13 December 2012

The Daimler that didn't exist

Cars I should never have bought, part 4

1977 Daimler Vanden Plas

Dutch forger Han Van Meegeren noted that the secret of forgeries is to create something that people have been expecting to find. In his case, it was religious Vermeer paintings that should have been part of the artist’s canon, but seemed to be missing. Van Meegeren painted seven in the 1930s (and quite a few other Dutch works) and wasn’t caught until one of his forged Vermeers was found in the collection of Hermann Goering after WW II.

In my case, it was a left-hand drive, 4-speed and overdrive Daimler Vanden Plas at a Russo & Steele auction in Scottsdale in 2009. The Daimler Sovereign was a fancy version of the Jaguar XJ6 and the Vanden Plas was the highest trim level, beloved of government figures in the 1970s. There were a number of 4-speed Daimlers and Jaguar XJs in the UK, but none imported to the U.S. Any LHD 4-speed cars would have been sold in Europe and undoubtedly have perished from rust by now. I’d never heard of any LHD Daimlers, let alone LHD stick models. Which should have been a clue.

The dark gray metallic, tan leather sedan didn’t sell at auction (nobody knew what it was) and I bought it afterward for $12,500, indicating 31,000 miles. It came with complete provenance, including all bills of sale, tax discs, extensive records and books, and had been consigned by a friend of mine, also a journalist. It started and ran well, though the air conditioning did not blow cold and the medium- and long-wave UK radio picked up local stations I didn’t know existed.

Wisely, I shipped it home from Arizona, and subsequent calculations indicated it would not quite have made it to Reno, had I driven. Once unloaded in Portland it proved a joy to drive, and had XJ6s been sold in the U.S. with 4-speeds, I believe most would still be on the road.

The car was sold new to the owner of the Bute Court Hotel in Torquay, Devon (think Fawlty Towers), who owned it for two years, then sold it to one E. George in Surrey. He owned it from 1979-2005, though it was mostly in storage. To my surprise, Hurst Park Motors, who bought it out of storage in 2005, was only about four miles from where I grew up, west of London. I called them, and they remembered the car, though in their records it was brown with RHD and automatic. The VIN confirmed the RHD configuration. They had painted the car dark gray metallic and sold it to D. Pearce. Clearly, I needed to find him.

Pearce finally replied to my emails, piqued that the car had been flipped. He was an English electronics whiz who was working in Las Vegas and had planned to retire there. He wanted to bring his car, but it was RHD and automatic. So Pearce bought a rusty LHD XJ6 parts car in Switzerland and trailered it home to Surrey. He bought a 4-speed/overdrive transmission, all the linkages and pedal box from a crashed J6 coupe in England and spent the next 18 months and about $10,000 converting his $17,000 Daimler to LHD and a four-speed, rewiring the car (he was an electrician) and fitting a mirror-image, custom-made Burl Maplewood dash. When he was done, he took a shakedown trip to the South of France, then shipped the car to Las Vegas. However his retirement plans were complicated by the fact his wife and children didn’t like Vegas and went back to England. He decided to shed all his effects and reconsider his future.

So the car was a real car, but not a factory job. In other words, it had a story, not what you want to hear, however interesting. The Daimler then proceeded to deliver the average Jaguar ownership experience. First, the fuel pumps failed, one at a time. Had the car been a 1976 model, they would have been in the trunk by the spare wheel – a 10-minute job. In 1977 they were relocated inside the twin fuel tanks, which had to be drained. Then the engine was reluctant to run when warmed up, and produced little power when it did. The carburetors were an unusual SU, not sold in the U.S., vertically stacked like a Stromberg. So nobody would know how to adjust or rebuild them.

Well, almost nobody. Luckily, my friend Ray Nierlich in Salinas, Calif., used to be Dr. Jaguar in Huntington Beach for 25 years. He had actually worked on one of the two or three 4-speed LHD XJS’s in the U.S. His analysis of the car was not encouraging, with many parts dying of old age and the motor apparently having suffered a blown head gasket years before, which was why it was laid up for so long. It had been quickly slapped back together and was “one hill away” from blowing the head gasket again. The lack of power was due to the carburetor needle seats having worked loose and supplying as much fuel as they felt like, irrespective of the throttle setting. Other problems involved the radiator, steering, air-conditioning and disastrous cold-start switch.

Ray has been fitting the car in around his restoration schedule and it has been massively overhauled. The car should be ready this winter, and one thing you can be sure of, it’s going to be driven until it drops. None of this trailer queen stuff. The moral of the story? If something seems too good to be true, it most likely is.

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