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Imp history

Rootes' small car was designed by Michael Parkes (a development engineer for Ferrari) and Tim Fry more or less from 1955 on. It was made in the purposebuild Linwood factories in Scotland. Launched in 1963, it sported many new and untried ideas, like an aluminium alloy engine, and overhead camshaft; a pneumatic throttle and king-pins running in sealed plastic bearings. It was produced for more than 12 years, until 1976.


Once upon a time

In 1955 a small car project was begun, not so much to come up with an economy car in the Suez Crisis days (like the Mini), but to provide an idea of what sort of affordable car could be made and what its performance would be. Parkes and Fry proposed a 2 adults - 2 children car, that could do 60 mph and manage 60 mpg (which meant researching aerodynamics). Looking at the competition (Fiat 500, BMW 700, Citroen 2CV) and considering costs, they opted for a rear engine. Other aims of the team included that the small car be fun to drive.

No bubbles

After having been presented with two prototypes, the Rootes board members (used to Hillman or Humber solid, well-made quality cars) made it clear they were not interested in any bubble-car of sorts, nor in a design that cut costs at all costs. At the same time they appeared willing to go ahead with a Rootes small car, but it had to be a proper motor car with a.o. a water-cooled four-cylinder engine. It should be able to compete with the small Fords and BMCs, including the Mini.

Proper motor

  The second Imp made (4533 KV) was presented by Lord Rootes to Lord Lee, chairman of Coventry Climax. The car is fitted with one of 20 Climax 875cc engines.

At the time Coventry Climax were building an aluminium alloy engine that Tim Fry thought might fit, so he wrote them to get the installation drawings. Coventry Climax co-operated and Fry succeeded to fit both it and a radiator into the tiny engine compartment.
The 750cc Coventry Climax racing engine was tamed and just about every component was changed. But it remained unlike most car engines, being made of aluminium, with an overhead camshaft. The size was increased to 875cc, producing 39bhp.

More proper still

  The Apex:

After a few visits to Bob Saward's styling department, the Imp (project name: Apex) was quite sophisticated by the end of the 1950s. The shape owed much to the Chevrolet Corvair.
And the refinement continued. The opening rear window was another innovation, unheard-of as hatchbacks were in those days. Together with the fold down rear seat, it improved (access to) luggage space.
A superior rear suspension was added, coupled with a basic front suspension to effectively neutralise the 'tail-happy' handling of a rear-engined car.

Praise the gear

A gearbox, cased in aluminium, was specially designed to match the lively engine, with synchromesh on all four gears (unlike the 1959 Mini). It had the third and fourth gear set rather high, to reduce noise and improve economy. The new transaxel was technically advanced. At that time, it may have been the best gearbox ever produced, and it still does not have too many equals.

   x-ray Imp

One more for the road

It was launched on schedule: a neat, refined little four-seater. The year was 1963.

The Team

By this time the team that was on the project consisted of:

One of the events to introduce the early Imp was a demonstration of twenty Imps at Silverstone by 'backroom boys': the men who designed, developed and built the Imp. The press release lists the twenty men and their contribution to the Imp.

The Imp was tested by many. Read the second chapter of Apex "Testing, testing... testing". I have received e-mail messages from a few test drivers.

The Imp calendar

   newspaper cutting Daily Express
YWK 877 - This registration was first made available in 1959.
The original office for this letter combination is Coventry
    Imp1 at the Glasgow musuem
photo: Leslie Thomson
Imp1: The very first Hillman Imp to roll off the production line. Seen here [May 21, 2007] in the recreated Rootes car showroom inside the Glasgow Transport Museum at their old home within the Kelvin Hall.

September 30th, 1960
It was announced that the new Rootes car would be called Hillman 'Imp'.
the Apex test team
January 1962
testing in Scandinavia
late spring 1962
testing in France
early 1963
testing in Kenya
May 2nd, 1963
Hillman Imp basic and De Luxe models announced. (Birth announcement card)
October 1964
Singer Chamois announced.
September 1965
Imp and Chamois Mk II models, Commer Imp Van and Hillman Super Imp introduced.
Basic Imp discontinued.
Also at about this time there was a limited production of Hillman Rallye Imp and Singer Rallye Chamois homologation specials.
October 1966
Singer Chamois Sport and Sunbeam Imp Sport introduced. See also '66 advert on Russel's site: The grown-up's answer to Scalextric
January 1967
Hillman Californian introduced.
April 1967
Singer Chamois Coupe introduced.
There was also a limited production of Chamois Spring Specials (and Imp counterparts).
Husky Estate car introduced.
October 1967
Sunbeam Stiletto introduced. See also '68 advert on Russel's site: The most compact
'67/'68 a change of philosophy seemed to occur: away from quality towards cost-cutting.
October 1968
Mk II designation discontinued, whole range revised, all models except Stiletto given a new dashboard layout with full width facia and round dials; new seats and upholstery and many variations of external trim.
Chamois and Chamois Sport gained four headlights but lost wood trim.
Sunbeam Imp Sport trim downgraded to Super Imp style.
Van now known as Hillman Imp Van rather than Commer Imp Van.
October 1969
Basic Imp reintroduced with minimal trim and very low price.
see also '69 advert on Russell's site: Three Imps - A little on the fast side
April 1970
Sunbeam Imp Sport replaced by Sunbeam Sport.
Chamois, Chamois Coupe and Californian discontinued.
July 1970
Hillman Husky and Van discontinued
September 1970
Sunbeam Sport gained same front styling and trim as Stiletto.
Mid 1972
Stiletto discontinued
September 1973
Basic Imp discontinued
October 1975 (approx.)
Production of a limited edition special model named the Caledonian with lots of accessories, bright red and white side stripes and red, black and white trim.
March 1976
Remaining models discontinued: Caledonian; Imp De Luxe; Imp Super and Sunbeam Sport

The Imp grinned, revealing an uneven mouthful of pointed teeth, then disappeared... not.

If you would like to read all about the Imp's development and other history, I strongly recommend you read the Henshaw book "Apex". It's a delight !

Maybe if the Imp's reliability had not suffered as a result of being rushed through the final stages of design, and if it had been marketed better, it might have been as successful as it perhaps deserved. Chrysler might have developed its sporting potential, and... well, that's dreaming.

The Imp Site
Die Geschichte des Hillman Imp / Peter Braun
Imp history written when it wasn't all history yet (1974): Too good to last / Graham Robson
© Franka