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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Engine: 875cc, four-cylinders
Top speed: 80mph
Club: The Imp Club
Commer Imp Van
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