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Hillman Imp

Published: 8th Jun 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Hillman Imp
Hillman Imp
Hillman Imp
Hillman Imp
Hillman Imp

Model In Depth...

Hillman Imp
Hillman Imp
Hillman Imp
Hillman Imp
Hillman Imp

Buyer Beware

  • Sills rust badly between the doors and the rear quarters. Rot can also spread into the inner sills and the floor, so poke and squeeze diligently. Check also where the rear trailing arms meet the crossmember which is critical, and the rear corners below the wings which always rot but which are less serious.
  • At the other end, rust in the spare wheel well is critical because the front wishbones connect here. The wishbones themselves can rust too, usually on their front faces.
  • Front luggage lids are double skinned and can rust badly. Good second-hand replacements are few and far between, but you can get fibreglass replacements if needed.
  • The carburettor(s) sit over exhaust, so check for leaks, tired piping… Early auto chokes are dire!
  • Take any prospective purchase on a good test run, as any head gasket trouble will quickly show up as overheating (oil in radiator, etc).
  • The Imp ran a high 10:1compression ratio. It is easy to skim this too far during rebuilds, so if the car pinks, don’t dismiss this as simply needing simple ignition adjustment.
  • Fan belts are often over-tightened, which knocks out the water pump bearings. Look for 1.5in of freeplay in the longest run.
  • Oil leaks from the rear pulley and the cam cover are common and easy to fix. But if oil is spread all around the engine bay, then it can contaminate both the engine and gearbox mountings and lead to deterioration.
  • Check that any oil hasn’t come from the transaxle though, as these can leak over time and then wear quickly. If it looks like oil has contaminated the rubber donuts in the driveshafts, replace these quickly with quality items (not unlike Lotus Elan units).
  • If the nose stands high, then it’s probably because the rear springs are sagging. Or it could because of serious rot around the upper spring mounting - often a terminal problem. Early models may have decambering kit fitted.
  • A sloppy gearchange is most likely because of a worn rubber ball cup at the bottom of the gearstick, a quick and easy upgrade to Nylatron should cure it.

Fast Facts

  • Driving: 4/5

    Great, and as good as the Mini. Sweet engine, Sports are peppy

  • Usability: 3/5

    Hatchback versatility, although fastbacks suffer fixed rear screen

  • Maintaining: 3/5

    Not bad with good support, but car is more complex than a Mini

  • Owning: 3/5

    Being cheap to buy and run makes car good runaround

  • Value: 3/5

    Inexpensive but car is slow to gain classic reputation

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Fast, fun and very practical, the Hillman Imp should have been one of the all-time greats. Time and circumstance may have denied it this reputation, but it is still a cracking classic choice, reckons Simon Goldsworthy

You have to feel sorry for the Imp. Introduced in a rush by Rootes to tackle a gaping hole at the bottom of their model line-up, every bar-room pontificator will tell you how it bankrupted the company, how it overheats at the slightest provocation and how it struggles to stay on the road through corners. But talk to people who actually know the cars and you soon realise that all of this is complete and utter nonsense. Yes, sales were disappointing and early models got a reputation for unreliability, but this is all ancient history now. By the time the Mk2 arrived in 1965, most of the teething troubles had been sorted and today some 40 years on, those early troubles are totally irrelevant. But mud does tend to stick, which is why the Imp remains a great British underdog, forever in the shadow of the Mini it was designed to do battle with. All of which makes it something of a classic bargain. With a race-bred all alloy OHC engine, synchromesh on all four forward gears and lightweight steering via a rack, it was a driver’s car in the very best sense of the phrase straight from the factory. And as numerous fanatics will happily demonstrate, that was only the beginning…

Which model to buy?

You’ll struggle to find an early base model saloon – that was largely listed to provide a headline-grabbing price, but most people stumped up for the Deluxe with its heater, screen washer, carpets and twin sun visors. You’ll struggle too to find a car with the early pneumatic throttle that proved problematical in owners’ hands and contributed to the model’s poor reputation in the early years, but only the most fanatical Impers would seek one out in any case. If you like your small cars to be a little more luxurious, the Singer Chamois is decidedly more upmarket, with real wood trim on early models, better instrumentation, more comfortable seats and extra brightwork. If it is performance you are after, any of the sporting versions will give a substantial hike in power (up from 39bhp to a heady 52bhp), as well as adding brake servo assistance to the mix. Lower spec cars can be easily modified for more performance (although increasing the size on any of them does quickly get expensive), but if you want the ultimate in style then you really need to start with one of the fastback shells. These also introduced a revised front suspension that reduced the car’s rather knock-kneed impression as well as improving handling, a change, which eventually spread through the range. If you are into commercials, then the Commer Imp is a surprisingly usable vehicle despite its odd proportions and high roofline, pre-dating similar offerings from Fiat and Renault by a couple of decades! The similar Hillman Husky combines load carrying with rear seats - an interesting oddity these days but few people really need the carrying capacity in a classic and the handling is not as pin sharp as the saloons.

Behind the wheel?

A driver’s car in the very best sense of the phrase

The Imp benefits from being the brainchild of two young designers who were also enthusiastic drivers. They set out to produce a car that could do 60mph, 60mpg and still be fun to drive. In the event, they wildly exceeded two of the three goals - and the Imp can still return the cheap side of 40mpg. The engine may well be able to claim a family connection to Coventry Climax’s racing engine also found in the Lotus Elite, but it was re-worked for production in just about every detail. It is still oversquare with a strong bottom end and will rev for England, but the mild cam and modest porting that de-tuned it to save the bigger (and otherwise slower) Minx’s modesty also mean it has good torque. The all-synchro gearbox is a major bonus in traffic. It also contains well-chosen ratios, with third and top being on the tall side to make cruising less tiresome, although high speed touring will still batter your ear drums. On back roads, the gearchange should be a quick-shifting delight so long as the linkage is in good order. The short wheelbase and firm suspension will bounce you about on poor road surfaces though. Steering is light and gives good feedback, although Imps can get wobbly in crosswinds. The front suspension is by swinging arms, while the tail sits on trailing arms. Having what is arguably a better system at the back helps keep in check any tendency for the tail to swing. Despite having an engine in the tail, the fact that it is so lightweight helps the Imp to corner with no vices, particularly on radial tyres (much less understeer than crossplies) pumped up to the correct pressure. It feels overall like a bigger car than it is, and with some well-proven modifications, it can even be made to out-handle its arch-nemesis from BMC – just so long as you don’t lift off the throttle mid-corner! Standard wheels are 12inch items (Vauxhall Viva rims fit -ed), which leave enough room for decent brakes. These are eight inch drums all round and work well enough on such a light car in unassisted form, although they can fade after heavy use. Many people prefer the feel that the Sport’s remote servo lends to the pedal.

Ease of Ownership?

Imps just thrive on being used

The cooling system needs to be kept in top condition. In many ways, this is a once-only job as a tired radiator should be re-cored and, so long as you keep the anti-freeze topped up, it won’t get clogged with aluminium alloy stripped out of the block. But you also need to get the air flowing through the radiator, and you need to wash it clean of debris, grime and muck at least every 5000 miles. When launched, the all-alloy overhead construction of the Imp’s engine caused some concern to ham-fisted mechanics. Fortunately this kind of unit is now the norm and holds few terrors for the DIY mechanic, although a good torque wrench is essential if stripped threads are to be avoided while the camshaft has to be shimmed up, like an XK Jag unit. On the other hand, it is easy to remove the engine for maintenance and repairs in just a couple of hours with no specialist tools at all. Early cars had revolutionary PTFE Teflon-coated kingpins, which eliminated the need for grease nipples. Unfortunately they proved short-lived as condensation caused rust and failure, so most Imps will need a couple of squirts of the grease gun here every 3000 miles or so. Brakes need adjusting every 5000 miles or so to make the most of the modest linings, and it pays to keep a regular eye on the fluid level - the reservoir is small, and a minor loss could soon lead to a major disaster. And taking of disasters, remember that only very late cars had proper fuses so do keep a weather eye on the electrical system and repair any wear and tear before it gets serious.

The Daily Option?

Imps just thrive on being used, and there is a good network of enthusiastic suppliers to keep them on the road. If the cooling system is good, then it will be more than adequate for the job. Any car still running will by now have had a later improved water pump fitted, so that is one weakness that shouldn’t be a worry. And if you do a lot of driving in town or live in a hot climate, then the clubs and specialists can help you to all manner of upgrades. An oil cooler and the vented engine lid from the Sports are both useful upgrades on cars that are used on the motorway. The opening rear window adds real versatility, especially in combination with a rear seat that folds flat. It is not exactly hatchback-easy to load and unload, but does at least go some way to compensate for a shallow and modest boot in the nose of the car. And with a relatively basic interior coupled with a large glass area, the Imp feels bigger than it is while still remaining titch-easy to park and place on the road.



On September 30th, Rootes announces its intention to build a new factory at Linwood, near Glasgow to produce its new baby car.


A hand-built prototype is taken on a 4000- mile proving trip through Europe. Some overheating is evident on long motorway hauls, but basically it is a very successful test.


First pre-production cars are ready for testing from June, butthe supply of vehicles is slow to build and the planned testing regimes are scaled back as a result.


May sees the formal opening of the Linwood plant, as well as the Imp’s public launch.


Chrysler takes a minority stake in the struggling Rootes Group. The more luxurious Singer Chamois variant is launched at the Motor Show, an instant success that is accounting for 31 per cent of all Imp sales within a year. Lord William Rootes dies in December.


Basic Imp is discontinued in September, with Deluxe becoming by default the base model and a new Super Imp slotting between it and the Singer. Detail changes are lumped together to merit Mark 2 tag in an effort to distance the car from its earlier unreliability woes. Commer Imp van with high roofline to compensate for high floor released. Rallye Imp offered with hot 998cc engine essentially sold as basis for competition cars.


Imp Sport arrives in both Singer and Sunbeam guises, enjoying a considerable boost in power over the standard model thanks in part to bigger valves, twin carbs and a better exhaust.


The Californian Coupe arrives complete with split rear seat to make up for the lack of an opening rear window. Singer Chamois Coupe version adds luxury, while Sunbeam Stiletto tops this with Sport power and twin headlamps. Hillman Husky estate, based on Commer van, joins the party in April. By the end of the year, Chrysler has taken full control of Rootes Group.


Cars are facelifted and cost cutting begins in earnest. All Singers get quad-light nose, all except Sunbeam get revised dash with circular instrument design.


By April, the Chamois, Sport, Californian, Commer and Husky have all bitten the dust. But the basic Imp is reintroduced, along with a Sunbeam Sport in October.


Fuel crisis boosts sales. All models are uprated with an alternator and heated rear window. Rationalisation also gives them the Sport cylinder head – but with small valves!


Special Caledonian is introduced in October, basically a run-out model in bright red. By September of the following year, the Imp was deleted from Chrysler’s price lists.

We Reckon...

Even a basic Imp is a hoot to drive, while the Sports versions are well worth searching out for their extra poke as well as being something different to a common Mini Cooper. But Imp owners are not known for being squeamish, and it is more than possible to modify the Imp in whatever direction you choose. The trick is to try a standard car before laying out too much cash, because you just might find it is perfect the way it is, an underdog for which their is never any need to apologise.

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