Tuesday July 11, 2017
A confession – I am an unabashed fan of the Hillman Imp family. The early models are, in my not at all boasted view, one of the best looking small cars of their generation with their quasi-Chevrolet Corvair lines. The Husky estate can transport an upright milk churn, should you ever have the urge to do so. The Singer Chamois Sport is a veritable Mini Cooper alternative and if your overdraft cannot quite run to a Porsche 911, there is always the alternative of the Sunbeam Stiletto – twin Stromberg 125CD carburettors, a vinyl roof and, in the words of the adverts ‘four headlamps to bring a little life into your life’. And yet, between 1963 and 1976, less than a million cars were sold.
Few products were as crucial to a motor manufacturer as the Hillman Imp – it was not only the first new small car from the Rootes Group but the company’s first rear-engine offering and the first vehicle to be made at the new Linwood plant near Paisley. To make issues even more challenging, the Imp had to compete not just against the Mini but the larger Anglia 105E and Austin A40 Farina while sales of Rootes’ medium sized Audax saloons and Super Minx range were being negatively affected by the Ford Consul Cortina.
In short, it was imperative that the Imp succeed, and for a while, it looked as though this would indeed be the case. The motoring press loved it – ‘superb little engine and gearbox’ – raved Autocar – famous owners included Carry Grant and there were some typically clever Rootes publicity schemes. A factory PR car co-starred with Norman Wisdom in Stitch in Time and cinemagoers could take part in the See the Film – Win an Imp! Competition.
One still-heard argument is that the Imp’s commercial potential was limited from the outset by its engine layout at a time of the Mini but this ignores the success enjoyed by many of the Hillman’s contemporaries. The NSU Prinz 4 and the Simca 1000 dates from 1961, the Renault R8 from 1962 and the Fiat 850 from 1964 – all long-running models with a motor at the rear. In 1970 Car went so far to claim that ‘the Imp remains one of the most satisfying of all small cars to drive. It is actually enjoyable, where the worthy Mini is only practical’.
My theory is that in the early 1960s, a great many British motorists were far less interested in the location of the power plant than whether their first new car would be reliable. The Imp was certainly not lacking in showroom appeal, with such clever design touches as an opening back windscreen, a folding rear seat and an ‘ergonomic’ instrument panel. Meanwhile, the dealer could impress potential owners with ‘Britain’s first mass-produced aluminium single-overhead cam engine’, ‘the automatic choke’ and the ‘pneumatic throttle’ – all of which looked set to wow suburbia up until the moment they ceased to function.
Unfortunately, the early Imps were far from paragons of dependability, and by the mid-1960s the brand’s image was almost irrevocably damaged. The 1965 Mk. II was a much-improved motor car and Rosemary Smith’s victory in that year’s Tulip Rally entered motoring history but too many drivers associated the Imp with trudging through the rain towards the nearest AA or RAC telephone box.
My own earliest memories of the Imp were a) seeing them being driven with the rear window open during the long summer of 1976 and b) being enthralled by their regular appearances on re-runs of the utterly swinging show, Man in a Suitcase. Today, you can attend virtually any classic car show to see the ‘inspiration in light car design’ receive the respect that its due. It may have launched prematurely and being manufactured in Coventry might well have improved its reliability but the Hillman Imp is one of the most delightful vehicles of its generation. So, let's end with footage of the great car in action, defeating hoods in a Jaguar Mk.2 and being generally groovy. Take it away McGill.