1963 Hillman Imp Road Test

“A new car from Rootes”. Mr Archibald Vicar motors north of the border in the Hillman “Imp.”.

1963 Hillman Imp colour

“From The Practical Car Driver”, Dec 1963, we present what looks like a transcript of a road test of Rootes’ legendary rear-engined Mini-slayer, the Imp. Drawings by Miss Caroline Dallington. Owing to the poor quality of Caroline’s original drawings, stock photographs have been used.

One always relishes visiting North Britain. The North British, from Glasgow to Edinburgh and from Banff to Braeval, are far and away the most entertaining subjects in this Sceptered Isle. To their repertoire of skills which include brewing, distilling and the making of beer they have added another: building motor cars. Thus The Practical Car Driver has dispatched me to Linwood, to collect one of the first Imps off the production line in order to inspect it over the course of a ‘test-drive’.

The Imp is a modern and progressive car and if its size is diminutive, its purpose is grand. The Rootes Group intend with this motor car to compete with the British Motor Corporation’s Austin 7. The latter car has been on sale since 1959 during which time Rootes have pulled out all the stops (many times) to produce a worthy competitor.

“…the highlights of this tour…”

So as to better acquaint ourselves with the Imp, we drove a test route very kindly chosen for us by Rootes themselves. Amongst the highlights of this tour were the visits to the distilleries at Glanrochan, Lanacherie, and Dreyside. Our stop on the first night was the Rothery Ams Hotel, just outside Lough Lannish (home of another fine whiskey).

The Hillman Imp’s engine is an all-aluminium unit of 875 cc capacity. It has been adapted from the well-known “Coventry Climax” fire pump engine. The cylinder head is of a different design than other engines adapted from that unit. Undoubtedly the decision to base the Imp’s engine on such a tested and proven-design will be a successful stratagem. As fitted, the engine was more than able to propel the car forward to a useful velocity.

“…single malt whiskey…”

A stop at the Coleburn Distillery gave me an opportunity to stock up on some single malt and to see how many bottles I could fit under the bonnet. I can hear some readers saying already that Mr Vicar is taking leave of his senses. But I have not done so. The Imp’s engine is located at the rear of the car, leaving room under the bonnet for 54 bottles of 16 year-old single malt.

1963 Hillman Imp: not to be grilled.
1963 Hillman Imp: not to be grilled.

The weight of this cargo helped to control the marked oversteer which I observed on the hairpin bends of the B734 outside Glenaugie. The Imp’s suspension is advanced nonetheless, being of the semi-trailing arm variety. Whilst this of interest to the men-folk it will not much concern the lady motorists who will make up the majority of the customers of this little machine. Since ladies drive in a more temperate manner than do gents, the pronounced understeer will seldom be a problem. One can always slow down!

“…then all will be well for the Rootes…”

At the Millburn distillery I had a chance to do some tastings of some fine single-barrel malts served at cask-strength. If the workers on the Linwood production line can assemble the Imp as well as their kinsmen can produce fine malt whiskey then all will be well for the Rootes Group who, it is to be understood, have placed a fair wager on the success of this Lilliputian motor car.

1963 Hillman Imp De Luxe.
1963 Hillman Imp De Luxe.

Since it is early days, my experience with the construction of the Imp should perhaps be discounted. Over the test drive the ash-tray tumbled free, the passenger seat worked itself from its fastenings and there was a most remarkable cheeping noise from the steering column. The rear window came dislodged. This was partly my fault as, at one point after a visit to the Capendonich Distillery, I failed to correctly judge a corner and proceeded to enter a ploughed field.

1963 Hillman Imp. It can carry lots of whiskey.
1963 Hillman Imp. It can carry lots of whiskey.

Whilst addressing the issue of ashtrays, lady motorists must take note that the Hillman Imp’s ashtray is slightly hazardous to long nails. The rear mirror is rather small which will mean that adjusting one’s make-up in the car is not all that convenient.

“And to conclude…”

The test drive concluded at the Braeval Arms Hotel (which boasts a fine cellar). The Imp did not look out of place amongst the Jaguars, Bentleys, Rovers and Humbers parked on the gravel, the car being in its own way a little titan of tin. There was time for a nap and then a fine dinner of a brace of roasted pheasants, venison haunch (very, very good indeed) and wild salmon. A complimentary glass of Pittyvaich 30 year-old malt rounded off the evening. The amber nectar set the mood to mull over prospects for the Hillman Imp. So, how do they appear?

The people of Linwood, which is sadly a district in need of investment, can be confident that their little Imp will punch heavily against the Austin Seven. Moreover, the Imp will surely remain competitive for a long time to come as I doubt that Austin are able to produce a car yet more technically advanced than the tiny newcomer. I will thus raise a glass to the engineers of the Rootes Group who can rest assured that their little Imp will be a leviathan in terms of the sales it will assuredly achieve.

A passenger sunblind will be available on De Luxe models in spring.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

9 thoughts on “1963 Hillman Imp Road Test”

  1. Thanks for that. In its own way the Imp was made in the spirit of 60s optimism, like Concorde and the Rover P6. It is also an example of how manufacturing culture can’t develop very quickly. Is the Imp’s case in line with de Lorean and Alfa Romeo? New factories were staffed by people who’d never worked in industry with disastrous results for quality.

  2. Yes, there are various similarities. Pomigiano, Lingwood and Dunmurry, were new factories. Teaching people to make cars isn’t that difficult really, assuming you put have people with experience working with them, and both Hillman and Delorean took people from the shipbuilding industry, so they weren’t new to industrial practices. Lingwood (and of course Alfa Sud) experienced a lot of industrial (in)action, which suggests that you can build new factories a lot easier than new attitudes – the old motor industry us-and-them carried on as usual. A great pity – my experience of the Imp is that it was a very competent car with a far more modern engine than the Mini. Disregarding industrial relations, this is one case where I can’t criticise the British industry for lack of bravery and investment.

    1. Yet another thank-you to the penny-pinchers at Peugeot though I guess they were just making the best of the mess Chrysler had left.

  3. On the subject of the Imp or more specifically the Rootes Slug prototype, while have read a Citroen 2CV engine was used as a temporary substitute until the air-cooled 600cc Villiers 2-cylinder engine was developed (before the latter was canned in favor of the Coventry Climax engine). There seems to be very little known about the 600cc Villiers engine.

    Sources appear to be divided on whether it was an inline-2 or a flat-2, featured hemi-heads or 2-strokes as well as on if it was based on a motorcycle engine. If it was indeed based on a motorcycle engine that leads to the question of whether the planned 600cc Villiers engine for the Rootes Slug was derived from a motorcycle engine that was already in production or an all-new design that did not move beyond the prototype stage.

    1. Hello Bob,

      I recently found this film from the National Library of Scotland about the Imp’s development. It has some material which is new, to me. I have a soft spot for Imps – when I was a child, my mother had a dark metallic green Super Imp, and one of her friends had a red Californian. Both were pretty posh, as I recall.


    2. Thanks for the video Charles.

      Already have the Mowat-Brown and Henshaw books, which has quite a bit of information (apart from other Imp rebody proposals planned for the early 70s).

      With the many unbuilt variations as well as the unbuilt tall-block Imp engines potentially allowing the car to better challenge the 1275 Minis. It is fascinating to see how the Imp in better circumstances could have become even more similar to the Fiat/Seat 850.

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