The GLS

Classic Car Weekly (UK) - - Driven -

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

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