|Interview on BBC Four for The Car's the Star.
August 25, 1935 - May 17, 2004
May 27 2004
By Annette Morgan
Tributes have been paid to a Warwickshire designer, who helped create one of Britain's best-loved cars. Businessman Tim Fry, 68, of Southam Road, Dunchurch, died of cancer at St Cross hospital, Rugby, last Monday.
He came up with the idea for the Hillman Imp car with engineering partner Mike Parkes while working for the Rootes car company in Coventry in the 1950s. The affordable runabout became a firm favourite with families and later collectors. He was only 20 and fresh from an apprenticeship when he and Mr Parkes - who later went on to become a successful professional racing driver - persuaded company boss Sir William Rootes to allow them to make their dream car. The duo had a small family car in mind, which could comfortably fit two adults and two children, but could still do 60 mph economically. After working on the prototype for several years, the first Hillman Imp rolled off the production line at a factory in Scotland in 1963, driven by the Duke of Edinburgh. They were manufactured up until 1976.
Daughter Christa Pelton, 38, said there had been about 200 mourners at her father's funeral, which took place at Oakley Wood crematorium, near Warwick, on Monday. She said: 'It was overwhelming and amazing. My father was a lovely man and it was nice to see so many people agreed. He was a great father and always ready to listen.'
After his success with the Imp, Mr Fry went on to style the Hillman Avenger, before taking early retirement in 1971 to set up his own company, Smallfry, which was based in School Street, Wolston. Rather than concentrating on cars, Mr Fry designed all sorts of equipment, ranging from showers to telephones. In 1984 he took on a young Coventry designer, Steve May-Russell, as a freelance. Two years later, Mr May-Russell joined him as a business partner and helped build up a successful product design consultancy, which today counts Marks and Spencer, B&Q and Triton showers among their customers.
Mr May-Russell, of Abbey Park, Coventry, said of Mr Fry: 'He wasn't bothered about the business side of things - that was what I did. He always loved to design things and find solutions to engineering problems. He was very unpretentious and focused.'
Mr Fry also leaves his wife Karin, other daughter Trinity Loubser, 35, and grandchildren Orianna, three, and Josie, five months.
June 18, 2004
Strange though it may seem in today's world of extravagantly-sized design teams, the Hillman Imp, the ill-fated Rootes Group riposte to BMC's Mini, was essentially conceived and developed by two engineers in their twenties, barely out of their apprenticeship. One of those young men was Mike Parkes, later to achieve fame as a racing driver for Ferrari; the other was Tim Fry. Between them, and latterly as part of a talented group of engineers that included the designer of the Vanwall grand prix engine, Leo Kuzmicki, they created a small car of genuine worth and charm, and one that was arguably superior in many respects to its Mini rival.
Educated at the Dragon School and Marlborough, Fry joined Rootes as an apprentice in 1953, ending his three-year period of pupillage in the styling department. Here he was given the task of restyling the Sunbeam Rapier - the sporting version of the Hillman Minx - to give it the then-fashionable tail fins and to make it appear more upmarket. Fry gave the car a modernised version of the traditional Sunbeam grille and a set of carefully integrated fins; the resultant facelifted Rapier, launched in 1958, continued largely unchanged until 1967.
By this time Fry was a close friend of Parkes, son of the Alvis chief J. J. Parkes. Four years out of his apprenticeship and working in the development department at Rootes, Parkes had access to countless cars from other manufacturers, borrowed for assessment purposes and invariably driven mercilessly to within an inch of their life in the name of scientific research. Fry became a willing partner in these exercises, and from such trials the two youngsters decided that what the company really needed was a small, cheap car that could carry two adults and two children, and be capable of 60mph and 60mpg. Full of the optimism of youth, they told Rootes's technical director, B. B. Winter, they could design just such a car - and were somewhat taken aback when he told them to go away and do it.
The result, emerging in 1956, was an aerodynamically smooth mini-car, powered by a rear-mounted Citron 2CV engine and gearbox. Christened the Slug, this lightweight prototype achieved 83mpg - but only 50mph. Fitting a bigger flat-twin engine from Villiers gave better performance, but then the Rootes family said that the car was too small - before deciding that what it really needed was a more orthodox four-cylinder power unit.
Fry and Parkes sensed that their project was in danger: put a heavy, cast-iron engine in the back and the car's handling would be ruined. So they wrote to Coventry-Climax, on the pretext that they were building their own 'special'. Making no mention of the Rootes Group, they asked for installation drawings of the lightweight all-alloy 750cc Climax engine which Lotus had recently used with success in the Le Mans 24-hour race. Fry then spent three weeks, day and night, scheming the elegant little Climax unit into a space originally intended for a much smaller engine.
From this frenzied improvisation sprang the Imp, whose key design characteristic was to be its rear-mounted Climax-derived aluminium power unit. This was laid over until it was nearly flat, so as to take up as little space as possible and at the same time bring down the car's centre of gravity. Together with carefully-conceived suspension, this meant that the Imp was the best-handling rearengined family car of its era - this at a time when such a configuration was noted for its inherent instability.
At its launch in 1963 the Imp also scored points with better brakes than those of the Mini, a better turning circle, and a slicker gearchange: Fry and Parkes had been determined that the car would be fun to drive. Another key attribute, and one in particular reflecting Fry's life-long obsession with good design, was the smart dashboard with its easy-to-reach controls, including the advanced feature for the time of twin-stalk controls for minor functions. Alas, the new Rootes small car not only arrived after the Mini had securely established itself; it also suffered from dreadful teething problems and from poor-quality assembly. Production lasted until 1976, but sales were never up to expectations.
Fry went on to conceive an Imp-based sports car which was intended to share its tubular-steel chassis with a forward-control 'people carrier'. But with the takeover of Rootes by the American company Chrysler, both projects were sidelined - much to Fry's disappointment, as he saw the 'Asp' sportscar as a potential money-spinner in the lucrative US market.
A spell working in Chrysler's Detroit styling studios followed. Fry relished telling how he sketched out the rough design and mechanical configuration of a proposed new sports car, in all its key aspects, in a matter of minutes. In the process, and to considerable astonishment, he managed to cut across disciplines that in the US would have involved several different departments. Returning to Britain as Chief Stylist, Advanced Styling, for Chrysler UK (as Rootes had become), Fry evolved the style of the mid-sized Hillman Avenger, being responsible for its semi-fastback rear and its distinctive 'hockey-stick' rear lamps.
Work on a still-born small car followed, leading to Fry's appointment as Chief Engineer, Advanced Engineering. But with projects being cancelled and with the heavy-handed management of Chrysler, the fun had gone. Unwilling to play company politics, Fry took early retirement in 1971 and set up the design consultancy Smallfry. Since then this bustling and friendly enterprise with its ten or so staff has worked in many fields, but the only time Fry returned to the motor industry was for a mid-1970s project - ultimately cancelled - to design a Beetle-based utility car for Volkswagen of South Africa.
Tim Fry had an infectious enthusiasm for design in all its aspects, even for the most banal of objects. A typical example was Smallfry's development of a one-piece sprung plastic clothes peg that was so efficient in its design that it could be made economically in the United Kingdom. In a similar vein was a plastic chair that could be made with only three moulding tools rather than the normal five. Other recent designs included a lawnmower for a major DIY chain.
A robustly-built man with robustly-held views, Fry was dogmatic in argument, but with a passion and a sense of mischief that made any discussion as entertaining as it was challenging. 'He had this tremendous ability to rationalise a problem, and balance far more factors than other people would take into account, before solving the problem,' recalls a colleague. 'The solution was never simple, because he was a perfectionist, but anything he did we never doubted would work, first time off the drawing-board or the CAD screen'.
Design was Fry's life. His conservatory was conceived to take into account the trajectory of the sun throughout the seasons, while a meandering paved path in his garden was nonetheless laid out so that a wheelbarrow could be walked along it in a straight line. Even the wall he built at his Dunchurch home involved carefully worked-out tricks of perspective.
Delightfully unstuffy, Fry regaled visitors with deadpan, droll stories, cigarette in hand and dressed in his trademark wear - in the summer months, at least - of shorts, sandals and blue shirt with pencils in the top pocket.
The Imp was something of which he was quietly but fiercely proud; underpinning this pride was the polyvalent approach to design that had resulted in this engaging little vehicle, which informed his entire life.
Tim Fry is survived by his wife Karin and his two daughters.
Tim Fry, designer, stylist and engineer, was born on August 25, 1935. He died of cancer on May 17, 2004, aged 68.
A Fry Special built by David Fry in 1959 with a Climax engine.
A one off special originally intended for use by Stuart Lewis-Evans who sadly lost his life during the Moroccan Grand Prix. The car had a single outing in a championship event (at Aintree) when it failed to qualify despite the best efforts of Mike Parkes.
|The Imp Site