Hillman Hunter : The Swallow project

Conceived as an advanced replacement for the Audax range and created with the same set of goals as the Imp, the Swallow could have been the Rootes Group’s swansong…

Sadly, it did not progress very far. Hindsight suggests that this might be no bad thing, as rear engined family cars were rapidly becoming a thing of the past, thanks to BMC’s advanced front wheel drive range, and Ford’s well-engineered rear wheel drive opponents. Rootes would follow Ford’s rather than BMC’s lead.

The story of Rootes’ Swallow actually dates back to the 1950s, and shows, yet again, how the British motor industry enjoyed a good deal of cross fertilization between the companies. The automotive consultancy company ERA, based in Dunstable, were commissioned by BMC to produce an advanced saloon car – with a view to challenging BMC’s own designers (led by Sir Alec Issigonis) – which would have been intended to fit in the range above the Mini. The resulting rear-engined car was then sold to back BMC, who quickly dropped the idea, figuring that the Mini concept was just fine when scaled up. The rest, they say, is history…

So what is the link between this amusing concept and the Rootes Swallow? In 1959, ERA was sold to the Zenith/Solex concern, who had little interest in producing cars, preferring to concentrate on research into carburettors and fuel injection systems. The design team responsible for ERA’s BMC proposal, therefore, concluded that it was time to jump ship, preferring to remain in the car business. David Hodkin headed that team, and they found a berth at Rootes, which at the time, was also attempting to re-invent itself.

In an exercise to challenge Issigonis' creative thinking, BMC management commissioned ERA to come up with a forward-thinking family car for the 1960s. This rear engined prototype was the result... dropped like a hot coal by BMC (and stored in their tunnel at Longbridge), the designers responsible for this car joined Rootes and set about designing a replacement for the Audax. Swallow was the result. (Picture: "BL: The truth about the cars", by Jeff Daniels)

In an exercise to challenge Issigonis’ creative thinking, BMC management commissioned ERA to come up with a forward-thinking family car for the 1960s. This rear engined prototype was the result… dropped like a hot coal by BMC (and stored in their tunnel at Longbridge), the designers responsible for this car joined Rootes and set about designing a replacement for the Audax. Swallow was the result. (Picture: “BL: The truth about the cars”, by Jeff Daniels)

The ex-ERA engineers initially found themselves working on mainstream projects, but with the Imp nearing completion, the Rootes family looked towards the Audax range. They decided that these middle-of-the-road cars needed a replacement that was similarly advanced as the Imp. With that in mind, Hodkin was chosen to head a team to design a this new car, and was given carte blanche by the Rootes family.

Almost immediately, the designers set about producing concepts for the new car. These first cars (dubbed “Swift”), pretty much picked up where ERA had left off, and continued the slightly off-the-wall thinking that led to the original car. The Swift was conceived as a family of cars that could be powered by an in-line “four” or V8 engine, driving the front wheels (ahead of the axle-line, just like 1970s Audis), but it soon became clear that the car’s packaging would be a nightmare (excessive frontal overhang, for a start), and when management started making disparaging noises about the Swift, it soon became clear that an Imp-like rear-engine layout would be the preferable way to go.

The move to a rear engine came by way of a mid-engined layout, an outboard rear engine (as per the Porsche 911 and Imp). It was finally decided that the best place to mount the engine would be in the space aft of the rear seats, but ahead of the axle line; a mid-rear layout, in effect. This allowed for a boot to be retained at the rear, whilst ensuring that the style did not become too “tail heavy”.

However, in one of those unfortunate twists of fates, marketing requirements (of a 14-foot length) led to the team dropping the idea of producing a V8-engined car; which in turn, meant that the move to a rear engined layout would not have been neccessary, after all!

The engine was to be one of the most interesting aspects of the Swallow. As with the Imp, Rootes asked Coventry Climax to produce an engine for the Swallow, and also like the Imp, it was based on an existing unit, the 1220cc FWE. This engine had already found a home in the original Lotus Elite, and proved to be an excellent basis for a range of family car units. Swallow was designed to use 1250, 1500 and 1750cc versions.

 It has to be said that the Swallow was a pleasant looking car from this perspective, although the rear engine gives it slightly unusual proportions when viewed from the safe haven of the 21st Century. Impressively neat detailing of the rear lights and glasshouse would mark this car as a 1970s design, rather than one penned in 1962.

It has to be said that the Swallow was a pleasant looking car from this perspective, although the rear engine gives it slightly unusual proportions when viewed from the safe haven of the 21st Century. Impressively neat detailing of the rear lights and glasshouse would mark this car as a 1970s design, rather than one penned in 1962.

By early 1963, the car had crystallised into the Swallow, but thanks to the announcement of the immaculately-costed Ford Cortina, it came under financial scrutiny from Rootes managament. After being instructed to limit the car’s length to 14-feet, the team were given permission to grow it slightly in the interests of passenger space, but because of the Cortina’s influence, the Swallow’s body engineering would need to be as light and efficient as possible. Pressed Steel produced a shell that met these demands (6,000 lb ft/degree compared with 4,650 of the later Arrow).

And that was in essence, what the Swallow was all about: a technically interesting car, which contained some advanced features, and was clothed in a light, but stiff body. The styling was overseen by Rex Fleming, and as can be seen by the accompanying photographs, it largely stood the test of time – a good job really, as Rootes planned for it to live a very long life.

So why did the Swallow not make it into production? Rootes had already felt the financial effects of the new Linwood factory, and the profit margins of the Imp were already looking slim. Management insecurity over this led to the Swallow project being re-appraised. After all, the smaller, cheaper Arrow project (which ran concurrently with the Swallow since late 1962) managed to look favourable, and had potential as a bigger car, as well. In November 1963, management bit the bullet and issued the edict that the Swallow was cancelled. Given that Pressed Steel had already built one prototype body, the car was completed anyway, and it was ran in 1964. It was academic by then, and soon after, the Swallow was mothballed. A sad end to an interesting idea.


Pictures courtesy of AUTOCAR, supplied by Jerry Ford.

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11 Comments on "Hillman Hunter : The Swallow project"

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  1. Sam Mace Frankie the 75 nut says:

    A shame in some ways that it never made production. I think it would be interesting and fairly well sought after today.

  2. Chris Baglin says:

    It probably would have been ‘interesting’, but for the wrong reasons. I can’t imagine the handling would have been all that good (ok, yes you can get a rear engined car to handle well, but it ain’t easy), and it would probably have been a death-trap to the unwary or the inexperienced. Not to mention potential cooling issues- rear engined Skodas were notorious for those, and VW and Porsche got round that by using air cooling at that time in history. Also, it didn’t lend itself to an estate version, although VW did prove it possible, if rather defeating the object since so much space was taken up by the engine.

    So it would probably have hastened the demise of Rootes. Shame, was quite a pretty car (apart from the front)- much like an NSU. They were probably wise to have developed the Hunter family as a conventional car.

    The ERA was a rather odd looking duck.Sort of a bastard offspring of an Anglia, a Citroen DS, and an Austin Cambridge. Doubt it would have sold well…

  3. Colin Ward says:

    I worked on the Swallow project as a chassis design draughtsman before moving on to the Hunter when the Swallow was dropped. Because the engine was installed transversely across the chassis the tailend weight was not a problem. I had the opportunity to drive the prototype and found the vehicle to be very neutral and it did not have any bad characteristics. The front aspect of the vehicle was influenced by the front mounted radiator and cooling was a problem. Pressurising the cooling system to improve the cooling proved to be difficult as a result of the pipework required to connect the rear engine to the front of the vehicle and development was required but the vehicle was dropped before work was begun.

  4. Paul S says:

    It would be really interesting to compare the Swallow with the VW project cancelled when near production-ready, in favour of the first Golf. I think it had the engine laid horizontally under the rear seats, probably transversely with end-on gearbox. The engines were carried over.

  5. Nate says:

    Not sure about the Renault 10-like front, could have done with a more mk2 Cortina or BMW 2000 (New Class 4-door) frontend though strangely from the back end it does resemble a rear-engined version of both cars.

    A pity the Coventry Climax 1220cc FWE-based engines were never produced for the Swallow (and possibly the Imp in 1250 form) as the 1250, 1500 and 1750cc versions sound fascinating.

    Btw, does anyone know if the Spartan Styling Study in the Cars of the Rootes Group by Graham Robson was related to the Swallow project?

  6. Do any of the Rootes group project cars survive and if so where? We see plenty of the BMC cars at Gayden even if they are outside , it would be nice to see them side by side.

  7. KC says:

    I know that any car with a reverse-rake window looks like a Ford Anglia, but that second photo really does look like an Anglia on steroids.

    The two Swallow photos show similarities to the other famous early 60s rear-engined creation, the Chevrolet Corvair.

  8. Hilton D says:

    I agree KC… I remember Corgi Toys made a model of the Chevy Corvair and the Swallow bears a passing resemblence. Having said that it has similarities with the first “Arrow” Hunter & Minx’s too ( headlamps, grille & sidelights and passenger cabin.)

  9. The Wolseley Man says:

    Colin@4
    So good to hear from someone actually involved. AROnline occasionally get these nuggets of fact which so often completely destroy popular assumptions. Thanks Colin.

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