|THE MINI MAG. Volume 2 No.7|
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Impede the Imp! How the Mini stifled Hillman's finest effort.
By 1963, the Mini had been on the British market for about 4 years, and making great headway in sales after a slow start. The Rootes Company, who made Hillman, Humber, Sunbeam and Singer decided that there was room in the small car section of the market to match the Mini. In those days, there was still a strong feeling for rear-engined cars, as the VW Beetle had certainly pointed that way. Rootes had a small car on the back-burner for many years, but had not felt the need for a Mini-sized car as the evergreen Hillman Minx had been their staple fare for over 30 years.
Unlike the Mini, where Issigonis was able to use an existing engine, the A-Series, Rootes had to find something smaller than the 1390cc fitted to their base Minx and Husky range. They elected to use a much-modified version of the Coventry Climax FWMA; a development of a marine outboard design. It was 875cc, but Rootes found it almost impossible to enlarge it any further. Canted over 45 degrees to lower its height, it featured a light-alloy block with bonded-in 'dry' cast iron cylinder liners, light alloy head and single overhead cam. This was mated to a new gearbox and transaxle for rear mounting. Unlike the VW, it was an in-line water-cooled engine.
Following the overall looks of the Chevrolet Corvair (another rear-engined car), the Imp was certainly one of the prettiest small cars about. Initially it only came as a two door saloon, but later in the UK, a coupe, estate car and a van supplemented the range. Rootes, like BMC, elected to do a bit of 'badge engineering', so the Brits could also buy Sunbeam and Singer variants. Rootes thankfully resisted the temptation to offer a Humber version.
All this was to be made in a brand new factory at Linwood, in Scotland, and this is where things started to go wrong. There were many quality control problems, along with a work force and management who were not attuned to building cars, so the project was almost doomed before it started.
Concentrating on the car, the Imp was not the great success hoped for by its makers. The layout was unfashionable, because the the engine was behind the line of the rear wheels, making it tail-heavy. It did have a carefully developed all-independent suspension, rack and pinion steering, and it did handle well. Like the Mini, it was a true driver's car. It was neither a sales or financial success, and while it was in production for over 13 years from 1963 to 1976, sold only 440,000 units; a fraction of BMC's Mini.
Early problems which gave the car a bad reputation included the liability to blow head gaskets and to overheat, as well as a strange choke system which didn't help cold-weather starts. Much of this was improved over the years, but the Mini's spectacular success virtually sealed its fate. It was due to be phased out by 1972 or '73, but the fuel crisis of late '73 gave it a stay of execution for another three years.
While obviously not having the success of the Cooper in motor-sport, they were reasonably successful, particularly the Rally Imp. Rosemary Smith won the prestigious Tulip Rally of 1965 outright, and Imps were quite evident on racetracks. (Rosemary Smith later drove that wonderful device, the Austin Maxi into tenth place in the 1970 London Mexico World Cup Rally).
From a personal point of view, I really took to the few Imps I drove. Having been used to Minis, when I arrived in England in 1970, I had to pass a British driving test. This meant having a few lessons, not in driving, but how to pass their bloody test. The school only had Imps, and I was amazed at how nimble and sure-footed they were. Almost as much fun as a Mini! My British cousin's wife in Yorkshire owned one for many years, only replacing it recently with some kind of small Ford. She loved the Imp, particularly in the snow, but the Ford is 'just another car, like my new microwave'. We had the odd Imp trade-in at the place where I worked in London, and they were always enjoyable.
Here in Australia, the Imp burst onto the market in February 1964, at the same time as the Morris 1100 had taken all the fanfare. It's pricing was right in the Mini's territory; £799 against £763. Modern Motor wondered whether it was an interesting new small car or a rival for the fantastically successful Morris 850. They said it was better in some areas, but certainly not all aspects. The quality was poor on the early ones, and it was very spartan inside. One great feature was a lift up rear window, like a hatch back, which made shoving the shopping into the cars easy for the ladies. The rear side windows were fixed, so ventilation was non-existent, but it did have wind-up windows..........
They reckoned both cars were noisy, both lacked water temp and oil pressure gauges. The Imp was thought to be slightly more comfortable, but it did not have as good roadholding. Wheels magazine compared the Imp with the Morris 850, Beetle and Fiat 600, all of them rear engined, but for the Mini. There wasn't much in the top speed; 74.2 mph against the Mini's 73.4, and the Imp was quicker in the quarter mile; 22.1 seconds against 22.7. Again, the Mini was seen as the best handling car.
Rootes Australia promoted the Imp as being an inspiration in light car design, and assailed us with words such as IMPeccable, IMPressive and so on. They made sure potential customers were aware that Imp windows wound down. BMC had a salesman's guide telling their men to IMPEDE the IMP, and went on to list all the usual plus points for the Mini and all the minuses for the Hillman. In 1965, Rootes was effectively taken over by Chrysler (their switch board girl announced "Chrysler Rootes Australia" only on the first morning. True!) and it wasn't long before Imps and Minxes appeared alongside Valiants in their showrooms. With extra so-called American selling expertise the car should have rocketed away.
So, what went wrong? Unlike BMC, Ford and GMH, Rootes didn't have a dealership on each corner and in every hamlet. Rootes never really had a small-car customer base like BMC. Minis sold to Austin A30 and Morris Minor owners, whereas the Minx had always been a small family car, sometimes sold as a second car to accompany the big Humber in the garage.
BMC's Mini appealed to so many younger people who recognised the sporting potential, whereas Rootes never had that experience. Also the Morris 850 was well established by 1964, making it hard for the Imp to make the impression hoped for by Rootes.
Imps took to the race tracks here in a limited way, the first being five entered in the 1964 Armstrong 500 at Bathurst. They were no match for the Vauxhall Vivas, described by Bill Tuckey as "doing all kinds of funny things with their wheel angles in an attempt to stay with the pace of the square little GMH cars". Two GTs were in the 1967 event but they were up against faster Corollas and Datsun 1000s in their class. My second cousin, Bruce Hindhaugh and Graham Ritter piloted two at Sandown in February 1967 as the Hillman Imp Racing Team, but alas, they were outclassed by the Mantons and Foleys in the Cooper Ss.
By the time Chrysler took over, sales were fairly low, and they didn't have the experience in selling small cars. I would imagine the Imp was seen as a low profit car compared to the obvious successful larger Valiant. The Imp II was the result of an upgrade in 1966, and an Imp GT version was released in 1967, but these changes weren't enough to keep the car on the market past 1968. The GT featured twin carbs, power brakes and carpets, but all of this wasn't enough to woo the customers. In short, the Imp could well have been a serious threat to the Mini's supremacy, but it narrowly missed out in all the important aspects. When was the last time you saw one?