Friends, Romans, Austin Countryman owners – lend us your ears, and just possibly hearts and minds. We’re off on a special journey around Mr William Shakespeare’s worldrenowned birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon. A draw to millions of tourists since Victorian times – and the unfortunate Chrysler UK.
In an inspired attempt to revive the by then flagging Hillman Hunter range, a wonderful brochure was produced featuring the cars against iconic local backdrops. It had the devastatingly imaginative title: ‘The ’74 Hunters photographed in Stratford.’ in it’s own way just as magical as A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
And with this year also marking the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, we decided to celebrate the 50th anniversary of these Hillmans and their badge-engineered siblings by recreating as many of those brochure shots as we could in the exact same spots. Our tribute would use just one car, a deeply rare but, as you’ll discover, truly jaw-dropping Hillman Hunter GLS.
Now we all know that Shakespeare’s only known piece of motoring journalism, submitted to Classic Cart Weekly, included the line ‘The wheel has come full circle. I am here.’ It was reused in King Lear. But we are sure that if the great Bard had still been around he would have loved to have written a play based on the downfall of the Hunter’s original maker, Rootes. A great family dynasty felled after being weakened by dissenting insiders (strikers) and expensive wrong decisions (the Hillman Imp) and eventually being taken over by foreign invaders, ie Chrysler, who would thereafter suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It was against this background that the Arrow range was launched in 1966, replacing two lots of Rootes cars, the Audax Hillman Minx and Singer Gazelle plus the larger Super Minx, Singer Vogue and Humber Sceptre. The Arrow’s bodyshell was all new and lighter than its predecessors. The car also brought the MacPherson strut to Rootes, though the rear suspension was the tried-and-tested live axle and leaf springs. Engine options, depending on model, were the well-proven 1489cc unit and a much revised version of the 1725cc powerplant with a five-bearing crankshaft. The all-synchromesh gearbox introduced in 1964 was retained.
Most models came on stream in 1966-1967. The range did seem extremely complex. You could have a lowly Hillman Hillman Minx or slightly higher spec Hunter, from a 54bhp 1500 to a 79bhp GT. Mysteriously there were two almost identical Singer models, a Vogue and Gazelle, and the range-topping Humber Sceptre which, like the Singers, gave you wood veneer, twin headlamps, a vinyl roof and overdrive on third and fourth gear.
Various estate cars, automatic transmission, overdrive and a useful brake servo all joined the options list. In 1969, production was moved from Ryton to Linwood. The following year we lost the Hillman Minx and both Singers, leaving just the Hunter, which celebrated with a minor styling tweak to its various grilles and dashboards, a more major dash redesign coming in 1972.
The Humber Sceptre missed out on all of this, but strangely an estate car version appeared in 1974, two years before production ceased. From 1977 a Chrysler Hunter with a front and rear restyle looking as if painted corrugated iron had been shoehorned on both ends, was all you could get until this was finally put to death in 1979, the year Chrysler Europe was sold to PSA of France for $1. What would Shylock have made of that?
Arrow sales were respectable, with 470,000 Minxes and Hunters, 43,000 Sceptres and 79,000 Singers sold. And this doesn’t count the Iranian version of the car, the Paykan, built until 2005. In 1968 something amazing happened which, to be honest, eclipsed even the Moon landing of the following year in the shock and surprise stakes. The much-hyped London to Sydney Marathon, with 56 finishers, was won by a Hillman Hunter, marking an incredible achievement by Andrew Cowan, Colin Malkin and Brian Coyle.
No-one was more surprised by this than Rootes/ Chrysler, which spectacularly failed to capitalise on the achievement apart from introducing a mildly tweaked Hunter GT to the range.
Under the bonnet of that winning car was something truly special – a 1725cc unit modified by Holbay Engineering. I had the pleasure of interviewing company founder MD John Read in 1990. He revealed that the deal with Rootes followed a phone call in 1966 from Rootes Competitions Department head Gilbert Hunt.
‘He said the company’s rally cars weren’t competitive and could we get more power out of them?’ John was not impressed by the unit on offer. ‘It looked a right heavy old lump,’ he said. Soon Holbay had an engine that Rootes struggled to get 90bhp from up to 125bhp, with a corresponding increase in torque. This would go in the H120 Rapier, which debuted at the 1968 Motor Show, and of course that rally car. ‘We never seriously considered this car stood a chance of an outright win,’ admitted John.
A mere four years later, Holbay power finally went into the Hunter GLS, all 93bhp (or 108bhp gross), complete with twin Webers. Chrysler promoted this as a luxurious range-topper, more than the sporting beast it was. It was capable of 110mph and 0-60mph in 10.5 seconds. It would show a clean pair of mudflaps to under 3.0-litre Fords, the Triumph 2500 and a hallowed list of