For the latest classic car news, features, buyer’s guides and classifieds, sign up to the C&SC newsletter here
Distinctive looks? Check. Plenty of chrome? Check. Wire wheels? Check.
We can safely say that this 1963 C-spec Daimler SP250 is what most people would consider the archetypical classic, but back in the ’70s it was nothing more than engineer Nick James’ daily driver.
“I was in my 20s when the model came out,” he recalls. “I remember thinking ‘wow, a convertible with a V8 engine’, but I couldn’t afford one.”
Fast-forward nine years, however, and with the Daimler firmly in secondhand-car territory, James was finally able to make his dream a reality, securing an Indigo Blue example: “My friend Martin Gibson had it for sale, and I swapped an almost new FD Victor for it. My wife worked for Vauxhall so she’d got a discount when we bought the Victor, but if I’m honest it wasn’t that good.”
James remembers Gibson as “a bit of a press-on kid” who’d thrash cars to see what they could do and, while doing so in the Victor, the cambelt went.
“That was poetic justice, because, unbeknown to me – and most likely him – the Daimler had at some point been in a considerable smash.
“It had been repaired well cosmetically, but it never drove properly, with a tendency to wander and pull to one side. Being a callow youth, I just thought that was how these things were.”
With clouds of smoke following the car everywhere (and oil pressure of 10psi cold, worse when hot) he realised that the mechanicals required work, so rebuilt the engine and gearbox, as well as respraying the Daimler Rolls-Royce Black Pearl.
“It served as daily transport for the next 10 years,” says James. “I used it for my 70-mile commute to Swindon and took the family abroad on several holidays.
“I remember having the two girls in the back, my wife beside me and our two red setters squeezed in, and coach parties waving at us as we passed. It really was a different time.”
In 1983, James slid the SP250 into a bank and slightly damaged it, so it was taken off the road with the intention of a full restoration. It was dismantled, but then life got in the way.
“Apart from a flurry of activity in 1995 when the chassis was repaired – the nearside front suspension had been pushed back and was bent – the Daimler spent the next 28 years in the elephants’ graveyard that is my garage, which flooded – twice!”
Interest was rekindled in 2011, after a chance encounter with Wilf Stephens, who was using his SP250 as daily transport, when James began the Herculean task of clearing more than a quarter of a century’s accumulated debris.
“The engine was a sorry sight and, although it turned over, was going to need serious attention, as was the body. The chassis was structurally sound, but it needed shot-blasting and powder-coating.”
Removal of the cylinder heads revealed significant corrosion around the waterways – a typical problem on engines with cast-iron blocks and alloy heads.
Despite having rebuilt it himself in the ’70s, James sent the V8 to Russ Carpenter for a full rebuild. The ’box went to Overdrive Repair Services in Sheffield for an overhaul and fitting of a J-type overdrive, while the chassis and suspension went to Mikris Finishers in Stroud and the axle to Central Axle Services in Birmingham.
In 2012, James had the body sent to SP250 specialist Robert Grinter in Essex.
“I’d hoped to do it myself, but tackling the poorly repaired shell was beyond my capabilities – indeed, it was so bad that at first Robert thought it might be beyond his. He agreed to ‘have a go’, however, and started some intensive surgery.”
Grinter recalls the car being in pretty bad shape, with some serious accident damage that had been disguised well but poorly repaired.
“From the bulkhead forward, the whole front of the car had been screwed and riveted together with metal plates, bits of filler and God knows what else. We had to completely reconstruct it.”
The most challenging aspect was getting everything to line up.
The job has to be done with the shell mounted on the chassis in order to get the door shuts correct, so James got busy reassembling the restored frame, with axle and suspension, on slave wheels from a Triumph TR6, before shipping it to Grinter’s premises.
“The body was dismantled into about five different sections,” says Grinter. “We initially screwed it together with little metal strips that allowed us to keep measuring and realigning things. Slowly but surely it came together and then we glassfibred it all up.
“Obviously, we also had to put a lot more strengthening back in, where it had been cut away from the bulkhead.”
There was also a curious issue with sweating, the garage floods having left the body with an inherent moisture problem.
“It took a hell of a lot of time to dry the shell. We had infrared lamps on it, and would leave it in the sun; you’d then come back to it in the morning and it’d have fresh sweat stains on it.
“Eventually, after about two months, it stopped doing it and we could start putting product on it. Considering how bad it was initially, the end result was very satisfying.”
At that point, James went into overdrive. The chrome went to Derby Plating, instruments to Adrian Sidwell in Radstock, the rad to Arrow Radiators, the dynamo, starter and voltage regulator to Broadway Electrical Services in Grays and the brake calipers to Past Parts.
As he recalls: “I bought a loom from Autosparks, rear springs from Owen Springs, and many other new bits – electronic ignition, parts for a rack-and-pinion conversion, headlamps, wire wheels and hubs, a battery, Michelin tyres, fuel pump, stainless exhaust and more.
“Oh, and endless quantities of UNF nuts and bolts. Nothing would go back on the car that wasn’t new or fully rebuilt.”
With the requisite components in his possession (including a rare screenwash bottle and pump, sourced on eBay for £300), James busied himself overhauling minor items.
These included the heater fan control – a weak design that carries a heavy current through crude contacts – which he redesigned using a modern microswitch and relay: “I also repaired the rotten ashtray and even dismantled the interior mirror for respraying.”
Finally, in March 2013, the body and chassis arrived back, resplendent in the original Jaguar Indigo Blue.
“I fitted the Spitfire rack as an upgrade and safety measure. The steering box is the lowest point of the car, and ground clearance gets worse as the car sags over the years, leaving you basically sitting at the end of a six-foot spear. The conversion also meant fitting an electric fan.”
With Carpenter having returned the rebuilt V8, James dropped it in with the help of a neighbour and fitted the other mechanical components and brightwork, as well as a new aluminium fuel tank: “It was starting to look like a car again.”
Next up were two of the most laborious jobs: offering up the exhaust (“it runs through the chassis, with only millimetres of clearance”) and fitting the ’screen in the rechromed frame, which was “an absolute killer” delegated to Grinter.
James installed the new wiring loom, put in a fresh clutch, and replaced the brake and clutch master cylinders.
It was then time to turn over the V8: “Russ said that his engines always start first time and, all credit to him, it did.”
James took the opportunity to replace the Daimler’s cracked pressed-steel wheels with wires “to add a bit of bling”.
He adds: “It’s what catches most peoples’ eyes. I did it properly, though, using splined hubs. A lot of people use bolt-on adaptors, but we’ve had a couple of nasty failures in the Daimler & Lanchester Owners’ Club – one chap almost wrote himself off.”
Attention then turned to the cabin. Using the woodworm-ridden original as a template, a new dash panel was cut from ply.
The runners were dismantled and zinc-plated, before the seats were stripped and the metalwork shot-blasted and powder-coated.
“I chose Aldridge because it had carried out excellent retrims for other club members. It’s also made several improvements to the original upholstery and can correctly reproduce the diagonal crease lines in the door cards.”
The job was completed in September 2014, including a full cabin and boot retrim, plus carpet, a mohair soft-top – made and fitted – as well as a tonneau and hood bag. “The result was truly impressive,” says James.
“On 23 September 2014, I took the car for its first MoT test in more than 30 years, and it passed with flying colours.”
The owner is a realist when it comes to the model: “Panel fit isn’t spectacular, but there are one or two cars where the factory either took its time, or got it right by mistake.”
That may be the case, but this is surely one of the best SP250s out there – and is even more impressive given what Grinter had to work with. Yet despite how well turned out it is, the best bit is driving it.
The rack conversion lends the steering a precision lacking from the original and allows you to place the Daimler faithfully on the road.
There’s a constant accompaniment of gearbox and axle whine, but the Edward Turner V8 soars sonorously above it.
With no servo, you have to utilise the famed SP250 double-pump on the disc brakes – the first, rather disconcertingly, does nothing – while the limiting factor when pushing on is the TR-based ’box, which was designed for considerably less torque.
Overdrive stretches the car’s legs, but James’ engineering background is at play, because he’s modified the system so that it disengages automatically on a gearchange – meaning you’re never left with a power deficit while you fumble for the switch.
The SP250 has always been quirky looking, but the attention it garners is pretty impressive.
“I’m not a concours man,” says James, “but I took it to the Wheel Nuts show in Stroud and it came away with the Best Sports Car award.”
It’s also triggered memories in the local area, one man remembering the car blasting through his town almost 40 years ago, while another recalls it regularly burbling past his school and making such an impression that he now owns one, too.
It’s not all been a smooth process, though: “I’ve had one high-adrenalin shock. I took it out for a blast and the brakes failed.
“Coming up to a junction I just missed a chap, I’ve no idea how. The axle has two straps on it, to negate it thumping the bottom of the body when on ‘full bounce’. They usually come a bit long so I shortened mine by cutting a bit out and putting on a couple of butt straps with bolts through them.
“Unfortunately, one bolt head was too close to the brake line and snapped it. It was a scary moment and proved that I’m not as clever as I think I am.”
For James, the pleasure has being in doing the restoration and not “selling it on as a box of bits”.
Again, he’s very honest in terms of the driving experience: “Things have changed. It’s an old car and I’m an old bloke, and the match isn’t quite as good as it once was.
“I’m not thinking ‘oh yes, let’s get out on the open road’ – I’ve become too used to modern conveniences and my new Mustang.
“That said, it’s such a part of the family now that there’s no thought of selling and I’ve gained an enormous sense of accomplishment from it.”
So much so, that next up for restoration is his 1948 MG TC – a car that he last drove in ’63!
Images: Tony Baker
This was originally in our September 2017 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication