Better known for luxury saloons, Daimler could do sports cars as well - as the delicious Daimler Dart proves.
The heart and soul of any Daimler SP250 is its glorious Edward Turner-designed 2.5-litre V8 engine. While 140bhp and 155lb ft of torque might not sound much today, you should remember that the car only weighs just over 1000kg. In June 1960, The Motor recorded a 0-60mph dash of just 8.9 seconds, a standing quarter-mile of 17 seconds and a top speed of more than 123mph.
It’s the sound it makes that puts the biggest smile on your face, though. For such a small capacity V8, it really does sound astonishing as it burbles liquidly through the wide-bore twin exhausts.
It’s probably fair to say that, as a pure sports car, the SP250 does leave something to be desired. The relatively simple chassis, allied to leaf-sprung rear suspension and heavy steering, can combine to rather distance the driver from what’s going on at the wheels. A more modern steering rack conversion is a sensible investment for the enthusiast driver and tightens everything up, although the ride can feel unsettled on poorly-metalled surfaces. On smoother roads, though, it’s a consummate cruiser.
Power (bhp@rpm) 140bhp@5800rpm
Torque (lb ft@rpm) 155lb ft@ 3600rpm
Top speed 123mph
Gearbox 4-spd manual
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
BODYWORK & CHASSIS
Ignore any self-styled ‘experts’ who claim that the SP250’s glassfibre body is maintenance-free. Impact damage, be it from a wayward jack rattling around in the boot or the unwanted attentions of another car, can inflict grievous bodily harm on the bodywork. And if it’s not repaired properly, star cracks and crazing can cost big money to rectify.
Be especially vigilant when assessing a very early 1959 (‘A-Spec’ in Daimler-speak) car, as the TR3-alike chassis (which comprised a straight box-section frame and cruciform bracing) was prone to body flex that could apparently be severe enough under energetic cornering to actually cause one of the doors to burst open. Later ‘B-Spec’ cars, built by Jaguar from late 1960, sported additional chassis outriggers and extra bracing between in a bid to eliminate this problem.
The 2.5-litre V8 engine has an enviable reputation for longevity – it can easily stretch to well over 200,000 miles between rebuilds – but only if it has been maintained regularly and properly. Its Achilles’ Heel is the alloy cylinderhead, which doesn’t take kindly to low or over-diluted coolant to the extent that the heads can actually disintegrate, leading to chronic overheating and eventual warping. The biggest clue is the dreaded ‘mayonnaise’ lurking on the inside of the oil filler cap. Ensure, too, that the pipe connecting the two carburettors is a proper braided type – anything less substantial can actually cause an engine fire.
Some engines built were also prone to mains failure, more prevalent on tuned examples.
The top-model 300SE and 300SEL had air suspension, which was high-tech stuff for the early 1960s. The ride it gives is quite remarkable, but problems can be very expensive indeed to fix, and parts are not plentiful. Buy an air-sprung Fintail with your eyes wide open, and have the phone numbers of a specialist and your bank manager close at hand.
Looking deeper into a car, you need to check two important structural cross-members which can rot through and will be very expensive to repair. At the front, the critical one runs above the gearbox and below the bulkhead. At the rear, it’s the cross-member above the rear "axle".
If we haven’t put you off already, there’s one more hidden area to examine for corrosion. This is the ledge on the bulkhead that supports the brake servo. Debris accumulates here and, especially if combined with leaking brake fluid, can cause the metal underneath to rot through.
Don’t read too much into the assertion by some optimistic vendors that the SP250 is a two-plus-two. There is a rear bench seat, but it’s really only suitable for small children – adults will struggle to fit, and won’t want to stay back there for too long. Contemporary road tests often groused about the front seats, too, with the chief complaint being a perceived lack of under-thigh support. As always, try it before you buy it.
Time really hasn’t been entirely fair to the Daimler SP250. It has a fabulous engine and later, Jaguar-built models were much better made than the very first examples. And yet talk inevitably returns to the challenging styling and the self-opening doors.
These are super-rare (fewer than 2700 were ever made) and properly quick classics that enjoy an enthusiastic and knowledgeable following, as well as comprehensive backing from marque specialists. The bodywork may not be as maintenance-free as some would have you believe, but they won’t rust and localised repairs are straightforward. Buy wisely, and you should have few problems.
Demand will always outstrip supply, of course, but £25,000-30,000 is still strong money for a quirky little British drop-top.
We suggest that you buy now before values reach the stratosphere and beyond.
Even taking into account the three immutable SP250 truisms – that beauty is in the eye of the beholder; that the car is quite handsome from the rear; and that time has served to lessen the shock of the pouting, vaguely piscine snout – it’s still difficult to get past that opinion-polarising styling. Striking it most certainly is, but beautiful?
No matter. The real reason classic car enthusiasts continue to buy Daimler SP250s in sufficient numbers to keep prices of good ones surprisingly high is to enjoy high speed, wind-in-the-hair cruising allied to decent potential for backroad blasts.
Driving one today provides an experience that’s very much of its era, but surely that’s the whole point. If you want a car that changes direction like a startled hare, then buy a Mini Cooper, but if you want long-distance, high-speed cruising potential and a boot big enough to swallow two weeks’ worth of luggage, then the Dart makes a compelling case. If you don’t want to go down the more obvious Triumph TR/Morgan Plus 4/MGB route, it is, in many respects, the obvious choice. If you can afford one...