Mint Imperial

A new conception of executive luxury – 1966 vintage.

Humber Imperial. Image via ebay

The bookshelf has been meticulously rearranged, read and enjoyed of late. However, one among its number is sadly no more. In the recent fine weather, distanced from the world in a sunny back garden, but with a call of nature due to my drink problem (a pint of water every twenty minutes in this heat), I returned to find but one page left and the cover.

The Times Motoring Annual from 1966 was in a decrepit state, the stiff breeze discarding the remainder in various neighbouring gardens I suspect. Saddled with the remains, I felt duty bound to honour this tome and the remarkably Archie Vicar-esque review of the Humber Imperial. With less drinking references, mind.

The unknown author revels in the cars exceptional comfort and equipment for the price of £1,796 (including purchase tax) finding the three litre, six cylinder engine (making 137.5 bhp no less) made for a “whispering, executive express.

Over a nine hundred mile test period, averaging “somewhere between 15-18 mpg”, the armchair character and easy, three speed Borg-Warner automatic transmission “soothes away the tensions of the British road” and will easily seat five in comfort. However, if one searches for a swifter and livelier machine, the Princess R with 175bhp must have been the S-line of the day.

Returning to the Coventry made, Rootes Group Imperial, finds our correspondent brimming with the cars 101mph top speed and finding the 50-70mph envelope the car’s “subdued hum, engine far from straining and little wind noise. Impressive. With surprising ease, the Imperial rode over bad surfaces, sailed through winding lanes on an even keel with no sickening lurch or roll to kill the ride. With the adjustable Armstrong shock absorbers set to “firm” with a skilled pilot behind the wheel, this limousine could hold its own against many a more sporting car.” A frisson of AMG here, nearly sixty years in advance?

1966 Humber Imperial. Image: vintageracecar.com

There is also admiration for the power steering that “doesn’t sacrifice feel at speed but is perfect for town centre parking” and finding both front and rear anti-roll bars added to the Humber’s stability. Brakes? Well, another plus point, for “the front discs and rear drums were safe and progressive” but finding “the car’s tail eager to wag should one apply the power too sharply. Nothing a quick flick of the wheel can’t resolve.

To the interior and our scribe gushes on. “Both front seats are first-rate; wide, deep and fully adjustable. The rear bench can seat three with large amounts of knee and elbow room. West of England cloth upholstery and the trim throughout lend the Imperial a club-like insulated atmosphere, set off by the fine Thrupp & Mabberley coachwork, walnut veneered fascia and door rails, folding rear picnic table and deep pile carpets.” My cup runneth over.

Of course as a seasoned veteran of the day, not quite everything was as well received. Staying inside due to the poor weather, “the wipers left the curved corners of the widescreen un-wiped and not all the door locks worked properly. Warming up the engine often proved tediously slow.” Those West Midland maladies continue; “the essential controls are close to hand whereas the dashboard has an unnecessary fussy appearance with some fifteen switches, levers, knobs, five dials and six separate warning lights to distract the driver.”

Humber Super Snipe. (c) allpar

His mini diatribe continues with “the gas pedal is uncomfortably offset right, finding myself forever catching my heel on the handbrake alongside the door and for the six foot chap or one wearing a hat, the Imperial does not offer good headroom.” Not finished yet, either: “Forward visibility’s great but it’s a matter of guesswork when reversing with the length of that tail.” Oh dear…

Luckily, those tears before bedtime are cleared safely away when matters arrive on trim levels. “There are three cigar lighters, armrests and ashtrays in abundance, courtesy lights front and rear including a little one in the generous glovebox. The boot is huge, the doors have child proof locks and built-in seat anchorages.” Phew. And he likes the car up front too, “fog, spot and dual headlamps give good night time penetration and the black, fabric finished roof adds a touch of distinction.

His opinion given, no stars or marks out of ten are to be found. Just a list of technical information that the potential purchaser might be in need of. Those not already mentioned above are the 15 foot seven and a half inch length, a width of five foot ten, a turning circle of 37 feet, 16 gallon petrol tank (blimey!) and upfront weight at 22 and a half hundredweight – 1020 Kilograms to you, sir.

No picture of the car is provided, nor mentions of dealer or more pertinently, where to administer service or repair. With our motoring correspondent being employed by the Times Newspaper, a more covert meeting with Mr. Vicar at some suitable hostelry on Watling Street was arranged, to ruminate over matters far more pressing; ale, sausages and where to purloin the best fags, I’d wager.

It appears that the good Mr. Vicar also managed to get his hands upon the Rootes Group’s Sixties flagbearer, albeit in this case, a lowly Super Snipe. Read his review here.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

28 thoughts on “Mint Imperial”

  1. Good morning Andrew. Thanks for a reminder of a car that deserves to be better remembered. Front disc brakes and adjustable dampers sounds quite sophisticated for the time. I’m amused by the reviewer complaining about being “distracted” by warning lights. Isn’t that the point of having them? The interior of the 1961 model was rather lovely:

  2. Oh, the Imperial/Super Snipe. My first recollection of a bright silver Super Snipe was whilst at school. Our Rural Science teacher owned it. It was the best car in the car park. He was a gentleman farmer and in virtually every lesson, he would say how hard done to farmers were. It was 10 years old, but in superb condition, when he replaced it with a brand new Mercedes W114 in moss green, that was 1975. An uncle had the lesser model, the Hawk. As a child, it seemed absolutely huge in the back, compared to my dads Renault 8. You don’t see many of them these days, even at classic car shows. Thanks for stirring happy memories Andrew. 👍🏻

  3. My brother in law told me that while in sixth form at school his girlfriend’s father had a Humber Snipe. She used to borrow the car and BiL has fond memories of the bench front seat and as he recalls the leather upholstery……

  4. Good point Daniel about the “distracting” warning lights. I had to laugh! The post-war British auto industry is my next great frontier of knowledge and random trivia in the ever expanding automotive compartment of my brain. So many brands, makes, and models to mispronounce, so many engineering, styling, and manufacturing idiosyncrasies. I’ve been discovering quite a lot of that in the past few years as I’ve branched away from the usual Jaguars, Rolls, Bentleys, and into lesser known makes, DTW having certainly played a key role in this. Thanks guys as I now head off to YouTube in search of Humber Imperial videos!

  5. A very interesting piece Andrew but sadly no mention of England winning the Football World Cup in the same year.
    The description of the car is wonderful although how times change. Bench seats and copious numbers of ashtrays. Who would have thought?

  6. An article that prompts many thoughts and memories – thank you, Andrew.

    I guess the Humber review was written in the context of the emerging UK motorway network having no, or ‘temporary’, speed limits. If so, I suspect that would positively affect the way the car was judged, slightly, for its ability to cruise at higher speeds. I agree that the adjustable dampers were an advanced feature – I wonder if they were adjustable from inside the car. I would hope so on a car of this type.

    It’s funny what people and events cars remind one of – I recall British Politician, Jeremy Thorpe, using a Humber sometimes during his trial for conspiracy to murder, in the late ‘70s. I recall it seemed a very old car to me, then and reinforced the image of a man whose time had passed.

    On a more positive note, Churchill favoured Humbers; I recall the story that they ‘remade’ one for him when he wanted one that had gone out of production.

    https://richardlangworth.com/cars-blood-sweat-gears-humber

    1. Several high-end cars of the period used adjustable dampers, controlled I believe by a switch on the dashboard. The drawback was that, after some time in service, different dampers might end up on different settings…..

    2. Blood, sweat & gears. Great.
      I love these puns – especially when I (can) understand them…

    3. In the 2018 dramatisation “A Very English Scandal” Thorpe – played by Hugh Grant – drives a Triumph Stag. The era is right, but the choice of car is just plain wrong.

    4. Hello Dave – very possibly. I recall we read Harold Pinter’s ‘The Homecoming’ at school, and Sam, the chauffeur, drove a Humber Super Snipe. I didn’t get the significance at the time (assuming there was any); I think Pinter’s plays are rather of their time, so perhaps the car reference is, in retrospect, unintentionally appropriate.

  7. As a youngster I sometimes rode in a Super-Snipe belonging to a relative, who eventually bought a Mercedes when the Humber was discontinued. I never liked the final facelift, where they added rear quarter windows and squared-off the roof.
    I only found out recently about the Armstrong Siddeley motor, but would love to know more about how this came to be.

  8. Andrew’s piece prompted me to look into Humber’s range of models in the early 1960’s and it really was rather convincing, with the Sceptre, Hawk, Super Snipe and Imperial. Here’s an example of the Sceptre:

    It was sad to see the marque later reduced to be single badge-engineered version of the Rootes ‘Arrrow’, a.k.a. the Hillman Hunter.

    1. The Sceptre wasn’t really a Humber, just a glammed-up Super Minx, and the Super Minx was always a disappointment since it clearly lacked any Loewy input.

    2. However it did have a rather sporty dashboard with lots of lovely dials.

    3. And here it is:

      Not wood finished, but certainly sporty.

    4. The Sceptre was going to be the next Sunbeam Rapier, but for a very late change of plan. Hence the incongruous ‘sporty’ dashboard. My recall may be flawed in this, but was it the work of William Towns, and loosely based on the first generation Corvette design?

  9. I’ve ridden ithe back of a Super Snipe like this, an ex Government car, black with the picnic tables and a flag mount on the front wing. Certainly very comfortable and ideally suited to the open road; ie it liked rolling along once up to speed, acceleration being adequate for its relaxed demeanour but not a strong suit.

    Not sure where 22.5 cwt comes from, a Sceptre might weigh that…

  10. A curse on T C Tinling and Co. of Liverpool and London for specifying ephemeral glue for the spine of a timeless book. I’m on my second copy, I may still have the first resting in pieces in various boxes.

    These big well-appointed saloons were something of a 50s and 60s British phenomenon. The Rover P5 was the epitome, but the big Humbers and Vanden Plas 3 and 4 Litres filled the niche. I have the notion of the target customer being the MD of a small but thriving supplier of engineering components somewhere in the English Midlands. A Jag was somehow too vulgar, Zodiacs and Viscounts would always be Fords and Vauxhalls, and Rover and Triumph 2000s were for the sales managers. And, of course anything foreign was unthinkable.

    The decline of the genre pretty much parallels the demise of the industrial ‘Brittelstand’ – mergers, acquisitions and asset-stripping were as big a national sport as industrial militancy in those days.

  11. It’s taken me a day or two of contemplation triggered by this but I now think I have the measure of where Humber fitted into Britain’s post 1945 world. Rolls-Royces might have been a top people’s car but it was one that overemphasised status, granted they had one model only available to heads of state and the Royal household has a few but for those who haven’t inherited a gold carriage they carried a whiff of insecurity; pools winners and Diana Dors perhaps. Daimler- also favoured by Liz n’ Phil’s household for a time- but under BSA’s management and more specifically under the style counsel of their Chairman’s wife they became distinctly non-u, their sale to Jaguar that most rafish of marques sealed their fate. Princesses were strictly for matchings and dispatchings, whilst Wolesley’s if we are to believe old films marked out their occupants as CID Officers (My Dad joined the Police in the 1960’s and had no memory of Wolesleys in service). That left Humber and Rover as carriages for people of distinction but Rover queered their wicket by cribbing Studebaker’s style for their P4 and offering an agricultural vehicle.
    Government Ministers got shuttled about in Humbers, maybe they were the only marque not to have perjorative associations but somewhere in the 1960’s the Rover P5 came to the fore; the launch of the V8 engined P5B I’d guess.

    Did this loss of cabinet patronage mark the point of no return or not? If Boris stopped been ferried around in a Jaguar Sentinel would it have the same effect for JLR?

    That’s my summing up of Humber’s walnut and west if England cloth rivals, I’ve missed out the few Lagondas that were made in spasms; Britain’s Quattroporte perhaps? Possibly also others.

    1. That’s an interesting perspective – I’ve been struggling a bit with where the Humber fitted in.

      I know that when Margaret Thatcher was choosing a vehicle to replace her Rover P5B, she was offered the choice of a Rolls-Royce, a Rover SD1 3500 or a Jaguar. The SD1 was seen as being a lesser car compared with the P5B and the RR as massively OTT.

      Gordon Brown used a Vauxhall; I don’t see why a nicely-specified Insignia wouldn’t fit the bill just as well, today. I guess SUVs are out, as they’d topple over in an emergency manoeuvre. I’ve never seen a Range Rover do a J-turn.

      ‘Matchings and dispatchings’ made me laugh. I have a soft spot for top-end BMC products; although they can appear a bit ‘municipal’, they have a certain dignity.

  12. Markets can´t be parsed now as they were then. In one way that´s probably not bad since the market segmentation reflected a class-divided but yet homogenous society. There are market sectors today of course. They are much more nuanced and might only exist as statistical constructs. How else could one justify the plethora of CUVs? We used to have a plethora of saloons though I think the distinctions were clearer than with the CUV swarm.
    Apart from price, most of the cross-overs are much the same kind of sausage (Subarus stand out). The market where a Humber was a thing of a different stripe is so unlike today´s saloon market. There are three similar German cars, oddballs from Jaguar and Alfa and some mid-liners from Ford and Opel, Mazda, Peugeot and VW/Skoda. None have the connotations of a Humber Imperial (do the Mondeo Vignale or Skoda Superb L&K come close? Nice cars but no, not the same.) Humber man/woman is gone.

    1. Where are Volvo in all of this? Very much a municipal favourite in the UK, understandably with their air of solid build and solid citizenship (the first is a common characteristic amongst our elected representatives, the second far less so).

      Further up the chain, BMW have cornered the market in cost-effective bulletproof cars (as in ballistics resistance, rather than mechanical integrity…), but German cars in conspicuous public use still have the air of The Queen’s Enemies (who are also also her in-laws and not very distant forebears).

      The heir was notably ‘tone-deaf’ in leasing a fleet of Audis a while back. His older boy did much better in nodding to his Hanoverian ancestors by choosing an inconspicuous diesel Golf as his first car.

      Quite a few Phaetons appeared on British municipal fleets about ten years ago, usually authorities running lots of Caddies and Transporters. Not quite as common a sight as when I last visited Wolfsburg – I reckon they were being handed out as retirement gifts.

  13. I have Autocar Road Test 2031 from 11 June 1965 of the Humber Imperial. Very jerky automatic, 128.5 hp net “barely powerful enough”, and 17.5 mpg on test over 1100 miles, while managing a full 29.4 mpg at a steady 30 mph. It used little oil but drank half a gallon of coolant. It just made the magic ton when given its head and a lot of room. The Borg Warner auto was the Type DG from the paleolithic era of 1951 when it was designed for Studebaker, and later designated as the Flash-O-Matic for Rambler.

    The kerb weight as measured was 32.6 hundredweight, or 3,651 lbs (1658 kg). Which was no lightweight before the days of safety cell design! The Times Motoring section therefore obviously wasn’t about facts, but impressions. Still, an old half-long ton error is a bit much!

    The Armstrong Selectaride rear dampers had four positions, and there were anti-roll bars front and rear. The car apparently handled quite well, rode well on all surfaces and the brakes were outstanding in repeated tests from 70 mph. The heating and ventilation sytem was superb. A lot of metal for the money and no doubt the equal of the Rover 3 litre if not having quite the cachet. The engine was certainly a more modern oversquare design.

    In addition, the engine was virtually silent, the wind noise low and it was a big ole wafter with a very nice interior that cruised very well at 80 to 90 mph. No mention who the likely purchasers were, but it seems to have been pretty competent, if slow to accelerate. Rootes must have been bought by Chrysler by then, because Imperial is a Chrysler trademark for cars. A pity they didn’t add the Torqueflite automatic, because that would have smartened things up all around.

    “It is difficult to decide who travels in greater comfort, those in front or back.”

    “The driver has no difficulty in locating the four corners of the car.” Someone tell the Times reviewer!

  14. The shared use of the Imperial name is just coincidence. Humber previously used it on a short lived 1939 version of their Pullman.

    The Armstrong Siddeley derived engine sounds like one of the Imperial’s better features but the planned use of the Tiger’s Ford V8 would have transformed the big Humbers, as the GM V8 did with the Rover P5.

  15. Robertas

    Even better! There were prototypes fitted with Chrysler’s LA series V-8. Those certainly did transform the car.

    Some Chrysler V-8 engines were manufactured in Canada, a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations. These would have received favourable customs treatment when shipped into Britain, making the project more or less economically feasable. Such a pity it didn’t happen in the end.

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