A touch of class – Lagonda 3-Litre vs. Daimler Regency luxury shootout Andrew Roberts steps back to the pre-Suez Crisis era to find out which luxury saloon did the best job of tempting their chauffeur-driven owners into the captain’s chair. Photography Gus Gregory.
A Touch of Class Lagonda 3-Litre meets Daimler Regency; harrumphing ensues
In the Fifties the Daimler Regency Sportsman and the Lagonda 3-Litre were two prime examples of a car that constantly prompted the well-heeled owner to give their chauffeur the weekend of. During the week, either might have been used to convey a landowner to a meeting or the managing director of a property development company to the bombsite he planned to transform into a tower block. But come Friday, the urge to take the wheel would be irresistible. And more than six decades later these two cars still quietly exude an atmosphere of a day at the Grand National or maybe a spin to the airfield in order to catch that light to Le Touquet.
My first impression of these truly magnificent cars is of their natural and effortless sense of presence. Some vehicles attempt to make an impact via the use of excess brightwork or, by the late Seventies, exaggerated spoilers. By contrast, neither the Daimler nor the Lagonda feels the need to indulge in any display of overt ostentation or vulgarity per se. They were made at a time when automotive publicity often appealed to the potential buyers’ social aspirations and to drive either of our test cars would have meant its respective owner really had ‘arrived’.
To buy a Daimler required less in the way of £sd than the Lagonda, although that needs to be placed in a historical context – in 1955 £2600 was twice the cost of a Wolseley 6/90 and somewhat more than the price of a Jaguar MkVII. But then a Regency Sportsman driver might have dismissed the former as suitable for bank managers and police inspectors while regarding the latter as the province of spivs and counter-jumpers.
That fluted radiator grille clearly denoted old money although, in many respects, the Daimler strikes me as a car of a multi-faceted image. Its model name conjures visions of days of leisure, with fishing rods or golf clubs in the boot – but the brochures stated that it combined ‘power with prestige’ to create ‘The Swift Immaculate Cars for Men of Affairs’, which now sounds rather racey.
The original Regency saloon debuted in 1951 but sales were limited, partially because of a rise in Purchase Tax, and production ceased in 1952. Two years later Daimler re-introduced the Regency in MkII guise and in addition to the standard saloon there was the alternative of the Sportsman – and for an extra £326 the Daimler motorist gained a motorcar with idiosyncratic four-window coachwork by Mulliners of Birmingham.
The Sportsman was introduced at the tail-end of the extravagant Docker Daimlers commissioned by chairman Sir Bernard Docker. One way of enjoying the Daimler is to lounge on the richly upholstered rear bench, acknowledging the awestruck glances of various Ford Consul and Hillman Minx owners. But this would be a wasted opportunity because the Sportsman was indeed for the enthusiast who might have otherwise considered a Bentley.
Yet this is not a formidable car to drive. Certain products of this era require the motorist to engage in battle with the steering and transmission but the Daimler positively encourages you to delight in its dignified but never staid progress. As many a Regency owner will tell you, a pre-selector gearbox discourages motorists with delusions of becoming the next Stirling Moss, because the raison d’être of a Sportsman is for it to almost glide above the tarmac. One very positive development during the Regency’s lifespan was the replacement of the hydromechanical braking with a servo-assisted all-hydraulic set-up, allowing the Sportsman to halt with the same degree of grace as it accelerates. This Daimler was fitted with the 3.8 engine from the later Majestic but it was originally powered by a high-efficiency version of the famous 3.5-litre straight six that boasted a higher compression ratio and an aluminium cylinder head. A rarely specified option was the 4.5-litre motor.
Both of our duo was targeted at the owner-driver, and this especially applies to the Lagonda. A British saloon of the Fifties fitted with all-independent suspension was extremely unusual and it does feel slightly more attuned to the demands of a sporting motorist than the Daimler, balancing comfort with entertaining road manners. The rack and pinion steering is heavy but precise and the springs allow for a comfortable ride and, should the mood grab you, spirited cornering.
And then there is the note of the twin-cam engine that was designed by Willie Watson under WO Bentley – a powerplant so flexible that a Lagonda could perambulate around town at just 10mph or speed down the A1 with equal élan. The unit is positively silken – I get the impression that that the 3-Litre would be happy to cruise at 80mph without disturbing the occupants’ sangfroid.
Early 3-Litres have a steering column gearchange but this splendid example is one of the MkII models fitted with a delightfully precise floor lever, while the servo-assisted brakes are not the lightest but are exceptionally reassuring. In terms of appearance, the Lagonda seems a degree more discreet than the Daimler, with lines that combined formality with an authentic sense of dash. The 3-Litre is only the second Lagonda of the David Brown era, which began in 1946 when the industrialist famously saw an advertisement offering a ‘High-class motor business, established 25 years, 30,000 pounds, net profit last year 4000 pounds. Write Box V. 1362, The Times, EC4.’
In February 1947 Brown bought Aston Martin for £20,500 and that September he spent a further £52,500 acquiring Lagonda – one of the attractions of the latter firm was that twin-cam engine. A disused airbase near Feltham was to become a home for both marques, with the 2.6-litre power plant the cornerstone of the Aston Martin DB2 and Lagonda’s first post-war saloon, launched in 1948. Five years later the unit was bored out to power the 3-Litre; Aston Martin enthusiasts would have to wait another eight months for it to be fitted to the DB2/4.
The new Lagonda was initially only available in two-door coupé and drophead forms, the four-door saloon being introduced in 1954. The line-up was facelifted as the MkII in the following year and the final examples listed in 1958.
A Lagonda 3-Litre saloon cost rather more than the Sportsman – indeed, it represented the equivalent of five years’ wages for an average Briton – and it feels more purposeful than the Daimler. The 3-Litre’s Tickford body contains some delightfully anachronistic overtones, such as the centrally hinged front doors, but the lowing wings give it a decisive air. One of its most high-profile drivers was the Duke of Edinburgh, but the fact that it was never offered in left-hand drive would infer a lack of perceived sales appeal in the USA. On the strength of brief acquaintanceship with this mighty car I would argue that this was a missed opportunity.
An imported Lagonda would have been monumentally pricey but would have had a social cachet for a corporate lawyer above and beyond a Mercedes-Benz 300 ‘Adenauer’ or a Jaguar MkVIII. Of course, many a British enthusiast of the marque would proudly contend that this is always the case with the Lagonda.
All too soon it’s time to take my leave from two ultra-exclusive motor cars. Lagonda sold just 295 examples of the 3-Litre while just 33 examples of the 3.5-litre Regency Sportsman left Coventry. Their detailing, from the Daimler’s ornate fascia to the Lagonda’s adjustable door armrest, is nothing short of exquisite and should your gentleman’s express suffer the indignity of a puncture there is the useful fitting of integral hydraulic jacks. The Lagonda 3-Litre ceased production in 1957, the Daimler in 1956 and as a sign of the changing times, the latter marque was acquired by Jaguar in 1960. The heyday of our brace of cars was that of Fifties Britain prior to the Suez Crisis, a world of order and predictability. They may date from the same period as the first Citroën DS but they occupy a wholly different universe and their appearance makes it almost impossible to believe the Mini was fewer than five years in the future. By that time motorists would have to wait a further two years for the next Lagonda while Daimler was on the verge of being acquired by Browns Lane.
The term ‘quality car’ has been much misused over the years and so I prefer to reserve it for those few vehicles of real integrity such as the Lagonda and the Daimler. The Fifties was a challenging time for the manufacturers of coachbuilt cars and these two seamlessly blend a pre-war sense of poise while facing the new post-war challenges with verve and aplomb.
So, which of these machines would occupy a place in my fantasy motor house assuming that either of them would be happy with a new owner of a decidedly East Cheam-style background? The answer is simple – I will take both; the Lagonda for the City and the Daimler for high days and holidays. Dreaming of owning such cars does encourage one to raise one’s standards.
Thanks to: Windrushers Gliding Club (windrushers.org.uk); The Daimler & Lanchester Owners’ Club (dloc.org.uk); The Lagonda Club – (lagondaclub.com); The Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust – (bit.ly/2sQneOX), Derek Sleigh (ds-ds.co.uk)
‘These cars blended a prewar sense of poise while facing post-war challenges’
TECHNICAL DATA FILE Daimler Regency Sportsman
Engine 3468cc inline-six, ohv, twin SU H6 carburettors (original engine)
Power and torque 140bhp @ 4400rpm; 203 lb ft @ 2300rpm
Transmission Four-speed pre-selector
Suspension Front: Independent coil springs and swinging arms with a transverse anti-roll bar and upper transverse links; Rear: semi-elliptic leaf springs with Newton telescopic dampers
Steering Cam and roller
Brakes Drums all round
Weight 1870kg (4123lb)
Performance Top speed: 100mph; 0-60mph: 16.7sec
Fuel consumption 20mpg
Price new £2650 5s 10d
Values now £25,000-35,000
TECHNICAL DATA FILE Lagonda 3-Litre MkII
Engine 2922cc inline-six, dohc with twin SU H6 carburettors
Power and torque 140bhp @ 5000rpm; 178lb ft @ 3000rpm
Transmission Four-speed manual
Suspension Front: wishbones with coil springs and lever arm dampers; Rear: swing axles with torsions bars and lever-arm dampers
Steering Rack and pinion
Brakes Drums all round
Weight 1719kg (3790lb)
Performance Top speed: 100mph; 0-60mph: 12.9sec
Fuel consumption 18mpg
Price new £3901 7s
Values now £25,000-60,000
OWNING A DAIMLER
Tony Bagley is the vice president of the Daimler Lanchester Owners’ Club, and has owned his Regency Sportsman since 1967.
‘I sent it back to Jaguar in the Eighties for an overhaul that involved a new 3.8-litre engine from a Majestic being fitted, along with a high-ratio axle and additional Girling brake servo.
‘Sourcing spares would be nearly impossible without the DLCO club. Track rod ends and transmission seals can be hard to find, as can replacement body panels.
‘When the car was in regular daily use, on each oil change the old oil was sprayed onto the underside of the car including the rear springs because often the lubrication system wasn’t providing the full quantity to the steering links. But now I’ve changed some of the self-lubrication points to grease nipples.’
OWNING A LAGONDA
George Williamson has owned his 3-Litre since 1979. ‘When I found it the body wasn’t too bad but it had no running gear; I had to source an engine and gearbox.
It was resprayed four years later and I haven’t touched the coachwork since. Running costs are reasonable given the car’s size. ‘Engine and transmission parts are relatively straightforward to find because many are shared with Aston Martins of that period.
One mechanical challenge I faced in my early years of ownership was finding new oil seals for the front kingpins, but these are now available through the owners’ club.
‘However, I wouldn’t like to have to source another rack-and-pinion steering unit or a replacement rear axle. Another challenge is the oil thrower on the rear of the crank, which tends to leak.’