Magazine Cover - Classic Cars For Sale - 1000s of Classic Car Reviews, How To Service & Maintenance Guides

Hillman Imp

Published: 20th Nov 2012 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Hillman Imp
Hillman Imp
Hillman Imp
Hillman Imp
Magazine Subscription
The latest issue of Classic Cars For Sale is on sale now - Pick up your copy from all good newsagents including WHSmith or click here to subscribe now

Subscribe to Classic Motoring Magazine and save over 20%

Subscribe NOW

Available at all good newsagents including WHSmith

Imp took on the Mini and while it could never beat on road or race track , was arguably the best tiddler on the block

Project Ajax was designed by Rootes to clean up the mini car market, but never captured public imagination like its arch rival the Mini did, due to a lack of vim. And that’s a shame because, in many ways, the Imp was the much better car.

Launched in 1963 – just as the Mini was finally starting to take off – the Imp was just as revolutionary. Small, space efficient hatchbacks are rampant on our 2012 roads of course, but it was a new thing 50 years ago, and the Hillman Imp was one of the first to embrace the logical design. Whereas the Mini was front-engined, front- wheel driven, Imp was the complete reverse, but the end result was roughly the same; a compact but roomy enough saloon for the modern family.

Priced within a few pounds of the Mini, the Imp should also have sold like hot cakes, but in the 13 years it ran alongside the British Leyland rival, less than half a million were made and the sheer cost of producing the car, including an all new factory in Scotland, brought the corporation to its knees. Rootes was only partly saved by American Chrysler, which took a stake in the company in ‘64, taking full control three years later. However, it couldn’t turn things around and cut its losses by selling out to Peugeot in 1978.

Small wonder?

Like the Mini, what dogged early Imps was poor reliability (transaxle, auto chokes pneumatic throttle woes and overheating mainly) and it was only the introduction of the Mk2 in late ‘65 which righted most of the wrongs.

But, by then, with a historic victory in the Monte Carlo rally under its belt, and finding favour with Royalty, pop stars and celebs, Mini enjoyed street cred the Imp never came near, despite the fact a fast expanding range included the Cooper-like Imp Sport, posh upmarket offshoots from Singer and Sunbeam, and extremely versatile estate and van derivatives (Husky) which even boasted a high roof – modern van thinking. The Imp certainly stole a march on the Mini when the company intro- duced the coupe Californian in 1967, to entice the younger buyer.

Sadly, the rear window was now fixed, which severely limited luggage carrying, but in sporty and luxurious Sunbeam Stiletto guise it was hailed as ‘three cars in one’ by Motor, providing sports saloon, luxury coupe, economical family transport and all for a not unreasonable £726.

Apart from a facelift for ‘69 which included a plastic dominated look interior, cash-strapped Chrysler UK (as it was now known) deprived the Imp of any further development, especially after arch rival Mini became a silver screen smash in The Italian Job that same year! Instead, the Imp ranges were slashed during the ‘70s with the Californian and Stiletto being dropped as early as ‘72. Not even the Energy Crisis a year later, which saw the threat of petrol rationing, gave the Imp a new lease of life like it did the Mini, and the Imp bowed out without fanfare in 1976 at £1200 – a not inconsiderable sum back then, but compared with its rivals many thought the Imp was a bit of a bargain in such inflated times.

Score draw

Imp was the first modern hatchback

Owning an Imp instead of a Mini was rather like supporting City not United, or Spurs over Arsenal, and among owners there was quite fierce brand loyalty, if not outright fisticuffs.

Imp owners swore blind that their cars were better to drive with a nicer engine (an 875cc Coventry Climax overhead cam unit which had connections with the Lotus Elite, no less) and far better balanced handling than the understeer- prone Mini, together with a far more sophisticated feel. You may have set your sights onaMinibutadriveinanImp with that sugar smooth engine and ‘darty’ handling may convince you otherwise.

Performance- wise there’s not much in it but the Mini feels more urgent; road tests frequently commented on the ‘deadness’ of the Imp’s throttle and clutch, no doubt a result of the rear engine layout. Practical Motorist summed the Imp up saying it had a “soggy feel”.

It was debatable on what handled best, but the Imp at least genuinely over steered and was far less tricky than say a Beetle on the limit. And, of course, there was no ‘fight’ form the steering under power, which early fwd designs suffer from. That said straight line stability in crosswinds was never as secure as a Mini and in the wet the Mini gave the average driver more confidence. Motoring enthusiasts may have enjoyed the Imp’s lively rear-engined handling, but, for the housewife on her way to the shops, accidentally spinning the car around during braking on a wet road wasn’t what the salesman had told her to expect! (This happened to the aunt of one of our writers, who bought a new Imp in the mid 60s and promptly changed it for a Wolseley Hornet, after it spun on a wet A6 near St Albans!)

Autocar’s 1971 verdict on the bog standard Imp was that “it’s on the whole an entertaining and easy little car to drive” although would you believe that back then the heater was still a £7.50 extra? Its rival weekly was fairly glowing of the Stiletto. “As a basic sports saloon the much cheaper Mini Cooper probably has the edge on driver appeal but, as a luxury coupe, the Stiletto is in a different league.”

The estates and vans were certainly more commodious and versatile as their BMC coun- terparts, even if the rear engine resulted in an unduly high load deck. But at least the standard tailgate was useful for longer loads.

Where the Mini scored heavily over the Imp was development on later cars. Even on the hot Sport models, Rootes/Chrysler stuck resolutely with all-round drums, sans servo, and the engine only breached 875cc on some rare rally Sports.

Like the Mini, most folks bought Imps as first cars. They were a cut above the average Anglia but, unlike the Ford, the Imp was hardly DIY friendly. The engine was awkward to work on plus the ohc shimmed tappets needed the same specialist attention bestowed on say an E-type.

Imps are finding friends with young folk, where that contained drive train allows a lot of scope for alien engines. And, while the specialist market isn’t anything like as large as the Mini, it’s vibrant and enthusiastic. Try telling an Imp owner he or she should have a Mini instead and you are likely to find that they are as Impish as their car.

Share This Article

Share with Facebook Share with Facebook

Share with Twitter Tweet this article

Share bookmark with Delicious Share bookmark with Delicious

Share with Digg Digg this article

Share with Email Share by email

User Comments

This review has 0 comments - Be the first!

Leave a comment

Keep it polite and on topic. Your email address will not be published. Please do not advertise products, all posts of this nature will be removed. We do not stock or supply any of these products, we independently review these products.

Subscribe Today
Latest Issue Cover - Click here to subscribe

Subscribe to Classic Motoring Magazine and save over 25%