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‘The Imps weren’t fully tested – and a raft of quality issues beset the cars’
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That the Imp was launched four years after the Mini made it to market was nothing, if not tragic, because had Rootes beaten BMC to market, the shape of small cars today might well have been very different indeed.
It was a very European motor. Rear engined, more like a Renault, Simca or Škoda than an Austin A30 or Ford Popular, and was the culmination of a lot of very careful development work by Rootes. The tragedy is that Rootes had a head start over its rivals, as it had been working on a new baby car since 1955.
The company had been looking to expand, and as it had no presence in the one-litre class, it made sense to build something for this growing market sector. Mike Parkes and Tim Fry worked together on the new project, and worked to a technical brief that demanded that Rootes’ new baby should be able to accommodate four, have a maximum speed of at least 60mph, and would be capable of delivering 60mpg. Oh, and it had to be fun to drive. Even before it left the drawing board, Parkes and Fry had settled on a rear-engined design that was both light and aerodynamic. By the time it had become a full-scale prototype, the new car had earned the nickname ‘slug’.
Development of the new car was stunted by Rootes’ upper management, which could not relate this Goggomobile-inspired baby with the quality cars it was already producing. Allegedly, Lord Rootes wouldn’t even ride in it, as he hated the sight of it so much.
As the effects of the 1956 Suez Crisis kicked in, Rootes committed to the car’s development. A bigger, better Mini, Project Apex, was created – and that become the Imp.
The fantastic Coventry Climax engine was developed locally, and elsewhere a clean-sheet approach was adopted. The USA provided the influence for its three-box styling, and what emerged was bold, brilliant and youthful.
All that was needed was a new factory to build the car in – and although Rootes wanted to expand near Coventry, the Government would only assist financing the new factory if it was sited in one of its enterprise areas. Pressure led Rootes to Linwood, near Paisley and Johnstone, 300 miles away from centre of operations in Ryton. You know the rest when it comes to the logistical problems that ensued.
Rootes rushed the latter stages of development, affecting the production engineering of the cars, especially in the early years. When the Linwood factory started churning out Imps in May 1963, they still weren’t fully tested – and a whole raft of quality issues beset the cars. This dampened demand, and damaged the company’s credibility, just when it needed it most.
The Hillman Imp’s development became a marketing operation – so it was badgeengineered into sporting Sunbeam and Singer versions, as well as the Husky. But by the time it was phased out in 1976, by then wearing Chrysler badges, it looked very little different from the launch cars. A real case of missed opportunity, and bungled chances. Oh, well.
Gorgeous detailing marks out the jewel-like Imp as a very satisfying car to look at.
Mini car, maxi-style. Beautifully detailed hubcaps belong on a much grander motor.