Lot 260: The 1948 London Motor Show, Earls Court Exhibition,ex-Sir Bernard Docker – from the Estate of the Late John H. Sweeney,1948 Daimler DE-36 ‘Green Goddess’-'The Chairman's Car' Chassis no. 51233
August 14, 2009
San Francisco, CA, USA
This spectacular and immense convertible was the first—and also, as we shall later explain, arguably the last—of seven Hooper drop-head coupes built on the massive Daimler DE36 chassis between 1948 and 1954. More than 20 feet long and just under 80 inches wide, the super-sized drop-top weighs nearly three tons.
Painted a special jade green color, the car made its 1948 debut on the Daimler stand at the first post-WWII Earls Court British Motor Show. Dubbed “the Green Goddess” by the motoring press, it was used for several years after the show by Sir Bernard Docker, Chairman of Birmingham Small Arms (BSA). In addition to armaments and military vehicles, BSA products at the time included Singer, Lanchester and Daimler automobiles in addition to BSA and (after 1944) Ariel motorcycles (Triumph would follow in 1951). BSA also controlled the venerable Hooper & Co. (Coachbuilders) Ltd, which naturally enough provided the body for Sir Bernard's special car.
Dating to 1897, the British Daimler was the first car manufactured in England. The English car was named for the German Daimler engine used in the earliest examples, but the British and German Daimler concerns were always separate entities. A tradition of association with the British Royal family began when the Prince of Wales selected an early Daimler for his first automobile. By 1910, Daimler had merged with BSA and the Daimler Motor Co. would henceforth market only large and expensive cars. These included the amazing Daimler Double Six (V-12) models of 1926-1937, cars that rank among the most impressive motorcars ever made. The first Daimler straight-eight engine appeared in 1933 and the firm continued to build prestigious six- and eight-cylinder cars until the conversion to war production occurred in 1940. By the time WWII ended in 1945, seventy percent of the Daimler factory complex lay in ruins. Even so, car production resumed in 1946.
BSA entered the post-WWII era with its wartime chairman, Sir Bernard Docker, securely at its helm. (In 1938, Sir Bernard had treated himself to a yacht, the 863-ton Shemera. Requiring a crew of 32, it was the largest privately owned yacht in England.) Sir Bernard's late father, F. Dudley Docker, had been a multi-faceted industrialist and long-term BSA director—it was he who had brought Daimler under that firm's control in 1910.
During 1949, Sir Bernard married the great love of his life. The new Lady Norah Docker, had previously married well twice before, only to soon after become widowed both times—consequently she was already an heiress twice over. The bride soon discovered she had a penchant for car design. After presenting a special Daimler Sedanca de Ville at the 1950 Earls Court show, she followed up with her sensational Gold Daimler of 1951. A series of high-fashion show cars followed, concluding with the 1955 Daimler Golden Zebra. Lady Norah's "Docker Daimlers" became automotive legends, while the extravagant and very public “rich-and-famous” lifestyle she shared with Sir Bernard made the couple prototypes for the sort of celebrities of the media even today loves to dote upon.
Of course, Sir Bernard's own show car was built before he married Lady Norah—and that automobile is our primary concern here.
Daimler introduced its DE36 chassis during 1946. Powered by a 5460cc (5.4 liter) straight-eight producing 150bhp, the DE36 was also equipped with a pre-selector controlled Daimler Fluid Flywheel transmission. Designed to carry heavy, formal coachwork, the DE36 chassis was offered into 1953. Of the 216 built, a notable number were bodied for British Royalty. Chassis no. 51233, assembled in early 1948, was the first DE36 chassis designated for a special Hooper's drop head coupe body.
The building and subsequent sorting out of the Daimler Green Goddess is well documented in surviving Daimler and Hooper & Co. Ltd. records. They show that just after New Year's 1948, Hooper body no. 9352 was commissioned, to be built to the coachbuilder's design no. 8183. Daimler DE36 chassis no. 51233, onto which the body for “the Chairman's car” would be mounted, was received by Hooper's on June 7, 1948. Osmund F. Rivers, Hooper's chief designer, was responsible for completing the car for Earls Court. During the final weeks of assembly, 24-hour departmental commitments were required to complete the car for the October 27 opening.
Hooper's craftsmen constructed the body's wooden framework of English ash, over which hand-beaten aluminum panels were applied. The aluminum front wings flowed back into the body in a tapered line extending all the way to the rear bumper. Stacked pairings of inset Lucas head and passing lamps were faired into the leading edges of the front wings. The lighting was protected by clear Perspex covers, surrounded by a bright molding crowned with trademark Daimler fluting. Rear wheels were partly concealed by covers designed to flip up on spring balanced arms should tire service be required. Half-circle over-riders on the bumpers helped protect the coachwork.
Three windshield wipers were spread across the wide base of the curved Triplex glass windshield. The fawn cloth hood (top) was concealed when folded by a painted metal cover; both top and cover were operated hydraulically.
A full set of Smiths gauges was set into the instrument board and a specially concealed lockable steel box was mounted behind the dash cubby. The transmission's pre-selector lever was redesigned to suit its new surroundings Fawn carpeting of the highest grade covered the floors.
Trimmed in green-piped Connelly's Beige leather, the seating was quite unusual. The front upper cushion was divided into three sections—the outer ends tilting forward for access to two armchair-type seats provided for rear passengers. "These [rear] seats are placed towards the centre of the car so that the occupants have a clear forward view between the heads of the people on the front seat," Hooper's explained. The rear seats could be folded up, for added luggage space.
Body-wise, the Green Goddess was essentially a prototype and it remained a work-in-progress for a period after its Earls Court debut. An "extended test” under Daimler auspices resulted in 19 changes and adjustments. After the Chairman took his new car “out for the weekend,” a request to relocate the handbrake lever followed. Even Sir Bernard's chauffeur sent in a list of items requiring attention. Modifications were made almost weekly for several months.
During January 1949, the Green Goddess was prepared for a driving tour of continental Europe. It was packed into a Bristol Freighter aircraft for delivery to a French airport; from there it was driven down to Cannes, where Sir Bernard awaited its arrival.
After a year of service, the Green Goddess was received at the Daimler works for a going-over. Daimler chief engineer C. M. Simpson noted, "The rear brakes … run warm, and some thought might be given to introducing some louvers in the rear wheel covers." Diagonal louvers were subsequently added to the rear spats on the Chairman's car.
Car 51233 was next returned to Hooper's, in May 1950, for adjustments—and front-end accident repairs. The work order included "reshaping the wings" and vaguely specified headlamp repairs.
After several seemingly relatively tranquil years with the Dockers, the Green Goddess was recalled to England in late 1953, this time for a full body transplant. A Hooper's memo explained: "The position in regard to this car is that it has been used by the Chairman in the South of France, and we understand the chassis is a good one. As the order from James Melton was cancelled, we intend to use the body from that chassis [no. 52825] on chassis number 51233.” (Please see footnote for more regarding James Melton and the Daimler he did own.)
In preparation for the new body, chassis 51233 was renewed and upgraded late in 1953 to “phase three" suspension specifications at the Daimler works.
A March 3,1954 Hooper's work order sealed the fate of the original body: "We are to remove the above body  for chassis No. 51233 and replace it with Body No. 9642 (Ex-Melton),” it began. As the radiator on the 1948 chassis sat three inches further back than on the later car, it was noted the front wings would require alteration. The memo includes instructions for disposition of the replaced coachwork: “Body No. 9352 must be broken up…" The extent to which the work order was carried out is somewhat open to debate, as will be discussed momentarily. However, it is evident that most, if not all, of the eighth and final DE36 Drop-Head Coupe body ended up on chassis no. 51233—and this fact explains how the first DE36 chassis to receive a Green Goddess-style body also became the last!
Daimler reportedly offered the fully reconditioned Green Goddess as a “new” car in 1954 (it had apparently been carried on the books as a factory “demonstrator” since 1948). The renovated coachwork was finished in a new two-tone green combination, beautifully set-off by newly chromed side-sweep trim, in the fashion of some other late-production DE36 drop-heads. Photographs of the car taken after its renewal show it with more conventional headlamps (which may have been installed as early as 1950, when the front-end accident damage was repaired). The original UK registration LJJ11 was retained.
No record of the eventual first private owner's name exists. The car is next known to have been offered for sale in 1956, by the London specialty car dealer Simmonds. Eventually, it made its way to the U.S., where it would come into the ownership of Pennsylvanian George Daggett. A few years after acquiring the car, Mr. Daggett offered it to the Jaguar-Daimler Heritage Trust, which declined to meet his price (see footnote).
In 1996, the Green Goddess was acquired by the long time friend of Bonhams, the late John H. Sweeney of Massachusetts, and it comes to the auction via his estate. Mr. Sweeney's extensive research and writings on the car contributed greatly to the Green Goddess saga.
Although the Daimler was a 100-percent complete, running and driving car when obtained by John Sweeney, it had been refinished during the 1970s in a color and trim combination inappropriate to its heritage. Contemplating a repaint and new interior, Mr. Sweeney put the Green Goddess into the capable hands of Spencer Guder, a seasoned master of the restoration arts. As so often happens, what began as a refreshing of the cosmetics soon became a full restoration project. The car was fully disassembled (with Mr. Guder carefully documenting each step) and its metal parts were power washed and soda blasted to bare aluminum. The body and wings were then reassembled and sprayed with a black “guide coat.”
About ten years ago, the restoration work was halted mid-project and the mostly disassembled Green Goddess was returned to her owner. There she remained until recently being returned to Spencer Guder's shop by Mr. Sweeney's estate, to be prepared for sale.
In the process of disassembling 51233, Messrs. Sweeney and Guder developed a shared opinion that the front wings and even some pieces of the body proper may remain from the original body. Spencer Guider reports that many panels are stamped with the later 9642 body number, but others are not. Many front bumper elements are stamped for the original body 9352 and some carry examples of the original 1948 paint color.
In any event, it is important to remember that both the first and last Hooper DE36 drop-head coupe bodies were built to the same coachbuilder's design drawings—excepting minor improvements and trim details, they were essentially identical.
In the course of stripping the front wings, the restorer discovered filled-in openings for the original style Perspex-covered recessed lighting. (It is possible the original front wings were retained as an expediency to accommodate the radiator placement on the earlier chassis.) Mr. Sweeney intended to return the car to its original 1948 configuration in most aspects and to that end he had the headlamps reconstructed to their original recessed design, with the Perspex covers.
One later design attribute Mr. Sweeney did decide to retain were the handsome chromed body-side slashes fitted to the “new” body, and the car presently reflects his intent in this regard. He also planned to keep the revised dash panel, believed to be a 1951 design upgrade.
After thoroughly renewing his acquaintance with the Green Goddess, Mr. Guder states he is confident the car remains "absolutely complete" and adds that even the smallest fasteners are present (some will serve at best as patterns, though). Most parts and components are tagged for identification and many are notated with information to facilitate reassembly. New bumper over-riders are included; they were made using the deteriorated originals for patterns.
Mr. Guder has reassembled and reinstalled many heavy items and systems, including the engine and transmission. The instrument panel has also been reassembled and wood caps and veneers—along with the rear compartment's exquisitely detailed burled walnut liquor cabinet—have been reinstalled. The seating has been put into proper position.
The intent of the recent reassembly efforts, Mr. Guder notes, is get the car as much as possible into a “mocked-up” condition that will facilitate the eventual restorer's work.
Spencer Guder says he hopes the car will be gloriously restored and adds he will be available to, at the very least, provide consultancy services for the restoration.
Items not installed are to include door internals, window channels and the hydraulic system for the hood and its well cover. Photographs depicting the placement and arrangement of these parts and systems prior to disassembly will accompany the car. Much time has also recently been spent itemizing, photographing and boxing items to facilitate a future restoration.
In addition to copies of the voluminous correspondence related to the car's creation and usage by the Dockers, other historical documentation, including the owner's book (in "as-used" condition), will be included in the sale.
The original Sir Bernard Docker Green Goddess is the first of a very limited series of extremely large automobiles that stand among the most prestigious cars ever offered. This completely extraordinary car is ready for a new owner to restore to his or her individual standards and tastes…a rare privilege, indeed!
Four of the seven Daimler DE36 cars carrying Green Goddess-style bodies are known exist. The Jaguar-Daimler Heritage Trust holds LHD example, chassis no. 51753/Body 9613—it is the car sent to Fergus Motors of NYC in June 1950 and later owned by James Melton (whose reported cancellation of his order for car 52825 resulted in the eighth body being fitted to chassis 51233). Two restored examples remain in the U.S.—one in the Colorado collection of renowned author and noted collector Clive Cussler and the other in the LeMay collection in Washington. A fifth example, originally owned by the Eaton family in Canada, was sadly lost to fire in 2004. The remaining two cars are lost.
And what of the eighth DE36, Chassis no. 52825, originally slated to receive body 9642? Dispatched as a bare chassis in 1955, it seems to have emerged in 1957, bearing a limousine body/hearse combo body. It survives today in the hands of a devoted Daimler enthusiast.