The cars we loved.
The recovery of Britain’s post-war auto industry was in full swing by the end of the 1950s. While sports cars were popular, what most people needed were small efficient and easy to own cars. Out of this ideal came the Hillman Imp. Aptly named for the little demon that it was or could be, the Imp was a charming and practical two door coupe and sometimes panel van under other names. A trick opening rear window was an unexpected design feature, giving the Imp some hatchback functionality, while resembling a Ford Escort Mexico. It was conceived as an inexpensive urban runabout or second car for the crowded streets of England.
As it turns out many discovered that small cars could be fun to drive. While the Imp’s primary competitor, the Mini was adventurous right out of the box, the Imp became a tuner favorite because of its sophisticated rear engine layout and suspension. Unlike with say the Pontiac Fiero, an economy car that became sporty, the Imp under Hillman was always marketed as basic transportation, if not high quality basic transportation. You would think that a small car named after a little demon or a fairy would be promoted on some level as a performance car. Ads were often depicting the car in domestic situations with young couples in a state of blissful pre-mischief. In time the marketing folks would catch up to the Imps sporting abilities answering the question: What happens when a demon meets a fairy?
Although not even a liter large (875 cc), the all-aluminum straight-four with its overhead cam was a joy to use when it felt like starting. Mounted just behind the rear wheels, the engine was slanted to lower the cars center of gravity. It was attached to a four speed manual transmission to make most of its 39 to 58 hp (depending on model). Unlike other rear engine cars of the day like the Chevrolet Corvair, the engineers at Hillman made an effort not to repeat the over steer tendencies of GM’s little pioneer.
A rather rare (for small cars) semi-trailing arm independent suspension was in the rear with a swing axle variation with lowered pivot points holding up the front. Under steer was greatly reduced, making that was supposed to be a rear wheel drive commuter car more fun than Hillman had bargained for. Although the young design and development team might have had some ulterior motive to create a closet performance machine, the Imp became known as a fun and practical car. As Britons watched the Corvair sink in America due to initial problems, the Imp continued carrying the banner of rear engine cars with strong sales.
Despite being planned as a basic small car, it also became a favorite for tuners and weekend racers. Although a mixed bag, the high quality engineering was partly the reason the Imp became a hit on two fronts. So successful was the Imp in racing, that it won the British Saloon Car Championship three years in a row. As the years passed, the Roots Group would market versions of the Imp for its other divisions. Quality would suffer as fit and finish issues would abound. Some of the variants went under names Singer Chamois, a “high end” variant and Sunbeam Stiletto (a sporty coupe). Hillman would offer their own version of a performance Imp as the Sport.
As usual for English cars, the government could be blamed for the some of the Imps problems. Quality issues centered around production at the Linwood Scotland plant. Due to anxious government backing, Hillman was forced to speed up the development and production cycle, at the expense of quality control procedures. Imps were also built and sold in Australia (with less trouble), but the company’s lack of experience with modern small cars would catch up to it on both continents.
By the mid-1970s the Imp had become the cheapest new car you could buy in England. Unfortunately, that was its strongest marketing point as it became in many ways the entry-level disposable car like the Yugo GV and Hyundai Excel would be in the 80s. A wave of dependable low-cost Japanese imports would start the writing on the wall as it were for the Imp. In the end it would be poor quality that killed the car off. Chrysler’s partnership and later purchase of the Roots Group helped seal the deal.