The Rootes Arrow range was conceived as a smart-suited replacement for the Audax range of Minx/Super Minx models. Launched in 1966, the new range was spearheaded by the Hillman Hunter and Singer Vogue.
Referred to by some as the last Rootes car, this family saloon, which was also badged as the Hillman Minx and Humber Sceptre, was ultimately sold as a Chrysler at the end of its long production run (below).
Rootes Arrow: The prime performer
The Arrow range came about as a result of the Rootes Group management’s determination to replace its popular and elegant Audax range of cars with something conventional which had plentiful mass market popularity for the late 1960s. However, it didn’t start out that way.
The early 1960s were a time of great design advancement, with BMC in one corner going following an ambitious front-wheel-drive model policy, and Ford in the other, demonstrating a flair for styling optimization within strict cost control. Rootes could seemingly trod its own path, somewhere in the middle ground.
However, that had all been put on its head, when the company decided to bet the house on the advanced rear-engined Hillman Imp. The new small car with its all-new factory were a new direction, and it was one the company looked to be taking for its larger family car range. It was to be rear-engined and have flamboyant styling. The Rootes Swallow would be that car.
Rootes Arrow: Bridging Imp and Swallow
Initially, in 1962, the Rootes Arrow was conceived as a smaller, cheaper, more conventional car, to bridge the gap between the Imp and the Swallow saloon car project. The Arrow’s styling was the responsibility of the Rootes Design Team, led by Peter Ware and. as can be seen from pictures of it below, the styling schemes investigated were of a fairly conventional looking three-box mid-size saloon, with strong overtones of the Imp.
It was designed around a new engine, suspension and floorpan which, Rootes hoped, would move the marque forwards and take on the new and successful Ford Cortina.
The Arrow was also conceived as a conventional replacement for Hillman Minx, and so had quite a tough task ahead of it – as such, the new model was designed in badge-engineered Hillman, Humber and Singer guises. The early styling schemes resembled an enlarged Imp, but these were soon revised into a plainer and more classical looking saloon.
Rootes Arrow design evolution
The plug is pulled on the Swallow
Sadly, soon after the launch of the Imp in 1963, it became apparent that the Rootes Group’s profit situation was not good. The investment at Linwood had proved to be a huge drain on resources, even before the much-delayed launch of its vitally-important new baby car.
But, when the Imp did make it onto the market, Rootes’ negative cash flow situation was exacerbated by its lack of sales success and high warranty costs. That seriously affected Rootes management’s confidence in the forthcoming Swallow.
Not only that, but the planned investment in this radical new car was too much for the financially strapped company. In 1963, the decision was made to cancel the Swallow – and an alternative was needed in double-quick time…
Arrow changes tack
In early 1963, that alternative plan was already being drawn-up: the Arrow would be enlarged and taken upmarket to cover the area that Swallow had vacated. The intention was for Rootes to build a lighter, slimmer car, built around the existing engine/transmission package as used in the Audax range.
To simplify the product range, it was conceived that the Arrow would replace the Minx, Super Minx, Sceptre and Rapier models – and, right from the beginning, saloon, estate and coupe versions of the new car were planned for.
The elementary work undertaken on the Swallow project did not go to waste though. In styling the Arrow, much of the previous car’s design features were incorporated, and that is why the saloon proposal could make the transition from project plan to a full-sized clay model, approved by management, in less than ten months.
Arrow styling: familiar and comforting
The Arrow took shape as a ‘pure Rootes design’, as Graham Robson describes it, with the styling being led by Rex Fleming. The Sunbeam Rapier and estate version were overseen by Roy Axe, a Designer that would go on to lead a long and successful career at Chrysler and Austin-Rover.
When Rootes received a major injection of cash from the US giant Chrysler, which increased its shareholding in 1964, the Arrow project did not deviate from its intended course, meaning that it is this car that should claim the title of ‘the last Rootes car’.
Although, Chrysler’s purchase of a stake in Rootes did not change the design and implementation of the Arrow, it did mean that there was finally, a healthy amount of cash washing around the company. This allowed for the Arrow to enjoy a rapid and well-funded gestation period.
Rootes Arrow full-scale proposals
By late in 1963, the newly enlarged Arrow was taking shape nicely. It satisfied management in as much that it would be cheaper to develop, and less costly to produce than the Swallow. It was also cheaper to build than the Audax range, and looked shaped perfectly to take the fight to the Ford Cortina and Corsair. These full-size models were approved by management on 17 April 1964.
Rootes goes Hunting
In comparison with the existing Minx range, the new car was considerably lighter, squarer shouldered, and definitely more conventional in its engineering approach. Model-on-model, the new car was up to 135kg lighter than the outgoing one, and this meant that although the existing engine lineup was used, the new cars would be considerably more efficient.
For a car that was launched in 1966, the Arrow was very contemporary in style, shedding the 1950s fussiness that typified the its progenitors. The plain-jane three-box reflected its time perfectly, and it would integrate seamlessly in the the UK landscape, thanks to its similarity with Roy Haynes’ Ford Cortina Mk2 and the Vauxhall Viva HB.
As it transpired, this school of design did not stay in the ascendance for very long, being overtaken by the Detroit-inspired ‘Coke bottle’ cars, typified by the later Ford Cortina Mk3, Vauxhall Victor FE, the Morris Marina and Hillman Avenger.
Under the skin: a conventional lesson
In the chassis department, the Arrow was conventional (in later terms), but proved significant for Rootes, as it was the company’s first car to sport McPherson strut front suspension, allied to a solid rear axle. This resulted in safe and secure, if uninspiring, handling.
As per the original Arrow design brief, every version would use existing power units, although they were overhauled for their new applications. The ohv units were treated to a new five-bearing crankshaft, and in order to fit under the Arrow’s lower bonnet, they were inclined at a slight angle. The 1964 all-synchromesh gearbox was retained, as was the existing rear axle.
What the road testers said
The Rootes Arrow was launched at the London Motor Show at Earls Court in October 1966 as the Hillman Hunter (above) and Singer Vogue. It would vie for column inches with fellow debutantes, the Ford Cortina Mk2 and Vauxhall Viva HB, and earned Rootes plaudits for being an all-new car at a particularly exciting time for the industry.
Autocar magazine would get its hands on the Hunter nice and early, putting it through its paces for its 7 October 1966 edition. In its conclusion, it said: ‘In many ways the Hunter represents a break with tradition for Rootes, who are obviously aiming this one at the popular family car market where the competition is already keen.
‘Yet the engineering of the new car is as sound or better than anything produced by Rootes before and there are significant gains in performance and economy over the previous model. More than this, the Hunter handles better, is lighter and easier to drive and has a lively fresh nature that gives good prospects for a long and successful production run.’
How little did Autocar guess that it would make it to 1979 as the Chrysler Hunter, and all the way to 2005 as the Paykan.
In its road test, performance was around the middle of the pack, with a 0-60mph time of 14.6 seconds, maximum speed of 90mph and an overall fuel consumption of 26.5mpg. These could all improved upon by buying different iterations of the breed.
Development by marketing only
As we’ve already hinted upon, the Rootes Arrow would go on to be sold in a wide variety of versions, which are detailed below. The principal opposition it found itself against in the marketplace were the Ford Cortina and Corsair, the Austin Cambridge, Morris Oxford and BMC 1800 as well as the Vauxhall Victor.
However, as it enjoyed such a long production run, cars such as the Audi 80, Fiat 131 and Vauxhall Cavalier would all be sold alongside the Hunter and its badge-engineered cousins throughout its life. Needless to say, that wouldn’t play well as the car continued to age.
In its April 1978 Car of The Year issue, What Car? magazine concluded from its Chrysler Hunter Super road test, ‘Despite its 1725cc engine, the Hunter is painfully slow and harsh when pushed. Car suffers from gross understeer which can suddenly transform into dramatic oversteer. Ride is badly affected by bumps and passengers affected by body roll.
‘For about the same money buyers can choose 1600cc versions of the Cavalier, Cortina or Opel Ascona, 1800cc versions of the Princess or Marina or even top of the range Avenger, stablemate of the antiquated Hunter.’
Production and model history
In between its launch in 1966 and its demise in 1979, the Arrow’s development was really only one in a marketing sense. Badge engineering was the order of the day, and the differing needs of customers were handled with a bewildering array of marques and models.
As we’ve already seen, in contemporary road tests, the Arrow range never could be described as a pacesetter and, once the 1970s arrived, this well-engineered saloon was left behind by its contemporaries.
Initially built at Ryton, then Linwood from 1969, with bodies by Pressed Steel Fisher, the Arrow range typified Rootes, rather than Chrysler. By 1976, it was left on the fringes of Chrysler Europe’s range, being left behind by a new generation of SIMCA-based products.
Production was moved to Ireland in 1976 to coincide with the car’s move to Chrysler branding in September of that year. This followed the UK Government’s bailout Chrysler UK at the end of 1975, with a streamlining of production and model ranges. But of just as much relevance, it allowed the Hunter (which had not been significantly updated in a decade) to make way for the far more contemporary Chrysler Alpine.
In the end, the Chrysler Hunter remained in production, sadly unmodified, until 1979 and never officially made the transition to the Talbot model range, although the newly re-branded dealers would end up selling a few run-out models.
Rootes Arrow variations
There were many badge engineered variations sold in the UK and overseas with a breakdown of all models below, and more detailed descriptions of the most important versions below that.
- Chrysler Hunter, Chrysler Vogue
- Dodge Husky pickup
- Hillman Arrow, Hillman Break de Chasse, Hillman Estate Car, Hillman GT, Hillman Hunter, Hillman Hustler, Hillman Minx, Hillman Vogue
- Humber Sceptre
- Singer Gazelle, Singer Vogue
- Sunbeam Alpine, Sunbeam Rapier coupés
- Sunbeam Arrow, Sunbeam Break de Chasse (Estate), Sunbeam Hunter, Sunbeam Minx, Sunbeam Sceptre, Sunbeam Vogue
The Hillman Hunter replaced the Super Minx and was available with 1496cc and 1725cc engines. The Minx version of the Arrow followed a year later (in saloon and estate form, although the Minx name was never attached to the five-door in the UK), and it amounted to little more than a downmarket version of the Hunter.
Differences were not just limited to trim and equipment, though, as it used an iron-headed version of the 1496cc engine (developing 54bhp). This principle was applied to the 1725cc Minx a year later (iron-headed again, producing 61bhp), but in 1970, and in the spirit of Chrysler-sponsored rationalisation, the Minx was dropped to make way for the Hunter De Luxe.
The trim-looking Hunter estate (sporting Sunbeam Rapier rear lamp clusters), appeared on the scene in 1970, the same time that the Hunter GT was made available. The sporting Hunter replaced a model based upon the Minx (but called, simply, the Hillman GT), and could boast a healthy power output of 79bhp. Performance was adequate for its day: 0-60mph in 13.5secs and a top speed of 97mph, but compared with the 1971 Cortina 2000, it began to look a little second rate.
In 1972, the Hunter received a further facelift, which was the announcement of the 93bhp Holbay-engined Hunter GLS, with Humber Sceptre-style front end styling. Beyond this, the Hunter did not receive any further improvements (of substance). The Hunter was rebadged as a Chrysler in late 1977, receiving its last minor facelift, in order to fit into the rationalised range (the Sceptre/GLS grille was fitted to both remaining models, with vinyl roof and Rostyle wheels were added to the the Super). Production of the Chrysler Hunter continued (in Ireland) until 1979, when it was retired after a production run of 470,000 units.
The Humber Sceptre Mk III was the optimum Arrow, featuring the best trim package and a 79bhp version of the venerable 1725cc engine. Interior was plush indeed, with a wood veneer dashboard panel and luxuriously trimmed seats – in more modern terms, it would be the Ghia X or Vanden Plas EFi of the range.
Externally, it was distinguished by its handsome four headlamp nose (reminiscent of the Sunbeam Rapier) and the later Hunter GLS. An extremely appealing estate version was added in 1974, which used the Hunter estate shell and a complete set of Sceptre interior appointments. Externally, it was finished off with chromed roof rails and, as such, was considerably ahead of its time, as the idea of a plushly trimmed estate car had yet to find favour with rival manufacturers.
Humber Sceptre production continued until 1976, when it was phased out as a result of product rationalisation. With its demise, the Humber name went to its grave.
In the same way that the Hillman Hunter/Minx was, the Singer Arrow was developed to replace two ranges (Vogue MkIV and Gazelle MkVI), with a single bodyshell. The existing names were carried over, but the Arrow-type Vogue, which appeared alongside the Hillman Hunter in 1966 and the Gazelle, which appeared a year later, were little more than an exercise in badge engineering.
These Singers were extremely closely related to their Hillman brethren, so it comes as no surprise that they were phased out in 1970 following further range rationalisation.
The Sunbeam versions of the Arrow were the extremely stylish Rapier/Alpine models, which were styled by Roy Axe. The pillarless two-door coupe was heavily based on Arrow underpinnings, right down to the suspension layout and engine configuration. The 1725cc Rapier came in two rates of tune; the 76bhp standard version, and the 93bhp H120. The H120’s engine featured twin dual-choke Weber carburettors, and was developed by notable Rootes tuners, Holbay.
As was the style at the time, the H120 received Rostyle wheels and a natty little boot lid spoiler. The wheels, and not the spoiler would be standardised in later years. When the gorgeous Alpine 2-seater roadster was dropped in 1968, it was replaced by a cheaper version of the Rapier, with simpler trim and a down-rated 72bhp version of the 1725cc engine. A sad end, it has to be said, for the Sunbeam Alpine line…
The Sunbeam Alpine lasted until 1975, and the Rapier, a year later. Neither model was replaced by Chrysler Europe, as the Matra Simca Bagheera was never officially imported into the UK in right-hand-drive form. Even if it had been, it would have appealed to an entirely different clientele.
In mainland Europe, there were also Sunbeam versions of the Arrow saloon (as there were of the Avenger), but these were never sold in the UK in large numbers; only being offered for a few months during 1970, following the death of the Singer Vogue.
Written with reference to ‘Cars of the Rootes Group’, by Graham Robson
Thanks to Quentin Gallagher for further information.
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