‘The Imps weren’t fully tested – and a raft of qual­ity is­sues be­set the cars’

Classic Car Weekly (UK) - - News -

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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.

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