Plastic Fantastic Folly

Give ’em a chance and they’ll build a car out of anything, from the hair-raising balsa wood Formula 2 Protos (rather you than me, Pedro) to a Skoda made of sponge, there seems no limit to our desire to escape the shackles of steel. Motivations vary, from weight-saving, to publicity, to environmental friendliness, to simple expediency, and it was the latter, or rather a saving of around £90,000 on body moulds that created a long-term survivor in the Daimler Dart, yet also to some degree, sealed its fate.

You see, there’s bound to be trouble when you pinch the chassis from a Triumph TR3 and replace its rigid steel bodywork with flexible plastic, trouble like doors flying open in fast corners… But then when a car goes from the drawing board to the road in such a short space of time there are sure to be a few teething issues, just a pity that they’re the things potential customers tend to remember.


The ‘Dart’ was financially troubled Daimler’s last ditch effort to reinvigorate its image, something a little sporty for the English gent, or more importantly, for the American playboy. Creator of the Triumph Speed Twin ‘bike engine, Edward Turner, designed a twin-carb 2.5 litre V8 with hemispherical combustion chambers, that would latterly come to be regarded as something of a benchmark, proving both powerful (140 bhp, good for over 120 mph) and bulletproof, the iron block subsequently finding its way into the back of Championship winning hill-climb cars and nitro dragsters. But if the engine proved exceptional, elsewhere the Dart looked antiquated, that 14 gauge ladder frame and TR3-derived suspension simply not up to the job given the power to weight ratio, though at least the Girling disc at each corner eased handling concerns. After a premature debut at the New York Motor Show in April ’59, sales of the rechristened SP250 (in order to avoid legal action from Chrysler) proved patchy, potential buyers most likely put off not only by tales of serious flexing, but also by reports of leaden steering, cracking bodywork, and quite possibly the fact that the in-house styling was a bit of a hodge-podge.


Help, of a sort, would come in 1960 when Jaguar, lured by the prospect of Daimler’s surplus factory space, acquired the company from BSA, and set about rectifying a few of the shortcomings, starting with strengthening the infamous ladder frame and bodywork, but also improving details, such as introducing an adjustable steering column and standardising bumpers. This ‘B-spec’ version was a definite improvement, whilst the ’63 ‘C-spec’ carried on with the good work, but it was all to no avail, for sales never truly recovered from the bout of initial horror stories, and Jaguar chairman William Lyons, who had never concealed his dislike for the little Daimler, feared it might provide unwanted competition for his forthcoming E-Type.


Production ceased in 1963, sales continuing into ’64 when the last of the 2,654 examples was sold. Plans for an SX250 coupe, designed by Ogle, were shelved, but latterly reappeared in the form of the Scimitar, and though there was brief talk of a successor, the SP250 would prove to be the last sporting Daimler. Time however has been kind to the car, as around half of those produced still survive, and thanks to that smooth V8 and the love-it-or-loathe-it fin-happy fifties styling, their ongoing cult appeal is assured.


First published on

About the Author: