- Category: Special features
The Hillman Imp, what's it all about? In the 40s and 50s the Rootes Group who supplied the well-to-do of England with Humbers, Singers, Sunbeams and of course Hillmans were in crisis. The company had taken a hit in sales due to the new small car boon prompted by the 1956 Suez crisis.
Vehicles such as the Beetle, Fiat 500, the German Bubble cars and Bond Minis were selling well and Alec Issigonis was working for BMC on the soon-to-be revealed Mini.
In response to this, the Rootes Group instigated the Apex project which was to be the Hillman Imp. This at the time was only a contingency plan. The company really didn't believe these mini cars were going to eat into their profits at all but to cover all bases they employed two young designers: Mike Parkes and Tim Fry (21 and 24 years old). Both were enthusiastic and driven, put to work in a small part of the factory on development of the project. A year or so in, Mike and Tim got a chance to eyeball the yet to be launched pre-production Mini. The decision was made to build a car that would surpass the Mini in every respect. The Apex Project was given the blessing of the eminent Rootes Brothers and it was full steam ahead.
The best-selling small cars at the time were rear engined and rear wheel-driven but had a reputation for dubious handling. The brief for the Apex Project was master of all and the best of everything. With this in mind, the designers went engine-shopping. A company called Coventry Climax who made fire pumps and racing car engines for the famed John Cooper and his racing car company were approached to see if they had an engine that would work in a small car. Coventry Climax kindly gave them access to their engines for development and research.
The car was rigorously tested all over the world and in all climates. This was to ensure reliability as everything about this vehicle was new, modern and unproven. If you read last week's edition, you'd be well-appraised of the staggering abilities of the all-aluminium imp engine. If not, know this: it was highly advanced compared to the competition. Why? It had an automatic choke, overhead chain-driven camshaft, pneumatic throttle to name just 3 advanced features. It wasn't just the engine that was cutting edge; this car had all around independent suspension, light and exceptionally precise steering, and forerunner of the hatchback with its opening rear window. As for its handling and road manners, Bill McGovern (imp racing driver) described it as a road-legal Formula 3 car and Ayrton Senna said that it was a good car for the up-and-coming racing driver to cut his teeth on.
The car was good, in fact, it was exceptional. All that was required now was a factory. Rootes asked the British government for a loan to build the new factory complex next to their existing one in Coventry but it was declined. The government were willing to give them the money only if they were to build the factory in a high unemployment area of Britain. Linwood in Glasgow
was chosen due to its high unemployment of ship builders who initially struggled with the high-tech equipment, forced against the fast-flowing current of mass production. The reputation of the Imp was instantly tarnished by the poor workmanship coupled with early reliability problems. One of the most prominent was its tendency to overheat; the car had never been tested in a traffic jam at the height of summer and the engine-driven fan just wasn't efficient enough when the car wasn't in motion. Rootes worked night and day to smooth out these undulations. Later Imps were much imp-roved but the damage was done, and thus the Imp always struggled with sales compared to the Mini.
It wasn't all bad for the Imp. Throughout the 60s and 70s a succession of racing/rally triumphs saw the Imp carrying off trophies by the dozen. Also, a spectacular 3-year run of outright wins against the likes of works Escorts, Minis, Mustangs, etc. Interestingly, the Bill McGovern Imp wasn't a works car but a private entry with very limited funds, another testament to its phenomenal ability. Today the Imp is of cult status and is much sought-after by young drivers who are unsatisfied by the numb driving experience of modern vehicles. Be seeing you.