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Hillman Imp

Published: 1st Jun 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Hillman Imp
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Fancy owning a motorsport legend for road and track use? Paul Davies looks at true classics that made their name on stages and circuits, and still provide a fine drive today

If only… it had appeared a couple of years earlier, had not had niggling little faults, the engine had been larger, the Scottish factory had not been beset by industrial disputes for the most part of a decade. If only all those, the Hillman Imp would have been as great a car as the Mini. The day it appeared in 1963 motorsport fans warmed to it. A rear engine ensured maximum traction (like a Porsche 911), handling was nimble (unlike a Porsche 911!), and it was very, very, tuneable. Based on the industrial Coventry Climax unit (also used by Lotus!), its all alloy, single overhead camshaft, powerplant was smooth, and sweet, and almost unburstable. In Hillman, Sunbeam, Singer and various Sport variants, the Imp had at least as much potential for the weekend racer as the Mini. Only BMC got there first, had the novelty of front wheel drive, and an engine that could be enlarged to 1300cc as easy as pie. The tuners soon got their hands on the 875cc Imp, wringing more power and tweaking the suspension to dampen down the swing axles. Rosemary Smith, ‘Tiny’ Lewis and Peter Harper drove factory-entered cars on International events, and Jenny Nadin, Colin Malkin and Andy Dawson competed in club events. Class wins were plentiful, and some great ‘giant killing’ outright victories not unknown. Early on the Rootes competitions department recognised the need for extra power, and produced the limited production 998cc Rally Imp. They also knew the car could be a race winner, and gave Alan Fraser the job running a team: Bernard Unett and Nick Brittan taking honours through 1966-67. Rally nirvana was Rosemary Smith outright win on the ’65 Tulip Rally, Malkin won the highly competitive Motoring News championship in 1968, and Harper took the car to ITV World of Sport rallycross fame the following year. Alas at about the same time, the MK1 Ford Escort was just getting into its stride… The Imp had a second string of successes: Bill McGovern driving George Bevan prepared cars to three British Touring Car Championship titles in 1970, ’71 and ’72 by virtue of class wins. But by then the manufacturing plant at Linwood, near Glasgow, was in deep trouble, the new Chrysler owners were not interested in motorsport, and the Imp lurched into history in 1976. Anyone who ever drove one in anger will get steamy-eyed about the little devil. Forget the ‘sealed for life’ front suspension that stiffened up to almost solid, the countless water pump failures, or the pneumatic throttle that never worked properly. It was a great car, and with all those problems sorted - as they were pretty early in life - plus a 1040cc engine based on a later Talbot Sunbeam block, it still is.

Hillman Imp Summary


All models: 440,000


Engine: Rear mounted, inclined, all-alloy, four-cylinder, with single overhead camshaft. Rear mounted radiator. Power: Imp (875cc) 39bhp; Sport (875cc, 2 x Stromberg carbs) 51bhp; Rally Imp (998cc) 68bhp.
Gearbox: Four speed transaxle in front of engine.
Suspension: Independent all round, swing axles, coil springs and tubular shock absorbers.
Brakes: Drums front and rear (unassisted).

Claim to fame

Numerous class wins in rallies and races Tuilp Rally: 1st 1965 (Smith) British Saloon Car Championship: 1966-67 (Unett/Brittan) Motoring News Championship: 1st 1968 (Malkin) World of Sport Rallycross: 1969 (Harper) British Touring Car Championship: 1970, ’71, ’72 (McGovern)

Where to buy

Classified ads in specialist press - or jalopy corner in local rags. Imp Club web site.

What to look for

Rust in just about everywhere! Stiff steering (king pins need replacing), gearbox whines and trans-axle failure, brake wear (drums only as standard but discs can be grafted on), engine corrosion from incorrect (or no) anti-freeze in alloy unit, which uses good old fashioned chain drive.Water pump failure (common). Throttle been modified to cable, plus
manual choke on the more reliable Mk2 versions.

What to pay

£200 will buy a project, £500 a reasonable runner, through to £2000 for a restored car, and £2500 for a decent Imp Sport.Watch out also for plusher. sportier spin offs such as the Californian fastback (the rear hatch window is fixed on this car by the way), the upper crust Singer Chamois and the flagship Sunbeam Stiletto, the latter which married the Californian body (plus vinyl roof and quad headlamps) to Sport power.


The Imp Club;

Classic sport

Still a regular class winner at club level in historic rallying and racing. Standard cars great for Production Car Trials due to rear-engined layout.

Maintenance, tuning and sport

Basic 875cc cars benefit from Sport twin carbs, cam and exhaust. 998cc conversion needs new block (B1 best) and liners. Sunbeam Talbot engine was rated at just under 940cc but when uprated to 1040cc engine with twin Webers can yield as much as 120bhp. Tuning parts are still available from several sources - or try autojumbles.

Competitive Rating: 8

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