The Hillman Imp saloon from the Rootes Group.

In the mid 1950s during the era of petrol shortages, designers began work on a new small Hillman, designed to take on and win over customers who needed an affordable, compact, four seater saloon, and to whom the idea of running a bubble car sent a shiver down the spine. BMC were hard at it behind closed doors, with Issigonis penning the car that ultimately became the Mini, just as designers at Hillman were poring over their drawing boards, and sucking intently on their pencils, while drafting early designs for the Apex project, which would lead to the Hillman Imp, of 1963.

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BMC broke new ground with its packaging for the Mini, but it often gets forgotten just how revolutionary a design Rootes' Imp really was, and this from a company more used to peddling fairly un-exciting three-box saloons, and leather-clad limousines. The Hillman Imp would be rear engined, when most other manufacturers hung the engine up front. The engine itself was an all-alloy overhead cam unit, at a time when cast iron ruled the roost in family cars' engines. The 875cc engine was inspired by a test unit borrowed from Coventry Climax no less, a leading engine designer in Grand Prix motor racing. This was coupled to a specially designed transaxle, offering the Imp driver both a spirited drive and slick gearchange selection to boot. Ford, meanwhile, were still selling cars with sidevalve engines and three speed boxes at the time.

The Imp was a three-box design, with the engine accessible beneath a hinged 'bonnet'. To aid access into the rear storage area (ie the back seats), the rear window was hinged at the top, enhancing the usability of this space. The Hillman's shape, sharper than the Mini, had echoes of the Chevrolet Corvair about it, albeit scaled down somewhat. All Imps would have two front doors, used to access both the front and rear passenger areas.

There was no more room at the Ryton plant in Coventry to accommondate production of the new car, and the Government made it quite clear that they were not going to wade in with financial assistance, unless Rootes re-considered the location of the required new production facility. To secure funding, they had to choose an area targeted by the Government as needing investment and the creation of new jobs. In the end, a newly-built factory built at Linwood in Scotland was chosen as the location for Imp assembly, an arrangement that would later haunt the Imp and cause issues with quality control. In many ways the car was rushed to market before testing had been fully completed, and this too compromised the car, and its reputation, from an early stage.

News of the new baby Hillman broke in 1962, several months before an official launch from Rootes the following year. Small Car magazine featured this new car in a multi-page splash, and this car (not yet called the Imp) was seen from that day forward as a head-to-head rival for the Mini, a car already established on the market and selling well.

Just as early Minis had their fair number of faults (water ingress into the footwells for instance), Hillman were hit with a variety of reliability woes with the Imp, that took a long time to fully rectify. Overheating and water leakage were just two of the problems that struck the rear-engined Imp from very early on, a design that depended heavily on its cooling system being in A1 condition. The quirky pneumatic throttle actuator also caused problems, which, together with the aforementioned issues of cooling for the aluminium engine, soon labelled the car as a bit of a liability, both within the trade and with the buying public.

The faults would be eradicated, eventually, but the Imp never recovered from these early problems. With production and engineering facilities split between the two sites, Linwood and Ryton, and elements of industrial strife to mix things up even more, it was never going to be a quick fix to make the Imp reliable. To some owner drivers, brought up with un-challenging but essentially dependable old plodders, the edgy and technologically-advanced Hillman Imp was a step too far into the unknown. When stories of wayward reliability began to circulate, the future for the Imp as a mass production car, designed to wipe the floor with the opposition's small car offerings, was looking distinctly shakey.

In 1966 a 'Mk2' Imp was brought out, rectifying some of the glitches of the earlier cars (the pneumatic throttle and automatic choke were both shown the door, for instance), and the trim was revised.

The buying public, and motoring scribes, had long memories though and despite attempts to improve the quality and reliability of the finished product, these early problems would not be forgotten, which was a great shame. Issues of cooling and the engine's installation would be conquered, but by then the damage to the Imp's reputation was irrecoverably sealed. The investment in getting the Imp off the ground and into production had sapped Rootes' coffers badly, leading to the company being taken over by Chrysler (USA) in 1967. Production of the Imp would continue until 1976, with minor changes being made, but no significant re-workings of the original design would be introduced.

Variations on the Imp theme.

Sunbeam version of the Imp
The buying public was well used to badge-engineering in the 1960s, and it was no surprise to see different variants of the Imp design hitting the market before long, representing other marques held within the Rootes Group portfolio. In 1964 came the Singer Chamois, a sportier version of the Imp. A Commer van version was introduced in 1965, designed to take the fight to Ford with its Anglia-based van, and BMC with the Minivan. In 1966 a Sunbeam Imp Sport appeared (twin carbs), and the following year the Hillman Californian. Also in '67 we saw the Chamois Coupe and Husky estate for the first time. In October of that year the Sunbeam Stiletto was launched. In the following years, the special versions of the Imp would gradually disappear from the sales catalogues, with the Hillman Imp finally going altogether early in 1976. The Linwood factory would go on to build the new Avenger model, a larger car than the Imp and arguably less technologically interesting.

modified Hillman Imp car
Surviving Hillman Imps are now prized possessions with enthusiasts both in the UK and overseas, with many, thanks to the tune-ability of that cracking little engine, being used in competition, just as was the case in the 1960s. Parts are still around if you know where to look, although new parts, including some body panels and items of trim, are hard to find. Fortunately enthusiasts and clubs are stockpiling secondhand parts when they can, so hopefully Hillman's rear-engined car will be around for many years to come.

This site will be built up over time with more information on Imps, and the sister cars, as time allows. If you own an Imp, and would like to have photos of it included on this site, please drop me a line and I'll add them in.

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