January 21, 2020

The Daimler and Me

Illustration by George Danby

Illustration by George Danby

• By John F. Chisholm •

More than a dozen years ago I bought an English sports car, a 1959 Daimler SP-250.  It’s unusual, being the 175th SP-250 made and one of only 2,654 ever produced.  I don’t believe anyone knows how many remain.  Given the production total, it can’t be a large number.

My wife calls my purchase male menopause, a second childhood and a last stab at youth and virility by a middle-aged man.   Whatever.  I think that I bought it for what it can teach me.

We’ll see.

The car was in horrible shape.  The finish was filthy, gray primer.  The bodywork was cracked.  The interior was in ribbons.  The chassis and suspension had rusted red-brown.  Beyond flat, the tires were weathered, checked and crumbling.  A lot was broken.

No.  It didn’t run.

For 10 years, I struggled alone through the variegated minutiae involved in restoration.  At times the list appeared never-ending.  Certainly it was overwhelming.  I made some headway.  Finally two and a half years ago, I brought the car to English Auto in Searsport.  Doug Latham was a tremendous help.  He did a fabulous job on the body, paint, interior and convertible tops.  He ended up doing a lot of the mechanical work, too.

Working with someone made all the difference.  Doug and I had wonderful times together, struggling, swearing, disassembling and repairing the car, learning its idiosyncrasies.  There are a lot of those.  Remembering that they represent the car and should be preserved, not removed, wasn’t always easy.

The engine gave us nightmares.  It’s a V-8.  All settings, clearances and measurements have to be exact.  The design necessitates extreme accuracy with no room for error.  Yet worn parts were found everywhere, in the carburetors, the dual breaker-point ignition system, the aluminum heads and the hemispherical combustion chambers.  I could go on.

Performance is a hard mistress.

But one by one we fixed the problems.   Repaired, the engine became a mechanical masterpiece for any era.

On the other hand, the steering system would have been archaic and unsatisfactory 10 years before the car was made.  The temptation to replace it was profound.  Repairing it into the best it could be drove us in circles.  Literally.  Around and around.  It’s a worm and recirculating ball looking for a steady center.

We never found it, either.

Regardless, the car came home last Thursday.  Finally.  Everything together shouted, “Yes!”  Not just the car, but the day.  Towering cumulus clouds billowed overhead.  Bright, clear sunshine turned them brilliant white.  Spring greenery rushed past, reflecting perfect convertible weather in the bonnet.  Traffic was light.  The gargle of the twin exhaust pipes on that antique  V-8 echoed and barked behind me, revving smoothly upward through first, second, third and finally into top gear.  I all but lost the top of my head to my smile.

The power-train and ride are nothing short of fabulous.

Braking by four wheel disks is more than adequate.

Alas!  The steering is horrible.

I stayed on the road.  Somehow.  You cannot let your attention wander.  Cellphones are definitely out.  Waving to gaping passesr-by is unwise.  Keep both hands on the wheel.  You have time to shift ― if you hurry.  That’s it.

Always remember the engine constrains 200 horses that you should be very afraid to use.  That’s not just because of the steering.  The entire car weighs only 2,200 pounds with two-thirds of that weight out there in front of you.  Yeah.  It’s rear-wheel drive, too.  So remember physics.  Do the math.  That’s only 11 pounds per horse, plus you.  Those ponies have zero problems hauling that around, whichever direction inertia throws you.

In short, the car has PANACHE  in spades and spelled with capital letters.  I learned a lot working on it.  I learned more driving it.

As I told my wife, that’s the point.

Because now I have to learn about me.  I have to learn if I can keep myself in check such that this car ― and me ― can continue living as whole and separate entities.  I cannot allow the huge adrenalin rush this car commands to master me.

I’ll be honest.  I couldn’t have done it as a young man.  This car would have owned me, flat out.  It might well have killed me, too.   No argument there.

But today, I’m 57.  I want to own it.  The hope is that increased age has matured me sufficiently for the challenge.

We’ll see.