Daimler's 80th year

Motor Sport goes for a tour in a modern Daimler “Double-Six” to investigate some of the surviving pre-1904 examples of these Coventry-built horseless-carriages.

The Daimler Motor Company Limited was founded in this country in January 1896 and during the following month the public were invited to subscribe to it. That is a long time ago! Since then, those other pioneer British makes, Lanchester and Wolseley, have died. But Daimler survives, a great British motor car with a fine tradition behind it.

Today there are few, if any, persons left who can clearly remember what motoring was like before the turn of the century. The newly-arrived horseless-carriages then competed directly with the horse, which feared them. Autocarists were unpopular, knew little about their new-fangled possessions, and were only very slowly emerging from being hedged about by all manner of restrictions. Yet they were a brave and enthusiastic facet of an otherwise secure, staid and self-satisfied Britain which was part of an apparently-indestructible and mighty Empire that circled the Globe. The as-yet-unseen, stupendous changes that the automobile was to bring to the existing steady and slow way of life was forecast only by strange wheezings and explosions which began to emanate from the stables of the more affluent country houses, at around the time when the British Daimler Co. of Coventry came into being.

Many of the cars which ventured out on the by-roads, along the country lanes, and out onto broader highways, after hot-tube burners had been lit and primitive carburetters adjusted, were Daimlers. It was not long before Royalty became mixed up in the new Motor Movement, and as the good British Daimler was again involved, this make was to become the renowned Royal car, from 1900 onward into the between-wars period. Thus, the Daimler, with Rolls-Royce, represented the peak of British luxury-car perfection and prestige—and apart from Royalty there were those who preferred the Coventry-built make to the best Derby could offer. (Today the Silver Shadow and the Double-Six remain at the top of the qualitycar market.)

The original Daimlers were unavoidably crude, but were soundly constructed. Developed from the German Daimler motorboat engines, by 1897 the British Company, using a disused mill beside the canal in Coventry, was making twin-cylinder 4 h.p. and 6 h.p. cars. These were lofty, crude machines, capable of only 15 m.p.h. or so. But as early as 1898 Daimler had gone on to introduce an 8 h.p. four-cylinder model, thought to be the first four-cylinder car to be made and sold in this country. Even the twin cylinder Daimlers put up some significant performances. For instance, one of these tube-ignition, chain-drive models was driven to the top of Malvern Beacon in July 1897, and Henry Sturmey completed a journey of 929 miles from John O’Groats to Land’s End on a tiller-steered 4 h.p. Coventry-Daimler, at an average speed of about 10 m.p.h. in the same year.

It was performances such as these that established the Daimler’s worth, right from the beginning, and this, together with the Royal interest, materially assisted the new and at first unpopular motoring movement to emerge from being a hobby of the eccentric rich to become a formidable growth-industry.

The association of the Daimler with the British Royal Family, then heading, in regal splendour and financial security, the greatest Empire the World had ever known, had come about when the first cars from the factory in Coventry, but powered with Cannstatt-Daimler engines, were displayed at the Imperial Institute in London, in 1896. Before this Show opened in May invitations had been sent out to many important people, offering demonstrations. HRH the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) had his in February 1896, on a belt-driven German Daimler owned by F. R. Simms, who explained its working after the Hon. Evelyn Ellis had driven His Royal Highness along the gallery of the Exhibition Hall and out into the grounds. Then, in November 1897, the Prince of Wales had a further demonstration of what the new horseless-carriage could do. They were driven in the grounds of Buckingham Palace and among the vehicles presented were two Coventry-Daimlers. In June the following year His Royal Highness expressed a wish to try motor cars on the road and four 4 h.p. Daimlers, still with tiller-steering, tube-ignition, and solid tyres, together with Prof. Redwood’s new four-cylinder Daimler, were taken to Warwick Castle, where the Prince was staying with the Earl of Warwick. He drove to Compton Verney, seat of Lord Willoughby de Broke, in the four-cylinder Daimler, which was driven by J. S. Critchley. It was soon after this drive that the Prince ordered a Daimler, delivered, it is thought, in the summer of 1900. It was a Hooper-bodied two-cylinder 6 h.p. model with hot-tube and electric dual-ignition. From then on Daimler constituted the Royal car. Two more were ordered by the Prince in 1900, one being a 24 h.p. four-cylinder, and (as King Edward VII) he had a new 24 h.p. car delivered to him in time for the 1902 Ascot Meeting. Thereafter, until comparatively recent times, the British Royal Family has remained staunch to Daimlers, including those well-known sleeve-valve landaulettes and Double-Six saloons provided between the wars for King George V and Queen Mary, motor carriages which served them faithfully, even in emergencies calling for long-distance travel. There was another Royal occasion, ignored by some historians, when the Hon. John Scott-Montagu, later Lord Montagu and father of the present Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, took the Prince of Wales for a drive on his new 1899 12 h.p. four-cylinder Daimler when he was visiting Palace House. I do not propose to describe these early links which cemented Royalty to Daimler, as they will be fully covered in Brian Smith’s forthcoming book “Royal Daimlers”. But there is no doubt that automobilism as a whole derived much benefit therefrom, at a time crucial to its survival.

Thus the first British Daimlers left Coventry 79 years ago and this year the Daimler Motor Co. celebrates its 80th Anniversary. How far-distant that beginning is! If the Empire thrived, there was then a wide gulf between rich and poor, the wealthy and the destitute. The horse, apart from the railways, ruled supreme, for transport and sport. Roads were ill-surfaced, the dust clouds that shadowed the early autocarists indescribable. Petrol was only procurable with difficulty but the golden sovereign went a long way. Children were seen but not heard, against the threat of frequent corporal punishment. If promiscuity prevailed, it was very carefully concealed, like ladies’ ankles. It was a safe, slow and to us seemingly downright dull, period of human activity. As I have said, that was when the motor car began to emerge; but can anyone still remember those long-gone days?

This being the Daimler’s 80th year, I felt that Motor Sport should do something to recapture, to a small degree, the motoring atmosphere of these pioneer years. The very fact that at least a ,dozen Daimlers made before the year 1901 have survived intact is in itself remarkable. I felt that 1976 was the year in which we should go out and get acquainted with some of these extraordinarily long-lived old automobiles.

I am extremely pleased to report that when I put this idea to them Leyland Cars were most co-operative. They obtained from the Veteran Car Club of Great Britain the addresses of those of their members who owned such cars and put the whole exercise in the capable hands of young Alan Hodge, of their PR department. He not only selected suitable specimens for me to probe, but very ably chauffeured the photographer and me round the 700-mile route the itinerary covered, in two crowded days, in the extreme comfort of an air-conditioned, stereo-equipped 5.3-litre V12 Daimler Double-Six. There could hardly have been a better way of travelling in the heatwave of June than to be wafted along in this magnificent leather-upholstered, quiet-functioning twelve-cylinder motor car, cool in spite of all its windows being closed and with suitable classical music playing as we made light of the cross-country journeys we wanted to accomplish. I was reminded of a road-test report on the 1927 50 hp. Daimler Double-Six which commented: “Fortunate beings of the immediate future will leisurely survey the moving surface of the earth through the clear windows of their Daimler Double-Sixes as they pass onward in silent dignity”. We were those fortunate beings, in the year 1976 . . .

Setting out from Longbridge, our first objective was Mrs. Vaux’s 1897 Daimler, a well-known and successful London-Brighton competitor. We progressed on this scorching day, when spectators were fainting in the stands at Wimbledon, in silence and cool, along the Motorways and onto the uncrowded roads of sweltering Somerset. And although it had nothing to do with any personal voodoo, it seemed that an aura of Daimler was about us. We passed a very eroded Conquest outside a wayside garage and when we arrived at Bill Vaux’s fine country residence we discovered that, apart from his Peugeot 304 Estate and a friend’s Ferrari in the drive, he also enthusiastically runs a Daimler Sovereign 4.2. And next day, stopping for lunch at the “Green Man” near Silverstone, there outside was another Daimler Sovereign.

The 1897 Daimler was not pushed out for photography, it was driven out, starting readily after very little persuasion. Here was definitely a vehicle from the horseless-carriage days! Even the putter-putter of its two-cylinder engine as the starting handle spun the substantial flywheel, that gradually changing to a a turf-turf in momentum as mixture and sparks became affiliated, was in tune with those pioneer days, which were so full of motoring mystique and optimism. The little, high motor car is pristine, in dark blue, with rear-entrance wagonette body. Its early history is somewhat obscure. It was owned for years by the Mayor of Dover and when he died his widow sold it in 1972 to the late Jimmy Skinner. It was restored by Derek Grossmark, the body being a copy of that on another 1897 car. Incidentally, it is this survival rate of these ancient Daimlers that I find so interesting. They were, understandably, primitive, and as the Daimler Co. so quickly brought out more powerful models, the early ones might well soon have been abandoned, particularly as there was no real interest in the preserving of historical vehicles until the VCC was founded in 1930. When The Motor formed a small museum in London in 1912 it managed to find an 1898 English-built Daimler. In 1927 when the Sketch instituted the first of the “modern” Brighton Runs, that was to lead to the later VCC/RAC series, the competitors included four Daimlers, an 1898 model claimed to have been the second Daimler built and the car which had given King Edward his taste for motoring, two 1897 models, one of which was thought to have been in constant use, at all events from 1902, and an 1898 specimen that had been rebuilt after a fire and was also said to be in regular employment, in the 1920s. The owners were, respectively, Stephen E. Statham of Baker Street, Monty Wells, G. Pruen, and D. M. Copley. Today we have twelve or more such survivors, some of which I am about to describe.

Mrs. Vaux’s car is in the most beautiful condition. It has the typical vertical-twin engine, its hot-tube replaced by an early magneto driven by exposed timing wheels, on the o/s, firing horizontal plugs on the same side. The tiller steering was replaced by wheel steering in 1900, as happened to most of these veteran Daimlers. The inlet valves are automatic, fed from the original carburetter, which lives in a wooden box on the dash behind the engine, and takes some heat from the exhaust, via a small-bore brass pipe. On the n/s there is a neat and tiny vee-shape two-branch exhaust manifold, to the down-pipe. Fuel feed is by air-pressure and the gilled-tube radiator is at the rear of the car, with a filter protruding through the short, front-hinged, bonnet which covers the long-stroke engine. The inlet manifold has “Daimler” cast into it and a big plaque on the front of the car’s dash proclaims that it was “Licensed by the British Motor Co. Ltd., 40, Holborn Viaduct, EC”, the script being flanked by a fine chariot badge.

The steering wheel is high above the ground, its wood rim supported by four spokes. In front of the driver on the o/s is the typical Daimler vertical gear quadrant, the r.h. lever being for the four-forward speeds, the 1.h. lever for the four reverse ones, achieved by having twin crownwheels on the counter shaft. On this car these levers, or more correctly handles, are nickel-plated and the faces of the similarly plated quadrants are marked “Forward” and “Back”, respectively. The tyres are solid rubber, on different-sized wood-spoked wheels, front and rear, and the carriage is halted by means of a transmission brake, and spoon brakes rubbing directly on the rear tyres. The r.h. handbrake lever pushes on, being held by a three-notch ratchet on the side of the body. The front seat is original and the curved plated control lever that acts on the engine-governor, the piano pedals, with centre accelerator, the track-rod ahead of the front axle, and the big steering knuckles, are all in the Daimler pattern. Final drive is, of course, by side chains, there are fine leather mudguards, and if you venture out at night, lighting is by Daimler Motor Co. candle lamps—I have motored behind candle, oil, acetylene, and vintage-electric lamps and it is the candles that cast the most terrifying shadows…

So here was a beautifully restored 79-year-old Daimler motor-carriage, in full working order. After Laurie Morton had taken its picture from all angles we went into town to look at Bill Vaux’s other prized veteran motor cars. We were shown his well-known 1905 Daimler, laid up at present, which has an astonishing detachable-top touring limousine body by Clark’s Motors of Wolverhampton, a crane enabling the top-hamper to be lifted off the base of the body, thus converting it into an open car. This is the original coachwork, made for Jack Barnett, who sold it to the local firm of Armstrong Evans, but reacquired it. Mr. Vaux has had this car since about 1950 and is very fond of it, It has the later Daimler features of 3-piece bonnet, dual ignition by Bosch magneto and coil, 5-spoke steering wheel, etc., and is notable for some splendid curved-glass panels in its bodywork. It has, of course, the poppet-valve engine, Daimler gas and oil lamps, and a fine trumpet horn in the centre of its fluted radiator. Mr. Vaux also has an immense 1903 Thornycroft and the twin-cylinder engine belonging to Leyland Motors’ Thornycroft chassis. But that is another story . . .

After tea and watching the tennis on colour TV it was a case of penetrating deep into the New Forest, to dine and sleep at Lord Montagu’s Master Builder’s Hotel at Buckler’s Hard, for we were due to look at two more ancient Daimlers in the National Motor Museum early the next morning. Again, the modern Daimler Double-Six left us well content, its air-conditioning and stereo doing excellent work, on this long evening journey.

Both the NMM Daimlers started promptly after their handles had been twirled and were driven to our photographic assignment, their keeper arriving, by the way, on one of those odd Ariel-3 tricycles. The first of the cars was Lord Montagu’s 1899 12 h.p. fourcylinder Daimler aforementioned, registered AA 16. It is an historic car, having been the first to enter the sacred precincts of the Houses of Parliament and the first British car to be driven in a Continental motor race by an Englishman, when Lord Montagu’s father finished 3rd on it in the Tourists’ Class of the 1899 Paris-Ostend race. It also took part in the 1,000-Mile Trial of 1900. Later it was used as a shooting brake at Beaulieu, its rear radiator being replaced by an ugly frontal one and the body being lost. It then spent some time in the Science Museum but has since been restored by Lord Montagu, and it has re-enacted the Houses of Parliament visit, has done the Brighton Run, and it appeared on the Daimler stand at the 1971 London Motor Show, etc. A big gilledtube radiator at the back and a front-opening coal-scuttle bonnet have restored the proper appearance. Unfortunately, the big water tank, under the back seat of the replica body, requires half-an-hour of warming-up and although the replacement radiator, one of those ugly square ones used by Daimler for a time, has been inverted and hidden behind the gilled tubing to supplement the cooling, the car is still apt to boil.

It is an imposing machine, brake lever as high as the lofty steering wheel, with solid rear tyres and pneumatic 880 x 120 front tyres, and cylinders in pairs. The carburetter is now a non-authentic Zenith feeding through a fine copper manifold which may or may not be original. Ignition is by low-tension plugs on the o/s and modern plugs in the cylinder heads. The exhaust valves are on the o/s, the exhaust system, similar to that on the 2-cylinder cars, on the n/s. The automatic inlet valves of the other models are retained on this 4-cylinder car. Wire ropes encircle the rear brake drums, the dash has glass fronted oil drip-feeds on both front and back faces, three glass oil-containers on the n/s of the engine feed to the crankcase and rear main-bearing, petrol is contained in a brass dashboard tank with a polished cylindrical oil-tank above it, the gear handles are as on the smaller cars, but brass in this case, and the wooden wheels have 12 spokes each in the front wheels, 16 spokes in the rear wheels. Again, chain drive is used, there is a right-hand foot accelerator and the handbrake throws out the clutch as it is applied. Candle lamps are the only form of illumination. A sprag is again fitted and a dash plaque reads: “Licensed by the British Motor Co. Ltd., Series No. 3410”.

The other NMM Daimler we inspected was a 1903/4 4-cylinder car, Reg. No. AA 11, made by, as a plaque informs us, The Daimler Motor Co. (1904) Limited of Coventry. The 6-tier gilled-tube radiator is now at the front, there are gas headlamps, Lucas “King of the Road” No. 721 oil side-lamps, Dependance rear lamps, an exhaust whistle to supplement a bulb-horn, and a 5-spoke steering wheel. The curved dash is typically later-Daimler and has polished brass corners, these forming open stowages on the reverse side of the dash, below which, on each side, are tiers of delightful little lockable wooden glove-boxes, six in all. The wheels are still wood-spoked (10 spokes in each front wheel, 12 in each rear one) shod with 920 x 120 tyres, Goodyears on the back wheels, a Michelin Cable and a Unicorde at the front. The gear lever now works in a r.h. gate in conventional fashion, except that what appears to be a slender handbrake lever inboard of it selects reverse gear. The push-on handbrake lever is buried in the side of the driver’s seat, its grip protruding.

Ignition is by coil, the distributor being on the passenger’s side of the dash, chain-driven from the crankshaft, with an Exide battery beneath the front passenger’s seat. There is a non-original Panhard-Lavassor oil-box on the dash, with belt-driven “stirrer”, flanked by six drip-feeds. The brakes are contracting bands on the rear-wheel drums, and very fine is the illuminated rear number plate, under glass, with paraffin burners below to light it all up, an insurance against appearances before the local Bench! A Trier Maplin carburetter lives down on the o/s, feeding into a vee-shaped inlet manifold. The valves are all mechanically operated, in this later-type engine. The sparking plugs, vertical in the heads of the paired cylinder blocks, have water-proof covers and their h.t. leads run through a conduit. Supplied originally by the British Motor Traction Co. Ltd., this car is to the “Daimler System”, its plaque says, and is no. 5176. It has a rear entrance tonneau and was formerly in the Smith Collection. Although I had intended to keep our studies to pre-1901 cars, this one shows the quick progress made by the Daimler Company.

We left Beaulieu by 10.45 a.m, to begin a long haul up to Yorkshire in order to see the 1899 Daimler in the Peter Black Collection at Keighley. They have other pre-and post-1914 sleeve-valve models, but, as I have explained, I wanted to keep to the earlier cars on this occasion.

The Black Daimler is car no. 1417, with engine no. 1898, the two-cylinder 4 h.p. model. It was apparently bought from the VCC and has done the Brighton Run, at a top speed of 15 m.p.h., at 18 m.p.g. It has been converted to wheel steering and has the rope (cable) brakes in addition to the spoon brakes. It is on solid tyres but its hot-tube ignition has given place to trembler coils, carried in a box on the dash and energised from an under-seat Lucas battery. A concession to retardation is a crude extra foot brake, formed from a piece of bent metal, outboard of the original pedals. The carburetter is now a comparatively modern Stromberg, the rear gilled-tube radiator is of impressive size, the candle lamps large, and four drip-feeds and a glass reservoir on the dash look after lubrication. The body is a rear-entrance wagonette, in light blue. I noticed the very small driving sprockets, to give low gearing, which might be needed in Yorkshire but less so in Surrey, where the car was registered PA 7517, probably in the 1920s. Screw-down greasers look after the steering-pivots, absent on the other cars, but this Daimler has no sprag. The gear handles are neither brass nor plated and the quadrant appears to be cast not machined. Incidentally, the Black Museum has one of those early Gottlieb Daimler boat engines that came before the cars. The Museum attendant told us that he has a couple of XJS Jaguars to maintain, in Mr. Black’s fleet, and he discussed them with Alan Hodge, who before he joined Leyland’s PR Department was a Jaguar apprentice.

That ended our tour of a few of the surviving early Daimler motor cars. It was impossible to visit every remaining one, from time and space considerations. Ted Woolley’s 1897 car is still on tube ignition and one of the most original. But it had worn out its solid rubbers on the FIVA Rally and a primitive veteran without wheels (which were being re-shod) is not exactly a pretty sight! Then Mr. Flather, who owns another active 1897 car, was away. We could have looked at other specimens, commencing with that owned by HM Queen Elizabeth II. Alas, time had run out. But I hope the owners of such Daimlers will write to Motor Sport, giving us the past history and subsequent modifications of their long-surviving motor cars. They are rare survivors from long, long ago, when cars were few, horses shied on seeing one, dust rose in clouds, lady motorists were heavily veiled and begoggled, and breakdowns frequent and expected. The only thing that remains unchanged since that distant era is antimotoring Magistrates!

Our late run back to the Midlands might have been tedious in any other car, especially as the AA had engineered an odd diversion from the M6, on which four miles at 50 m.p.h. would have had to be endured due to road-works, a diversion which seemed intent on showing us the delights of Shropshire, with glimpses of the Grand Union Canal thrown in, instead of returning us South. The Double-Six, however, made light of such irritations and while I pondered on its ancestors that we had been looking at, the younger front-scat occupants discussed decidedly more modern vehicles, such as Laurie’s 3-litre Capri and Alan’s TR6, etc. What an illustrious career “The Daimler” at Coventry has had, I thought. It appears that the first non-trade customer for any British-made car was Major-General Montgomery of Winchester, who collected his Daimler from the works on August 28th, 1897. Since then there have been Daimler forays in competitions of various kinds, not forgetting the big Herkomer Trophy cars and the Kaiser Cup Daimlers of pre-1914, so graphically remembered by Sammy Davis in his book “Motor Racing”. Then there has been the strong Royal Daimler tradition. And Conquest Centuries winning their class at Silverstone. And 250SPs… And here we were, in 1976, travelling in the height of luxury in another Double-Six, with that splendid 5.3-litre V12 power unit filling all its bonnet-space, a car which, with the muchappreciated equipment I have mentioned, and Rostyle wheels, cost around £8,500 and was on this rather hurried occasion returning 13/14 m.p.g. Can you better that, in terms of 1970s value-for-money? Thus does Daimler earn as much respect in its 80th year as it did in the beginning… Pleasing, too, that Leyland Motors carried out this exercise in antiquity as efficiently and pleasantly as any piece of PR I have experienced on the Continent.—W.B.