Classic Cars

Daimler: extravagant design and magnificent bodywork

A half-century ago, Lord and Lady Docker's Daimlers shocked the motoring world. Brian Sewell recalls their outrageousnes

Poor Daimler, now reduced to a mere label on a Jaguar without a jot of authenticity. It was once one of the grandest of all marques, the favourite of British kings, and an object of desire among the maharajahs of the east, but its nemesis was Nora Docker, a sometime dancing-girl who worked her wiles on millionaires as often as she danced the minuet or mamba.

Poor Daimler, now reduced to a mere label on a Jaguar without a jot of authenticity. It was once one of the grandest of all marques, the favourite of British kings, and an object of desire among the maharajahs of the east, but its nemesis was Nora Docker, a sometime dancing-girl who worked her wiles on millionaires as often as she danced the minuet or mamba.

In the history of British motoring Nora and her Docker Daimlers are mocked -- she for being common and they for reflecting, 50 years before their time, the taste of footballers' wives. But the cold eye of reason sees two other sides to the phenomenon: that Daimler's refusal to acknowledge change had most to do with its decline, and that Nora's sense of style, though irredeemably vulgar in detail, in the far more important matters of line and form was by no means to be sniffed at.

Nora was Daimler's mistress of design from 1951 to 1956 because her husband, Sir Bernard, was master of its board. The first foundation for her flair was a chassis more than 12ft long, a straight-eight engine from the mists of time that, for all its 5.5-litres, developed only the 150 bhp that is the commonplace of 2-litre engines now, and a ponderous transmission based on the now forgotten fluid flywheel and pre-selecting spicyolic gearbox.

When Nora's bodies were added, some three tons of car was ready for the road. No matter how wonderful it looked, the most expert driver could never persuade these turbine-smooth machines to reach a mile-a-minute in less than 30 seconds, nor compel them to cruise at more than a tad beyond 80mph.

The Docker Daimler was intended to strike dumb with awe the pedestrian peasantry of Bond Street and Biarritz. Nora's first design, of 1951, was known as The Gold Car, a limousine embellished with 7,000 gold stars; from bonnet to tailpipe all that should have been chrome was gold, and the interior was trimmed in golden camphor wood and gold brocade.

At the 1952 Motor Show she exhibited a close-coupled two-door coupe, long and lithe, that looked as though it could cruise for ever at unheard-of speed, but then she painted it an absurdly feminine combination of pale grey and powder blue.

In the interior, there were matched lizard skins dyed gray-blue, and the steering wheel too was trimmed in this repellent material. This car exemplified Docker Daimler: a superbly balanced form ruined by bad taste and an engine old enough to have pumped the bilges in Noah's Ark.

In 1953 Nora produced the Silver Flash, the chassis probably that of the Conquest Century, and the engine a 3-litre, six-cylinder version of a design first produced in 1934. The body, however, would still seem utterly modern now if adapted to be a Bentley Continental saloon. If only the interior had not been a ghastly confusion of black leather and red crocodile.

Nora's last car was the Golden Zebra, constructed on a limousine chassis with a 6-cylinder engine of 4.6-litres. A two-door coupe developed from the Silver Flash, but longer and wider, it was ivory white, embellished with gold, its upholstery in zebra skin.

Nora's cars sat three abreast in front and two behind, so that rear passengers could see ahead; they had rear seats that folded away; rear windows with heaters and de-misters; boots were lined with insulation so that picnic butter would not melt. Nora may have been common, vulgar, crass and brash, but within her barmaid bosom lurked a woman of uncommon vision, flair and pragmatism.

Forced out of Daimler in 1956, traces of her influence lasted another four years and then the firm fell into the jaws of Jaguar and was, in all but name, obliterated.

Somewhere on the facade of Jaguar's factory there should be a blue plaque to Nora Docker, Intuitive Designer.

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