This little Imp helped kill off the big Rootes Group
Both cars were developed to address the same needs, both cars were the products of gifted engineers, both were praised by the automotive press when introduced, and both had success in motorsports. Yet only one of them sold more than five million units, is a British icon, and has a passionate worldwide community of fans. The other sold fewer than 1/10th that number, is often considered obsolete for its day, and was a financial failure that led to the demise of its maker. The cars in question? The Austin Mini and the Hillman Imp.
The Imp was the Rootes Group’s attempt to address many of the same issues that Austin’s Mini was meant to solve. In the mid-1950s, Britain was still rebuilding after World War II and there was a burgeoning demand for inexpensive personal transportation. The microcars popular in the ’50s were not really up to the task of being family vehicles. In the wake of the 1956 war between Israel and Egypt, which temporarily closed the Suez Canal to oil shipments to Europe, fuel economy became preeminent. The trick was coming up with a car big enough to fit a family, yet small enough to be fuel efficient.
There is a fair amount of confusion and misinformation regarding the Imp. While many accounts portray the Imp project as a response to the Mini, in fact, engineer Michael Parkes’s team at Rootes started work on the Imp before Alec Issigonis started drafting what would become the Mini, and the two men actually worked together at Humber in the early- to mid-1950s. While Issigonis went on to knighthood, it’s likely that Parkes was at least Sir Alex’s equal as an engineer. He certainly had an impressive CV.
As mentioned, it’s also not unusual to see the opinion that the Imp was technologically obsolete when introduced, most likely because of its rear engine configuration, in contradistinction to the Mini’s modern transverse-engined, front-wheel-drive layout. That opinion ignores the fact that in the early 1960s, the Volkswagen Type I, aka Beetle, and also rear engined, was one of the best selling cars in the world.
Furthermore, it could be argued that the Imp was far more technologically sophisticated than the Mini. The Imp rode on coil springs while the Mini used rubber springs that would deteriorate over time. The Mini’s crankcase was shared with the transmission. That meant the gearbox was lubricated with engine oil, not 90 weight gearbox oil, and at the same time the gearbox wasn’t properly lubricated, the gears were chewing up the polymers in the oil, reducing the quality of engine lubrication. The Imp had a purpose-built transaxle developed internally by the Rootes group, with proper synchronizers, unlike the Mini’s “crashbox” transmission.
As for the engines in the two little cars, the Mini was powered by the same relatively old and primative “A Series,” all-iron, pushrod engine used in the Austin Healey Sprite and MG Midget, while the Imp had an all-aluminum, overhead cam engine with a legitimate racing heritage. Sometimes called “a poor man’s Porsche,” the Imp had a rear suspension that featured semi-trailing arms at a time when Porsches still had swing axles.
While the original Mini went on to sell over 5 million units, staying in production for almost a half century, the Imp sold a fraction of that amount, less than a half-million cars, before it was discontinued 12 years after being introduced. Many histories attribute the demise of the Rootes Group, which was bought out by Chrysler in 1967, to the financial problems associated with the Imp.
So what went wrong? The British Broadcasting Company describes the Imp as “the wrong car built at the wrong time by the wrong people at the wrong place.”
The Rootes Group, which made Humber, Hillman, Singer, and Sunbeam cars, along with Commer branded trucks, was considered by some to be the General Motors of the United Kingdom, a large, relatively conservative company with a range of brands that were not noted for style or performance but rather staid stolidity. The mid-1950s, particularly after the Suez crisis, saw the introduction of a number of small cars for the British market from Ford, Triumph, and Vauxhall so Rootes started working on its first small car. The original prototypes were known internally as “Slugs” because of their relatively formless shapes, and the rear-engined cars were powered by air-cooled twins, causing Rootes managers to tell the engineers to go back to their drawing boards, thinking the prototypes were too much like the microcars that were proliferating in Europe at the time.
The revised design brief called for an affordable, fun-to-drive four-cylinder car capable of carrying two adults, two children, and their luggage, and the project was given the official internal name of Apex. Michael Parkes was the project engineer and Tim Fry the coordinating engineer, and the two worked under Peter Ware, Rootes’ recently promoted technical director. The new small car would be a challenge as the company had never built such a thing, while also lacking a suitable engine and transmission, a factory to build it, or the money to pay for it all. People may have thought of Rootes as the British GM, but the English automaker didn’t have nearly the resources that the Detroit automaking giant had at its disposal.
To finance things, Rootes approached the British government for a needed loan. There’s an old Jewish rhyme regarding philanthropy: “The one with the mei’ah (100) gives the dei’ah (idea).” A contemporary vernacular version would be something like “the one with the Benjamins decides how things will go.” Rootes needed a factory, workers, and money. The UK government agreed to provide the funds but insisted that the new factory be used to boost employment in an area that needed jobs. In this case, it was near Linwood, Scotland, hundreds of miles from Coventry, the heart of Britain’s auto industry, where Rootes was headquartered.
The Scottish shipbuilding industry had shrunk and the government was hoping the new facility would employ about 6000 workers. Unfortunately, the local pool of workers had no experience working in an automotive assembly plant, as well as having a history of labor unrest. Any assembly plant start up is going to have teething problems, particularly if it is building an all-new vehicle. Adding the particular problems with locating the factory in Scotland only exacerbated things and may have doomed the Imp from the beginning. Delays in development and building the factory also meant that the Imp was not introduced until 1963, years after the Mini came to market.
In addition to an all-new assembly plant, the government funded an advanced die-casting foundry to make the engine blocks and head, and a new Pressed Steel stamping plant for the body panels. Locating the facility 300 miles from Rootes’ main factory at Ryton-on-Dunsmoreaway, near Coventry, also meant logistical problems because suppliers were far away, as was the engineering team at Rootes. Engine castings had to be shipped via train from Scotland to the Ryton plant for machining and assembly, and then shipped back to Scotland for instalation in the cars.
To start with, the Apex project needed a drivetrain. Not having a four-cylinder engine suitable for a small car, the Rootes Group decided to go outside the group and buy one. At the time, this was not that unusual in the industry as many of the independent American automakers used engines supplied by Continental and Lycoming. Fortunately for Rootes, an appropriate engine design was already in production in the UK.
Fires started by German bombs during World War II’s Battle of Britain convinced British authorities of the need for portable water pumps for firefighting. After the war, in 1950 the Ministry of Defense requested bids for a firepump that put out twice the volume of water as existing pumps, but weighed half as much. In the postwar period, the Coventry Climax company made firepumps as well as marine engines and industrial forklifts. With the help of noted engine designers Walter Hassan (Jaguar V-12) and Harry Mundy (Lotus Twin Cam), the company developed an all-aluminum inline four, with wedge-shaped combustion chambers, cast iron cylinder liners, three main bearings, and a single overhead camshaft to operate the valves, magneto, and mechanical fuel pump. The result was a 1020cc (62ci) engine that put out an impressive (for the time) and reliable 36 horsepower at 3600 rpm.
Climax got the MoD contract and put the engine into production, designated F.W. for Feather Weight. The racing community in England quickly glommed onto the CC F.W.’s potential as a high-revving powerplant for motorsports, and in response Climax bored it out to 1097cc, and added a second carburetor, high-compression pistons, and a stronger crankshaft to produce the F.W.A. (A as in automobile) engine. It doubled the power to 72 hp and significantly increased redline to 7000 rpm. T he F.W.A. became a fixture in open wheel and sports car racing, and even found its way into a variety of road-going specials. An F.W.A.-powered Lotus 11 won the Index of Performance at the 1957 Le Mans 24 hour race, leading Colin Chapman to contract with Climax to produce the 1200-cc F.W. E. version for the original Elite, Lotus’ first road car.
Rootes contracted with Coventry Climax for an 875cc version of the F.W., with a new head and detuned to a 10:1 compression ration for the road, to be made under license from CC by Rootes, dubbed the F.W.M.A. With a single carb, it put out 39 hp at 5000 rpm. This Mk1 engine had some reliability and oil leakage problems, so in 1965, the Mk2 version of the motor was introduced with stiffer block and head castings, and larger valves and ports. In 1966, the Sport version of the Imp was debuted with 998cc displacement, a hotter cam, two carbs, and headers, increasing power to 51 hp at 6100 rpm. By comparison, the original Mini had a 850cc engine putting out 34 hp.
Regarding the Imp being obsolete when introduced, the F.W.M.A. engine was the first all-aluminum engine in a British production car and the first OHC production car engine in the UK as well. To fit the four-cylinder motor in a space originally meant for a twin, Parkes’ team canted the engine by 45 degrees, which created room to put the radiator, cooling fan, and water pump next to the engine’s sump.
While the Coventry Climax engine impresses, perhaps the Imp’s greatest technical feat was the transaxle, which Rootes developed internally, starting with a blank sheet of paper. It had an aluminum case, four forward speeds, and had synchros in all four gears, unlike the Mini. Gear changes were described as precise and quick, something that couldn’t necessarily be said about the Mini or VW Beetle.
The result was a truly featherweight drivetrain. The engine and transaxle together weigh just 176 pounds (one source says 240 pounds).
Steering was via rack & pinion, and suspension was independent front and back, with coil springs and tube shock absorbers all the way around. While the rear suspension was a sophisticated-for-the-day semi trailing-arm setup, helping to avoid trailing throttle oversteer known to rear-engined cars with swing axles, the front suspension did use swing arms, which don’t have nearly the problems up front as they can have when fitted to the rear suspension. According to one account, the rear suspension design came about after the design team had some kind of problem when testing an early, swing-axle equipped Corvair, on a tight corner. No matter how they arrived at the solution, the layout worked well. No less than John Surtees praised the Imp’s steering and handling. Perhaps for cost saving, the rear suspension, while fully independent, used metal and rubber Rotoflex (aka Giubo) couplings instead of universal joints or constant velocity joints. One may scoff at rubber drivetrain components, but they were also used on the Lotus Elan.
Putting the engine in back meant lots of storage space up in the “frunk,” though nobody would have called it that 60 years ago. The rear seat folds down for additional cargo room, and in a novel feature, the rear window hinges like a hatchback to ease access to that cargo room.
While some considered the styling to be boxy and boring, in fact Rootes designers deliberately imitated the Chevrolet Corvair, thinking the American styling would appeal to younger drivers. With a long hood and short rear deck, and a tall, airy greenhouse with outstanding visibility, the Imp had a sporty look that was indeed impish. For a little car, it does stand out in a crowd of its contemporaries from Europe and the UK.
Total length was 141 inches, almost two feet longer than the Mini, though the wheelbases were close, 82 inches for the Imp versus just slightly over 80 inches for the Mini. With less than 1600 pounds to carry around, the 39 hp was adequate for the day.
While the development team wanted more time to fully fettle the Imp, already three years behind the Mini, Rootes decided to debut the Imp under the Hillman brand in May, 1963. Original list price was less than $1500 in 1963 dollars, which I believe works out to about £535 in 1963 pounds sterling (about $14,520 today).
Press reports on both sides of the Atlantic praised the Imp’s performance and handling. Sadly, all that praise didn’t last, as quality control issues started to increase. Overheating, water leaks, and blown head gaskets—partly the result of a lack of experience casting and making alloy engines, and partly the result of owners not maintaining those aluminum engines—gave the Imp an unreliable reputation, as did deteriorating Rotoflex couplings. The assembly plant’s workforce had experience building ships, not cars, and like at many greenfield automotive plants with inexperienced workforces, quality suffered. The 1960s was also a period of great labor unrest in England, and labor strikes idled the Linwood plant 31 times in 1964 alone.
Dealer attitudes exacerbated the Imp’s QC problems. To begin with, Rootes Group dealers weren’t thrilled to be saddled with selling an inexpensive, low-profit margin car, and they were certainly not thrilled to do warranty work on a completely unfamiliar product that was unlike any of the other cars they were selling. Warranty service was impaired by a lack of parts due to continuing labor issues at Linwood, which also affected supply of new cars to those dealers that did want to sell them.
Marketing was uneven. Originally marketed as a sophisticated, advanced automobile, as sales declined Rootes started to sell it as a cheap economy car, on par with low end European brands popular with the budget set in the UK at the time like Skoda. Through its multiple brands, Rootes sold a variety of mostly badge engineered variants including the Sunbeam Stilleto, the Commer Imp Van, the Hillman Husky, the Singer Imp Sport, and others, as wall as the fastback Singer Chamois Coupe, which had significant styling differences from the Imp sedan. Left-hand-drive versions were developed for export markets. In the U.S., the Imp was sold under the Sunbeam brand, with probably fewer than 5000 delivered, but enough that LHD models pop up for sale now and then on this side of the pond.
Half of all Imp sales were achieved in the model’s first three years on the market. No doubt those sales were helped by rally and racing wins, including the overall title at the 1965 Tulip Rally. The Imp also won the British Saloon Car Championship three years in a row in the early 1970s.
While the Mk2 version addressed many of the Imp’s shortcomings, sales had already started to decline, and the saloon car championships didn’t help stem the slide. While the Imp managed to stay in production for over a decade, by the time it was discontinued in 1976 with the permanent shuttering of the Linwood plant, total sales after 12 years of production were only about 440,000 Imps including all variants—about as many Oldsmobile Cutlasses that GM sold in two years during the mid-1970s.
Many consider the Rootes Group’s large investment in developing the Imp and building the car at Linwood to have been a major factor in the financial crisis that led to Rootes’ eventual takeover by Chrysler just four years after the Imp was launched. Certainly the Imp’s failure to thrive was a factor in the Rootes Group’s demise.
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