Hillman Imp: Little Devil

Hillman Imp: Little Devil

The Hillman Imp – lovingly and appropriately nicknamed the Little Devil – is now more than 50 years old. We take a look at this quirky and innovative would-be Mini rival, flaws and all.

The Imp was a direct result of the 1956 Suez oil crisis, as car manufacturers scrambled to produce lighter, smaller cars that used less fuel.

As petrol rationing took hold, sales of smaller-engined cars quadrupled between 1956 and 1957 – so the engineers at Rootes focused their efforts on producing a car that could take advantage of the public’s new-found appetite for motoring frugality.

After some abortive early attempts – Lords Rootes hated the early Bubble-car look-a-like so much he refused to ride in it – the Hillman Imp was finally born in 1963.

1963 Hillman Imp
1963 Hillman Imp

With the engine at the rear (like a Porsche 911!) the Imp comfortably seated four adults and won early praise from motoring journalists for its engine, gearbox and handling.

A lively but, by modern standards, pedestrian 875cc engine was based on the Coventry Climax unit and, as such, proved easy to tune, providing the Imp with a successful motorsport career.

The car’s innovative opening rear screen gave some added practicality, but it’s stretching a point to call it a hatchback.

Hillman Imp with it's innovative opening rear screen
Hillman Imp with its innovative opening rear screen

However, problems soon began to surface and Rootes was never destined to sell the 150,000 cars a year they had hoped for.

By the time the car was launched the Mini held an unassailable position as the UK’s small car of choice, the fuel crisis was over, Britain was booming, and reliability issues reared their head.

Water pumps, automatic chokes and throttle problems caused headaches – with only slow improvements forthcoming thanks to poor industrial relations at the Linwood plant, near Glasgow – and one of the biggest problems of all was overheating.

I should know – my very first car was a bright orange Hillman Imp, bought for £300 way back in 1986.

An orange Imp not unlike my own
An orange Imp not unlike my own

Described without hyperbole as “not a bad old tub” by the salesman, my car was a 1972 basic model with whitewall tyres, a functional but comfortable enough interior – and an overheating problem.

It coped well enough on my 16-mile round trip to college and back, cruised happily at 60mph (and once at a juddery 80mph to impress my then girlfriend, if that was possible in an Imp), but suffered badly when the weather warmed up in queueing traffic.

The most memorable journey – at least by the swearword-to-mile ratio – was a tortuous trip to Yarmouth races on a blazing summer’s day.

All was well until a huge stream of traffic clogged up the dead-straight, single lane A47 a few miles out from the seaside town. Anyone who has been stuck in such a queue and sees their temperature gauge creeping ominously towards the red zone will know how I felt – impotent in the face of impending doom.

With no hard shoulder to retreat to, I had no choice but to sit and suffer and wait for the inevitable steam.

Eventually a layby provided some salvation and, after burning my hand opening the radiator (I was 17 and stupid), I managed to limp along at about 20mph the rest of the way, arriving late, hot, bothered and in no mood to bolster the bookies’ satchels.

It wasn’t too long before I sold the car and exchanged it for a mark 1 Ford Escort, which was a disaster story for another day (you could unlock it with any flat head screwdriver, for example).

In 1967 the Rootes Group was bought by US giant Chrysler, the UK company unable to ward off the acquisitive Chrysler partly because of poor Imp sales.

Many variants were made, including a van, coupe and estate versions – and the little car was badge engineered, as was the custom in the British car industry at the time, to include more luxurious Sunbeam and Singer versions.

The sporty Sunbeam Imp Californian
The sporty Sunbeam Imp Californian

But with Chrysler’s takeover, serious developments on the Imp ground to a halt, even though many of the Imp’s faults were starting to be ironed out.

Chrysler (UK) – as Rootes became known – were not keen on the rear engine layout and, although the Avenger was made at the same plant at Linwood, the Imp carried on in production without much development until 1976, with just over 440,000 having been sold – a far cry from the anticipated 150,000 a year.

The Sunbeam hatchback effectively replaced the Imp a year later, lasting four years and selling 200,000 – including the genuinely hot hatch Sunbeam Lotus.

Over the years, and another testament to the Imp’s lively engine, a range of low production cars and kit cars borrowed the little car’s engineering.

The Ginetta G15 took the Imp’s engine and rear suspension, the Davrian kit car took the 875cc and 998cc engines, while the fibreglass Clan Crusader used the Imp Sport’s running gear and aluminium alloy engine.

Ginetta G15
Ginetta G15

As for the Imp, there are now 823 (including all variants) still registered for road use, with a further 513 SORN, according to the howmanyleft website.

If you want to buy one, expect to pay from £200 for a restoration project up to £3,500+ for a Stiletto or Sport in A1 condition. A good, useable Imp may cost in the region of £1,000 to £1,500.

On the whole, the Imp is a great fun car with good fuel economy, low insurance costs and is easily tuned and modified – but you do need to take great care of that Coventry Climax engine.

Produced: 1963-76
Made: 440,032
Engine: 875cc, four-cylinders
Top speed: 80mph
0-60mph: 25.4sec
Economy: 40mpg

Club: The Imp Club

UK variants:
Hillman Husky
Commer Imp Van
Singer Chamois
Sunbeam Imp
Sunbeam Sport
Sunbeam Chamois
Sunbeam Stiletto
Sunbeam Californian

Get competitive classic car insurance for your Hillman Imp, or any classic car.

  • charles wardrop

    A delightful experience for 2yrs in the 60s.
    Our Tartan red Imp, GGD973D, was a lucky car!

  • lucath

    Mine needed a new clutch plate every couple of thousand miles! A new gear box after 12,000….

    • Billsson

      A friend of mine was a Hillman Imp user. He also clocked up big mileages; 800-1,000mils per week. He had to change the clutch plat every week or so. He had got the time down to 300 minutes per change. He never mentioned overheating problems.

  • Joseph B. Fox

    “Its”, not “it’s”.

    • Matt Ware

      Oops. Amended, thanks for spotting.

  • Foxall

    I loved my Imp but, like Adrian’s, mine kept overheating in traffic. I remember the desperate crawls towards laybays ahead, just out of reach. It finally had to go after a throttle failure in the middle of an overtaking manoeuvre bloody near killed me.
    If you’re thinking of buying an Imp, for the sake of your health and sanity, makes some mods!

    • Billsson

      If you are thinking of buying a Hillman Pimp go and take a rest n a quiet room.

  • Michael Lipson

    I too have happy Imp memories as a rep. although was pleased not to have to put my hand in my pocket for 2 water pumps and 3 rubber drive ‘doughnuts’ ! A bag of cement helped to keep the front end down at speed.
    1variant that you failed to mention was the Bond 875 which used the (I think detuned van engine gearbox unit) in a 3 whlr. weighing only just under 8cwt. It had even greater problems with front end lift and damn near killed me!

  • Kevin Barter

    My late father was a true imp enthusiast and a member of the Imp club. He started with the aformentioned Bond 875 as he only had a motorcycle licence at the time. It did come with the low compression engine as standard, although he switched it for a high compression lump pretty soon (and humiliated many a car driver going uphill as a result). He eventually had several imps, plus a couple of singer chamois coupes, a sunbeam imp sport with forest arches and a sunbeam stilletto. I dont recall him ever having any overheating problems which were mostly cured by the redesign of the block (don’t buy one with the early curved head gasket surface) and the throttle problems were mostly solved by a re-think of the pneumatic throttle. The most fun was the hillman husky estate, which had a very high roof in order to give it a decent load area over the engine, and as a result it looked like a hearse for “persons of restricted growth”. I dont recall that Sunbeams were ever called Chamois or Californian, Singer badged Imps were Chamois, both coupes and saloons, and the californian was the hillman badged coupe variant. As an aside, the Sunbeam Lotus was based on the Avenger chassis, not the Imp.

    • Squatter

      Yup, all correct.

  • enjoy driving

    My first car too – an orange 1973 Imp which I fitted out with tartan axminster carpet, a plastic front chin spoiler, high back seats. It seemed so right at the time. Obviously all the same stories on multi-stop overheating journeys, sticking throttle cable, short life radiators, water pumps, exhausts. I thank the Imp for giving me the confidence to dismantle a car and put it back together again. It was also brilliant fun to drive. I do remember a couple of incidents – one where I didn’t quite make a country lane corner and put it on its side. It was a lovely soft verge, and once I’d pushed it back over on to its wheels and folded out the mirror I found that there was no damage whatsoever. And then one night I completely lost it on a double bend single track road between tall banks near the Trough of Bowland, did some kind of full spin so that I was pointing in the opposite direction, but didn’t touch either bank as I went round. Not through skill. All this recollection has just made me go and pick a book off my shelves – Apex – the inside story of the Hillman Imp. I’ll be away a while reading that.

  • Billsson

    My dad had a Rootes Group agency and the Hillman Imp nearly broke his heart. The build quality was a load of c**p. It was referred to as the Hillman Pimp in the motor trade.

  • Hillman learned the lesson from the rushed-out Imp. The Hillman Avenger had sport-car handling, boring reliability and a lot more grunt from the 1500 / 1600 engines. But then I’m biased, I have one of those sat in my garage.

  • deepforest

    I had one for 1 day: It seized up after 3 hours – took it back to the seller and cancelled the cheque(you could do that then if you were quick). Great car otherwise……………………..

  • Gnu

    The first car I ever crashed! Ah, the memories……

  • Sir Hugh of Bognor

    I used to race them and ran a street altered at Santa-Pod SS 1/4 mile in 13.4sec at 128mph. Sold the engine to George Brown who went on to win the British Saloon car championship with it or a development of my 998 factory engine with twin 38DCOE Webbers etc. George went on to play with turbochargers and bought a couple from me (I used to own Turbo Engineering Ltd. situated opposite where he lived in St Mary Cray, Bromley, Kent. Those were the days!

    • Squatter

      Was that in the 60s?

      • Sir Hugh of Bognor

        Yes. Also built one of the first V6 Cortinas but Jeff Uren nicked the idea and sold it to FORD and got the nod to build and sell through the Ford dealership. Developed a Holly 4bbl conversion for the 3.0l V6 and a special sports came for use with Auto boxes. Also made alloy valve covers for the V6, Pinto engine and the OHC Vauxhall plus various other engines. Stuffed a 351 Cleveland V8 (Boss Mustang) up the front of a Mk1 Granada too that was in 1975. Developed turbocharging for Ford, Toyota and Suzuki in the early 80s in conjunction with Alan Allard – he now repairs or reconditions turbo units somewhere in Wales. I ended up teaching Electronics in Portsmouth. Now retired in Bognor Regis doing other interesting things.

  • Squatter

    Had a nearly new one for a couple of years.

    Standard apart from 5.5″ rims, a bit of front negative camber (positive ex factory) and a properly set up engine (we knew the guys at Alan Fraser Racing) it was 100% reliable.

    The poor thing was thrashed but always came up smiling.

    We managed a journey from Sussex to Norfolk in a time that I’ve never beaten even since the A12 was dualled and the M11/A11 likewise.

    A friend was an Imp development engineer and test driver (along with Mike Parkes). The stories were great but especially how quick the prototypes were and how well they handled. The Imp was de tuned for production as it was deemed too fast for the proles!

  • Kevin Barter

    Having had an opportunity to look at the imp club website, I found out that a lot of the export models were badged as sunbeams, which explains the picture of the bronze fastback above, which has all the trim of my fathers Singer Chamois, but with an obvious Sunbeam badge across the bonnet.

  • thomas green

    Bombed back and forwards between the south of england and Scotland for close on 8 years in a Singer Chamois ,only real problem was if you went above 80 mph the front would lift up and the steering went very loose.Pissed me off as I hated giving in when racing Mini`s. Saw one a few years ago and was amazed at just how small they actually were.

    • kwillshaw

      That was easy to fix, I just put a sand bag in the front luggage compartment, that also was useful for getting out of snow and icy conditions.

  • kwillshaw

    My first car was a 1969 Hillman Imp and it was a good un. I toured Europe in that liitle car driving along autobahns at a steady 70 with no overheating problems at all. As long as you kept the radiator clean they were fine but as it was down by the back wheel they did tend to clog up. The water pump did go but was cheap and easy to fix. The worst problem was that in very cold weather the windscreen washer jets would ice over as there was no heat from the front. That said it was a great car in the snow with all the weight over the driving wheels. I got over the Yorkshire moors one winter in conditions that were supposed to be only passable for a LandRover

  • Blackhole

    When I was a toddler, my dad bought a brand new Imp in British racing green. I would never start. I can’t remember it ever running or remember being in it (my dad had a Triumph 2000 too which I distinctly remember being a passenger in). My only lasting memory of the Imp was when the new owners took it away – they had to push it off the drive and winch it on to a trailer!

  • Lo Tech

    In the 60’s we had a secondhand cream coloured Imp at the time I was learning to drive (replacing a fantasticly mad A35). Then, winning a household product competition, my Mum won a new bright red Imp and I used it after passing my driving test. They must have been giving them away for desperate promo I should think. However, it lasted a good few years and had a lot of miles put on it (maybe dents too). I’ve lost count of the new water pumps it needed. Where are those Imps now, I wonder?