The Hillman Imp is a small economy car made by the Rootes Group and its successor Chrysler Europe from 1963 until 1976. It was the first mass-produced car with the engine block and cylinder head cast in aluminium.
Being a direct competitor to the BMC’s Mini, it used a space-saving rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout to allow as much luggage and passenger capacity as possible in both the rear and the front of the car. It used a unique opening rear hatch to allow luggage to be put into the back seat rest.
In addition to its aluminium engine, it was the first mass-produced British car to have an engine in the back and the first car to use a diaphragm spring clutch. The baulk-ring synchromesh unit for the transaxle compensated for the speeds of gear and shaft before engagement, which the Mini had suffered from during its early production years.
It incorporated many design features which were uncommon in cars until the late 1970s such as a folding rear bench seat, automatic choke and gauges for temperature, voltage and oil pressure.
This unorthodox small/light car was designed for the Rootes Group by Michael Parkes (who later became a Formula One driver) and Tim Fry. It was manufactured at the purpose-built Linwood plant in Scotland. Along with the Hillman marque was a series of variations including an estate car (Husky), a van and a coupé.
The Hillman Imp gained a reputation as a successful rally car when Rosemary Smith won the Tulip Rally in 1965. This led the Rootes Group to produce a special rally conversion of the Imp under both the Hillman and Singer marques known as the Imp Rallye. In 1966, Rosemary Smith after winning the Coupe des Dames, was disqualified under a controversial ruling regarding the headlamps of her Imp. The Imp was also successful in touring car racing when Bill McGovern won the British Saloon Car Championship in 1970, 1971 and 1972.
Arguably, it was considered advanced for the time with its various innovative features and technical advantages over other cars. But reliability problems harmed its reputation, which led to the Rootes Group being taken over by Chrysler Europe in 1967. The Hillman Imp continued production until 1976, selling just under half a million units in 13 years.
Known internally at Rootes as the “Apex” project, the Hillman Imp was to be the group’s first post-Second World War small car. Its main rival on the home market was the BMC Mini, which preceded the Imp by almost four years. Diecast Model
The Hillman Imp uses an 875 cc all-aluminium power unit, adapted by Rootes from a Coventry Climax FWMA fire pump engine which had enjoyed some racing success, but significantly different in areas such as cylinder head design. It is mounted behind the rear wheels and canted over at 45°, keeping the centre of gravity low to optimise road-holding.
As reported in tests such as the Practical Car and Driver, rear-engined cars generally suffer from oversteer handling characteristics to some extent, and to counteract this as much as possible, the Imp has a semi-trailing arm independent rear suspension system. This relatively costly and sophisticated solution, atypical for small-car design at the time, was insisted upon by its designers after testing at length a Chevrolet Corvair with swing axles. To attain balanced handling, the Hillman Imp actually uses swing axle geometry at the front, but this initially led to too much understeer and the camber was later reduced by lowering the pivot points. Rootes relied upon a team led by two young designers, Tim Fry and Mike Parkes who were given an almost free hand to come up with a small car that would fit well into the Rootes car programme. This at the time centred on derivatives of the Hillman Minx.
Variants and “badge engineering”
Over the life of the car, Rootes (and later Chrysler UK) produced four body styles. The original saloon was introduced in May 1963 and ran through to the end of production in 1976. It has an opening rear window, making it effectively a hatchback. The opening rear window is intended to make it easier to load the small luggage area behind the fold-down rear seat. The fold-down nature of the rear seat was itself unusual in small car design at the time, being more often associated with larger upmarket estate cars. In 1965 a van badged as the “Commer Imp” was introduced. A coupe, the Hillman Imp Californian, was introduced in 1967 at the same time as the van’s pressings were used to create an estate car, badged “Hillman Husky”. Several estate car prototypes using the saloon body with extended rooflines were tried, but never offered to the public. Instead, buyers choosing the estate had to settle for a van-derived car with somewhat unusual styling. Both the van and estate ceased production in 1970. Imp and Variants
In an attempt to interest a wider public when sales figures fell well short of the intended 100,000 cars per annum, several badge-engineered derivatives, such as the luxury Singer Chamois (launched October 1964), and the Sunbeam Sport (launched October 1966), with a more powerful twin-carburettor engine, were offered with varying degrees of success. For marketing reasons the Singer variants were sold as Sunbeams in many export markets, even before May 1970 when the Singer marque was discontinued altogether by Chrysler UK. In some markets, such as France, the “Sunbeam” name was used on all British Rootes products, including the Imp and the Husky.
The coupe bodyshell is similar to the standard body but features a more shallow-raked windscreen and rear window which, unlike that on the standard bodied cars, can not be opened. The attempt at a more sporty design did not translate into better acceleration or top speed figures and the aerodynamics of the standard saloon are actually slightly better. The new body style made its first appearance at the Paris Motor Show in October 1967, with the introduction of the sporting Sunbeam Stiletto. The coupe body had also appeared, with less powerful engines, in the Hillman Imp Californian announced in January 1967 and the more luxurious Singer Chamois coupe.
The Hillman Imp was a massive and expensive leap of faith for Rootes. The company did not have recent experience building small cars, even though it started off as a car builder by offering the then small Hillman Minx back in 1931. However, the Minx had since grown larger, and by the time the Imp was introduced it was well established as a medium-size family car. For the Imp, Rootes pioneered the use of an aluminium engine in a mass-production car. This process proved to be more complicated than simply substituting an aluminium design for a familiar and well-understood cast iron design. Rootes had to build a new, computerised assembly plant on the outskirts of Glasgow, in Linwood, in which to assemble the Imp. The UK Government Regional Assistance policy provided financial grants to the Rootes Group to bring approximately 6,000 jobs to the area. Linwood had become an area of significant unemployment because of redundancies in the declining shipbuilding industry on the nearby River Clyde. The investment also included an advanced die-casting plant to manufacture the aluminium engine casings, and a stake in a brand new Pressed Steel Company motor pressings works, which manufactured all the new car’s body panels. The location of the plant led to significant logistical issues for the manufacturing process. Linwood was over 300 miles (480 km) away from Ryton, but the engine castings made in Linwood had to be sent to Ryton to be machined and assembled, then sent back up to be put on the cars – a 600-mile (970 km) round trip. This was addressed by a complex schedule of trains shifting completed cars and raw castings south, and trains loaded with engine – gearbox assemblies and many other Ryton sourced goods running north. This schedule remained in operation for the duration of Linwood Imp production.
The local West of Scotland workforce, recruited mainly from the shipbuilding industry, did not bring the distinct skills necessary for motor vehicle assembly, and Hillman Imp build quality and reliability suffered accordingly (many years later, Alfa Romeo suffered similar problems when it established Alfasud in Naples as a production satellite of Alfa Nord in Milan). However, industrial relations were also an issue in production. Industrial disputes and strike action became a regular occurrence, as was the case in many parts of British industry in the 1960s and ’70s.
Initially, the Hillman Imp was seen by Rootes as a potential second car for families with the means to acquire one. In this incarnation, it was a somewhat revolutionary, high-quality small car, with some above average features. Later the concept evolved into a kind of ultra-economy car with some cheaply and poorly executed, design features as a utilitarian vehicle, like some of the Eastern European marques of the time like Škoda, and later Lada, which were relatively low-cost economy cars, popular with British consumers. At one point the basic Hillman Imp was the cheapest new car on the British market, which increased low sales figures for a time.
Revisions during model lifespan
At launch the innovative design of the Hillman Imp was underdeveloped, in part because of UK Government pressure to start production quickly in response to the job losses in shipbuilding. Mechanical and cooling system problems were commonplace in the early cars. At the end of 1965 a major revision to the Imp was introduced, effectively splitting the marque into Mk I and Mk II cars. The Mk I Imps had a pneumatic throttle linkage and an automatic choke, both of which were replaced by more conventional items on the Mk II. The Mk II also had improved front suspension geometry and several trim and detail changes. Although the car was constantly improved over its production life, there was no single change as significant as that in 1965.
A further upgrade took place in 1968. The instrument panel and steering wheel were redesigned. The large speedometer previously positioned behind the steering wheel was replaced by a horizontal row of four circular dials/displays of varying detail and complexity according to the model specified. The right-hand dial, the speedometer, was now to one side of the driver’s normal sightline, while one multi-functional stalk on the right side of the steering column replaced the two control stalks that had been directly behind the steering wheel, one on each side. The earlier Hillman Imp had been praised for the good ergonomic quality of its dash-board/fascia, and its replacement reflected similar trends in other new and modified UK vehicles at a time of “production rationalization”. On the Imp, the more modern arrangement was seen by some as a missed opportunity. Cutaway Mug
The initial problems damaged the Imp’s reputation and popularity trailed off, with half of all production being from the first three years. It still sold thanks to its competitive price, distinctive styling, and cheap running costs, but sales never lived up to expectations for what had become a very competent small car. Another problem that contributed to the reputation for poor reliability was the lack of understanding of the maintenance needs of alloy engines by owners and the motor trade in the 1960s. It was overshadowed in popularity by the Mini.
Rootes, Chrysler and end of production
The company’s huge investment in both the Hillman Imp and the Linwood production plant was to be a significant part of the demise of the Rootes Group. The Imp’s commercial failure added to the major losses suffered by Rootes, although the main reasons for these losses were unresolved industrial unrest and the effects of the link with the Chrysler Corporation of the USA. The link was initiated by Lord (William) Rootes in 1964 as a partnership, but he died in October of that year and by 1967 the company had been acquired by Chrysler, to become part of Chrysler Europe. A year later, ahead of the 1968 London Motor Show, the recommended retail prices of most Imp models were reduced for the domestic market by more than four per cent, despite the general price inflation affecting the UK. Chrysler stewardship was blamed by some for the demise of the Imp in March 1976, after fewer than 500,000 had been built, but the entire Chrysler Europe operation was not a success and two years later it became part of Peugeot. The Hillman Imp was one of Britain’s longest-running production cars with a 13-year run, despite lower sales in its later years. Its place in the Chrysler UK range was taken the following year by the Chrysler Sunbeam, a three-door hatchback based on the Avenger rear-wheel drive underpinnings. Both cars continued to be produced at the Linwood plant until it closed in 1981, after just 18 years in use.
The Ryton assembly plant continued in operation until December 2006, when production of the Peugeot 206 was switched to Slovakia.
Approximately half a million, half of this number coming in the first three years of production. The Hillman Imp used a derivative of the Climax FWMA engine whereas the Lotus cars used an FWMC engine which had an entirely different cylinder head.
Unassembled cars were exported for assembly in Australia, Costa Rica, Ireland, Malaysia, Malta, New Zealand, Philippines, Portugal, South Africa, Uruguay, and Venezuela. New Zealand cars were assembled as Hillmans by Chrysler/Hillman importer Todd Motors from about 1964 for several years. The model returned, this time as a four-headlamp Sunbeam with the newer dashboard, around 1970 but was only offered for about two more years.