Rootes' small car was designed by Michael Parkes (a development engineer for Ferrari) and Tim Fry more or less from 1955 on. It was made in the purposebuild Linwood factories in Scotland. Launched in 1963, it sported many new and untried ideas, like an aluminium alloy engine, and overhead camshaft; a pneumatic throttle and king-pins running in sealed plastic bearings. It was produced for more than 12 years, until 1976.
In 1955 a small car project was begun, not so much to come up with an economy car in the Suez Crisis days (like the Mini), but to provide an idea of what sort of affordable car could be made and what its performance would be. Parkes and Fry proposed a 2 adults - 2 children car, that could do 60 mph and manage 60 mpg (which meant researching aerodynamics). Looking at the competition (Fiat 500, BMW 700, Citroen 2CV) and considering costs, they opted for a rear engine. Other aims of the team included that the small car be fun to drive.
After having been presented with two prototypes, the Rootes board members (used to Hillman or Humber solid, well-made quality cars) made it clear they were not interested in any bubble-car of sorts, nor in a design that cut costs at all costs. At the same time they appeared willing to go ahead with a Rootes small car, but it had to be a proper motor car with a.o. a water-cooled four-cylinder engine. It should be able to compete with the small Fords and BMCs, including the Mini.
|The second Imp made (4533 KV) was presented by Lord Rootes to Lord Lee, chairman of Coventry Climax. The car is fitted with one of 20 Climax 875cc engines.|
At the time Coventry Climax were building an aluminium alloy engine that Tim Fry thought might fit, so he wrote them to get the installation drawings. Coventry Climax co-operated and Fry succeeded to fit both it and a radiator into the tiny engine compartment.
The 750cc Coventry Climax racing engine was tamed and just about every component was changed. But it remained unlike most car engines, being made of aluminium, with an overhead camshaft. The size was increased to 875cc, producing 39bhp.
After a few visits to Bob Saward's styling department, the Imp (project name: Apex) was quite sophisticated by the end of the 1950s. The shape owed much to the Chevrolet Corvair.
And the refinement continued. The opening rear window was another innovation, unheard-of as hatchbacks were in those days. Together with the fold down rear seat, it improved (access to) luggage space.
A superior rear suspension was added, coupled with a basic front suspension to effectively neutralise the 'tail-happy' handling of a rear-engined car.
A gearbox, cased in aluminium, was specially designed to match the lively engine, with synchromesh on all four gears (unlike the 1959 Mini). It had the third and fourth gear set rather high, to reduce noise and improve economy. The new transaxel was technically advanced. At that time, it may have been the best gearbox ever produced, and it still does not have too many equals.
It was launched on schedule: a neat, refined little four-seater.
The year was 1963.
By this time the team that was on the project consisted of:
One of the events to introduce the early Imp was a demonstration of twenty Imps at Silverstone by 'backroom boys': the men who designed, developed and built the Imp. The press release lists the twenty men and their contribution to the Imp.
The Imp was tested by many. Read the second chapter of Apex "Testing, testing... testing". I have received e-mail messages from a few test drivers.
The original office for this letter combination is Coventry
photo: Leslie Thomson
Imp1: The very first Hillman Imp to roll off the production line. Seen here [May 21, 2007] in the recreated Rootes car showroom inside the Glasgow Transport Museum at their old home within the Kelvin Hall.
The Imp grinned, revealing an uneven mouthful of pointed teeth, then disappeared... not.
If you would like to read all about the Imp's development and other history, I strongly recommend you read the Henshaw book "Apex". It's a delight !
Maybe if the Imp's reliability had not suffered as a result of being rushed through the final stages of design, and if it had been marketed better, it might have been as successful as it perhaps deserved. Chrysler might have developed its sporting potential, and... well, that's dreaming.
The Imp Site
Die Geschichte des Hillman Imp / Peter Braun
Imp history written when it wasn't all history yet (1974): Too good to last / Graham Robson