Words: Mike Ryan
Photos: Classic Motor Studio
As a marque, Daimler has always been connected to prestige and luxury, but on a few occasions, they dipped their toes in the sporting market, too, and the DB18 Special Sports of the late 1940s and early ‘50s was one of those occasions.
Daimler occupies something of a weird space in the automotive industry. It still exists as a company, but as a car brand, Daimler’s been dormant for almost 15 years. When Ford bought Jaguar in 2009 (who had bought Daimler in 1960), they shuttered the Daimler brand, ending a lineage that went all the way back to the dawn of the automobile industry.
Even in those earliest days, Daimler was a premium brand; a perception enhanced by the British Royal Family issuing the Royal Warrant in 1902, meaning Daimler was authorised to provide motor vehicles to the monarchy.
That association started with King Edward VII (when he was still the Prince of Wales) in 1900 and would continue through successive monarchs into the 1950s, when Rolls-Royce became the Royal Family’s vehicle of choice.
Within that 50-year period, Daimler produced a bewildering array of models – probably too many, leading to the range being pared back on occasion.
A Stopgap Saviour
The early 1930s was one of those occasions, fuelled by plummeting new car sales in the wake of The Great Depression.
While cutting some models, Daimler also introduced a new one in 1933 - the 'Fifteen' - which was a smaller, lighter and cheaper model, although these are all relative terms when talking about a Daimler.
Where previous Daimlers had been powered by large sixes or V12s, the Fifteen introduced a new 1.7-litre six that was also the first Daimler engine to use overhead valves, replacing the sleeve-valve type that had been in use since 1909. Producing around 40hp in its original form, that engine would be enlarged to 2.0 litres a year later, then 2.5 litres in 1938, by which time output had increased to 70hp.
As a car for the “private sector” (ie., owner drivers, not those being chauffeured), the Fifteen was a success for Daimler, so little changed with the follow-up model, the DB18.
Introduced in 1939, the DB18 used the same engine, was of the same dimensions and similar to the Fifteen in many other ways, but featured improvements in several areas and was also a little quicker.
Only a handful of DB18s would be built before the onset of World War II, which saw Daimler transition to war production, like every other British carmaker. During that time, Daimler built 4x4 scout cars like the ‘Dingo’, along with armoured cars. As the Dingo used the same engine as the DB18, it gave Daimler engineers the opportunity to further refine it over the course of the war.
The ink was barely dry on Japan's document of unconditional surrender in September, 1945, when Daimler announced they’d be recommencing car production, starting with the DB18 for the owner-driver, while the larger and more opulent DE27 and DE36 limousines would cater to Daimler’s traditional customer base.
Post-war, the DB18 range was rationalised down to two body styles: a four-door sedan and two-door drophead coupe (aka convertible). Mulliners would body the former and Tickford the latter, although a few were bodied by others, including Daimler’s in-house coachbuilders, Barker and Hooper.
Mixing the innovative with the archaic, the DB18 had independent front suspension, automatic chassis lubrication and a built-in jacking system for wheel changes, but the brakes were still rod actuated and the diff still a worm-type drive.
The transmission was of the “semi-automatic” Wilson pre-selector type that Daimler had first offered on their cars in 1930. Although it eliminated the need to match engine speed with manual shifting in the pre-synchromesh era, the pre-selector still required gear changing, as the transmission wasn’t a true automatic in the sense we know today.
A Question of Sport
The popularity of sports cars in the immediate postwar years grew rapidly and Daimler wasn’t the only carmaker to notice.
Small, light and nimble cars, like the MG T Series, found favour with servicemen during the war, particularly Americans, who took these lithe sports cars back home to the US after the end of hostilities and fuelled a market that would eventually spawn a homegrown equivalent in the Chevrolet Corvette.
While some Daimlers were quick, they weren’t sports cars, and the market wasn't considered big enough - yet - to develop and release an entirely new model, so the compromise was the ‘Special Sports’.
Introduced in 1948, the Special Sports used a mildly modified version of the DB18 chassis and much of that model’s other mechanical parts, including brakes that had been upgraded to hydro-mechanical actuation by this point.
The engine was the same 2.5-litre six as the DB18, at least in its bottom end, but the Special Sports added an alloy head with larger valves and twin carb induction instead of a single carb.
Compared to the DB18’s 70hp peak, the DB18 Special Sports maxed out at 85hp, with the resulting increase in top speed from 72mph (115km/h) to around 85mph (135km/h) and an improvement in 0-100km/h acceleration of around 5 seconds. However, 24 seconds to hit the 100km/h mark could hardly be called sporty. A higher diff ratio allowed the extra power to be used and an overdrive was added to the pre-selector transmission, essentially making it a four-speed.
The other defining feature on the DB18 Special Sports was its coachwork. Only available as a drophead coupe, styling was more svelte compared to the DB18 drophead, with headlights faired into front guards that flowed back along the length of the body into rear guards that formed a curvaceous tail. Rear wheel spats were standard, along with suicide doors, while the signature Daimler grille with its ribbed surround was angled back to enhance the flowing lines.
Two-tone paint was standard, usually with a dark-over-light treatment, although the reverse of this and single colour versions have been seen. Virtually all the bodies were produced by Barker, using aluminium panels over an ash frame, although the front guards, screen surround and some of the door internals were steel.
The handful of exceptions to the Barker bodies were produced by Hooper to a design that was even more streamlined and reminiscent of the grand coachbuilt exotics of the 1930s, where the Barker bodies resembled an enlarged Jaguar XK140, especially when seen in profile.
Inside, the DB18 Special Sports featured carpeted floors, leather seats and timber on the dash and door cappings. A heater was standard and instruments were arranged centrally, meaning left- and right-hand drive production could be accommodated easily, although it seems the vast majority of Special Sports built were only sold in Britain and “the Colonies”.
A quirk of the interior is that it offered seating for three, with the rear seat at a right angle to those ahead. This sideways seat could be positioned to face the left or right, or removed entirely to increase luggage capacity.
While based heavily on the DB18, the Special Sports cost double the price when new. They were only ever intended as a niche model, though, and something of a ‘toe in the water’ of the sports car market, so overall production of 608 units from 1948 to 1953 (compared to 3,395 of the standard DB18) was a good result.
When Daimler replaced the DB18 with the ‘Conquest’ model in 1953, they also released the ‘Century Roadster’ to continue the lineage set by the DB18 Special Sports, but this was no sports car, ether, and it wouldn’t be until 1959 that the first true Daimler sports car arrived in the form of the SP250, aka the Daimler Dart.
Well Restored, Well Rewarded
The 1951 Daimler DB18 Special Sports featured is a two-owner unit that was sold new in South Australia in 1952 and has resided in Victoria since 1999.
Between 2006 and 2010, the car was comprehensively restored by Victorian-based specialists, including an engine rebuild by Motor Improvements in Cheltenham and a full interior re-trim by Design Auto Interiors in Bayswater, while the repaint in Westminster Blue over Silver Grey was done by Black Edge Auto Body in Bayswater. Matching this is a manually folding soft top in blue.
Following completion of the restoration, this Special Sports secured three trophies at the 2011 Daimler Lanchester Club Victoria Display Day (including People’s Choice and Pursuit of Excellence), then another triple trophy haul at the 2012 Daimler National Rally, including the coveted National Rally Champion.
More trophies were achieved at the 2014 Daimler National Rally, 2017 Daimler Lanchester Club Victoria Display Day, 2018 Daimler National Rally and 2018 Flinders Motoring Heritage Day, after which the owner stopped entering the car for judging.
Currently on consignment with Classic Motor Studio (CMS) in South Australia, the haul of trophies this Daimler DB18 Special Sports has achieved speaks to the quality of the restoration, while Matt White of CMS describes it as the best example he’s seen and far superior to another example he previously sold.
In the new millennium motoring environment, Daimlers are something of a quirky choice. Put that down to them not being visible in the modern market. They’re a special marque, though, offering luxuries on a par with Bentley and Rolls-Royce, but without the ostentation.
Something refined, for an equally refined owner, the DB18 Special Sports also offers the novelty of the pre-selector transmission, so if you’re after something elegant, a bit sporty and a little bit different, this car may be ideal.
On consignment with Classic Motor Studio in Mount Barker, South Australia, this 1951 Daimler DB18 Special Sports would have to be one of the best examples of the model in Australia and certainly the best example for sale.
Fully restored over a decade ago, the car is said to still be in exceptional condition, despite the consignor covering over 5,500 miles (8,850km) since the restoration was completed.
The 2.5 six can reach highway speeds easily, but is most at ease in the 80-90km/h range. The pre-selector gearbox may take a little getting used to, but is part of this car’s appeal.
With its English style, refinements inside and out, smooth ride and quirky features like the pre-selector and sideways rear seat, the Special Sports is a cruiser with a difference,
Pricing on this car has recently been reduced to $79,500.
For more details, see the listing online at www.justcars.com.au with the ad code JACFD5249051, or contact Classic Motor Studio on 0407 788 296.