BMC’s Mini caused a sensation in 1959, and rival manufacturers were caught on the hop by the popularity of that innovative new small car. But they all wanted a piece of the action and the Rootes Group’s belated response was the Hillman Imp, which appeared in 1963.
It was a huge gamble. Rootes had little experience of small-car production and the Imp (codenamed ‘Apex’) required a new factory, as further development at the company’s Ryton base was impossible. The chosen site (after government arm-twisting and provision of generous grants) was Linwood near Glasgow. This necessitated a long round-trip for Linwood parts finished at Ryton, and involved a militant Scottish workforce prone to striking first and talking later. An added difficulty was the fact that the Imp’s aluminum engine was another leap into the unknown.
All that considered, the Imp turned out to be an interesting and popular car. There were teething troubles after the daring design was rushed into production, but despite that the distinctive Imp was well received, being cheap to buy and economical to run. A lightweight engine was mounted behind the rear wheels and this required sophisticated rear suspension to counteract an inevitable tendency to oversteer.
The original Imp was a two-door saloon with a rear hatch. A coupe version was added in 1965. That year also saw the introduction of a van and estate car (effectively a van with windows), though these were discontinued in 1970. The Imp got a major revamp in 1966 to iron out early mechanical problems and Rootes continued to improve this attractive little car throughout its life. Around 440,000 were built, and they’re as much fun to drive today as they were then. But ultimately the Rootes gamble failed —the expensive Linwood venture eventually ruined the company.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN:
1963 (until 1976)
874 cc Straight Four
Top speed of 80 mph (129 km/h); 0-50 mph (80 km/h) in 14.7 secs
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
Rootes produced some special Imp derivatives like the Imp Californian, and nifty badge engineering transformed the Basic Imp into desirable alternatives like the Singer Chamois, the Sunbeam Stiletto and Sunbeam Sport with its tuned twin-carb engine.