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If you had popped a Perspex space-bubble dome on a Dart in 1958, someone would assume you were an astronaut arriving for a pre-flight test.

The Daimler Dart SP250 sports car made its public appearance at a time when inter-galactic travel and encounters with aliens were very much a part of public consciousness.  If you had popped a Perspex space-bubble dome on a Dart SP250 back in 1958, you’d have been able to drive right into a rocket launching sight in Florida and the gate guards would have waved you on through, assuming you were astronauts arriving for a pre-flight test.

The astounding thing about the Dart was that it was not the product of some American manufacturer’s dream car programme, but built by one of the most conservative and stately of British car companies, Daimler. After all, it was Daimler that supplied the fuddy-duddy stretched saloons that  were used for Queen Elizabeth’s Royal Visit to South Africa in 1947. 

Yet here was this be-winged creation with a Moonraker-type shovel nose, topped by the most ornate of chromed grilles, and sporting an outlandish silhouette that lent itself to the car’s name: Dart. Bear in mind this was a good three years before the futuristic Jaguar E-Type broke cover, and visitors to the New York Show in March 1958 were dumbfounded by this outlandish fast-forward-to-the-future artefact that confronted them. Not all comments were favourable, and soon after the Dart’s debut, Daimler was sold to Jaguar, where owner Sir William Lyons was not at all keen on assembling and marketing a sports car that he found very much at odds with the well-rounded XK150 that his company was producing at the time. Nevertheless,  Jaguar continued to build (and radically refine) the Dart, which was simply called the SP 250 in America, because Chrysler owned the rights to the Dart name, used on one of its Dodge products.

Ironically, the fact that Daimler built the Dart in the UK  and sold it under that name in Europe resulted in the South African-built GSM Dart being re-named the Delta in the UK, when about 70 of them were exported there in the early 1960s.

Back-to-the-present in 2021, one of four-remaining Daimler Dart SP250s in South Africa poked its nose out of a garage in Rosebank, Johannesburg, where it has resided for almost 40 years. Back in 1978, a young psychologist, John Tilley, was smitten by the car when he had accompanied  a colleague to a Krugersdorp dealer to buy a used Ford. John bought the Dart on the spot and he has owned it ever since.

“It was quite a remarkable car at the time. Nobody liked the looks very much, but I loved them. It was a case of it being “so ugly that it was beautiful.”  Coincidentally, the first Daimler Dart the writer of this article had ever seen in the early ‘70s resided just a few blocks away, and John knows this red example well. “The Dart was known as a very quick car for its time. It has a 2,5-litre V8 engine designed by the great Edward Turner, who designed the iconic twin-cylinder Triumph engine back in the late 1930s.

“It runs on a pair of large SU carburettors and produces 140 horsepower (105 kW) which was very powerful for its size then. It recorded a top speed of just under 195 km/h, which made it one of the fastest sports cars around.”

The Dart has a fibreglass body, which was also cutting edge in 1958, and it was very light. John’s car is a 1962 B-Spec model built under Jaguar management, which is a jolly good thing. The early models built by Daimler had a flimsy chassis that flexed so badly the doors used to pop open at high speed!

Finished in its original white colour, John’s car is in perfect condition, and features a beautiful dashboard covered in vinyl and an old Bakelite steering wheel with high-tensile steel wire spokes. The original AC Cobra had a similar steering wheel.

The engine is extremely smooth, and revs easily to its 6 000 red-line. John has fitted an overdrive to the Triumph TR3-based gearbox, and says it is fantastic for high-speed cruising.  It also has wonderful induction noise from the big SU carbs and a snappy bark from the V8’s twin tail pipes. He says the car handles very well, and he has done a couple of hill climbs with the Dart over the years. He says spares are readily available, and he has had the engine re-built once during the past four decades. The Daimler Dart SP250 initially came as standard with steel wheels, but John’s car has the optional wire-spoked wheels, painted in a tasteful dull silver. 

Seeing it burble along the tree-canopied streets of Rosebank 60 years after it was built is a real treat. I can’t help thinking that the Dart is a car whose time has finally arrived. Just like the once unloved Sunbeam Tigers and Alpines have come into fashion, I reckon that in today’s world, with youngsters reared on space-age cartoon and comic-book imagery derived from the 1950s, it is only a matter of time before the Dart starts fetching huge money from collectors. Its rarity factor should ensure this, as only just over 2 654 were ever built.

The timeless Morgan

The other car nestling in John’s garage looks stone-age by comparison to the Dart, but in fact it’s newer! It’s a 1965 Morgan Plus-4. The fact that it looks like an antique sports machine is quite understandable when you realise the Morgan Motor Company of Malvern in  England built the first Plus-4 way back 1950, and the Morgan 4/4 from which the Plus 4 was derived, looked almost exactly the same and made its debut  way back in 1936!

Morgans have always enjoyed a special place in the hearts of sports car enthusiasts, mainly because although their design is ancient they actually handle very well, and in the case of the V8 models, they go like a bat out of hell!

John’s Plus-4 is fitted with a Triumph TR3 four-cylinder engine measuring some 2,1  litres. He bought this car in Durban in pieces, trailered it up to Gauteng and had it rebuilt by well-known vintage restorer Kobus van Wyk.

It runs a pair of side-draught Weber carburettors, a hot cam, and other internal tweaks, and John has raced this car extensively in Historic events in the 30 years he has owned it. It features Koni dampers but otherwise the suspension is pretty standard. When he bought the car it ran on some very ugly red VW Variant wheels, but John has since fitted much prettier chrome wire wheels. It is also fitted with an overdrive, but John reckons it is not nearly as happy cruising fast on longer trips, as the Daimler Dart is.

The amazing thing about the Morgan Motor Company is that it is one of the last survivors of the Great British Motor Industry. You can actually buy a new Morgan Plus Four today (note the “Four” instead of the “4” designation) and this is equipped with a turbocharged 190 kW BMW four-cylinder engine that makes it a very quick car. The latest chassis is a composite aluminium item, but essentially the 2021 Morgan Plus Four looks remarkably similar to John’s 1965 Plus 4, which runs a steel chassis and an ash wood frame for the steel body. 

As a footnote, John Tilley’s Daimler Dart SP 250 and Morgan Plus-4 are for sale. John wants R550 000 for the Dart, which we feel is well below market value, and R350 000 for the Morgan. Again, this price seems reasonable.

Story by Stuart Johnson, pics by Jay Groat