Jay Leno thinks that Daimler Dart is an under-appreciated gem
It’s funny how some cars reach stardom and others just fall by the wayside. Good examples would be the Sunbeam Tiger and the Daimler SP250, or Dart as the Daimler was meant to be called until Chrysler saw a conflict with its Dodge Dart.
The Sunbeam Tiger was an instant hit because of its association with Carroll Shelby. He struck gold when he put a smallblock Ford V8 in an AC Ace and the resulting Cobra became an instant classic.
In 1964 there was even a hit song about the car called Hey Little Cobra by The Rip Chords. According to legend, Carol Connors – who went on to become a two-time Oscar winner and also wrote the theme song to Rocky – first met Carroll Shelby after she had just broken up with Elvis Presley.
After smashing the front end of her new boyfriend’s AC Bristol, she asked Shelby: could he stick a Cobra front on an AC back? Shelby thought that the funniest thing he had ever heard, and he said to her: ‘Little girl, if you write a song about my car and it goes to number one, I’ll give you one.’
He was true to his word.
Shelby thought he could make lightning strike twice by putting the same engine in the Sunbeam Alpine. I still have my 1964 copy of Hot Rod showing how Shelby and his boys did the engine swap.
In my teenage mind I knew I could never afford a Cobra, but maybe I could run to a Sunbeam Tiger. Eventually I did. For years the Tiger lived in the shadow of the Cobra and only recently have prices begun to rise. Now the Tiger has reached icon status with good, original cars selling for over $100,000.
Not so the Daimler, but the SP250 was in a sense the first Cobra. Here was a traditional English sports car with disc brakes, wire wheels and, yes, a 2.5-litre hemi-head V8 designed by the famous motorcycle engineer Edward Turner. It beat the Cobra to market by four years – plus it had a glassfibre body and roll-up windows, something most English sports cars didn’t get for a few more years.
It only weighed 2200lb, so couple that with a 160bhp V8 and you got a world-beater, or so it seemed. But, like a brilliant dancer with a good personality and not much in the looks department, it didn’t get many dates.
Just 2848 were made, of which only 500 came to America before it was discontinued in 1964, which makes it a pretty rare car. When it was introduced in 1959 at the New York auto show, it was voted the ugliest car in the show! The press dubbed it the angry catfish because of its protruding grille. Plus it had these fins on the back like a 1957 Plymouth. It looks like a car an Englishman designed for Americans: ‘By golly, those Yanks will love this.’ I think I was the only one…
As a kid I first saw one in the mid ’60s parked in front of the bowling alley, and I thought it was the strangest car I’ve ever seen. When the owner showed me the engine I couldn’t believe it! The term ‘hemi’ was the most powerful name in American racing back in the day, and here’s this little English car with a hemi engine.
I was convinced the owner had put the engine in himself but he told me no, it came that way. He explained how it was Daimler’s first sports car and it was so powerful that the London Metropolitan Police ordered 30 so they could catch the ‘ton-up boys’ on their motorcycles.
He went on to tell me that Jaguar had bought Daimler and, worried that the SP250 would compete with the E-type, they stopped production but kept the engine to put in Daimler saloons.
I found mine in upstate New York. It’s a 1962 model that the owner inherited from his uncle, and it sat outside for over 40 years. It didn’t run but it had a hardtop and wire wheels, rare options back in the day. The owner knew I liked orphan cars and offered it at a very good price.
Of course, I committed the cardinal sin of classic car ownership by buying something I’ve never seen over the phone. But since the body was glassfibre it didn’t need much, just a lot of sandpaper. I’ve replaced the two SU carburettors with a single Weber, fitted an upgraded camshaft and more modern disc brakes, and we’ve added a Tremec five-speed gearbox. Since there was no bell-housing available to adapt this transmission to the tiny V8, we used our 3D printer to make one. If you’d like to see the finished article, just Google ‘YouTube Jay Leno’s Daimler’ and you’ll see the video.
They used to call the Sunbeam Tiger the poor man’s Cobra, but those days are gone forever. Now the Daimler SP250 is the classic V8 sports car bargain, but it won’t be for long. The secret is out.
Jay Leno – Comedian and talk show legend Jay Leno is one of the most famous entertainers in the USA. He is also a true petrolhead, with a massive collection of cars and bikes.
This column was originally printed in the December 2017 issue of Octane.