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