Daimler was always synonymous with elegance, but also had a surprisingly sporty side to its character. Brian Sewell, who has owned a dozen of the breed, reflects on a glorious past

It has at last leaked out that Daimler has been laid to rest by Jaguar (resurrection is always a doubtful possibility in these circumstances). In terms of even Byzantine or medieval usurpation it has been a long, slow business, the oldest of English marques not quite chopped short by its despoiler in 1960, but emasculated, blinded, hands amputated and, with its tongue cut out, silenced in futile protest as its name, titles and prestige were transferred to cars that were entirely Jaguars, the deceit concealed by grander Daimler radiators. Forty-four years in the killing? Edward II did not have to wait as many months before his usurpers stuck their red-hot poker up his arse.

It has at last leaked out that Daimler has been laid to rest by Jaguar (resurrection is always a doubtful possibility in these circumstances). In terms of even Byzantine or medieval usurpation it has been a long, slow business, the oldest of English marques not quite chopped short by its despoiler in 1960, but emasculated, blinded, hands amputated and, with its tongue cut out, silenced in futile protest as its name, titles and prestige were transferred to cars that were entirely Jaguars, the deceit concealed by grander Daimler radiators. Forty-four years in the killing? Edward II did not have to wait as many months before his usurpers stuck their red-hot poker up his arse.

A Daimler aficionado, I am inclined to write an elegiac obituary, but we all know the bones of it. Apart from having Gottlieb Daimler on its board in 1895, it was an entirely English company. In 1900, Edward VII - then Prince of Wales - took delivery of the first of many royal Daimlers (young Queen Elizabeth II bought them by the dozen, but the Duke of Edinburgh, dubbing them gutless, put an end to that. The Queen Mother still used them). In 1910 the firm amalgamated with BSA; in 1930 Daimler absorbed Lanchester and turned a worthy competitor into a joke car for elderly ladies unable to change gear; in 1960 Jaguar bought the firm, in 1972 Jaguar then fell into the maw of British Leyland and in 1989 became a subsidiary of Ford - for Daimler a wretched end.

Yet this was the first British marque to offer V-12 engines - sardonically and cynically recalled by Jaguar when they called theirs the Double-Six. In the Twenties there were two of these, of 7,136ccs and 3,744ccs, when Rolls-Royce offered only ordinary straight sixes of much the same capacity; in the Thirties there were two more. This was the firm that in 1930 introduced the first form of automatic gearbox in any car. In the Thirties, profiting from the absorption of Lanchester and that marque's wonderful overhead camshaft straight eight of 4.5-litres, Daimlers were powered by a wider range of straight eight engines, silky smooth, than any other marque - one of them, of only 3,421ccs, in head-on competition with the 3.5-litre Bentley and the 20/25 Rolls-Royce. This hey-day is now remembered for Daimler's carriage trade, for the imposing limousines that ferried monarchs and maharajahs down The Mall, but both straight-eights and the Double-Sixes could be mounted in low-slung chassis and, clad in close-coupled coupés, be hustled fast across the Alps on Monte Carlo Rallies.

At the very end of its life, in a slinky two-seater variant of the otherwise dumpy Conquest Century and the quirky but brilliant fibreglass Dart (SP 250) with the 2.5-litre V-8 engine that Jaguar was happy to install as a touch of engineering class in the body of their 2.4, Daimler was still clinging to the sporting half of their tradition. No, Daimlers were not just for rich old fogeys. As an aside, it is worth recalling that when the Luftwaffe destroyed Coventry Cathedral it took care to drop no fewer than 170 high explosive bombs on the Daimler factory down the road.

Daimler as Daimler was never a mass manufacturer; even after the Second World War a few of its cars could be numbered in 10s, and most in hundreds. Only 608 of the Special Sports Drophead Coupé were made, a body designed and built by Barker. Like all smaller Daimlers, it was pitched at the man of reasonable means who wanted a car with the refinement and serenity of a limousine, that in engineering spoke of quality and, in style, of discreet modernity - with an open car it could be a shade daring and less sedate.

On a chassis of more than nine feet, Barker had room to spare to fit a body that was linear and elegant, a residual wing-line swooping from front to rear, its long and lofty nose balanced by a sweeping boot over spatted wheels, parti-coloured to exaggerate the line. Within these clichés of elegance, it was surprisingly spacious. The bench seat could accommodate three abreast (we were all smaller half a century ago) and the rear seat was usually sideways-facing and disastrous for the hairdos of all women and most balding men; in my car this single seat was replaced by a removable bench wide enough for three more passengers - and this could be abandoned when vast quantities of luggage had to be carried. By some quirk the car was almost free of draughts with the hood down and was a delight to drive open in mid-winter, fast.

It was not, however, a sports car - special or otherwise. Its engine was too small. It was powered by a well-tried 2.5-litre six-cylinder unit of old-fashioned design. In its earliest incarnation in 1937 it developed with two carburettors only 85bhp at 4,200rpm, and it had to haul two tons if four passengers were on board.

With the traditional Daimler transmission of fluid fly wheel and epicyclic gears that were changed by dint of a pre-selector lever on the steering column and a push-button on the floor in place of a clutch (impossible to stall), acceleration was not an issue at the lights - one simply didn't bother to compete. Its maximum speed was just over 80mph, at which, in overdrive fourth, the rpm was 3,500, it could settle on an autobahn giving 20mpg - but to reach that speed took at least a minute.

It had a number of thoughtful touches: a hidden switch in the wiring - different in every car - confounded thieves who thought it, hood down, easy to steal; if the windscreen wipers weakened in a snowstorm they could be boosted manually with a stout knob on the dashboard, and it had the old-fashioned luxury of a radiator blind.

It also had old-fashioned non-luxuries: it consumed engine oil at 500 miles a pint and 3,000 miles was the distance between major oil checks and changes; at 25,000 miles or so it might well be necessary to de-coke the engine - a major but essential chore that we then took in our stride.

Cared for, it was a car that seemed to go on for ever - mine went to Sicily and Portugal, followed the pilgrim route to Compostella, swanned a hundred times over the Alps and took me to most galleries and museums in Europe. At 250,000 miles I gave it to a friend and bought another Daimler. I should have put it in a barn for forty years and let Christie's discover it. I should have done that with all my dozen Daimlers, for old Daimlers are now rare, far rarer than Rolls-Royces. Or I should have installed a larger engine. The chassis was strong enough to deal even with the brilliant 4.5-litre V8 that was Daimler's triumph in the 1959 Majestic Major, the last true Daimler through and through.

A Daimler Special Sports is now advertising Kronenburg beer; it is immaculate in red and cream, but Lord knows what the rear seat passenger is sitting on. Is it, I wonder, the Earls Court Motor Show car of 1948 that in that livery won the silver medal of the Institute of British Carriage Builders? Eheu, eheu...

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