The anti-Mini

Due to its mechanical characteristics the Imp was successful in rallying, winning the Rally of the Tulips in 1965.

In the 1960s the British Rootes Group, which included the marques Sunbeam, Singer, Humber, Hillman and Talbot, decided to start on the design of a car capable of countering the growing success of the best-selling Mini. The project started with the opposite approach to Issigonis’s creation: in fact its mechanical objectives were traction and a rear engine, enclosed in a compact body but with three volumes. On a mechanical level the outstanding feature was its aluminium alloy engine. To commence production of its small car the Rootes Group wanted to expand its factory in Ryton, near Coventry and set up the productions lines for their Imp, but the British Government, at a time of a depressed economy, wanted to force them to build a brand new factory in Scotland, where there was no history of car production or any experienced workers. Rootes decided on an alternative solution with Italian bodywork by Carrozzeria Touring and an agreement for them to build 10,000 cars per year. Then the sudden death of Lord Rootes sank the deal completely, forcing the group to fall back on the Scottish alternative, thus seriously affecting the coachbuilder Touring, which failed shortly afterwards.

Production started in Linwood in 1963 and, during its life, the Imp was made in several different versions: station wagon (named Hillman Husky), van and coupé (Hillman Imp Californian, Singer Chamois Coupé and Sunbeam Stiletto). The numerous proposals concealed the group’s attempt to increase sales, which remained very modest for the entire 13 years of the car’s production life.  All efforts by the Rootes Group to increase sales failed: a rebadging operation creating the Singer Chamois as a luxury version of the Imp, which appeared in 1964, and the Sunbeam Sport with twin carburettors and more power appearing in 1965. For marketing reasons the Singer marque was replaced by Sunbeam in some countries, until 1970 when Chrysler, which had taken over the Rootes Group in 1967 together with Simca and Matra, decided to drop the Singer marque permanently. Due to its mechanical characteristics the Imp was successful in rallying, winning the Rally of the Tulips in 1965. The little Hillman was, as already mentioned, never a sales success with production in the hands of inexperienced workers who contributed towards the car having an image of poor reliability. The regular union disputes were also not helpful to the car’s Scottish factory.  Additionally the location of the factory in Scotland led to much higher transportation costs.

The premises defined the history of this unfortunate car, which failed to shine for its too square and rather clumsy lines but which had reduced management costs and some interesting and rare mechanicals for its time, such as the aforementioned 4-cylinder aluminium alloy engine.

Production finally ended in 1976 and the Hillman marque disappeared forever with it.

Text by Tommaso Lai

Translation by Norman Hawkes

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