Ugly duckling: The fascinating story behind this Daimler Dart
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Maurice O’Reilly is still amused by the details of the Daimler SP250 Dart’s US launch. Unveiled at the 1959 New York Motor Show, it was immediately dubbed the show’s ugliest car — and drew Chrysler’s attention.
The big American brand owned Dodge, had trademarked the “Dart” name, and insisted the model moniker be changed.
Tons of marketing material hit the bin and the model officially became the SP250. But, for buyers, it remained the Dart.
Back in NZ, 15-year-old O’Reilly was syphoning turps into bottles out the back of the hardware store where he worked after school, for 10 shillings a week. A customer, who was a farmer, pulled up in his Daimler Dart. “Only farmers could afford one back then, as they had access to overseas funds,” says O’Reilly.
He fell in love, though he already admired most cars.
O’Reilly started his own business in Wellington in 1970, aged 20. It was an early version of today’s takeaways, and he worked hard and began to live a little. In 1972 he flew to Tauranga for his sister’s wedding and, on his return, chatted up one of the cabin crew.
“I lied and said I had a sports car, and offered to pick her up the following Saturday.”
She agreed. “I had six days to find a sports car. The only one that came up was a scruffy, much damaged SP Dart, but the owner was having trouble with his third wife and was willing to part with it.
“I did the deal Friday night with plenty of time to pick up the stewardess midday Saturday.”
They toured Wellington.
“But she was terrible company, so I dropped her off, parked the car on the street, and about a month later the traffic warden came to tell me it was illegal parking. So I moved it to the RCA Record Company car park near my shop.
Not that the record company park was technically his to use — but the staff, who were also his customers, turned a blind eye. “The staff would run out of money by Wednesday, and before payday they’d come over and pay for lunch with a newly pressed vinyl record.”
Then he started driving the Dart again. “I was working 80-hour, six-day weeks, and took it to the last race day at Levin, then to Manfeild, driving it furiously all the way there and back.”
The trips didn’t always go without incident. “One day I was driving it back at near terminal velocity when the bonnet flew up, folded over the screen and hit me on the head. I was passing a stream of traffic when it happened.”
He managed to stop okay, but can’t remember the drive back to Wellington.
Life went on, and in 1976 he sold his five shops and retired. “I had lots of money and decided to tour the world, so I drove it north — the only time I’ve driven it with the roof on — to put it into storage.”
After a series of adventures he returned with a wife, a new BMW, “the first 320i in New Zealand”, and a London taxi. He eventually sold those two cars. The Dart wasn’t a high priority.
“I had to start a new business to keep the wife in the custom she expected.”
By the late 1980s, the couple were running a business importing used auto parts from Japan. They had large premises and specialist staff. “One was a panelbeater, so I set him to work.”
Modifications were made to the Dart, including “rack and pinion steering from a Morris Minor and a Toyota five-speed gearbox, as I imported them and the old ones were basically Ferguson tractor gearboxes — with the power the 2.5-litre V8 engine produced it always lost first gear. Most Daimler Darts will have had these mods.
“And we swapped from crossply tyres to radials.”
O’Reilly mainly uses it for club events. He was one of the earliest, and now one of the oldest, members of the SP250 Dart club. He takes visitors for tours and the Dart goes from its Tauranga base to Auckland often. “A guru in Auckland does the servicing.”
The engine — penned by motorcycle designer Edward Turner, using the same basic cylinder head and hemispherical combustion chambers as Triumph motorcycles of the time — sounds fabulous. It has a muffled gurgle at town speeds with a sharper howl as it picks up.
“It certainly keeps up with modern traffic.”