When’s the last time you saw a Daimler SP250 race car?

Photography Courtesy Bill Holland

Story by Bill Holland

One of the more interesting stories in motorsports lore is that of the Daimler SP250–which was introduced at the 1959 New York Auto Show and promptly dubbed the “ugliest” car there by the press.

Not to mention that Daimler Company Limited (founded in 1896 by British investors and Gottlieb Daimler in Coventry, England) had named their creation the “Dart” and were promptly advised that Chrysler Corp. had trademarked the name in the United States.

Daimler had been building stately saloons for British royalty for five decades, but in the 1950s, company management decided to enter the burgeoning U.S. sports car market.

The chassis was essentially a copy of the Triumph’s ladder frame and the distinctive fiberglass body sported tailfins of the era and a catfish-like grille; you either loved it or hated it.

However, under the hood was a potent little aluminum-headed, 2.5-liter hemi V8 designed by Edward Turner (who had employed hemispherical combustion chambers in his Triumph motorcycle engine design) and Girling disc brakes at all four corners to give the SP250 competition potential.

An early proponent of the Daimler SP250 was Duncan Black (of Black & Decker tool fame) who won the 1960 SCCA national championship in the E Production class. He was subsequently bumped up in class, and ultimately won the C Production championship in 1963.

On the flip side of the coin was the late, great Mark Donohue, who had little good to say about the SP250 in his book “The Unfair Advantage.” The car also had a propensity for the doors to pop open during hard cornering.

In 1960, Daimler Company Ltd. was sold to Jaguar Cars, who coveted the firm’s manufacturing facility in Coventry. As they had the E-type waiting in the wings, Jaguar had little interest in continuing development of the SP250.

However, the 2.5-liter hemi V8 (and a larger 4.5-liter version) found its way into the Jaguar Mark 2 and other sedans. Production of the SP250 ceased in 1964.

The SP250 featured here was campaigned on the East Coast for many years by a number of racers and got its latest muscle from noted Jaguar campaigner Tivvy Shenton of Danville, Virginia.

In 2014, it was purchased by long-time Daimler enthusiast Steve Sanett and racing teammate Bill Holland–who had ample experience drag racing with Chrysler Hemi engines.

However, upon examining the battle-worn Daimler upon its arrival in California, the decision was made to do a frame-off restoration and build the best possible race car following the SVRA rule book to its limit.

Fortunately, the chassis was a “C” spec frame which featured outriggers to help overcome the flexibility found in earlier models. A five-point roll bar with NASCAR-style door bars was employed to provide ample driver protection and needed rigidity.

The factory worm-and-sector steering box was jettisoned in favor of a rack-and-pinion setup from a Triumph Spitfire with Borgeson shafts and U-joints leading to a Mark Williams quick-release mount and a GT performance steering wheel.

OEM Daimler control arms were retained, with a torsion bar assembly from Speedway Engineering providing added stability. Factory coil spring mounts were modified to adapt a pair of VariShock double-adjustable units, while the factory Girling calipers were enhanced with Porterfield pads. Ducting was added to cool the brakes. All suspension components were electroless nickel pated and ARP polished stainless-steel fasteners (20% stronger than Grade 8 and impervious to the elements) used extensively.

In the rear, factory lever-type shocks were replaced with VariShock double-adjustable telescopic units through modifying the OEM mounts, while the rear of the leaf springs are attached to “slider” housings from Afco. The Salisbury rear end housing (similar to a Dana 44) is stabilized with an adjustable Panhard bar and link bars.

The trunk now houses a 12-gallon ATL fuel cell, along with a pair of Holley “red” fuel pumps that route through Aeromotive filters, a circuit box, plus an Odyssey battery and a rear end vent tank. It, like the rest of the interior, is done with a Zolotone “speckled” finish that was popular in the ’60s. The exterior is painted Mountain Blue, an original Daimler offering.

Highlights of the driver’s compartment include a brushed-aluminum dash panel with the original Smiths mechanical tach and speedometer, plus Auto Meter gauges and aircraft-type covered switches. The aluminum racing seat is by Kirkey, while the lap belts and safety harness are Deist. An on-board fire extinguishing system from DJ Safety is employed.

As purchased, the car came equipped with a Jaguar four-speed, but since Daimler offered an overdrive transmission, the rule book was taken advantage of and a Toyota W57 five-speed was installed.

Under the fiberglass bonnet lurks the original 2.5-liter hemi, but it now sports a PowerMaster alternator and a Vertex magneto. Initially, the intake system consisted of two SU side-draft carbs with air horns off of a Daimler Majestic Major sedan connected to a pair of K&N filters.

Subsequent experimentations have been made with custom manifolds and a Holley two-barrel carb, but the final choice will be made when a new short block with high compression pistons, a very aggressive cam and highly-modified cylinder heads with shaft-mount aluminum roller rocker arms are fitted to the car.

Given the nickname Wanda due to its fish-like grille (and reverence for the classic “A Fish Called Wanda” film), the Daimler has soldiered on for several years now, with the highlight being winning Vintage D/Production at the prestigious WeatherTech International Challenge at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Owners (and builders) Holland and Sanett look forward to installing the revamped power plant and writing a new chapter in Wanda’s diary.

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rdstr New Reader
7/30/23 12:18 p.m.

Don't agree that all st stl fastners are 20% stronger then grade 8

Original7 New Reader
7/31/23 10:04 a.m.

Growing up in Royal Oak I was amazed that a apartment in town had two SP 250's in the parking lot- Definitely not racers!

wspohn SuperDork
7/31/23 11:34 a.m.

Best part of the SP 250 is the engine. The styling is comical and the choice of a Triumph chassis is tragic.

Best thing about the SP 250 was than when I managed to park my Jensen CV8 beside one at our annual concours, people stopped criticizing the styling of my car!

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
8/7/23 9:52 a.m.

Somewhere I have a photo of a Daimler SP 250–aka a Dart–next to a Dodge Dart.

I don’t think it was intentional. 

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