Moving Down, Scaling Up (Part Two)

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.

Rootes ‘Slug’ prototype (c)

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.

Rootes Apex prototype (c)

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.

Image: Andrew Miles collection.

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

28 thoughts on “Moving Down, Scaling Up (Part Two)”

  1. Coventry Climax was of course primarily a manufacturer of industrial engines, often for constant speed applications (portable fire pumps). Was it Chapman who first had the idea of using them for sports cars ?

    1. By the time Mike Parkes started working on the Imp project, he was a budding racing driver, and had raced various Climax-engined Lotus cars – before moving on to race Ferraris.

  2. Good morning Daniel. I am really enjoying this tale and look forward to the next part. The introduction of the Imp coincided with the start of my own driving life (ignoring earlier forays around fields on tractors and the like) and I well remember the partisanship which developed around the Mini v Imp debate. I have to say that I was firmly in the Imp camp; the Mini’s ridiculously uncomfortable driving position (which everybody modified by replacing the seats and altering the angle of the steering column using one of a plethora of after-market devices) was compounded by the unforgivingly harsh ride. The Imp, on the other hand, gave a far better ride and, once one was brave enough to be prepared to get it sideways, had handling and grip which more than matched the Mini. Especially on the snow covered winter roads common in the UK in those days. But as I am sure you will soon reveal, it was shamefully let down by lack of proper development and political interference.

    The latter doesn’t go away – as demonstrated by all those Hitachi trains built to DfT specifications…..

  3. Good morning Daniel. This article made me think about the trend for bathtub styling in the late 50s and early 60s. I’ve always appreciated it. There were actually quite a lot of different cars styled like this – the Corvair, the Imp, various NSUs and the Fiat 1500 spring to mind. I’m sure I’ve missed some, too. Would it be correct to say that the Corvair was the car that started this amusingly weird and short-lived trend?

    1. The bathtub look was revived by BMW for the 1 series coupé.

    2. Good morning all. Ric, I do believe that the Corvair started the ‘bathtub’ styling trend (unless anybody knows differently). Andy, I can’t unsee that photo of the 2 Series coupé! It looks fat and dumpy, and sagging in the middle, thanks to that lower feature line.

    3. Or, with the black sill treatment, rubber lower edge to the front spoiler and slightly shallower rear bumper:

      Less dumpy.

    4. The phrase lipstick on a pig still springs to mind I’m afraid. What were they thinking of with that lower feature line??

    5. Last attempt, with more conventional head and tail lamp profiles:

      (I really must try to stop hijacking my own pieces with these digressions!)

    6. Such a pity you don’t work for BMW Daniel.You have a better eye than Bangle and his successors.

  4. The enforced Linwood location demonstrates that “levelling-up” was not a new idea. Multinational Ford were more fortunate, openly stating that they would move production to Germany of Belgium rather than accept a site they considered unsuitable.

    Linwood should have been better, after all Pressed Steel had been there since 1947. Much of the failure was Rootes’ fault, introducing complex manufacturing activities such as gearbox production to an underskilled workforce from the start. Less haste, and a more gradual approach may have saved the day – much later, it worked for Nissan in Sunderland, another location with no history of mass-production of vehicles.

    Another problem was that the production numbers at Linwood (and BMC at Bathgate) were not sufficient to attract component manufacturers to Central Scotland.

    Lessons were clearly learned. Merseyside remains an important automotive manufacturing location, and France and Germany’s record of introducing car manufacturing to economically depressed areas of their countries has been consistently impressive.

  5. Good morning Daniel. My first car was a Hillman Imp so I have a soft spot for them, even though mine let me down on numerous occasions. Looking forward to the next instalment. Don’t mention rubber donoughts!

  6. My parent’s first new car was an Imp but they tellingly replaced it with a Peugeot 104 and never looked back. Their Imp was before my time but by coincidence a neighbour of theirs had one when I was still a tiny tot and I recall occassional journeys in it when she gave my Mum and I a lift. It was probably the oldest car I’ve travelled in, for some reason I distinctly remember the opening quarter lights and I’m sure there was a primary drive whine- would that have been normal for an Imp?

    I don’t think car plants outside of Britain’s traditional motor cities are necessarily doomed- providing there is an industrial skills base to call upon. Toyota and Honda are in old railway works towns and whilst car executives have grouched publically about the difficulties of Brexit and the perennial strong pound, workforce skills and distance from the traditional industrial heartland never seems to get a mention.

    With Linwood was there an element of tail wagging the dog? It was near the big Ravenscraig steel mill that was itself a postwar levelling up exercise but by the 1960’s Clyde shipbuilding was in retreat and the NBL railway works was closing down, so a new local outlet for the plant’s steel was needed and so…

  7. Back on topic, centrally dictated industrial planning policies seem to have had a pretty patchy track record of success in the UK, although have worked more successfully in continental Europe. That said, it’s good news* about the recently announced battery ‘gigafactory’ near the Nissan works in Sunderland, especially in the post-Brexit environment.

    * Ignoring environmental concerns about Lithium extraction, of course.

    1. The Linwood story sounds similar to Pomigliano d’Arco’s, another failed attempt at developing regions that don’t want to.

    2. It looks as though Stellantis is to produce electric vans at Ellesmere Port once production of the current Astra ends there. There should be an announcement on Tuesday.

  8. Ravenscraig was developed and expanded to provide steel both nationally and internationally, and had the rail links to make it work. Until the end of production in 1992, when it closed down, it had had the largest hot-strip steel production capacity in western Europe. The closure was a massive blow to Motherwell, a rough but prosperous town, where Colvilles, and latterly British Steel, were the dominant employer. Linwood was a significant customer, but was not critical to its survival.

    It’s important to note that Linwood was not ‘Impopolis’. Hunter production was moved there in 1969 to make room for the Avenger at Ryton, and by 1971 the larger and more profitable car was outnumbering Imp output by four to one. It was a far easier vehicle to manufacture, as its bodyshell required a fraction of the Imp’s 360 separate components. By 1972 investment in new presses allowed production of all Chrysler UK panels in the Renfrewshire plant, and 2400 vehicles could be produced in a good week.

  9. Here’s a short film about the Imp’s and Linwood’s early days. I recall reading that each car used to have a coin put in its chassis when it was being made, for luck.

    1. Hi Charles. Thanks for posting the video. What a shame that that the optimism of the film was more wishful thinking than reality for the workforce in Linwood. I liked the
      (British, not Scottish) patriotic ending with Imps in red, white and blue on the car transporters!

  10. It was the transporter tractor units which made the video for me – all powered by Commer TS3 two-stroke diesels. Ah, the memories!

  11. Re the picture at the top of the page – it was nice of them to give the one-legged lady a chair to rest on while they took the photo.

    Rootes also did an entertaining line in amazingly unconvincing studio shots – cheesy backgrounds and multiple shadows.

  12. The Imp had such a sweet free-revving engine and access for a cylinder head gasket change was quite easy.
    The gearbox used baulk rings for synchromesh , an expensive solution but gave a high-quality feel.
    The Imp headlamps were too low for regulations, they simply increased front body height by extending the front suspension, this explains the over tall front wheel stance of an Imp . Quality of parts was poor, Imp owners I knew liked the car, but not the reliability. I like yo’ve built it the wrong way around quotation by Issigonis

  13. Daniel thank you for this, as usual well researched and written and some interesting snippets that were new to me – I’m saying that as someone who lived and breathed Imps in my twenties when they were a cheap alternative to a Mini. Looking forward to the next instalment.

  14. I liked the Mk 1 Imp. Cheerful little thing and not cramped for two. A friend and I used one to go fishing almost every weekday during July and half of August 1965. It was fantastic on back dirt and gravel roads, and I don’t remember much shake. On the same roads, our Anglia nearly shook itself to bits on the washboard ripples. Conversely, the Anglia was much better on normal paved roads, less darty.

    There is a typo in the article. That 70 mph at 6500 was in THIRD gear, not fourth. The Imp ran 15.2 mph per 1000 rpm in top, so 70 mph was 4600 rpm.

    The Imp engine had almost nothing to do with the Coventry Climax engine except in Rootes fevered marketing dreams. The CC was an alloy sand cast block and head with wet liners. Not that suitable for real mass ptoduction.

    Leo Kuzmicki of Norton and Vanwall F1 design fame led the team that designed the Imp engine. It used a low-pressure die cast alloy block with siamesed cylinders waving in the breeze emerging from the crankcase. Same way most everyone does it today. The head was a high pressure alloy die casting. About the same as white bread is to rye compared to the Coventry Climax unit.

    I have the following stored web link to the Inst of Mech Engineers paper Kuzmicki gave on the Imp engine. He acknowledges CC, then proceeds for pages to describe the design and development for manufacturing of the Imp engine that isn’t anywhere near the same engine as the CC at all. Except for four cylinders and overhead cam, but certainly different kinds of alloy spec and differences caused by manufacturing method and costing concerns. Anyway, he probably knew as much as CC on engine tuning. Or was the Vanwall 2.5l four cylinder F1 engine a myth?

    I cannot access the link today, because the site says I have a clock error. Nope, I don’t. Perhaps in the UK you can access the site.

    1. I get a security warning for that site, so I’d avoid it, for now.

    2. Ditto Charles. I’d advise readers to steer clear.

      Just to clarify, nobody here is suggesting that the Imp’s engine was a Coventry Climax unit (although lots of other outlets have); I think the author has made it perfectly clear that it wasn’t. What is beyond dispute is that a CC unit was evaluated in an early prototype, before Hillman went their own way, as recounted by Philip Laughton, who worked on the programme.

      Click to access 201410-Impressions-Article-Oct-2014.pdf

      Oh, and nobody suggested (to my knowledge) that the Vanwall F1 engine was a myth either. I do wonder sometimes where people get these ideas into their heads.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: