Daimler SP250 Dart at 60: the most unlikely police car ever?

Daimler SP250 'Dart' - ex-Metropolitan Police 
Jonathan Smith’s 550 CLU is the oldest Metropolitan Police SP250 in existence

In 1961 the London Metropolitan Police commissioned two Daimler SP250 ‘Dart’ traffic patrol cars – “the first sports models to be used by the Yard”, in the words of this newspaper. There were to be eventually 26 Met Police Daimlers and one of their roles was to “encourage courtesy on the roads”.

In the early 1960s, the mere sight of a black SP250 was more than sufficient to quell an errant Hillman Minx driver and “ton-up” biker dashing around the North Circular Road near the notorious Ace Café. 

The Daimler is still probably best remembered as a police car, and two surviving examples are 668 ELL, owned by Vincent Worrall, and Jonathan Smith’s 550 CLU, which is the oldest Met Police SP250 in existence.

However, its raison d'être was to revitalise the image of one of the most famous names in British motoring. By the late-1950s the marque was increasingly perceived as staid, with the Jaguar MkVII drastically impacting on sales of its coach-built One-0-Four and Conquest models.   

The response of Daimler’s parent company BSA took the form of planning a new saloon for the sort of modern executive who pretended to like modern art and who created office blocks on former bomb sites. At one point they considered using the bodyshell from the Vauxhall Cresta PA, but this never entered production – which was probably a wise decision.   

Smith's SP250 also has a tan interior. Note the police fixtures such as the radio and a calibrated extra speedometer, as well as the automatic gearbox

In the spring of 1958, BSA decided to create a new sports car that would be “a joy to drive, easy to service and completely reliable” and the SP250 was the responsibility of Edward Turner, the managing director of the company’s Automotive Division. The prominent tail fins reflected his liking for Cadillacs and a need to minimise costs resulted in glass-fibre bodywork.

Worrall notes how the chassis “resembles the Triumph TR3”, and the specification included all-disc braking and power from a new 2.5-litre V8 – “a jewel of an engine”.

When “the car built to go places – fast!” made its bow at the New York Motor Show in April 1959 it encountered two problems. The first was Chrysler’s objections to the use of the Dart name, which it had already registered, and the second was the reaction to the SP250’s distinctive lines – one cad dared to suggest it was “the ugliest car in the show”.

Vincent Worrall's Dart displaying the chrome-plated bell and single spotlight that were part of the police specification

Worrall believes the Daimler “is not everyone’s cup of tea, but at least it is individualistic”, and the brochure claimed, “every eye-appealing curve of its polyester body expresses the spirit of speed”. 

In the UK the Daimler cost £1,395 with a heater,  windscreen washers and even front and rear bumpers among the list of extras. There was much controversy among ‘traditional drivers’ about the SP250’s decadent exterior door handles and winding windows, but they were unlikely to complain about the 124mph top speed and 0-60mph in under nine seconds.

Motor road test in 1960 highlighted the V8 engine’s “turbine smoothness over a wide range of speeds”. In May of that year BSA sold Daimler to Jaguar and April 1961 saw the launch of the B-Spec SP250, with bumpers and adjustable steering as standard, plus an improved chassis and the previously export-only option of automatic transmission now available on the home market.  

Worrall's car has the standard black interior

Smith’s Daimler entered police service two months later and Worrall’s car in 1963, with the final example commissioned in December 1964. The SP250s were stationed in Traffic Garages across the capital, and their drivers had to pass a familiarisation course.

550 CLU was demobbed in 1967 and  668 ELL in the following year, although Daimlers were still employed by the Met as recently as 1969. The special equipment included a wireless set, an observer’s mirror, a recalibrated speedometer, the ‘Police-Stop’ sign and, of course, the bell.

The police Daimlers had plain wheels as wire-spoked items were too vulnerable, although anti-social types were known to steal the hubcaps. The Met specified automatic transmission and the Borg Warner DG 'box was modified with a dashboard-mounted handle which, as Smith explains, “locks it into second gear allowing a speed range from zero to 85mph in the one gear”.

Why don't police cars still have these? The SP250's vestigial fins reflected designer Edward Turner's appreciation of Cadillacs of the era

His car also boasts a tan interior and “a hard-top with a glass back window, which is a very rare fitting as the crews had to patrol with the hoods lowered”. Such a procedure was to increase the deterrent effect of the SP250s, regardless of the weather.

By the early 1960s, Jaguar contemplated producing a svelte-looking SP252 replacement, but its price would have been too close to that of the E-Type. The SP250’s final incarnation was the 1963 C-Spec with its enhanced list of fittings and production ceased in 1964 after just 2, 645 units.

But six decades ago the “newest and most exciting of all sports cars” represented a bold and highly ambitious effort to create a grand tourer for the ‘Motorway Age’. A high-profile film or television appearance might have enhanced its sales, for it is certainly possible to envisage Roger Moore at the wheel of a Daimler in The Saint

Police patrols were always carried out with the hood lowered

As it is, the SP250 merits its place in automotive history as one of the company’s last pre-Jaguar designs - and one with equal appeal to a Mad Men-style advertising executive and graduates of the Terry-Thomas School of Bounders.

Naturally, both of these ex-police SP250s have caused a stir at various events, and one reaction is one of disbelief that the force ever used such a car.  

As Worrall observes, “they were more dynamic than a Wolseley!” –  and former Ton-Up Boys have even approached Smith with their happy memories of being ‘gonged’ by 550 CLU…

Thanks to: Jonathan Smith, Vincent Worrall, the Daimler SP250 Owners’ Club

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