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Rally Imp : The second 12,000 miles

Twelve months of varied motoring in a far-from-new Rally Imp reveal excellent efficiency and a lively performance with a hint of the competitive spirit. The 998 c.c. o.h.c. engine revs freely, and the normal suspension and steering, supplemented by power-assisted braking, are well suited to British conditions. Reliability has proved better than expected though more expensive trouble could be looming.

    photos and text supplied by Tim Haynes 09 Sep 1997
Rally Imp dashboard
  Rally Imp dashboard
  Rally Imp roadtest
  Rallye Imp
  expendibles table

THERE I was just lounging by the fire one Saturday evening, half reading the paper and half watching N, when on came a film about a cut-price Bond character named McGill. "Man in a Suitcase" it was called. You could see he was a smart guy - the story began with him zooming through the Hyde Park Corner underpass in a Hillman Super Imp and it was clearly the fastest thing on the road. I too had just bought one (an Imp, not an underpass); mine was an ex-Rootes press/ demonstration Rally lmp with the 65 bhp 998 c.c. engine conversion and power brakes, twin spotlights, circular instruments, and orchid green in colour. But there was something familiar about that man McGill's car. What was it? Then, suddenly, I knew---blow me if the number wasn't that of my own new little pet sitting, or so I thought, all snug in the garage. Anyway, I shot out to make sure that by some fantastic trickery it hadn't been spirited away during tea.

I hardly saw McGill again. I couldn't bear to watch him roughing up my little Imp. Heartless friends let slip the occasional disquieting snippet such as ". . . you should have seen it this week. . . bouncing hell-for-leather over boulderstrewn roads...", or "... hurtling round corners, guns blazing and bullets bouncing off the roof..." and ". . . soaking wet bodies being dragged out of the river and bundled onto the back seat". All good stuff for the mums and dad; on Saturday night--but what about my car?

Needless to say, Rootes did a fabulous job of restoration, and you couldn't even smell! the cordite or detect a trace of damp under the seats. She was made in September 1965 and it was just before last Christmas that I took possession. The odometer said 11,500 miles (the car may have done more, nobody knows), and the affair with a producer at Pinewood Studios, which led to the roll-on part, lasted nearly a year. I had lived through the troublesome adolescence of one of her sisters and had grown fond of the many excellent features of the design, and knew how to cope with the foibles. So the idea of a slightly more racy version with fancy trim and wide-eyed instruments was quite irresistible. I had felt sure it would be love at first sight the moment the Editor told me she was on the market.

For the first few months we just pottered around town. Going to work in SE1 from my flat off Gloucester Road, down to Gatwick Airport to fly aeroplanes, up to the printers in St Albans, and so on around London. Then in mid-February, I seized the chance to try her out on a good long run over interesting open roads. A chum of mine wanted to go skiing and also attend a friend's wedding in Paris and it seemed a good idea to take a car to carry the diversity of kit. I too am a bit of an incompetent fanatic about skiing and had already been to Verbier in Switzerland for a couple of long weekends last winter - once by Fiat Dino with Geoffrey Howard (Autocar, February 15, 1968) and once by Triumph Herald after a flight into Geneva with former circuit-dicer John Coundley, who nowadays gets around in a Piper Comanche light aircraft.

The earlier trips are mentioned because of the one big lesson that had been learned - that it is madness to try to drive into a ski resort without snow tyres, studs or chains. Verbier, for instance, is at the top of a four-mile zig-zag climb 3,OOOft up the mountain, and though the road is kept open almost continually by traffic and ploughs, snow can fall heavily enough that all grip is lost to an ordinary road tyre. When the risk is occasional and confined to a fairly short section of road to be negotiated, it seems to me that chains are preferable despite the fag of having to put them on (best done with the wheel off) for the sake of normal running on clear roads. Chains also give 'the best grip of all once you are on the snow. However, a long drive over perpetually snowy roads is another matter and studs or snow tyres would be preferable. And so, before setting out in the Imp I went to my local garage in London for some chains. They did not have any, and so I tried Rootes at Ladbroke Hall -again no luck- but a recommendation to try Parson's London warehouse. Even they were fresh out of stock in my size but helpfully arranged to have some put on the train from the factory in Worcester. It seems incredible that so few people buy chains that they are virtually unobtainable in central London in winter. No wonder there is chaos when it snows and freezes.

At last the day dawned for my first long drive in the Rally Imp. there is nothing quite like having skis on the roof to make one feel really one up and conspicuous in London - like Noah must have felt when he was building the Ark with not a cloud in sight. Dover-bound for the morning Townsend to Calais, we threaded through the maze of South East London suburbs as they woke to a cold grey dawn. Out on the A2 /M2 we jogged along at an easy 50-60 mph on empty roads-there was plenty of time also for two brief stops --- one to stuff a couple of ten-pound notes inside the door trim for emergencies and another to fill up the 6.25 gallon tank (IMPerial gallons of course) and a couple of two gallon cans to see us through most of France where, like everything else in that over-priced country, petrol is too damned expensive.

Half of the fun of the Rally Imp is
that there are no external features to
distinguish it from an ordinary Super Imp
-- except for one small '998' badge
on the bonnet (alias boot) lid.

At last we were on the Continent, and for the first time I was able to discover without breaking the law just how well the Imp would go. First of all it accelerates --- Very quickly indeed considering the engine is only 1,000 c.c. and set for reasonable docility, long life, economy and an easy cruising gait. The gear ratios suit me fine - a maximum of around 25 mph in 1st gives one a fabulous squirty start that takes almost anything by complete surprise on the drag from the lights. Second and third are a handy pair for worming one's way through a typical British 50 mph convoy, while the 70 mph maximum in third is still reached sufficiently rapidly to give confidence when over tacking faster traffic on the open road. The gear change and clutch action have been delightful and faultless throughout. Above all she is a willing little thing and the sound when accelerating hard does one's morale a power of good -as the revs approach the red sector starting at 6,500 rpm the taut, free-revving little overhead cam engine and integral gearbox give out a delightfully racy howl for just a couple of seconds before one snicks up into the next gear. My Walter Mitty instinct persuades me the sound is not altogether unlike that of the old vee-16 BRM as it approached full chat-the difference being that you hear mine only for a split second but the BRM carried all the way from Goodwood into the cloistered calm of Chichester-and it was continuous. Nevertheless, both are the song of precision machinery at work, and they sound delightful.

The acceleration was a great help in getting past the inevitable convoy of one's country folk to be found on leaving any of the Channel ports on the "other side" /for at least ten miles it seems that GB cars outnumber the locals whenever a boat has just arrived or is about to leave). It is a twisty and bumpy road through St Omer and Lens before one gets to the autoroute for Paris and it takes a lot longer than you would expect for the 60 miles or so.

On the motorway we rapidly settled down to cruise at a true 80 mph at 5,000 rpm on the level with the right foot still an inch or so from the floor. Typical motorway gradients would knock 5-10 mph off this and downhill I would :ease off to maintain the revs and speed. She literally cruised like that all the way-and has done so ever since, on many thousand subsequent motorway miles. In France that day I noticed for the first time a tendency to hesitate during prolonged high speed cruising and this recurred under similar circumstances (also during :he speed checks on the MIRE banking last week, as described later). I thought at first it was due to the inlet manifold icing because it was damp and nearly freezing that day in France, but others have suggested fuel vaporisation; the inlet manifold is water-heated on this modified engine. During prolonged cruising the water temperature rises to 85 deg. C (about 80 deg. C is normal in suburban stop-start driving) and the oil) pressure hardly goes off 60 psi (there is an oil cooler) except at idling, when it drops to about 40 psi. Neither of these seems the slightest affected whether it's mid-winter or high summer.

Motorway cruising is one thing that all Imps do very well and this one is no exception. With just a brief period of boom from the back at about 60 mph the car seems to get quieter the faster it goes. The ride is reasonably soft on motorways and main roads and the only irritations are directional instability in a cross wind, and in rain the wipers lift off the screen whenever the car is doing more than 50-60 mph. I have always found the seats acceptably comfortable but the distant top anchorage for the shoulder harness leads to straps lying in an untidy heap and difficult to sort out and put on without reopening the door.

The most enjoyable part of the drive to Switzerland was going through the Jura after Dijon; we left the most direct route and travelled through Dole, Lons-le-Saunier. It was a beautifully sunny day, the roads were almost deserted and the snow-capped Alps were: now' distantly visible. Once into the swing of things the Imp will motor round the bends very nicely. To get in balance you must be fairly courageous and accelerate-if you try to coast round, she tends to feel all back heavy and clumsy. But handled right she responds well. If you do have to pile on the anchors the reaction is great -thanks to Girling servo-assistance to the four drums. Extra hard competition linings are fitted and, the first time they got hot, I thought they were down to the rivets-they invariably sound like that when warm and at low speeds a terrible squealing breaks out --- especially when the shoes need taking up.

We needed to make just one small fill-up in France. The average consumption on the hard drive from Calais had been 35 mpg. In fact, that is a typical figure for any longish journey using the performance more or less to the full as opportunity presents. I have only once done a consumption check at a lower speed when 40 miles were covered per gallon. Overall during nearly a year's motoring, mostly in and around London, the consumption has averaged 32 mpg.

We entered Switzerland at La Cure in a queue of Sunday afternooners out from Geneva, and then made a rapid decent between ski slopes, pinewood, and finally the green fields on the edge of Geneva-lausanne motorway beside the shores of the lake. At a small airfield at Bex, near Montreux at the east end of lake Geneva, the Imp's capacity got its biggest test when we met a couple of chums who had flown out from Britain in a light aeroplane and we had offered to take them up the mountain to Verbier. Somehow we made it. Four burly blokes, kit for a week including ski boots, a couple of rolled up sleeping bags and two pairs of skis on the roof, we staggered towards the mountain with the wheels sunk deep into the arches. The Imp has an amazing capacity for luggage, even when four up, while the folddown rear seat and opening rear window makes it nearly as good as an estate car when it comes to moving furniture and the like. As an example, I have even managed to get a Hoovermatic washing machine through the nearside door with the front passenger seat removed for loading and unloading. (I can't understand why BMC has never put a full-depth opening door and fold-down rear seats on the ordinary Mini.) With all that load aboard she stormed up the hill to Verbier in magnificent style and never showed the slightest hesitation. The good breathing of the twin carburettors obviously paid off at high altitude.

All year I have been half expecting major trouble, but, touch wood, it hasn't happened yet. I did replace a water pump at 20,000 miles because it was beginning to squeak badly and I knew from experience that failure wouldn't be long a-coming, and it happened to be a convenient weekend for me to do the work at the same time as changing the oils and filters. I have used Castrol balanced multigrade and latterly GTX in the engine (consumption is reasonable at 400 miles per pint). (Incidentally, the Castrol polythene dispenser with a clear plastic spout is another good reason for using Castrol - it is the best gadget I've come across for getting oil into those awkward side fillers on gearboxes and the like.) Apart from plug cleans and contact-point setting, kingpin greasing, fan-belt tensioning and tops-up of oil, air and water, and an occasional wash and Simoniz wax, the car has had nothing done to it. I have only had to get my hands dirty twice while en route-both times to tie the throttle open with my bootlace because the cable had broken from the foot pedal. I have needed to buy two new tyres (Dunlop SP68s). As the previous mileage is not certain the tyre-life estimates given in the table are based on an extrapolation of 5,000-miles' experience.

Last week, before getting down to writing the car's biography I took her to MIRA with Michael Scarlett, who took her round the banking for a maximum speed check and I did the acceleration runs. The results are tabulated. Looking back at what ordinary Imps have done and at how well some really hotted up ones have gone, I was a little disappointed to find mine was nearer the performance of an ordinary Super Imp than, say, a Hartwell Group 4 Imp. Nor is it as fast as a Mini Cooper S (which, after all is 1,275c.c. but I have had two interestingly close dices with that little beast, and mine acquitted herself well. But, to give her some benefit of the doubt, it must be said that she has done at least 24,000 hard miles-most of it stop and start from cold, has had very little maintenance during the last year (pressure of work prevents it and I can't afford to get garages do it). She was also fairly well loaded and, on reflection, I think it was a bad thing to have had only 97 octane fuel in the tank. She runs all right on this, and I generally use it, but 100 octane might have been better. Nevertheless, a maximum excess of 85 mph (with a hesitant engine), a 0-60 in 18.8 seconds and a fuel consumption in the region 32-35 mpg, isn't bad for 1,000 c.c. after 24,000 miles. It is a truly useful) little car -any day of the week.

Harrison, N.
Rally Imp: the second 12,000 miles / by Neil Harrison. - Autocar 1968, November 28. - p. 24-27
Long term assessment of the Hillman Rallye Imp.


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