It looked like a scaled down Cor­vair, but the Imp was Rootes’ would-be Mini basher

Classic Car Weekly (UK) - - News -

Why Rootes' baby is still an ab­so­lute hoot to drive.

There’s some­thing de­light­fully won­der­ful about driv­ing a car that out­per­forms ex­pec­ta­tions. If you’ve never taken the helm of a Hill­man Imp be­fore, we can guar­an­tee that you’ll be left in no doubt that what Rootes cre­ated in the 1960s re­mains a true ex­em­plar of ‘wiz­ardry on wheels’. Shame, then, that it was BMC’s pub­lic­ity depart­ment, and not Rootes, that coined that mem­o­rable phrase.

It’s apt that we should ref­er­ence the Mini in our story, be­cause when Rootes be­gan work­ing in earnest on what was co­de­named Pro­ject Apex dur­ing its de­vel­op­ment, it was BMC’s baby that the com­pany had in its sights. And from a pure driv­ing per­spec­tive more than 50 years af­ter it was launched, the Hill­man Imp is ca­pa­ble of blow­ing the Mini into the weeds. Con­tentious as that sounds, you’ll know you’re driv­ing some­thing very spe­cial long be­fore you ar­rive at your first cor­ner.

In fact, you’ll like the Imp even be­fore you climb in. Its sharp-edged styling screams Amer­i­cana in minia­ture, and un­like the oh-so ra­tio­nal Mini, there are plenty of styling flour­ishes that will melt your heart – the rak­ish eye­brows over the head­lamps and the bul­let-shaped rear light clus­ters are ab­so­lutely de­li­cious, for a start.

And then you get in. You’ll be hap­pily en­sconced in the driver’s seat, and ap­pre­ci­at­ing am­ple head- and leg-room, even for a six-footer, long be­fore you ap­pre­ci­ate the amaz­ing vis­i­bil­ity and nicely-styled, and well-stacked, in­stru­ment bin­na­cle. Again, you’ll be won­der­ing at what ev­ery­one saw in the Mini back then – and con­tinue to do so to­day.

It’s time to fire up the all-alu­minium Coven­try Cli­max-based four cylin­der be­hind you, and get un­der­way. As you slot the clean-shift­ing ‘box into first, and pull away, the im­pres­sive re­fine­ment of the jewel-like 875cc en­gine truly im­presses. For such a hum­ble car, this is a truly im­pres­sive les­son in tur­bine-like re­fine­ment. It’s both clean-revving and smooth, pos­i­tively en­cour­ag­ing you to drive it hard. Per­haps not so per­fect for an econ­omy car.

Per­for­mance is as you’d ex­pect, and al­though it takes 25 sec­onds to reach 60mph, sel­dom does it feel un­der­pow­ered, be­cause you’ll never be­grudge driv­ing the Imp at 90 per cent for 90 per cent of the time. You’ll rarely pass 60mph in any of its four gears, but you’ll still en­joy the ex­pe­ri­ence.

The per­for­mance is de­fined by that lovely en­gine, and so it proves that the han­dling and road­hold­ing are equally in­flu­enced by the me­chan­i­cal pack­ag­ing. Its rear-en­gined lay­out might have seemed passé when this ex­am­ple rolled out of the Lin­wood fac­tory in 1971, you can’t deny it lends the car joy­ously light and di­rect steer­ing. It also means the nose bobs up and down agree­ably, and you get great turn-in for cor­ners. It’s dif­fer­ent, but equally plea­sur­able, to the Mini – a car leg­endary for its han­dling.

You won’t fret too much about rear­ward-bi­ased han­dling. It’s no Porsche 911, and as the al­la­lu­minium en­gine is ex­tremely light, it doesn’t feel at all led by its tail. That’s no doubt down to the ex­cel­lent wish­bone and coils sus­pen­sion lay­out, and low cen­tre-of-grav­ity. And, yes, the chas­sis set­tings were di­alled-in by rac­ing driver, Mike Parkes, dur­ing de­vel­op­ment.

There’s min­i­mal body roll, trace amounts of en­try un­der­steer, and an ut­ter feel­ing of de­pend­abil­ity. In the dry at least. It’s easy to un­der­stand why so many own­ers tuned their Imps back in the day – it gen­uinely does feel like a pint-sized sports car.

So far so good, then. It’s per­fect, yes? Not quite. The brakes are wooden, and al­though there is enough stop­ping power, you’d want more feel through the pedal. And if you were go­ing to take it on the mo­tor­way (al­though why you’d want to is be­yond us), di­rec­tional sta­bil­ity isn’t what you’d con­sider re­mark­able. But as we’re talk­ing about a clas­sic car that’s go­ing to be cher­ished by its lov­ing owner, driven for plea­sure, th­ese foibles should be con­sid­ered noth­ing other than char­ac­ter­ful.

That’s why we love the Imp. It’s a great lit­tle car that’s the ul­ti­mate ex­am­ple of what could be achieved by a rear-en­gined mini-car. Like its BMC ri­val, it’s great fun to drive, and proof pos­i­tive that all the best things in life come in small pack­ages. What does come as a shock, though, is how as­ton­ish­ingly grown up the Imp feels be­hind the wheel. And we weren’t ex­pect­ing that!

This was Rootes’ spin on the hatch­back con­cept – you could load and un­load lug­gage via the hinged rear win­dow.

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