Often said to be Britain’s first carmaker, The Daimler Motor Company wasn’t born in Germany, but in London by an ambitious entrepreneur by the name of Henry John ‘Harry’ Lawson.
In the late nineteenth century, Lawson acquired the rights to the name and patents of German motoring pioneer Gottlieb Daimler, and swiftly set up the Daimler Motor Company. While Daimler’s innovations in Germany were revolutionary, Lawson’s enterprise would set the stage for British Daimler cars’ enduring association with regal elegance.
Daimler’s reputation for excellence and innovation was not accidental. Throughout its existence, the company has showcased an unwavering commitment to pioneering technological advancement. Whether it was the early adoption of the Knight engine, or the sheer opulence of their designs, Daimler cars stood as a testament to quality and prestige.
The impact and influence of Daimler cannot be understated. From setting benchmarks in luxury automobile standards to influencing design and technological paradigms, Daimler has been a formidable force. Ownership of the company navigated through several hands and, by 2009, production of the last of the British Daimler cars, the Super Eight, had come to an end.
The history of Daimler cars is an astonishing tale of regal grandeur and innovative prowess, forever striving for automotive perfection.
What’s in a Name?
It’s easy to get tangled up in the names Daimler-Benz, Daimler AG, and the Daimler Motor Company, so let’s set the record straight. Daimler-Benz, hailing from Germany and celebrated for its iconic Mercedes-Benz cars, can trace its roots back to the innovations of Gottlieb Daimler. Later on, after merging with Chrysler, this entity evolved into what was then known as Daimler AG, and is now known as Mercedes-Benz Group AG. On the other hand, across the channel in Britain, the Daimler Motor Company stands as its own distinct entity, unaffiliated with its German counterparts.
The Origins of the Daimler Motor Company
The birth of the British Daimler cars is often viewed as representing the birth of Britain’s car industry as a whole, a narrative of entrepreneurial spirit, vision, and fortuitous events. A confluence of the foresight of British engineer Frederick Simms, the ambition of Harry John Lawson, and the melding of German innovation with British industrial might and elegance.
In the 1890s, Simms recognised the potential of Gottlieb Daimler’s powerful and efficient German-engineered engines. Acquiring their British rights in 1891, he established the Daimler Motor Syndicate in 1893, aiming to revolutionise British transportation, especially in marine applications.
Lawson, a key player in the British bicycle industry, saw this potential and acquired the syndicate in 1896. With broader ambitions, Lawson transitioned from selling engines to manufacturing full cars from an old cotton mill in Coventry – Britain’s first car factory – leveraging its rich bicycle industry infrastructure and skilled workforce.
By the 1900s, Coventry’s Daimler plant began producing cars that combined German engineering with British craftsmanship, defining the brand’s legacy of luxury and excellence.
Cars fit for Kings and Queens
Almost from its inception, British Daimler cars have enjoyed royal patronage. The Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, was given a ride in a Daimler in 1898 and he bought a mail phaeton in 1900. Two years later, on becoming king, Edward awarded the company a royal warrant as the supplier of motorcars to the royal household. Indeed every British monarch from King Edward VII to HRH Queen Elizabeth II – and a great number of foreign heads of state – have been chauffeured in Daimlers.
Built to compete with Rolls-Royce, perhaps the most famous of Daimler’s historic cars was the Double-Six. So-called because of its pioneering V12 engine, it embodied a blend of performance and opulence, cementing Daimler’s position among the very top of British automotive luxury. Its lavish interiors, handcrafted detailing, and imposing presence made it more than just a mode of transport – it was a statement of regal grandeur and sophistication.
The Golden Age of Daimler Cars
Much of the Daimler Motor Company history was under the ownership of the Birmingham Small Arms Company, or BSA. In 1910, the two companies came together, though at first they seemed unlikely bedfellows. BSA focused on heavy metal production, such as guns, ammunition, tools, bicycles and motorbikes, while Daimler cars were the epitome of luxury.
The relationship, which lasted until 1960, was, for the most part, a success. Although like almost all British car makers that saw out two world wars, the five decades of BSA’s ownership was marked by several significant developments, achievements, and challenges.
Several standout cars emerged from Daimler during this tenure. The 1920s saw the introduction of the aforementioned V12 Double-Six, a testament to Daimler’s engineering prowess. The 1930s brought the Daimler Fifteen, which was an attempt at reaching a broader market with a more affordable yet still luxurious vehicle.
The Fabulous Fifteen
Launched in 1932, the Fifteen was Daimler’s answer to the austere times precipitated by the Great Depression. In fact it was the first car offered by the company priced under £500 since World War I.
Based on the Lanchester Ten, the Fifteen was sold as ‘affordable luxury’ and first offered as a 1.8-litre inline-six, with subsequent 2.0-litre and 2.1-litre versions. It was the Daimler Motor Company’s most successful car to date, with around 6,000 being sold, but this success came at a price. Some have suggested that the risky strategy of going downmarket affected Daimler’s ‘super-luxury’ reputation and may have been a contributing factor to its eventual demise.
The Post-War Years
After World War II, Daimler, like many other luxury car brands, faced challenges. The economic aftermath of the war and the resulting austerity measures in Britain made the market for luxury cars more constrained. Nonetheless, Daimler tried to navigate these challenges with models like the Conquest and the more compact and economical Consort.
The company was still making big, luxurious cars in the 1950s including the Regency series, the 3.5-litre straight-six One-O-Four, and the 4.6-litre straight-six DK400. They even tried to muscle in on the nimble, two-seater roadster market with the SP250.
The SP250 and Beyond
The history of Daimler cars wasn’t flush with sports cars and it’s perhaps easy to see why. The SP250, sometimes called the Daimler Dart, was a 2.5-litre V8 and enjoyed mixed success, earning fans and detractors in equal measure. At its launch at the 1959 New York Motor Show, it was described as ‘the ugliest car of the show’. Billed as the British Corvette, Daimler were struggling financially, and, some would argue, living off past glories. They also wanted – needed – a share of the lucrative US market.
But change was afoot. Daimler Cars’ history was about to take an interesting turn. While there were undoubted high points of success and innovation under BSA’s ownership, there were also challenges related to management decisions, brand positioning, and adapting to a rapidly changing automotive landscape. In 1960, BSA decided to sell Daimler to Jaguar, marking the end of a fifty year relationship.
The Jaguar Years
BSA sold Daimler to Jaguar in 1960, signalling a new era for the iconic luxury brand. Under Jaguar’s stewardship, Daimler was positioned as the more luxurious counterpart to Jaguar’s sporty image. The two brands shared many components and technologies, leading to cost efficiencies in production, but Daimler Cars often received more upscale appointments and detailing to differentiate them from their Jaguar counterparts.
The 2.5 V8 Saloon was launched – effectively a re-badged Jaguar Mark II – and in 1966, the Jaguar 420 was upgraded to become the Daimler Sovereign. However, like many of the famous early British car marques like Rover, Austin and MG, the Daimler brand was passed from pillar to post over the next forty years.
The Complex Machinations of the British Car Industry
In 1966, the British Motor Corporation (BMC) merged with Jaguar (which had owned Daimler since 1960) to form British Motor Holdings (BMH). It was during this period of ownership that the BMH network of dealerships in the US stopped importing Daimler cars, suggesting their marketing budgets couldn’t support strategies for all the brands owned by BMH.
Two years later in 1968, BMH merged with Leyland Motor Corporation to form the British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC) and another Daimler limousine was launched, the DS420.
Due to serious financial difficulties and an industrial relations disaster in the 1970s, BLMC was then nationalised. It later became BL plc. In 1986 it was renamed the Rover Group. During this period, the Daimler name continued to be used for the most luxurious variants of Jaguar cars. In 1988, British Aerospace acquired the Rover Group from the UK government and the following year, Jaguar – and with it, the Daimler brand – was acquired by Ford.
In 2007, Indian conglomerate Tata Group bought Jaguar and Land Rover and the last of the Daimler cars, the Super Eight, rolled off the production line in 2009. While Tata have spoken about a relaunch of Daimler to compete at the very top end of the market with the likes of Bentley and Rolls-Royce, so far, while Daimler Motor Company Limited remains registered as active as a corporate entity, it sits dormant as a carmaker.
From Coventry to the Crown: The Legacy of Daimler
The history of Daimler cars is a testament to the enduring allure of luxury, craftsmanship, and innovation. From the visionary stewardship of Harry J. Lawson to its royal patronage and subsequent transformations under various ownerships, Daimler has weathered the ebb and flow of time. Its legacy, punctuated by iconic models and the relentless pursuit of excellence, positions Daimler at the zenith of automotive luxury and the very essence of motoring grandeur.