Lady Norah Docker of Daimler: The Car World's Own Marie Antoinette

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Feb 28, 2017

Lady Norah Docker had a knack for marrying well, surpassed only by her talent for designing expensive cars (and getting someone else to foot the bill.)

Lady Docker (in her customary mink) applies makeup in Stardust.

You wouldn’t have expected much from her early years. She was born in Derby in 1906, as Norah Royce Turner, and with her family moved to Birmingham at an early age—where her father part-owned an auto dealership. Unfortunately, he committed suicide when she was 16, and young Norah had to provide for herself—working as a dance hostess at the Café de Paris in London.

Sir Bernard Docker, at left, grinned through his wife's jet-setting extravagances. He liked to spend, too. That's Lady Docker's son at right.

But young Ms. Turner made the most of her opportunities, and used her position on the dance floor to befriend the 9th Duke of Marlborough, as well as Clement Callingham, who headed Henekeys wine merchants. She married Callingham (after being named in his divorce action). After he died in 1945, she took up with Sir William Collins, the president of upmarket luxury goods providers Fortnum & Mason—until he died in 1948. She hit the jackpot in 1949, with the third husband, Sir Bernard Docker, then chairman of a gun company, as well as British auto company Daimler (not to be confused with Daimler-Benz).

Lady Norah liked to live well, and with Docker aboard and the auto company’s resources at her disposal, she indulged every whim. She was made a director of Hooper’s, then Daimler’s body-building company, and started spending in a manner that Tammy Faye Bakker would admire. Among other things, she bought Glandyfi Castle in Wales for £12,500, and furnished it with £25,000, both sums coming from company coffers. A £5,000 bill was also presented to Daimler for the mink-covered outfit Lady Norah wore to the 1956 Paris Motor Show.   

And that’s not even mentioning the Daimler show cars she personally designed and commissioned at great expense (then drove, or handed to relatives). Here they are:

Sir Bernard and Lady Docker unveil one of their creations at the London Earls Court show.

The Golden Daimler, 1951. The limo featured £900 worth of gold plating, at a time when, Bonhams says, “that sum would have purchased two Morris Minors and left enough change to buy a small motorcycle.” Asked about the gold, Lady Norah said, “It was practically impossible to obtain chrome.”

Blue Clover had lizard-skin upholstery. Lady Docker was just getting started. (Wikipedia)

The Blue Clover, 1952. This two-door sportsman’s coupe, admittedly rather gorgeous, was painted powder blue and gray, dotted with a four-leaf clover design. The interior was upholstered in gray-blue lizard.

1953's Silver Flash offered bulletproof side windows, solid silver hairbrushes and fitted crocodile luggage.

The Silver Flash, 1953. This aluminum-bodied car, a variation on the three-liter Regency, was brightened up with gold fleur-de-lis on the sides, and offered both bulletproof side windows and opera-style rear seats. The occupants could enjoy solid silver hairbrushes and fitted luggage covered in crocodile.

Stardust from 1954: Note the tiny stars. (Bonhams)

Stardust, 1954. This one was slightly smaller than the standard limousines that Daimler turned out for British royalty. Its dark blue coachwork was embossed with 5,000 glistening six-pointed silver stars. The hood ornament was modeled on Lady Docker.

Inside Stardust: No luxury expense was spared. (Bonhams)

The upholstery was silver silk brocatelle specially made on handlooms. Crocodile was again employed for the trim cabs and cabinets. The Dockers had it shipped to Monaco at one point for the wedding of Prince Rainer and Grace Kelly. They were later banished from Monaco by the Prince after the so-callled "Naughty Norah" stole a flag, to more hooplah.

The Golden Zebra, restored to its old glory, gold plating intact.

The Ivory White Golden Zebra, 1955. The DK400 Zebra cost £12,000 to build, eight times the price of a standard Daimler Conquest sedan. The parts normally chrome plated got real gold instead. The interior was covered in zebra hide. She was asked why she used zebra. “Because mink is too hot to sit on,” she said.

Inside the Golden Zebra: mink was too hot.

All this excess might have gone over easier, if Britain hadn’t been still suffering from the rationing and austerity resulting from its World War II sacrifice. Sir Docker was Lady Norah’s partner in crime, and only stayed as long as he did at Daimler because British manufacturers had an unfortunate weakness for executives with titles. Even before he met Norah, Sir Bernard had a straight-eight Daimler convertible nicknamed the Green Goddess—it was the most expensive car exhibited at Earls Court in London, valued at £7,001.

Sir Bernard's Green Goddess, after a repaint in maroon.

Lady Norah definitely had a Marie Antoinette/Eva Peron complex. Her favorite beverage, which she imbibed at every opportunity, was pink champagne. She attended a cancer charity event in sequins and diamonds, and won the (rigged for her) marbles championship. She and Sir Bernard went wild in a Monte Carlo casino, then failed to declare the money taken out of the country.

The couple began to come under fire in the press, and Lady Norah didn’t help matters by mouthing off. She declared about the show cars, “We bring glamour and happiness into drab lives. The working class loves everything I do.”

Finally, in 1956, after the British royals switched to Rolls-Royce—a huge snub—the Dockers were out at Daimler. The board declared that the show cars were created for Lady Docker’s “personal amusement.”

Again, Lady Norah was vocal. “It’s not the loss of the gold cars that makes me feel like this—and weren’t they fun?” she said. “They were like my children. No, it’s the lovely party I was planning for 25,000 of the company’s workers for my 50th birthday. A tip-top affair—and now it’s all off.” How could they do this to Sir Bernard, she said plaintively, because he was such a hard worker he “had a direct line to the firm from our yacht.”

The later years were sadly diminished, recalling the Duke of Windsor (once the king of England) and his lady love, Wallis Simpson. The yacht went (for £290,000—they were asking £600,000), and so did Lady Norah’s extensive jewelry collections. The once-dazzling couple ended up as tax exiles in the Channel Islands. Lady Norah was bitter, declaring that the residents there were “the most frightfully boring, dreadful people that have ever been born.”

Daimler, in business since 1896, was effectively done as an independent automaker--Jaguar bought the remnants in 1960. The cars became white elephants. The Golden Zebra went to Henlys with 25,000 miles on the odometer in 1966, and was offered for just £1,400. But now they’re collectors’ items. Stardust was auctioned at the Goodwood Revival for $136,000 in 2014.

Here's some great British newsreel film about the Dockers getting sacked at Daimler:

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