Historic Car Brands



Nearly all British car manufacturers suffered from poor management at crucial times, which is why all but a few of them vanished or became owned by overseas interests.


Of all these firms, few were as incompetently managed as Daimler, which produced some magnificent vehicles, despite the goings on in ‘mahogany row’. Daimler  was one of the first car makers in the UK, spanning the years from 1897 until 2010.


Simms Motor Scout – Autocar


In 1889, British engineer, Frederick Simms, was working in Germany and met up with Gottlieb Daimler. A year later, he was importing Daimler boat engines into the UK and that grew into an engine and car manufacturing business, the Daimler Motor Company, with the rights to import Daimler engines and to build motor cars.

There was much corporate manoeuvring behind this seemingly straightforward arrangement, but by 1896 Daimler was a listed company, headed by investor Harry John Lawson. Oddly, Simms wasn’t a director, probably because of his continued directorship of Daimler’s and Maybach’s Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft company.


1899 Daimler 12hp – National Motor Museum


The first British-assembled Daimler left the factory in early 1897 and by mid-year the factory was in full production, building twin-cylinder, 1.5-litre cars with front-mounted engines, four-speed transmissions and chain drive to the rear wheels.

German-British co-operation hasn’t been historically successful and the DMG-DMC deal fitted that mould. Lawson, Simms and Gottlieb left the company and there was a succession of chief executives until 1904, when financial drama caused a reorganisation. 


1900 Daimler 6hp – R Brown


In the new company, US electrical engineer Percy Martin became works manger, with socialite Undecimus Stratton in charge and Ernest Instone as manager. Somehow, Daimler had been producing cars through this troubled period. (‘Undecimus’ should denote an ‘eleventh’ child, but neither this Undecimus or his similarly-named father were eleventh children.)

Daimler had enough kudos to attract Royal patronage, when, in 1898, the Prince of Wales – later King Edward VII – went for a ride in a Daimler, with John Douglas-Scott-Montagu – later Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. Big Eddie bought successive Daimlers in 1900 and 1902, after which he issued Daimler a Royal Warrant to supply vehicles to The Palace. Stratton became the King’s regular motoring companion.


Daimler Grafton Phaeton – National Motor Museum


The ‘old boy network’, or in this case, the Old Royal network, worked very nicely for Stratton and Daimler was soon the chosen vehicle for several European and British Commonwealth royal households.

Until 1908 Daimler had built a range of large and luxurious cars, powered by various four- and six-cylinder engines with capacities from 3.3-litres to 10.4-litres that used conventional ‘poppet’ valves. Most car makers used such valve trains, with side and overhead configurations. 

Before the invention of stellite, engine valves were prone to wear and cracking, and engines needed regular ‘decoking’ and valve-grinding.


Sleeve-valve revolution


Daimler sleeve-valve engine – Adrian


In the USA, Charles Yale Knight had patented a new type of engine that didn’t use poppet valves. Instead, his ‘Silent Knight’ design was a ‘sleeve-valve’ engine, in which the valves were replaced by sliding sleeves that had cutouts to align with inlet and exhaust ports in each cylinder. The sleeves were moved up and down by eccentrically-driven rods.

In the original Knight engine there was an inlet sleeve and an exhaust sleeve that slid inside each other and the piston, with its connecting rod, slid up and down inside the concentric sleeves.

In place of a normal cylinder head was a ‘junk head’ that was like an inverted piston, with rings on which the upper sections of the sleeves slid. The bowl of that inverted piston became a hemispherical combustion chamber and a dished piston made the chamber elliptical.

Given the metallurgy of the time, it was an engineering triumph.


1910 Daimler Limousine – Marty B


Daimler trialled sample engines in secret and launched its new engine in 1908, to sensational reviews. At idle, the Daimler engine made almost no sound and The Autocar commented on ‘its extraordinary combination of silence, flexibility and power’. Thereafter, all Daimler engines had sleeve-valves, until the mid-1930s.

The Knight engine used more top-up oil than conventional engines of the time, but poppet-valve engines needed regular head removal and valve replacement, so from a maintenance point of view it was probably a win for the Daimler donk. The Knight engine was much more expensive to make and heavier, but that was no problem at the luxury-car end of the market. 

Another benefit of sleeve valves over poppets of the time was quiet operation and that was a very important plus for Daimlers over competitive luxury vehicles.


Daimler sleeve-valve Double Six


Sleeve-valve engines had cooling issues if power outputs were pushed, so they weren’t efficient and needed larger displacement for equivalent output. The classic example of this situation was the 1926 Daimler Double-Six V12 – designer Laurence Pomeroy’s masterpiece – that displaced a whopping 7.1 litres and produced only 50hp.


BSA took over

In 1910, the Daimler Motor Company was bought out by the Birmingham Small Arms company (BSA) that produced guns and ammo, and vehicles that included bicycles, motorbikes and some BSA cars.


Daimler military truck – National Library of Scotland


Board level unrest persisted after the BSA takeover, but the War effort that intervened in 1914 saw Daimler producing cars, trucks, ambulances, armoured vehicles and aero engines, including Vee types and rotaries.


Daimler components in the British Mark IV Tadpole Tank


Daimler emerged from World War I with a strong workforce and the car and commercial vehicle business prospered, but the late-1920s heralded the coming Great Depression. Luxury car sales plummeted and by 1931 Daimler halted producing cars and relied on its commercial vehicle business. BSA acquired the Lanchester brand, giving the group a smaller-vehicle range.


1925 Daimler 30hp – Mal Joe


Anticipating the development of automatic transmissions, Daimler patented a fluid flywheel in 1928 that was fitted in concert with the Wilson pre-selector transmission, providing the most-automated gearbox in the market. The combination was fitted to all Daimler cars, trucks and buses, until the Borg-Warner fully- automatic transmission was adopted in 1956.


Daimler Double Six Corsica Coupe – Terry Quinlan


Car production ramped up again in 1932, with the introduction of modern poppet-valve engines, but a succession of management deaths, retirements and sackings prompted even more boardroom wrangling that became public. Daimler looked precarious in the late-1930s, but then Word War II came along.

Once again, War production saved the brand that churned out Dingo scout cars and armoured vehicles, epicyclic transmissions for tanks, Bren guns and aircraft engines – some with sleeve-valves – and around 10 million aircraft parts.

Daimler Mk1 Armoured Car – Tony Hisgett


Post-War military vehicle production continued, with the Ferret armoured car that was bought by 36 countries.

The luxury vehicle business returned to some extent, powered by Daimler’s in-line six-cylinder and eight-cylinder engines, in the DE27 and DE36 models, respectively. The DE27 chassis was the base for Daimler’s classic ambulance. However, an absurd purchase tax hampered the growth of the UK car business.


Daimler Ambulance – Peter Edgeler


Daimler continued to make too many models that had too-small production runs and the beginning of the end came in the 1950s, when global royalty largely abandoned the Daimler brand for Rolls Royce. The growing strength of lower-priced, higher-performance Jaguars didn’t help Daimler’s non-royal market share.

At the same time Britain’s’ traditional leadership in the global motorcycle business came under increasing threat from emerging Japanese brands, affecting BSA sales.


1955 Daimler DK400 Golden Zebra Coupe – Alf van Beem. The Louwman Collection in the Netherlands houses this Daimler DK400 two-door, fixed-head coupé, built by Hooper & Co – where Lady Docker was a director.


However, there was time for a burst of eccentricity in the Daimler saga, headed by Lady Docker, wife of BSA group’s managing director, Sir Bernard Docker. Norah Docker was the now-wealthy, twice-widowed daughter of a Birmingham car salesman and she could see that Daimler cars needed an image boost, to replace the former Royal Warrant. She persuaded Sir Bernard to build some spectacular show cars.

The show series began in 1951, with the Golden Daimler and progressed, with increasing opulence, through the Blue Clover, Silver Flash and Stardust, in successive years.

It was painted ivory and all external and internal brightwork was gold-plated. The windscreen and roof panel were made from heat-reflecting glass. Inside was ivory leather trim, zebra-skin upholstery (‘because mink is too hot to sit on’) a built-in cocktail cabinet, vanity box and picnic basket – plus an ivory-handled, folding umbrella. Lady Docker’s initials were inscribed in gold letters on the door and the mascot was a golden zebra.


Queen Elizabeth (Cenotaph Sydney NSW) 1954 – Jack Higson


The British tax Office took increasing interest in the Docker family’s financial affairs and the opulent-car episode attracted adverse publicity.

After Jack Sangster sold his Ariel and Triumph motorcycle businesses to BSA in 1951, he joined the board. In, 1956 he was elected chairman, defeating Sir Bernard, who left. The Dockers and many of their friends and personally loyal customers sold their Daimlers and replaced them with Rolls Royces. (You couldn’t makeup this stuff!)


Daimler Majestic Major


Sangster gave Daimler a much-needed boost, employing Edward Turner to come u with new engines. The hemi-head 2.5-litre and 4.5-litre V8s were the result. The smaller engine went into the Daimler Dart (SP250) sports car and the larger, into the Majestic Major high-performance saloon.


1961 Daimler SP250 Roadster – Sicnag


Sadly, the new products didn’t turn around Daimler’s market share and in 1960 BSA sold the brand to Jaguar. The SP250 car lasted until 1964, but the 2.5-litre and 4.5-litre engines soldiered on. The 2.5-litre slotted into the Jaguar Mark 2 bodywork and was market success, selling more than any previous Daimler model.


1968 Daimler 2.5 V8 – Brian Snelson


Before things could settle, Jaguar fell into the hands of the British Motor Corporation in 1966 and all subsequent Daimlers were re-badged Jaguars – some of them excellent vehicles. Thereafter, the Daimler brand passed through Ford ownership, to Tata.

1968 Daimler Sovereign – Charles 01


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