Continuing our recollection of cars developed in response to the demand for smaller and more economical models. Today we feature the Hillman Imp.
In the 1950’s, the cars produced by the Rootes Group were the very embodiment of middle-class respectability. Brothers William and Reginald Rootes, with the backing of the Prudential Assurance Company and Midland Bank, had assembled a stable of marques, including Hillman, Humber, Singer, Sunbeam and Talbot, all of which occupied the broad middle market.
There were some distinctions between them; Humber was the more upmarket brand, whilst Sunbeam models had a slightly sporting appeal, but the differences were marginal and largely historic. What Rootes emphatically did not possess was a small car brand, or expertise in that segment of the market.
Rootes was also initially slow to react to the growing demand for smaller and more economical models, a trend given further impetus by the 1956 Suez Crisis(1). Although the company had been working on a small car project since 1955, it was only after BMC launched the ADO15 Mini in 1959 that Rootes was awakened to the challenge and opportunity this presented and put renewed impetus into its development project.
The project was headed by engineers Michael Parkes and Tim Fry. The early prototype, clearly influenced by European Bubble Car designs with a nod to aerodynamics, was a spartan and very compact car with an air-cooled engine and rear seat accommodation suitable only for children. It was rather aptly nicknamed the slug.
The Rootes board rejected it out of hand, led by William (Lord) Rootes, who allegedly refused even to sit in it. Parkes and Fry were sent back to the drawing board and ordered to come up with a more sophisticated design that would be compatible with the existing Rootes market positioning. The project was given the rather more fitting and aspirational name Apex.
There were interesting social and professional connections between both Parkes and Fry and Alec Issigonis, creator of the BMC Mini. Issigonis was an acquaintance of the Fry family. Moreover, Parkes’ father, John J, was Managing Director of Alvis Limited, the UK automaker where Issigonis had worked from 1952 to 1955. While at Alvis, Issigonis designed the TA350 saloon, which never made production. Much to his father’s disapproval, the younger Parkes had joined Alvis as a test driver for the TA350 and got to know Issigonis well while there.
During the development of both ADO15 and Apex, Parkes and Fry would dine regularly with Issigonis and Alex Moulton, designer of the ADO15’s Hydrolastic suspension system. Both pairs of engineers were sworn to secrecy by their employers with regard to their still-secret designs but, on one occasion, when Issigonis asked Fry if he could draw, Fry responded by sketching ADO15’s rear suspension radius arm, much to Issigonis’ surprise!(2)
Later, and shortly prior to the launch of what would be called the Imp, Fry turned up at their supper venue in a prototype and handed the keys to Issigonis. After a test drive, he declared that the Imp was “Absolutely brilliant, but you’ve got it the wrong way round!”(2) History would prove Issigonis right, in this regard at least.
The rear-engined layout of Apex was one principle of the design that seemed to be fixed from an early stage, mimicking what had been increasingly common for European small cars since the launch of the Fiat 600 in 1955. No serious consideration appears to have been given instead to adopting the Mini’s transverse-engined FWD layout.
In need of a better engine for Apex, Fry approached racing car engine manufacturer Coventry Climax, which was then producing its well-regarded 654cc FWM(3) and 742cc FWMA all-aluminium OHC inline four-cylinder water-cooled engine. Fry thought this design might be a good starting point for an engine for Apex, and its light weight would make it ideal for a rear-engined installation.
While the Imp’s engine is often referred to as a Coventry Climax unit, it was actually heavily redesigned to make it suitable for mass production and road use. It retained the basic principles of the racing engine design, but internal components were strengthened and its capacity was increased to 875cc, tuned to produce 39bhp (29kW) in the interests of longevity.
Adrian West, a transmission specialist who had previously worked for Simca and Fiat on their rear-engined models, was hired to develop a new gearbox for Apex. West designed a compact and lightweight aluminium-cased four-speed all-synchromesh transaxle unit, notable for its excellent gear change quality. The engine and transmission together weighed just 80kg (176lbs), roughly half the weight of a similar cast-iron unit.
Meanwhile, a larger prototype had been designed. It was now a proper four-seater but was a rather dowdy thing, lacking any of the Mini’s cheeky charm. Bob Saward, Rootes head of styling, instead came up with a much more attractive design that appeared to be influenced by the much larger 1959 Chevrolet Corvair(4), with its bathtub lower body and prominent crease-line running around the perimeter at waistline level. The DLO was large and glassy, with slim pillars giving excellent all-round visibility. A novel feature was an opening rear window, allowing access to the car’s rear luggage space, which could be expanded by folding down the rear seat back.
While the design of Apex was progressing, Rootes was giving thought to the subject of manufacturing facilities for the new model. As Apex was intended to take Rootes into a new market segment for the company and would not replace any existing model, a new facility was perceived as being necessary. Existing Rootes manufacturing plants were mainly located in the English Midlands, around the cities of Birmingham and Coventry.
This was the traditional heart of the UK automotive industry, with a ready supply of suitably skilled labour, so it would have made perfect sense to locate the new facility in this region. Moreover, most third-party component suppliers were historically located in the English Midlands for ease of contact with their customers, the automakers.
Unfortunately, this is where an interventionist British Government(5) with a desire to use industrial policy to effect social change became involved. The government coerced(6) Rootes into building a new plant in an economically deprived area, the town of Linwood in Renfrewshire. Linwood is in the west of Scotland, just twelve miles (20km) outside Glasgow, but around 300 miles (485km) from either Coventry or Birmingham. Moreover, the local workforce, coming mainly from the shipbuilding or textile manufacturing industry, had no experience of or relevant skills for motor vehicle assembly.
As a consequence, the logistics of assembly for the new model would be tortuous, involving 600-mile (968km) round trips for certain parts such as engine components, which were cast in Scotland, sent to Ryton for machining, then returned to Linwood for assembly. Rootes’ new Scottish workforce was also inadequately trained and its relationship with management appeared mistrustful and confrontational from the start.
In any event, the new model was officially launched on 2nd May 1963 when the Linwood plant was formally opened by H.R.H. Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh. The chosen Imp name had previously been trademarked by a manufacturer of marine engines. Rootes had, allegedly, purchased the rights to it from a company called Warsop Fram Group in exchange for a new Humber Super Snipe car!
The initial reception for the new Imp was highly positive, but it would not be long before some serious problems with the design would emerge, inflicting considerable damage on the car’s reputation and prospects, as we will see in Part Three shortly.
(1) A brief explanation of the events that led to the Suez Crisis and its aftermath may be found here.
(2) Anecdotes from David and Richard Henshaw’s 1990 book, ‘The inside Story of the Hillman Imp’ ISBN 10: 1870519116 ISBN 13: 9781870519113
(3) The acronym stood for Feather Weight Marine.
(4) The Corvair’s style would prove highly influential and be reprised on designs as diverse as the 1961 NSU Prinz 4 and the 1962 BMW ‘Neue Klasse’ 1500.
(5) Surprisingly, this was not, as one might have expected, a Labour government, but Harold Macmillan’s Conservative administration.
(6) Before a company could build any new manufacturing facility in excess of 5,000 sq.ft. (465m2) it had to apply to the government’s Board of Trade for an Industrial Development Certificate. The government blatantly used the issuance (or not) of such certificates to control where new developments were sited.
Author’s note: My thanks to fellow DTW contributor, Robertas Parazitas, for his insights and contributions to this piece.