company authorized production of its vehicles under license in other countries, and that is how the British Daimler automobile came to be.

black sp250 ragtop
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
Taking a covetous look at the success of MG
and Triumph, Daimler decided to enter the
sports-car field in 1959 with the SP250.

However, by the early 1900s all links with Germany had been severed, and in 1910 Daimler merged with BSA (of motorcycle fame). Daimler cars were, and still are, built in Conventry.

For many years, Daimler turned out mainly middle-class cars, along with a limited number of upper-class luxury limousines. The latter enjoyed British Royal patronage for more than 50 years. Then, in the 1950s, the product line went through a traumatic period.

Chairman Sir Bernard Docker, aided and abetted by his flamboyant wife, Lady Norah, not only introduced a series of over-decorated show cars but began to take Daimler down-market in the quest for volume sales.

The 2.2-liter Conquest and Conquest Century series were partially successful, but the 1.6-liter Lanchester Sprite of 1956 (Lanchester had been a Daimler-owned marque since 1931) was canceled at the last minute after all the tooling had been completed.

As a result, Sir Bernard and Lady Norah were ousted in 1956. Jack Sangster became chairman in his place, and Edward Turner of BSA joined the management team to strengthen design and engineering efforts.

In 1957-1958, Turner set about developing two new V-8 engines while his engineers began drafting new cars to accept them. In one of the most amazing policy changes ever adopted by such an old, established firm, Daimler had elected to enter the sports car market.

maroon sp250 convertible with wire wheels
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
SP250 buyers had a choice of soft or hard tops, disc or wire wheels.

The decision amazed most everyone, because Daimler had never before built sports cars and had no experience marketing them either. It was a big change, much like the introduction of the daring 1953 Chevrolet Corvette into the staid Chevrolet passenger car line.

The corporate reasoning, however, was easy to analyze -- British sports cars were selling well all over the world, especially in the U.S. The “Big Three” consisted of the MGA, Austin-Healey 100 Six, and Triumph TR3A. Clearly, management thought, here was an opportunity to be exploited.

With no sports car experience to fall back on, Daimler engineers looked to existing sports cars for inspiration. Since the TR3A was also built in Coventry, they started out by copying many of its features, as one look at the SP250’s chassis, mechanical layouts, and front suspension will confirm.

Although the new car was due to go on sale in the autumn of 1959, Daimler rushed ahead and exhibited a pre-production car at the New York Auto Show in April, where Chrysler executives were astounded to see that it carried the model name “Dart.”

It was quickly pointed out that Chrysler had rights to the name via the 1957 Ghia-built Dodge Dart “dream car” and that Dart would be used that fall on 1960-model Dodge production cars.

Daimler had to back down; henceforth, the sports car was known by its project code -- SP250 -- where SP stood for SPorts car, and 250 meant that it used a 2.5-liter engine.

Go to the next section for details on the design of the 1959-1964 Daimler SP250.

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1959-1964 Daimler SP250 Design

The 1959-1964 Daimler SP250 design was little changed from the pre-production machine, except that a front bumper had been added as an extra-cost option. Daimler made it clear that SP250 sales were specifically aimed at North America and that most of its first year’s production, projected at 10 units per day, would go to the U.S. and Canada.

The box-section chassis was almost totally cribbed from the TR3A; it used the same coil spring and wishbone front suspension (the components even came from the same supplier), had cruciform cross bracing under the seats, and was underslung at the rear, which is to say that the back axle assembly rode above the side members.

Compared to the TR3A, however, the wheelbase measured four inches longer (at 92 inches), while the front and rear tracks were spread five and two inches wider, respectively. The dimensions promised more space in the passenger cabin and, perhaps, better roadholding.

The SP250’s most outstanding feature, of course, was Edward Turner’s magnificent V-8. Powerful and torquey, it looked mean in the same way that Chrysler’s hemi always looked more purposeful than other Detroit V-8s -- the Daimler V-8 looked ready to smoke the tires off the nearest dragster or single-seat racer.

sp250, no bumper
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
The swoop lines and wide grille of the SP250 looked better with the bumper removed.

Behind the engine lurked another bit of plagiarism: the gearbox. Not only was this the first conventional four-speed manual to be offered by Daimler for 30 years (postwar Daimlers always used either a pre-selector or a fully automatic transmission), but it was a dead ringer for the Triumph TR3A design.

In Daimler’s case, however, the internal ratios differed. Daimler also offered a Borg Warner automatic, something not seen on a sporting Triumph until the TRs of the mid-1970s.

To keep the performance in check, Daimler chose Girling disc brakes on front and rear wheels. All in all (and if one hadn’t already studied the design of the popular Triumph), this was a neat and workmanlike chassis and drivetrain.

Daimler, unfortunately, had not stooped to studying its rivals’ body styling with enough care. The best that could ever be said of the SP250’s looks is that it was unique, and quite impossible to mistake for any other car.

Think of a late-1950s gimmick, and the SP250 had it -- a rather MGA-like droopy nose, with a wide-grin TR3A-like grille, a set of tail fins, and a semi-wraparound windscreen like that of the contemporary Sunbeam Alpine, but with wind-up windows and sidelamps fixed immediately above the headlamps to accord with latest Daimler policy.

Since the company did not expect to sell the SP250 in large numbers (at least by Triumph standards), they chose to build the bodies from fiberglass (as used at the time by Corvette in the U.S. and Lotus in the UK). At least it helped them form the complex contours of the body without resorting to expensive press tooling, but it didn’t help raise the standards of rigidity or product quality.

One result of Daimler’s management upheaval in the 1950s was that motorcycle designer Edward Turner joined the board of directors. Since the company desperately needed a range of new engines, Turner schemed out a pair of 90-degree V-8s that were similar in layout but utterly different in detail.

For the SP250, he designed a 2548-cc unit, and for the larger cars (the Majestic Major) there was a 4561-cc unit. Since the numbers involved were small, little production tooling was needed, or provided -- as Jaguar discovered to their dismay when they took Daimler over in 1960.

Edward Turner’s design philosophy was floated in a British magazine, The Motor, in April, 1958, by which time the 2548-cc engine was already designed. The central feature was the use of light-alloy cylinder heads, part-spherical combustion chambers, and overhead valves opposed at an angle of 70 degrees, with operation from a single camshaft mounted high in the cast iron cylinder block.

Naturally, there was cross-flow breathing, and twin semi-downdraught SU carburetors nestled in the center of the vee. It was an extremely free revving engine, with maximum power coming on at 5800 rpm, although the unit could be wound well beyond that if the driver insisted.

Find out more about 1959-1964 Daimler SP250 performance on the next page.

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1959-1964 Daimler SP250 Performance

There was little to complain about in terms of 1959-1964 Daimler SP250 performance. The engine had great potential, which was never fully realized after the Jaguar takeover, although it also powered the Daimler 2.5-liter saloon (which was actually a Jaguar Mk II with an engine transplant).

Problems piled up in the first year, as The Autocar noted in an October, 1959, road test: “Glass-fibre bodies, though far from being new, are still something of a novelty, and that of this first production right-hand-drive SP250 requires much greater rigidity and attention to detail finish . . . on all but the smoothest roads there is considerable steering wheel shake, and some body flexing. On two occasions of fast cornering to the left the driver’s door flew open . . .”

Yet there was no criticism of the performance or fuel consumption. A top speed of 122 miles per hour easily bettered that of the Austin-Healey 3000 (114 mph in overdrive), as did the fuel consumption of 29.1 miles per Imperial gallon, compared with 20.0 mpg. Since the Daimler could spring to 60 mph in a mere 10.2 seconds, it seemed to have a lot to offer.

On this side of the pond, Road & Track tested the SP250 in early 1960 and called the acceleration “sensational,” and proved it by zipping from 0-60 in a mere 9.1 seconds, with the quarter-mile run accomplished in 16.9 seconds with a terminal speed of 83 mph.

Like The Autocar, R&T road-testers recorded a top speed of 122 mph, while averaging 19 to 26 miles per U.S. gallon. They agreed with other contemporary reports that the engine easily stood out as the best feature of the car and that cowl shake rated as the worst.

Nonetheless, they liked the car well enough to comment that with the shake eliminated, “we think the Daimler will be a very desirable sports car.”

There remained, however, another problem: price. In the UK the Daimler sold for £1,395, compared to £1,168 for the Austin-Healey 3000 and £991 for the TR3A. In the U.S., the SP250 retailed for $3,842, barely undercutting the 1960 Corvette roadster, which started at $3,872 -- tough competition indeed for a newcomer.

sp250, black 2-seater
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
The SP250 made for a roomy two-seater, which
was useful in police work.

Daimler worked hard to improve their new sports car, both in quality and in options availability. But the designers must have been shocked and disappointed when they saw their company taken over by Jaguar in June, 1960, especially since it was known in Coventry that Jaguar also had a new sports car model, the legendary E-Type, almost ready for launch.

Jaguar’s chairman, Sir William Lyons, was not only known to be a great artist with a real eye for the right sort of styling but also to hold in scathing contempt a poor effort. He would not be one to tolerate poor quality for his company’s products, so efforts were redoubled to refine the SP250.

In April 1961, therefore, the improved “B-Specification” SP250 went on sale, with a much-stiffened body shell. Front and rear bumpers were standardized, as was a telescoping steering column. In the meantime, a choice of wire spoke or steel disc wheels, hard or soft top, manual or automatic transmission, had already been publicized.

Two years later, the “C-Specification” derivative went on sale, the changes being only to the equipment, which now included a heater/demister unit in the base price.

Alas, none of these efforts really helped to increase the car’s appeal, for if a car gets a poor reputation when new, it can take years to recover -- ask Chevrolet about the Corvair, for instance. Thus, the last SP250s left the factory during 1964, and Daimler’s short-lived attempt to produce sports cars ended there.

Pity, too, because a completely redesigned and re-engineered SP250 was already well under way, and it looked to be an altogether better car. Styling, for example, sported a completely new look that would have compared well with any Aston Martin or MGB of the period, while rack-and-pinion steering was specified to replace the less precise cam-and-lever type.

By this time, however, Jaguar couldn’t build E-Types fast enough, so there was no room -- or need -- for a Mk II SP250 in the product line.

Find 1959-1964 Daimler SP250 specifications in our final section.

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1959-1964 Daimler SP250 Specifications

While performance was excellent and styling was good -- if not cliche -- the 1959-1964 Daimler SP250 was hurt by Daimler's buyout by Jaguar. Find 1959-1964 Daimler SP250 specifications in the following chart.

Daimler SP250 Specifications

General
Wheelbase
92 inches
Overall Length
161 inches
Width60.5 inches
Height
50.3 inches
Tread, front
50 inches
Tread, rear
48 inches
Curb weight
2,260 pounds
Tire size
5.90 x 15
Steering, turns
lock to lock 2.7
Brakes
Girling 4-wheel disc
Engine

Type
Overhead-valve V-8
Bore/stroke
3 x 2.75 inches
Displacement
155.5 cid/2,549 cc
Compression ratio
8.2:1
Horsepower @ rpm
140 @ 5,800
Torque lbs./ft. @ rpm
155 @ 3,600

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