Marques : Hillman

Hillman started out as a small scale cycle manufacturer, and built some interesting cars, but it did not survive the 1920s without being bought-out. In the end, it was Rootes brothers that did the deed, before carving out an extremely successful car producing business for themselves…

Hillman became the dominant marque in the Rootes Group, but even that accolade did not stop it becoming swamped within the Chrysler Group.


A potted history

The Ryton works in Coventry, England, photographed in 1982. Much investment was put into this plant following the Chrysler takeover of 1967, but previously to this, the Rootes Group had been refused permission by the government to expand the factory in the early 1960s; this led to the company setting- up the ill-starred Linwood operation... (Picture: "Cars of the Rootes Group", Graham Robson.)

The Ryton works in Coventry, England, photographed in 1982. Much investment was put into this plant following the Chrysler takeover of 1967, but previously to this, the Rootes Group had been refused permission by the government to expand the factory in the early 1960s; this led to the company setting- up the ill-starred Linwood operation… (Picture: “Cars of the Rootes Group”, Graham Robson.)

The Early Years…

The car producer Hillman, like Rover and Humber, originated in Coventry in the 1880s, on the crest of a wave of cycle builders, which were set up – predominently in the Coventry area – in order to satisfy the growth in demand in this market. William Hillman was a qualified engineer, and he joined John Kemp Starley (who later formed Rover) in order to find his feet in in the cycle business.

Once established, he soon decided to move on and form his own bicycle building company. Hillman’s new company, Auto Machinery, soon established itself as a success and, before the turn of the twentieth century, Hillman was a millionaire. With wealth came the means to fulfil Hillman’s next ambition: to become a car producer.

Hillman had moved into Abingdon House in Stoke Aldermoor (ironically, near Coventry, not Oxford, despite its name) and decided that a sensible plan would be to set-up a car factory in its grounds. Once he had set-up a car producing facility, Hilman soon entered the world of carmaking.

In 1907, Hillman entered the entered the industry in style, launching the 24HP Hillman-Coatalen (named after its designer), which was entered into that year’s Tourist Trophy. Sadly, the car was put out of the race by a crash, but it had made a splash… The Breton, Coatalen then left Hillman (for Singer) leaving Hillman to produce a succession of conventional models in tiny quantities, which included a 6.4-litre four-cylinder model and a 9.7-litre six.

Hillman then achieved its first success with the announcement of the 1913 9HP, which survived the war and went on to sell into the 1920s. The model did gradually evolve during its life, but it remained essentially the same, and it was not until 1926 and the launch of the 14HP that Hillman seemed to move forwards.

Although the Hillman family remained in control of the company, William Hillman had withdrawn from the running of the company, handing the day-to-day decision making to John Black and Spencer Wilks – both men would go on to much greater things in later years.

For 1928, Hillman previewed the enormously expensive 2.6-litre Straight Eight model. It was new from the ground up, and pitched at the luxury end of the market. However, delays getting it into production resulted in its launch being put back to 1929 – just as the Great Depression had started.

Enter Rootes

This is where the fortunes of Hillman, Humber and The Rootes Group converge; in 1928, the Rootes brothers are alleged to have taken secret financial control of Humber, before turning their attention to Hillman. Hillman and Humber duly merged at the end of that year and, thanks to an injection of cash from The Prudential, Rootes were able to effect control of this merged entity in a process that lasted between 1929 and 1932. Interestingly, Rootes’ involvement in the Hillman-Humber tie-up was not made public at the time, even though the Rootes brothers were in a very powerful position…

Immediately after the merger, Rootes began to make plans for model range and production facility rationalization; there was also a move to take on fresh design talent. Engineers and designers from rival companies were soon on board, and a model plan that intended to sweep away all existing Hillman-Humber lines was soon under way. New models were phased in during 1931, ones which owed little to the products they replaced. As the Humber and Hillman factories were so close, they were unified into a single facility.

The first all-Rootes Hillman to appear was the 1931 Wizard, which was a complete disaster, but this was followed soon after by the Minx. It was this car that really concreted the fortunes of Hillman (and therefore, Rootes), thanks to its immediate and lasting success. The Minx was re-designed by AG Booth in 1933 (becoming the Aero-Minx), and it soon became known as a rather interesting and advanced package. In 1935, for instance, the Minx became the first British small car to feature a four-speed all-synchromesh gearbox. It propped-up the rest of the Hillman range, including the 14, 16, 18 and Hawk (all models based heavily upon contemporary Humbers).

The Hawk six-cylinder was offered during the 1930s, but the line was dropped in 1939, when Hillman became a four-cylinder only producer…

After the War, the Minx continued in its pre-War form, and it was not until 1949 that it became equipped with a full-width body. In 1950, it received more power, and in 1955, it received an overhead valve 1390cc engine. The line would last through several generations until 1970, when it fell victim to range rationalization (by this time, it amounted to little more than a stripped-out Hillman Hunter, with an iron cylinder head).

At the beginning of the 1960s, The Rootes Group had ambitious plans for Hillman: the company was set to expand, based upon a new factory and new small car. The factory was set-up at Linwood in Scotland (against Rootes’ wishes) and the car was the Imp. The Imp hit the market in 1963 (four years too late, really), and although it was a thoroughly developed and beautifully engineered small car, sales were crippled by an early lack of reliability and the “BMC Mini factor”. The result was that Rootes were left in a perilous financial situation, resulting in the American Chrysler Corporation taking its first financial stake in the company in 1964, followd by a full takeover in 1967.

Chrysler’s money resulted in the introduction of the all-new Avenger. Sadly, this would prove to be Hillman’s last new car. The Chrysler-ization of The Rootes Group (and SIMCA in France) resulted in the marque (along with Humber and Sunbeam) being killed off in 1976, in favour of the American parent company’s name. All remaining Hillmans (in effect, the Avenger and Hunter) would now carry the Chrysler Pentastar…

 

Posted in: Hillman, Marques
Keith Adams

About the Author:

Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007. Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Clsssics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent... Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasable adventures all across Europe.

27 Comments on "Marques : Hillman"

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  1. Dave Dawson says:

    Interesting. That’s got me thinking – I’ll research, remind myself of Hillmans, Chryslers, Talbots of my youth. Some of my first car memories I suppose.
    In the village where I spent my first eight years, there was a Hillman, then Chrysler, then Talbot dealer. Glenn Aylett will know where I’m talking about – Myers & Bowman of Distington.

  2. Glenn Aylett says:

    @ Dave Dawson, I knew John Myers who ran the business in the seventies and eighties. We bought a Chrysler and two Talbots from Myers and Bowman. In the late nineties they dropped their Peugeot franchise to concentrate on Toyota and moved from their factory like showroom and workshop in Distington to a new showroom in Lillyhall.

  3. Glenn Aylett says:

    I always thought the Hillman Imp was a better car than the Mini, once the early reliability issues were sorted. The rwd/rear engine set up gave it very good handling, it was more spacious inside, as boot was at the front it had more luggage space, was faster, more refined and better looking. Also the sporting models looked far more exciting than a Mini Cooper.

    • Dave Dawson says:

      Glenn, I bet this will prompt some debate!
      As a young lad, I was aware of the Imp but not in any significant number if I remember rightly. They always seemed a rather eccentric little car to me back then. I don’t think I even compared them much to the Mini. Too young probably.

  4. mmm says:

    The headlight height did not mean regulkations , so the front suspension was mad longer rather than retool, RWD + Raer engine, Nein Danke!

  5. Hilton D says:

    Another “what if?” Perhaps the IMP would have been better built and more successful had Rootes been allowed to expand the Ryton Plant, rather than go to Linwood.

    As mentioned here the IMP was a better product with many variations available in later production but the damage to its reputation was done. My favourite of the range was the Sunbeam Stilleto. My brother owned an earlier IMP deluxe which was actually a nippy car in its day.

  6. Rich says:

    in the 70s, a friend of mine’s parents had a blue Hillman Imp. As an adult, my friend moved to Moscow to work as an auditor, and died in mysterious circumstances

  7. Harold Holt says:

    As a project for our engineering course at Cambridge, my brother and I built a 4WD Motorkhana car out of two wrecked Imps. We put one motor/gearbox unit in the front driving the front wheels and left the other unit in the rear. Hardest part was getting the two throttle linkages to respond in unison.

    We argued about the colour scheme during construction and didn’t talk to each other for several days. Sadly, this resulted in the front unit being installed backwards in relation to the rear. The car imploded when we tried to drive it!!!

    On the strength of this effort I was fast tracked into the Chief designer job for Leyland and my brother designed a replacement for the Concorde before joining John Major’s cabinet.

  8. Paddy says:

    Looks like the Rootes Bros had the confidence of the financial sector and as their early control of both Hillman and Humber was kept a secret, what does that say? Freemasonry.

  9. Glenn Aylett says:

    @ Paddy, who knows, but Rootes produced some very interesting cars in the sixties and had a model hierarchy like BMC and the early British Leyland.

  10. Nate says:

    Did Rootes ever investigate OHC or DOHC versions of the 1390-1725cc engine via HRG Engineering or another company, given that prior to Rootes acquiring Singer the latter were working on the Twin-Cam Singer Hunter 75?

    Would be interesting to speculate what impact Twin-Cam versions of the Sunbeam Alpine, Sunbeam Rapier and other Minx/Arrow-based cars would have had on Rootes against the likes of Ford and others.

  11. dontbuybluemotion dontbuybluemotion says:

    Nate The Singer Twin Cam according to Graham Robinson “Cars of The Rootes Group” was destroyed by order of Lord Rootes Himself. The reason is unclear but guessing it was down to scary costs and fear of something unconventionally different, though they would later stumble upon the Coventry Climax engine and base a similar design for the Imp.

    One has to remember when Rootes acquired Singer they were still using the trusted side valve engine which could be traced back to the 1930s. Whilst the classic Singer OHC engine dated even earlier (The HRG twin cam head was fitted to the old engine block).

    When Rootes took over Singer they had just launched the OHV Minx engine but early Singer Gazelle (Minx in party frock) used the old Singer engine but was actually slower and thirstier so the old singer unit was dropped, apparently only the odd drawing exists for this promising twin cam engine .

  12. Nate says:

    dontbuybluemotion

    I see, also read that HRG Engineering developed a sports car using the same Twin-Cam engine putting out 108 hp that was prevented from reaching production when Rootes took over Singer.

    Makes one wonder how a Twin-Cam Holbay version of the 1592cc/1725cc Minx engine would have performed had Rootes possessed both the means and the will to produce such an engine, even if they were looking into the Imp as well as the larger Swallow and Avenger engines.

  13. dontbuybluemotion dontbuybluemotion says:

    Nate Singer were in a terrible mess when Rootes saved them, The HRG sports car (I’m guessing) was probably based on the 9 Roadster/Bantam, which could be traced back from well before WW2.

    Historians are still unsure why Rootes bothered to buy Singer, Its name had been a fading star for many years whilst riddled with debt (It is also blamed for helping to bring down Rootes Group, Chrysler killed off the name by 1970).

    Lord Rootes sadly passed away in 1964 But the old Rootes engine (up gunned to 5 bearing crank in 1964 ish I think)would have been one of his last grand plans to save His ailing company, though it took Chrysler money to get it in production, Whilst The later Holbay H20 cylinder heads were well into the Chrysler era.

    On a different note Rootes spent quite a few ££ on the Imp engine, when possibly for the same money could have bought Coventry Climax (It was swept up by Jaguar) Climax had some amazing engines that were well ahead of their time, which could have replaced every engine Rootes had. But alas it never happened, so more money was spent on the Avenger and Chrysler/Simca 180/2 litre lumps.

  14. Nate says:

    dontbuybluemotion

    What other decisions would have benefited the Rootes Group or at least would have made Rootes much more of an asset within Chrysler Europe instead of Simca?

    That is aside from Rootes letting Singer sink instead of saving them and building the Imp at an expanded Ryton plant in Coventry instead of being effectively forced by the government to built a factory at Linwood in Scotland.

    Agree that Coventry Climax would be a potential asset to Rootes given the alternate was Simca’s tappety engines though wonder how the former acquiring the latter would effect development of the Jaguar V12.

  15. dontbuybluemotion dontbuybluemotion says:

    Nate it is a while since I explored the Roootes Group but from memory Chrysler (it appears) never had a “Master Plan”. I remember a Pentagon guy named Lynn I think was in charge of UK operations, He talked big but couldn’t deliver and was quite clueless what to do other than penny pinch on every level.

    Also what must be remembered that the French side of Chrysler (Simca) had proved itself a winning formula, The 1000 rear engine range was well loved and sold well (over 1Mill) along with the 1100 (again over the 1mill) both cars had little warranty claims, whilst the 1301/1501 sold steady in its native land.

    However internationally like Rootes they didn’t perform as well as expected. Whilst The British arm was seen as an embarrassment, Strikes and more Strikes. The great white elephant (Linwood) as far as I know never made a penny but consumed Millions, along with The Ryton Plant which was just as vocal, although the Commercial side of the Business (Commer etc) weren’t too bad? .

    Warranty claims were through the roof courtesy of the Imp, However Chrysler were in trouble back in The States, you could see why Chrysler wanted to bail out.

    Chrysler appeared to run both companies as separate items (though the odd picture exists of The Simca 1000 with Imp badges) it wasn’t till the Disastrous Chrysler 180/2 litre development began did they combine both companies together, which also resulted in the later Alpine/Horizon.

    Walter Hassan and Harry Mundy (the main characters behind Coventry Climax) had already left Climax before Mr Lyons bought the company (Walter joined Jaguar)whilst Harry went to Autocar then later returned to Jaguar.

    Perhaps this is one of the reasons Climax started to tumble?

  16. Nate says:

    dontbuybluemotion

    Would Imp production at Ryton (and letting Singer sink) have freed up enough capital to develop the Swallow or at least an Avenger / Arrow range with 1250-1750cc Coventry Climax engines initially intended for the Swallow?

    In Graham Robson’s book on Rootes, was wondering whether the 1100cc Spartan proposal was derived from the Imp or the Swallow as it appears to sit in-between both.

    Have read that Simca had their own front-engined transverse-mounted fwd 4-door city car project called the Simca 936 to both rival the Mini and eventually replace the rear-engined Simca 1000, which in some ways foreshadowed the Renault 5.

  17. Richard16378 says:

    I presume some of Simca 936 materialised as the 1100.

  18. christopher storey says:

    I have to say that I do not recognise the rosy aura surrounding the Simca 1000 ( described as well-loved ), certainly in the UK . My recollection was that by about 1965 at the latest , a litigation hue and cry of Corvair proportions was threatening to engulf Simca as a result of a spate of fatal and near fatal accidents resulting from the thoroughly dangerous rear suspension of the Simca, and this resulted in its withdrawal from the UK market

  19. dontbuybluemotion dontbuybluemotion says:

    Nate Ryton was at full capacity with the Minx/ SuperMinx and Big Humbers, apparently Rootes bought land nearby in the late 1950s/1960s but were refused planning permission, The Macmillan government preferring new Factories to be built in High unemployment areas, Other than Scotland (Linwood) The North East and Wales were mentioned (I think).

    However Rootes were almost flat broke so a Government deal was made to build at Linwood, (a nice lump sum but also an additional Loan that was almost impossible to be repaid).

    Without this Cash injection it is possible that Rootes could have ceased trading before The Imp Launch.

    However it has been mentioned before that if Linwood built the existing Rootes range and the Imp was built at Ryton perhaps things may have been different?

  20. dontbuybluemotion dontbuybluemotion says:

    @ christopher storey

    You said “I have to say that I do not recognise the rosy aura surrounding the Simca 1000 ( described as well-loved ), certainly in the UK .”

    The 1000 range was little known in the UK, But I did say ” internationally like Rootes they didn’t perform as well as expected.” Meaning they were top sellers in their Native Country only (The 1100 was actually France’s biggest seller at one time).

    Back in the 1950s/60s France still loved rear engined chariots like Renaults 4CV ( first French car to sell over a million units) which continued with the 8, 10 and Alpine, whilst the Simca 1000 was a cheaper rival to the Rear engined Renaults there was also the Rally 1, (some were imported to the UK) 2 and 3, these are highly prized in France even if they were quite lethal.

  21. Nate says:

    dontbuybluemotion

    I see, was under the impression that Rootes were refused permission to expand at Ryton and forced by the government to move to Linwood. Not that Rootes was in dire enough straits to receive a lump sum and additional loan that was dependent on building a factory at Linwood, still it was a silly idea to build a factory 300 + miles / almost 6 hours away from Coventry and expect Rootes to make a profit and repay its loan.

    How much of the Rootes groups financial problems prior to the Imp was down to acquiring Singer and what other factors contributed towards Rootes lack of capital?

    Shame the Imp engine was not used beyond the Sunbeam as an entry-level unit (like say in the much lighter Samba and early AX), especially given the tappety Simca Poissy engines continued production for at least another decade.

  22. Richard16378 says:

    Not forgetting the Renault Dauphine, which was the first French car to sell 2 million, in spite of it’s handling & rust problems,

    My Dad can remember they were one of the easiest French cars to see around in the late 1950s.

  23. christopher storey says:

    Well, the Simca 1100 was of course a completely different car , being Simca’s first FWD effort , and I remember seeing quite a few of them in the UK, a friend of mine having bought one new in about 1968

  24. Nate says:

    Richard16378

    The Simca 936 prototype was a lot smaller being roughly Renault 5-sized compared to the Simca 1100.

  25. Hilton D says:

    @Richard 16378. I remember the Renault Dauphine well, In the 1960’s my friend’s parents had a blue/turquoise one with cream vinyl interior and cream painted wheels. It was the only French car in our street and looked totally different to all the typical BMC, Ford, Rootes and Vauxhall cars.

    That was the era when few “continental” cars were on sale here.

  26. Richard16378 says:

    Thanks Nate & Hilton.

    My Dad also menitoned the only other European cars that seemed to sell well in the 1950s were VW Beetles & some of the smaller Mercedes. I did wonder if some of these were brought back by serviceman stationed in Germany.

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