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Launched the same time as the Cortina Mk2, the Hunter was even better. If only Rootes had the money to develop it further…
Humber’s Sceptre was a BMW of its day, the GLS a Lotus Cortina!
Anybody walking around the 1966 London Motor Show couldn’t have helped notice the similarity between Ford’s recently introduced Mk2 Cortina and the new Arrow range from Rootes. Was it simplya happy coincidence or more than that? We never found out the answer. However, whileFord and the Cortina went on to greater things, the line-up from the great Hillman, Humber, Singer and Sunbeam Coventry conglomerate never got out of second gear. These cars had to soldier on more or less untouched for two decades in a fast-changing motoring world that left the car way behind. That’s sad because, arguably, the Arrow designwas a better car than the Cortina. It was smarter looking, had a greater aura of quality – especially the upmarket Singer and Humber offshoots – and offered superior refi nement and comfort for the same money. However, families and fl eets fl ocked to Ford instead. The problem wasn’t the car, but the company. After launching the sadly unsuccessful Mini rival, the Imp, Rootes was skint by 1964 and it was only American Chrysler’s acquisition that saved the day. So, while the Minx and Hunter were essentially good designs, well packaged if utterly old hat, there was never the money available to keep them abreast with direct rivals from BL, Ford and Vauxhall let alone the Japanese. By the time of the Hunter’s demise in 1979 (the Minx badge was killed off in October 1970), Ford had already launched the Mk5 Cortina andwas busy fi nalising the Escort and Sierra. Worse still, Chrysler downgraded the cars during the 1970s; aluminium cylinder heads were changed to cast iron and alternators were ditched for dynamos on some models. What was a class leader when launched slunk to become a relic like the Morris Marina, but far less popular; just over half a million were made. The mooted successor, the fl imsy, rust-prone French-made Chrysler (nee Simca) Alpine, was a fl op and, if you wanted something traditional, you probably went for the Avenger instead. Yet the old stager refused to die and even when it was fi nally pensioned off in 1979, the Hunter design found a new fan base in Iran, with production there lasting until the mid 1980s!
For many, as a used contemporary buy, the Arrow range scored a bulls-eye. More exclusive and upmarket than the Ford, the Hunter also befi tted from options such as overdrive – a rare add-on in this price sector. And, in 1725cc guise (standard in the Hunter, optional in the Minx), performancewas considered excellent its day, almost up to Cortina GT levels in fact, but without the usual GT insurance hassles. People rave about the 1600E Cortina, but what about the top dart, the Humber Sceptre? With its Sunbeam Rapier twin-carb engine, overdrive, and as much wood andleather as a MK2 Jaguar (plus a swanky estate version for 1975) it remains a grossly underrated executive car and a BMW of its day. Perhaps the most appealing variants were the Singer and the lesser-seen Sunbeam spinoffs. They cost no more to buy and run than a normal Minx or Hunter, but the Gazelle and Vogue respectively boasted Humber-style luxury. “Rootes cars are boring, old fashioned and slow” said Ronnie Corbett in a self-mocking advert in the late 60s, as the company’s hottest cars scorched down a race track. There again, a hotted Hillman Hunter had just won the toughest of rallies a year earlier, the 1968 London-Sydney Marathon (even if by default from BL), so whynot advertise the fact? So, rather late in the day, the Hunter was given a sporting image that it probably could have done without. First came the boy racer GT in ‘69; a Rapier-engined Minx with high backed seats and jazzy stick-on side stripes. Then, three years later, Chrysler (the Rootes name had gone by then) stuck the hot, race-bred Holbay unit fi rst seen in the Rapier H120 (and that rally winning Hunter) to make the GLS. Both were worthy cars that came too late to the party, especially the GLS. With its hairy camshaft and lairy DCOE Webers, plus a trim level mid way between Hunter and Sceptre, it was in many ways the spiritual successor to the Mk2 Lotus Cortina but was faster, more refi ned and practical (I should know I had one until I blew the engine up!-ed). Alas, by 1972, go-faster fans had moved on to the hot Escort Mexicos and RS1600s. Or even 2.3 Vauxhall Firenzas. In reality, the Hunter was best as solid, stolid family transport. As long as you didn’t mind the aging handling and ride, or the excessive wind noise from the dated body, it did all the household duties faithfully and without fuss. Testing the Singer Vogue estate in 1968 (costing £982 11s, 11d), Motor simply summed this well-equipped, civilised, practical workhorse as, “An outstandingly good car”. Chrysler gave up and gave way to Talbot, and then Peugeot, which now makes the 407; a large, roomy, stylish family saloon and estate that’s a bit more exclusive than your average Ford. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
When The Car Was The Star
One of the most charming fi lm appearances of any ‘Arrow’ is the CID Hillman Hunter in the brilliant black comedy Theatre of Blood but compared with the Mk2 Cortina, the Rootesmobile has often been limited to driveons, such the ‘New Minx’ police car sent to investigate Bryan Mosley’s sudden exit from a car park in Get Carter or the blue Hunter saloon in the long-forgotten Oliver Reed crime drama Sitting Target. An unmarked Hunter Estate does plays a major role in Thou Shalt Not Kill, one of the fi nest Sweeney episodes however.
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