A Bit Fishy

15th March 2019

Ridiculed for its resemblance to a catfish when it was launched in 1959, the Daimler Dart is now considered a quirky classic.

Words Peter Hall

  • Goodwood Magazine

  • Motorsport

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What do the Aston Martin DB5, Jaguar E-Type, Jensen FF, Mercedes-Benz C111, Reliant Sabre Six, Triumph Spitfire, Opel GT and Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud have in common? The answer is, all were driven by comic-strip heroine Modesty Blaise. Clearly, she knew a good car when she saw one. So it should come as no surprise that in her early adventures she drove an ivory-coloured Daimler Dart.

Aimed at the US market and launched at the 1959 New York Motor Show, the Dart was Daimler’s last hurrah before it was acquired by Jaguar. But in New York some critics declared it the ugliest car on display – a questionable verdict given that Ford was still trying to flog its hideous Edsel and Cadillac’s new Eldorado had grown tail fins that would have looked excessive on a Saturn rocket.

Quickly renamed the SP250 when Chrysler claimed ownership of the Dart name, the glass-fibre-bodied roadster boasted advanced features such as four-wheel disc brakes and a wonderfully flexible 2.5-litre V8 engine that permitted 0-60mph acceleration in 8.9 seconds and a top speed of almost 125mph – although the car was prone to chassis flexing that could pop the doors open when cornering, until an improved B-spec version was introduced in 1961. Fast, well-equipped and comfortable, the SP250 was adopted by police forces in Britain, Australia and New Zealand for high-speed pursuit duties, catching motoring miscreants on fast roads such as Britain’s new M1 motorway, which in those days had no speed limit. You would be lucky to spot an SP250 in your rear-view mirror today, however. Only 2,654 were built in the five years before Jaguar halted production in favour of the more profitable E-Type, and fewer than 1,000 have survived.

People still criticise the SP250’s appearance – although you certainly couldn’t call it boring, which is a frequent accusation levelled at many of the current generation of cars. But received wisdom says it looks too much like a catfish, particularly when fitted with protective chrome overriders that resemble whiskers. Yet people are more than happy to forgive the equally eccentric styling of Ford’s “Anglebox” Anglia, launched the same year.

You could argue that simpler lines have aged better as car designers have come to understand aerodynamics, although today’s computer-modelled F1 cars present more complicated lines than anything designed in the late-1950s. But tastes change. The SP250 is a fabulous period piece, and with the best examples now worth £50,000, Mam’selle Blaise may well rue the day she ditched her Daimler.

 

This article was taken from the Winter 2018/19 edition of the Goodwood Magazine.

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