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Always too good to last

Graham Robson traces the charmed life of the Imp - the car everyone raved about but which has never sold in really large numbers. - Motor 1974, March 9. - p. 14-15

Question: when is a failure not a failure ?
Answer: when it is the Hillman Imp !
This is the only way I can sum up the strange life of Chrysler's small car. Even after 11 years it's development and difficulties remain an enigma. Production has been so low at times that any logical planner would have closed the project down if he could, yet it struggles on at rates not much more than 10 percent of the Mini lines. According to some accountants it must be making modest profits for Chrysler by now, but according to others it never has. Why on earth does it survive ?

Every portent for the project was ominous. It was the only British rear engined production car for 30 years and one of the last to be designed in the world. It was to be built in a brand-new Scottish factory where car-making expertise was nil and was a new concept for Rootes dealers to sell. It was started late - three years after the Mini - and tackled a hard field, already well patrolled by Ford Standard-Triumph and -soon- Vauxhall. Worst of all, it was a project that simply evolved or 'grew like Topsy'.

Why was it produced at all ? To answer, one must look at Rootes in the 1950s. The product line included literally dozens of similar-looking, similar performing medium-sized cars -Hillmans, Singers and Sunbeams- along with a few of Lord Rootes' favourites, the big Humbers. Rootes had not a single car under 1400 cc to sell, though a mass of British sales was in the l-litre bracket. Gradually, without much impetus, a small-car project took shape. Towards maturity its guiding light was Technical Director Peter Ware, but its original inspiration came from Mike Parkes and Tim Fry. The first prototypes of the mid-l950s copied Goggomobile by having tubby lines and a twin-cylinder air-cooled engine (by Villiers) in the tail; the body was virtually unstyled and could not accommodate four grown-up people. It looked dull and the Rootes family were in no hurry to approve it, mainly because Lord Rootes hated the sight of it but secondly because his company, as ever, was strapped for cash to commit to new tooling. A measure of this was the way in which high-volume Minxes and Gazelles were built; not only were bodies built at Pressed Steel (Cowley) but painted, trimmed and wired into the bargain. In the words of one ex-Rootes engineer: "It was almost a saleable kit-car. All we did was to fit the power train and suspension and drive it off to the dealers !"

Nevertheless by the end of the 1950s, Rootes was ready to expand. There were acres of ground south-east of the Ryton plant on which it was refused permission for development. Instead pressure to go to a development area produced a decision to establish a new factory at Linwood, near Glasgow, right across the road from Pressed Steel's new pressings plant. There was no cash to spare so advantage was taken of a large Government loan (in honour of the development area) which would have to be serviced by large interest payments for at least a generation.

By then the prototypes -nicknamed "Little Jim"- had progressed from pipe-dream to major project, and with the reluctant agreement (one would not call it enthusiasm) of the family, it was transformed from mobile rollerskate to a real car. The obvious competition came from Ford's Anglia, Triumph's Herald and of course Alec Issigonis' brilliant Mini. There was no small Vauxhall, but it is interesting to note that a similarly timed Luton decision evenvually produced a depressingly-conventional little saloon, the Viva. The Anglia sold well from the start, but the Herald and Mini both suffered badly from teething troubles. The Minis muddled through well and floated away on top of a cheeky reputation for handiing, performance and tiny size. While the Herald would have perished if Leyland had not taken over and injected hard work and drastic specification improvements.

There was time for Rootes to read the omens: that conventional engineermg was the safest way to start a new project. But years of ribbing from the press and public had provoked the industry into technological fever; Rootes were not to be denied their masterpiece and pressed on with the new "Apex" project. The car first of all grew up, shedding its dreadful twin cylinder engine, followed by the dumpy styling. Even at that stage Peter Ware was not wholly happy with a rear engine, but this layout was now 'holy writ' to the design. The most elegant solution was to use a small, light engine -finally a fairly close copy of the 642 cc Coventry Climax FWMA. It was to have pressure die castings in great profusion, to be made by new labour at Linwood.

The Imp engineering team was at Ryton entirely divorced from the main engineering office at Stoke, and there was little cross-fertilisation of ideas. This, ultimately, was a tragic mistake. It was reasoned that a new design concept for a new factory should keep separate. Unhappily new ideas like the pneumatic throttle, automatic choke and marginal cooling were never fully developed, and the car was committed for tooling months too early. Even the body styling was altered after tooling commenced. Lord Rootes demanded that it be widened and increased in wheelbase - which made the Pressed Steel-designed shell heavier than ever.

Tooling was ready in November 1962 and the first cars in January 1963, but by then Rootes engineers were desperate for much more development. Ware pleaded for time to do endurance running on production cars, even to delay the launch for some weeks, but this was not granted. The Duke of Edinburgh was due to declare Linwood open simultaneously with the release of the car in May 1963, and deliveries would begin at once. A delay was obviously impossible, and Rootes were not willing to open a factory without releasing the car. The tragedy, it seemed, had to be acted out.

The dealer problem itself was acute. Unlike Austin, Morris, Ford or Standard dealers, Rootes garages had never had a small-car tradition, and were completely new to the idea of selling cheap little cars to marginal motorists. As one respected ex-Rootes executive puts it: "They were a rather stuffy lot, actually, especially the Singer dealers, and they were appalled at having to sell an advanced, tricky-to-maintain little car." The stodgy middle-class tradition which embraced stately Humbers and not-very-sporting Sunbeams would take a lot of wearing down.

Right from the start teething troubles were rife, but it was some bright-spark who suggested that Linwood could produce 3000 cars a week who caused much trouble. This figure has been quoted ever since as the pinnacle the Imp never scaled, whereas the truth was that die-casting limitations would always have kept a realistic figure down to 1500 a week. From a new factory building nothing else this was ridiculously low, but with only a single shift planned it could not be improved. Even today with the easy-to-build Hunters coming from Linwood too, total single shift production rarely exceeds 2000 cars a week. Imps never could be, and never were build in Mini quantities.

The troubles themselves -defective water pumps and automatic chokes, overheating, water leaks, throttle problems and lack of performance- are well documented. With more development of the final design, they would have been found in time, but with tooling changes to be made and a line to be kept moving, it took up to three years to shake the whole thing down properly. By the time this happened, the public had given it a bad name. Dealers were despondent, repeat orders were hard to find and the sometimes desperate labour problems at Linwood made the whole thing miserable.

The cash that had always flowed out of Linwood, now poured out in torrents, and it was the main reason for Rootes falling into Chrysler's hands. Since then (first capital injection in 1964, takeover in 1967) the Imp project has stumbled on, often without visible direction. The first policy decision to be reversed was that over variants.
Rootes originally were to make only Hillman Imps, but later the coupés, vans, estate cars and "badge-engineering specials" followed. There was a pretty estate that would have cost too much to tool, and a beatiful impractical sports car which didn't make it. Sales stayed stubbornly low.
The interior was face-lifted in 1968 - the main change being to omit those usefull finger-tip twitches and restyling the instruments - but that didn't help. There was the Rallye Imp - a fine little car, built in penny numbers at a high price, and several half-hearted attempts at making a production 1000cc engine. There were three outright wins in the British Saloon Car racing championships which were never promoted with much vigour. There were constant press reports suggesting the car was better value for money than the Mini, and a better car in the bargain. There was the fact that guarantee costs were now low, as low as other Chrysler cars. All this did nothing for sales.

Why did it continue ? Because the Imp has led a charmed life. It was necessary until the Avenger arrived. The Avenger is now too expensive to replace it, so it carries on. It might have been replaced by imported Simca 1000 sales in Britain, but the public didn't like the Simca 1000. A new front-wheel drive Imp could have been developed (it was schemed several times), but capital for tooling was not forthcoming. It would be withdrawn when legal requirements became impossible to meet; they haven't yet. It would be withdrawn when exhaust emission regulations proved expensive: the engine has been easy to update.

In fact the Imp has been an orphan for years. Unloved by all who had the power to kill or to revive it, the Imp is a vastly underrated car. It was produced in quantities just enough to pay the overheads and to keep the dealers happy with a low-price showroom filler. With capital provided to increase production the Imp could still have been a winner. When time, tooling wear and legislation eventually kills it, the gorgeous little engine and transaxle will probably die as well. The Rootes range will then be back to the dozens of similar medium-sized cars from which they expanded in the 1950s.

A last word from another ex-Rootes manager: "We needed a Minx replacement at the time, but got the Imp. That was wrong. But if we had had BMC dealers, the car would have been an all-time winner by now ! The car was basically right, but the system was wrong. What a tragedy !"

 


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Graham Robson (1936 - ....) is one of the leading writers for the car industry in the 80's. He is one of the most successful motoring writers, the author of several definitive books on rallying and rally cars. He wrote several interesting books on British cars, classic car enceclopedias for Europe's publishers.
He takes his writing seriously, doing meticulous research tirelessly. He owns comprehensive archives on the subject of cars; has knowledge of even the smallest details and he has extensive background knowledge in regard of the car industry. The man is an expert.

His relationship with the then British Leyland group.
He used to rally, went on to become a successful works co-driver, then became manager of (Standard-)Triumph's Competitions Department during the sixties, leaving the works team a few months before the 1965 Le Mans 24hrs.