The cars : Hillman Imp development story

The Hillman Imp was the Rootes Group’s great white hope to beat the Mini at its own game.

However, as Keith Adams explains, the project was riddled with setbacks and issues that stopped it achieving anywhere near its full potential.

Hillman Imp: a backward view

Hillman Imp

The Suez Crisis of 1956 certainly had a lot to answer for: petrol shortages in the UK meant that those cars that could eke out the most from a gallon of petrol were judged to be the most desirable. The Rootes Group certainly felt that way and, as a response to these hard times, it was decided that the utmost priority should be given to its new economy saloon.

Why Rootes needed a new baby

What, though, was the Suez Crisis and why did it affect Britain so badly? In a word, it was a situation that arose when the Arabs discovered that they could hold the world to ransom by using their control of the majority the world’s oil supplies. The situation blew up in September 1956 when Egyptian President Nasser decided to nationalise the Suez Canal.

The British tried to stop him, the Americans pulled the rug from beneath them and the Arabs decided to close their oil pipeline across the Mediterranean. In the ensuing war, the Arabs blew up the Syrian pipeline which provided 20 per cent of Britain’s petrol supply. The upshot of this was that all oil supplies from the Middle East would need to be transported in giant oil tankers around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.

Petrol rationing returned to the UK in December 1956 and people began to clamour for more economical means of travel. The sales of 900-1000cc cars quadrupled in the period from 1956 to 1957, while car sales in the wider market slumped. Bubble cars began to appear on these shores and, although they may have been awful to drive, with questionable safety, they did achieve more than 40mpg, which was the most important statistic a car could boast in those petrol-starved times.

In the beginning…

Mike Parkes pictured alongside the two-cylinder Slug prototype (Picture: Autocar)

The Hillman Imp’s beginnings actually date back to 1955, when the Rootes small car project was instigated. The reasoning behind its creation in the first place was simple: Rootes produced medium and large cars and yet, during the 1950s, the 1.0-litre class accounted for a significant number of sales in the UK, but Rootes simply had no presence here.

Michael Parks (Project Engineer – who later went on to work for the Ferrari F1 team) and Tim Fry (Co-ordinating Engineer) were charged with getting the project off the ground, and were given a clean sheet of paper to work with. Essentially, the project was defined by what the car should achieve – and, interestingly, Fry and Parkes thought that the new car should reach these goals:

  • Accommodation for two adults and two children.
  • Performance/economy: at least 60mph maximum speed and 60mpg fuel economy.
  • Echoing the opposition of the day, a rear-engined layout was preferred.
  • The car should be fun to drive.

According to Graham Robson, the project progressed ‘without much impetus’ towards a 2+2 air-cooled economy car. As can be seen from the picture on the Hillman Imp projects and prototypes page, the team soon came up with a highly aerodynamically-styled economy saloon – aptly named, Slug. Without doubt, all of its design objectives would have been met with this car, but it was not greeted with enthusiasm by the Rootes Group powers-that-be. The Development Team presented its two engineering prototypes to the Rootes Directors, and they made it clear they were not interested allowing the Rootes Group to produce a car that so obviously resembled a bubble car.

Rootes management unimpressed with the Slug

The Board also made it clear that it did not want to see the Rootes Group name compromised by selling a product which had been so obviously created for times of austerity; intelligent engineering, or not. Given the Board’s reticence to move forwards with these proposals (allegedly, Lord Rootes hated the sight of it so much, he refused to ride in it), because they were so stark, one might  assume that the Board was against the company producing a small car. This was patently not the case; it was just that the Directors were uncomfortable with the idea of selling a product so outwardly similar to the bubble cars.

The Board did conclude that Rootes needed a small car (the Suez Crisis had erupted by this time), but it needed to maintain the quality and solidity of the rest of the Rootes range. Further to this, it also needed to sport a four-cylinder engine and be able to accommodate four adults. The burgeoning popularity of the Austin A30 and Ford Popular in these fuel-starved times encouraged the Board to conclude that moving upwards was the correct direction to be moving in.

So, from this desire to create a bigger, better mini car, Project Apex was thus created; and it would be Technical Director Peter Ware who would see it to maturity.

Engineering change: Apex comes of age

The stage two Slug prototype still looked rather utilitarian, but it was a step towards the Apex; after this, all would change.
The stage two Slug prototype still looked rather utilitarian, but it was a step towards the Apex; after this, all would change

Rootes had no existing small car engine in production, and the decision was taken to approach a local company, Coventry Climax. At the time the Rootes Board had decided to go sophisticated, Coventry Climax was producing the FWMA all-aluminium racing engine, which Tim Fry thought would fit nicely into the Apex’s engine bay. Fry contacted the company and asked if it were possible to get hold of installation drawings, telling them that he was in the process of developing a car that could be an ideal beneficiary. Sensing an opportunity, Coventry Climax was happy to co-operate and, as a result, Fry managed to get the tiny engine and gearbox to fit into one of the prototypes, by now named, ‘Little Jim’.

In the meantime, the Coventry Climax engine was developed into something far more suitable for road use: it was expanded to 875cc, detuned to 39bhp, and most of its internals were changed in favour of longer life items. Even in production specification, the engine was a peach, and was more advanced than its immediate rivals, thanks to an overhead camshaft and that lightweight construction.

The clean-sheet approach also extended to the gearbox: one of the problems encountered during Apex development was that there had been numerous gearbox failures. No doubt, this was due to the high-revving nature of the Coventry Climax engine, which demanded frequent gearchanges. It was decided that the new car would sport a transaxle (gearbox and differential in the same housing), but because Rootes had never used this arrangement in any other cars, it hired Adrian West as Senior Transmission Engineer.

Working out the powertrain options

West’s task was to design and build a transaxle which was strong enough to withstand enthusiastic use, yet be light enough to appeal to all buyers the car was aimed at. West was chosen because he had wide experience of gearbox design, having spent time at Simca, Renault and Fiat.

West achieved these goals handsomely, and the transaxle he produced boasted fantastic change quality… Much of this was attributable to the use of a baulk-ring synchromesh (something the BMC Mini missed out on at its launch, and suffered from as a result). The combination of the Coventry Climax engine and West’s transaxle was a hard one to beat; and it was light years ahead of the opposition when the Imp was launched in 1963.

The engine/gearbox might have been adjudged a success, but there were questions about the styling. After Peter Ware had ditched the aerodynamic styling of the original prototypes, Apex was quickly moved forwards. Keen to project a more youthful image, Bob Saward’s Styling Department looked across the pond to the USA for its styling influences. The original three-box Imp prototypes (above) were rather bland looking cars, and it was only when the addition of Americana took place, that the essential character of the car came bursting through. However, it is easy to see that the Chevrolet Corvair was used as a reference point and, as that car was seen as being popular with the young at the time, Rootes was keen to follow down this road.

Stormy waters ahead for Rootes

The Apex was a technically interesting car – however, the decision to retain a rear-engined layout was one borne out of a long gestation period. In 1955, many existing continental rivals slung their engines out back, but in the UK, the small car opposition had stubbornly remained with the classic front-engined/rear-drive layout. That was part of the problem – the UK’s motoring press began to see the conventional products produced by the Rootes Group as being boring and, stung by such criticism, as gentle as it was back then, the company wanted to produce something totally European in its approach.

Mini 621 AOK with Alec Issigonis

However, in 1959, Alec Issigonis turned the world upside down by proving that front-engine/front-wheel drive was the way forwards for small cars. The BMC Mini (above, with Alec Issigonis) may have taken time to gain acceptance with the buying public, but Engineers and Designers knew that the rear-engined family car, so typified by the Simca 1000, NSU Prinz and Renault 8, had been rendered obsolete.

By that time, the rear-engined layout was now carved in stone and to adopt a front-engined approach would mean scrapping the project up to that point and starting again. Moreover, given Rootes’ ambitions of expansion, a launch that took place sooner, rather than later was desired – in the event, it was these expansionist ideas that would create difficulties for the Apex programme, as well as for the Rootes Group as a whole.

Going for broke – expansion is the key

By the late-1950s, Rootes felt that expansion was the only way to survive. Given that each new Apex sold would introduce a new customer to the Rootes fold, extra production would be needed drastically. However, the Government of the day made it quite plain that if Rootes wanted to expand with its assistance, it would need to do so in an enterprise area. This struck quite a blow for the future plans of Rootes, because the company had already been refused permission to develop Ryton, and now it would be forced to set-up a new plant away from its Coventry heartland. The pressure exerted on Rootes led the company to Linwood, near Paisley and Johnstone, not too far from Glasgow – thanks to a Government loan, it was here that a new factory would be built and in which the new car would be made.

Production of the Apex might have presented problems, but there were also issues that befell its development. The Apex Engineering Team was based in Ryton, and was treated as an entirely different entity to the main Engineering Department at Stoke. As the Apex programme had dragged considerably, it was also treated to an injection of haste towards the end, which meant that several exciting features which the Engineers wanted to hone to perfection (such as the pneumatic throttle, automatic choke and marginal cooling) were never tested fully. Ware knew the dangers of launching a car without thorough development, and, in the fullness of time, he was proved correct.

In his book, Cars of The Rootes Group, Graham Robson also relates that the Apex was committed to production far too early, and this was probably down to the fact that Rootes wanted to avoid any further delays or to have a newly-opened factory which would be standing idle at the time when it was to be declared open in May 1963.

An Imp is born

The Imp was a well pakaged little gem (click for full size image)
The Imp was a well-packaged little gem (click for full size image)

Accurate...except for the name!

The Rootes Group was unable to spring a surprise on the car buying public as details of the upcoming car were scooped in the first issue of Small Car magazine (which later became Car) in 1962. The remarkably accurate article prepared us for a rear-engine, mini-Rootes, although calling it Ajax was slightly adrift from the truth (the magazine must have got its wires crossed with Triumph). The idea of a mini-Rootes took some getting used to and, even though the company were clearly going to call it Imp and restrict it to the Hillman marque, it was still positioned a long way below anything else in the then-current range.

The motoring press was largely favourable about the Imp, although comparisons with the Mini were always going to prove difficult to avoid. Nevertheless, the Imp’s superb engine, gearbox and handling were praised in equal measure. The Motor magazine in its road test of 8 May 1963 was very enthusiastic:

  • Handling: The fact remains, however, that the Imp can be hurled into corners at speeds which would be suicidal with most saloons and with very little roll and no tyre squeal it just motors round them. It is so close to being a neutral steering car that different driving techniques can tip the balance one way or the other.
  • Transmission: The gearchange, as we have said, is quite certainly one of the best, if not the best we have ever handled.
  • Performance: For an 875cc car, the performance is astonishingly lively and bears comparison with many family saloons up to 1600cc.

Although it was rear engined, the addition of that lift-up rear screen (do not get carried away and describe it as a hatchback) meant that the Imp’s practicality was also praised. The Motor was forthright in its verdict too, and were most optimistic about the Imp’s future: ‘If Rootes cannot sell 150,000 Imps a year, as they have planned, we shall eat our editorial hat.’ Sometimes hindsight can be a wonderful thing…

Early teething problems for the Imp

However, it soon became clear that the Imp’s rushed final development phase would have a lasting impact on the small car’s reputation with customers.

Problems that should have been picked-up in those months soon manifested themselves: defective water pumps and automatic chokes, overheating, water leaks, throttle problems and lack of performance. These soon became widely known in the trade and with buyers, and a poor reputation for reliability – so easily won – would never be shaken off. The Rootes dealers were ill-equipped to deal with such problems and, at the production stage, it took years to iron them out. Linwood’s industrial relations were poor from day one, so any running changes that needed introducing, were drip-fed rather than rushed in.

One story that sums up the logistical problems encountered by Rootes comes from John Simister’s retrospective Motor article from 1986: ‘…for example, the cylinder blocks for the die cast engine were cast in Linwood but had to be sent down to Coventry for machining and assembly and returned to Scotland for installation.’ It was madness and, sadly, a folly (through no fault of Rootes), which was then repeated with Avenger assembly.

Was the Imp right for its times?

But had the Imp gamble paid off? Arguably, its 1963 launch date was too late for another mini-car. The petrol crisis had receded and the economy was booming. Small car sales were still strong, but the Imp was already below the UK car market’s centre of gravity. Interestingly, the rear-engined layout was also now seen as past its prime, thanks to BMC’s front-wheel-drive exploits.

By the year following the Imp’s launch, the Rootes Group’s finances had been compromised enough for the company to accept its first injection of cash from the acquisitive Chrysler company in the USA. This was due to the company feeling the effects of mounting losses caused by disappointing Imp sales and the after effects of the huge Linwood investment. Not only this, but Linwood could not produce the Imp efficiently at anywhere near projected volumes, as its engine and gearbox were extremely labour intensive to produce.

Losses continued, and Chrysler’s takeover of the Rootes Group followed in 1967.

The range expands into badge engineering

Even though the Imp was clearly defined as a Hillman at the time of its launch, it soon became apparent that the policy of badge engineering would need to be followed in order to maximise sales potential. In short order, coupé, van, estate car versions became available and plusher Sunbeam and Singer-badged versions were phased in. It was never going to be enough, though. By the time Chrysler was fully in contro of the company, it was clear that any further meaningful development of the Imp was never going to happen.

A year after its launch, the first badge-engineered version appeared and, in short order, a raft of further derivatives followed:

Imp marque and model variations
May 1963 Hillman Imp launched
Oct 1964 Singer Chamois launched
Sep 1965 Commer Imp Van launched
Oct 1966 Sunbeam Imp Sport (and Singer variation) launched
Jan 1967 Hillman Californian launched
Apr 1967 Singer Chamois Coupe launched
Hillman Husky Estate launched
Oct 1967 Sunbeam Stiletto launched
Oct 1968 Commer Imp van renamed Hillman
Apr 1970 Singer models phased out
Jul 1970 Husky and van phased out
Mar 1976 Hillman and Sunbeams phased out

Facelifts were investigated and then dropped; as were larger engined derivatives… Rootes had now become known as Chrysler (UK), although the structure of the company remained largely in place. This would not last too long into the 1970s, and it is this process of rationalisation that explains why Ryton’s front-wheel-drive supermini projects never proceeded very far from the Stylists’ sketch boards.

In conclusion: such promise unfulfilled

So, the Imp marked something of a dead-end in the company’s history – even though it was eventually turned into a reliable car and was one that handled and performed well, it was never taken on by Chrysler and developed to face the challenge of the 1970s. The rear-engined layout played against it from day one, but that did not mean that its excellent engine and gearbox could not be utilised in any other installation. After all, while the Coventry Climax engine was expensive and labour intensive to build, surely some of its nicer features could be used elsewhere.

Chrysler saw it another way, and refused to kill it or develop it. The vastly simpler Avenger was also built at Linwood, but it was not a replacement for the Imp, and so the little car remained in production until it became clear that the Chrysler Sunbeam would be introduced to replace it. The travesty there is that this likeable small car did not owe anything at all to the Imp (or its front-wheel-drive design studies) apart from the slant-four engine in the 928cc version, which was a development of the Coventry Climax engine. However, by the mid-1970s, Chrysler’s European arm was deep in crisis and a wider product strategy demanded a different solution.

Ultimately, the Imp was a victim of that oft-repeated mistake of launching a car before it had been fully developed. Reputations are hard earned and easily lost…

Extension of the Imp: this idea was not pursued.

Written with reference to ‘Charmed Life’ by Graham Robson, Motor, 9 March 1974.

Further sources: The Motor magazine, 8 May 1963, Motor 15 November 1986 and Autocar & Motor, 27 November 1991.

Keith Adams


  1. The best book was “Apex: Inside Story of the Hillman Imp” I’ve got a copy, somewhere…

    Imps are brilliant cars – better than the Mini in every way – expect the one the buying public cares about! Styling.

  2. My first car was a 1965 mini, which was 13 years old and really at the end of it’s life. Then I got a 1965 Imp in 1980. It was a lovely white basic model with a knackered engine. This car looked brand new. So I got a Sunbeam stiletto for £15, whipped the engine out and put new piston rings & big end shells in, then stuffed this engine and new radiator in my Imp. This thing was mental. After I had run it in for about 500 miles or so I discovered it would do about 70mph in 2nd gear with only my skinny 18 year old frame in it. I have never driven anything that revv’d like this even since. I put the plush Stiletto interior in the Imp (Reclining seats, oh yes!) and enjoyed the looks on the faces of the drivers of mini 1275 GT’s as I left them in a haze of blue smoke (from my exhaust, not tyres) at every opportunity. From the outside it looked like your Granny’s standard imp. The thing was, it was reliable and would turn at 8500 rpm all day if it had to. The key to running a reliable Imp is the radiator. If you even suspect it could be blocked or inefficient replace it do not even think of trying to clean it out, it will not work. That is the only car I have ever had that I wish I still had.

  3. My brother had a 1964 white IMP for a while. He had some trouble with the alloy engine (well documented), but otherwise it was a nippy little car. Good memories overall.

  4. It would be interesting to modernise an Imp. High efficiency radiator with electric fans and good temperature/level monitoring, drive by wire, multipoint injection and electronic ignition…

    • Hmmm Maybe a retro imp would work like BINI Fiat 500 or Citron DS.

      Only problem is who would build it? Peaugeot?

      I like the idea.

    • Hmmm Maybe a retro imp would work like BINI Fiat 500 or Citron DS.

      Only problem is who would build it? Peugeot?

      I like the idea.

  5. @8 My Imp has a rad at the front – it has never overheated – even at sustained foot-flat on the motorway driving with the speedo hovering between 85-90mph. I’m putting a megasquirt FI system together at the moment, using Suzuki GSXR600 throttle bodies and injectors.

  6. I managed to break off the gear stick on mine (at its lowest point) when engaging reverse in a hurry. luckily it was down hill most off the way home so a combination of coasting with my foot on the clutch and short bursts of reversing got me home with the fish and chips still hot. I believe there was a small notch in the gear stick to enable it to snap off in the event of an accident?. A hoot to drive when no passengers, but a bit of a chore when loaded. Best Scrap yard purchase I made.

  7. @4-5 ive just bought the inside story of the imp £47! i had one years ago eat rotoflex’s for fun.I’m just interested in the linwood story and its downfall in general,i have a feeling it will make me sad as will the book end of the road:the downfall of Rover.

  8. @ 6 Jeff

    The sport engines are quite sort after which differs from the normal 875s by having a high lift Camshaft with bigger valve’s, necessitating double valve springs which also causes another problem of “No valve stem oil seals” (although have managed to fit Ford CVH type on mine) which again necessitates an oil drain (later L4 engines have these but kids to school Cam).

    Also the Block has a drilling to accommodate the oil drain, and to help keep things cool an oil cooler is fitted, along with (troublesome)Twin Stromburg Carbs which lifts the humble 39ish BHP to a dizzy 51ish BHP.

    Although based on the Coventry Climax FWE there is very little if any interchangeability in parts, some say Rootes Killed the Classic from Birth Climax engine for production purposes, though still to this day Tuneists can easily play with these to well over 100BHP, Ohh and all Imp engines were de rated prior to Launch due to them accelerating to over 100mph, meaning they were alot faster than bigger more expensive Minx’s etc.

    Incidentally Climax were desperate to sell their Engines in the USA for Marine use but only 4 banger and and under 2 litres meant few noticed… At the same time Rootes spent a few £Mill on this engine along with a state of the art Die Casting Factory at Linwood (which once cast were sent to Coventry to be machined/fitted then returned back to Linwood), Not really sure of why Rootes went to such extravagant lengths when Climax had the capacity and were begging for work?…They were later absorbed by Jaguar.

    @8 Mr Kilpatric and SteveLee
    The many upgrades Impers are taking is fitting Motorcycle carbs/fuel injection, even the whole engine/gearbox in quite a few cases (Suzuki Bandit is popular) this makes a lot of sense as with any upgrade to the standard Imp engine means your still lumbered with the Gearbox @ only 15mph per 1000 rpm and was only designed for 39 bhp along with those evil rubber doughnuts for the driveshafts.

    The usual rules apply when upgrading… to change one item you must change 3 others to accommodate it.

  9. Francis

    Which book did you buy? £47.00?? The Apex is by the Henshaws is probably most accurate but very detailed, whilst the George Mowat Brown is roughly the same but more spread out with lots of pics, some say some of His facts are a little ?? There is also the Book Geoffrey Rootes Dream of Linwood by our Imp Spare’s Man, This shows the factory being built to the opening day.

    All of the books show a promising work of art that sadly due to reliability problems… well will let you find out yourself !!!!

    Happy Reading..

  10. The Imp was a good car but in my opinion it was very ‘cosmetically challenged’- the Mini was a prettier car without a stylist being let anywhere near it!

    Nice to see that there are still some left however.

  11. @13 apex the inside story of the imp (pic of crash test imp on cover)i thought the imp was a well executed car that just needed to be developed further-engine lighter,and better than A series etc.

  12. Francis

    The Imp was for 1963 an excessive over the top work of art.. All Alloy Engine with racing Heritage (though only loosely on which itself was a development of the Godiva Water Pump engine used by the British Army) A lovely all syncro Box that even Jag E Types owners were envious of, (They wouldnt receive full Synchromesh until much later), Built in a Brand new Factory at the time the most Modern in Europe, complete with a very Novel IBM Computer which despite taking up the space of a whole room controlled the factory, itself cost a few £Mill.

    It was also one of the most tried and tested cars upto that point being driven across the US almost no stop. Even Jernalists loved it, the buying public initially couldn’t buy them quick enough, However you name after the honeymoon it all fell apart.

    It has been written many times that The Factory workers new little else but the working practices of Ship Yards, Many couldnt grasp that Car production was continuous rather than Contracts of Building Ships come to an end and therefore why hurry themselves onto the Dole. Many workers still waited at the Factory Gates each morning waiting to get a Job, which was not the way Car Factory’s were run.

    Engineers begged for more time with the Imp because Driving it flat out showed little problems but the average drive to the shops showed alarming overheating which warped the Cylinder Heads and sometimes the Block, faults with gearbox’s and varying degrees of build quality, though actually little different from BMC, but if your Mini over heated you just waited by the road until it cooled down then drove off again, you couldn’t do this with the Imp as the Damage had been done.

    The biggest problem was Rootes were nearly bankrupt, it has been said many times Mothers was ill before troublesome infant arrived, Chrysler stepped in who fixed a couple of faults (not all of them ) but the damage had been done! This was the Austin Allegro/Maestro of the 1960s. Chryslers response was to cheapen the range and quality slipped further.

    The Crashed Imp on the Apex Book, note the steering column in an accident this can Decapitate the driver! The secret is not to crash..

    • Surely were the Rootes Group serious about making a decent small car? Having taken on redundant ship yard workers to build it along with rhe walkouts they suffered at Linwood? I myself bought a 1968 Mk 2 super imp in 1976 it was nippy and fairly desent on fuel,however that’s were the Buck stopped !! It was tortally unreliable with no weight in the boot it used to wander on motorways.
      The Local Hillman agent prescribed a bag of sand to be carried to remedy the situation and as regards safety I believe the front side lights and indicators were technically illeagal! All in all a rushed design a rush build = a crap car ,which the imp most certainly was

  13. My favourite of the IMP’s was probably the Sunbeam Stiletto with the smart wheeltrims, vinyl roof & twin headlamps. I remember one of the first Stiletto’s on display in a dealers in 1967 – was only 12 then!

    The Singer Chamois & Sunbeam Imp were also more luxurious than the basic Hillman versions. That would be Rootes’s aim of course…

    • I can’t remember seeing a badged Humber Imp. As far as I know there was a Hillman Imp & Super Imp, an Imp Californian, Singer Chamois, Sunbeam Imp Sport & Stiletto. Course it was 50+ years ago.

  14. I was one of the Rootes Trainees that went to Invergordon in Scotland to Carry out extended Road Testing of the first two prototype Imps (L1 and L2)

    Are there any others of you out there still who were similarly employed.?
    The late Mike Parkes was our Project manager at Invergordon.
    I worked for Rootes Motors from 1960-1970 in several capacities.

  15. A mates mum had one of these back in 78/79 a 75/N reg in a metallic aqua. On an evening out with two friends [i was front passenger] all of us being around 18/19 years of age and all recently passed testswe headed to the local rural pub but on a corner of a country lane my mate lost it on mud and proceeded to take off over a ditch and hit a tree head on!. An age without seat belts or air bags and with Gods luck no one was hurt and the poor old car with a big V in the front dissapeared from view in the hedge.
    That was the end of a fine old car!

  16. Dontbuybluemotion – Post Number 13;

    I am very disappointed at your statement;

    “It has been written many times that The Factory workers new little else but the working practices of Ship Yards, Many couldn’t grasp that Car production was continuous rather than Contracts of Building Ships come to an end and therefore why hurry themselves onto the Dole. Many workers still waited at the Factory Gates each morning waiting to get a Job, which was not the way Car Factory’s were run.”..

    Clearly you have based you comment on what you have read rather than know – now sadly I have also read many times the comment “militant shipyard workers..” in relation to Linwood, this is sloppy “copy” journalism with little knowledge from the writer of the Linwood plant.

    Having worked at Linwood during Imp production, I can assure you there were no queues of Shipyard Workers lining the street outside the factory.

    There was however a few wives ensuring the contents of the pay packet was not handed over at the nearest bar!

    Great web site!

  17. @22 Your quite right in that I was not there when Linwood was in full swing, So yes I did just write What Has Been Written Many Many Times Before…. Where you there from the Start? or towards the end when the Workers knew it was their last chance hope?

    If the many tales were untrue why do so many repeat the tale’s? especially the many that were associated with Linwood.. I once worked with a Crane Driver who would have no reason to lie but mentioned that He was on Hire in the Linwood Plant (possibly early 70s) when a group of workers were outside smoking, He asked one of them if He had a spare Battery.. “No Problem Pal” was the reply when The worker brought out a Brand New Battery complete with Leads, solenoid and starter Motor, When a Supervisor shouted at the worker Which the Worker just turned around and told Him to F*ck Off !

    The Crane Driver was only there for a few days when He noticed a fight breaking out, apparently a new starter was working too quick, Whilst at the recent 50th Anniversary held at the Coventry Transport Museum one of the former Plant Managers told many tales of His experience’s and problems with Linwood, especially with adjusting to the working practices of the Production Line and including the many Thefts which took place including Bouncing Imp wheels over the fence to an awaiting gang with a van.

  18. The fact that the plant was there in the first place with Avenger bodyshells going up and down a trainline speaks volumes about how suitable a location it was.
    It was a political sop,more window dressing for creating employment,even the bloody book on the car is £48 on Amazon.

  19. dontbuybluemotion, Posting 23, Firstly a sincere apology for taking so long to respond to your email – I had forgotten about it..

    This link is the best I have seen into details of the working environment and workers experiences written by Alison Gilmour, Glasgow Uni in 2010 – its heavy going at about 250 pages, but contains a wealth of detail from notes, documents and interviews with staff but as you read through can see where myths regarding “militant shipyard workers” took hold and started to become “fact” although there is no real evidence to back it up. But then Scottish jouralists were not used to car factories and tried to explain strikes and disputes what what they knew. Any modern Car magazine writer does not have them time to do any decent research so all the old misconceptions come out.

    As regards the thefts, the link goes into that and includes the Bouncing Tyres!

    Now can I verify any of this – indeed I can not!.. But you had to blow the spare tyres up pretty hard then bouce them – trick was you needed someone on the other side to catch the damn things, as for other tales like the truck with some vehicles inside – you mean the last Danish Bacon to leave built by Rootes Pressings North Side, but for some reason it was stored along with some others on the South Side along with a few others, so maye thats how the 3 Imps tried to do a Colditz..

    A few years ago I aquired a pile of “new” Imp parts including new front wing, sills, enough rear shocks to restart production, door locks etc. Quite how a front wing could be slipped under your jacket…The chap who had collected them was an Inspector at the Plant.

    Now as for the visiting American Chrysler Director who asked what model that was that? As a BLMC 1100 / 1300 came through the paint shop during the night shift..

  20. @ my own post no 12, Last of the line L4 engines (74 onwards) Have Sport cam but kids to School Valves…

    @ 25 There are many Tales to tell at every factory/workplace, can anyone prove them? some are started off as rumours that end up as gospel because everyone has heard them, But Militancy and general adaptability to the production line appear to be the general topic when mentioning Linwood, However I cannot prove this as I have never worked there. At National have spoken to a few of the Scotish lot who say At times it was a Joke, again not sure if they worked there or just hearsay, But was it any worse than anywhere else? And yet It still managed to turn out over 400,000 Imps…

    There are many tales from that site, even the Henshaw Bros Book “Apex” mentions one guy making Golf Clubs, another tale either heard or read was a Big shot from Chrysler caused a massive walk out by shouting out what HE thought of them… whilst everyone downed tools, He chuckled to himself and says to management “I dont have to pay them any wages” He had parking area full of unsold Imps waiting for buyers.

    Also there is amature footage of the last Imp to roll off the line followed by a Coffin that the workers had made, even by 1976 they knew they didnt have long.

    However by the early 1970s Linwood was strongly rumoured to be assembling cars better than their counterparts at Ryton on Dunsmore Plant, as early Avenger’s were alleged to be quite shocking. Chrysler even put on advertising/Brochures “The Linwood Craftsmen”.

  21. Although I did not work at Linwood I lived nearby and knew many people who worked there. There is a lot of folklore about what went on and it was probably no worse than many other factories. There was much thieving – it was nicknamed The Big Store With The Free Counter and I well remember being offered parts – the Holbay Rapier Weber carbs were much prized. Much of the stuff went out ‘legally’ as Documented Scrap through contractors but usually there was nothing wrong with it. I had a friend who built a ‘one piece at a time’ Hunter this way. The problem was from top to bottom. I worked with many ex-Rootes employees after the plant closed and some of them including my own manager were useless. If you are into ‘Time Team’ type archaeology you should go to Highcraig Quarry nearby and start digging because when the plant closed all the obsolete spares were buried there. I also remember attending the closure auction which went on for days and it was heart breaking to see all these years of investment being scrapped.

  22. A ’74 Imp was my first car. With hindsight I should have kept it longer.

    Handing was tremendous, especially in the wet on radial tyres, 4 wheel drifts were childs’ play (as I occasionally demonstrated on roundabouts). Interior space was much better and accommodation more comfortable than a Mini.

    Main problems were inadequate water pump bearings which would fail if the fan belt was even a bit too tight, head gaskets if the water pump failed, and carbon ring clutch thrust bearings (common in the 60s and 70s).

    Build quality was laughable by todays standards but at least it was easy to fix. The interior panels were painted hardboard and the whole interior was held together by 5/8″ self tapping screws — if they hadn’t fallen out. I later trimmed mine with black vinyl cloth which also helped noise suppression. The Climax engine was a little gem if looked after properly but there was the downside that the OHC and bucket tappets had to be shimmed periodically which was expensive (for the time). Also, when putting it back together, a good torque wrench was essential to prevent stripping bolts and studs.

    Had very little trouble with mine other than a stripped Woodruffe key on the water pump (new pump of course) and a failed clutch bearing (clutch changed on the drive on a Saturday afternoon). As I regularly used to drive across the Pennines I kept a nice heavy box of tools in the [front] boot to stop the front becoming airborne, and later added a small front spoiler (made from a strip of thin steel sheet) which also helped. The Imp averaged over 40mpg and would crack 50mpg if kept below 60mph [indicated].

    I even managed to get the heater working properly after flushing the system out with water, changing the thermostat and adjusting the water valve cable so that the valve opened fully.

    With just a little development the Imp could have been a great car — and no, it was not built terribly well at all, but there again, probably as well built as an Escort or Mini of the same era.

  23. The question of the quality of the Imp has been discussed a lot in this forum. It is well known that the early cars were not good, a mixture of under development, niggling faults and inexperience of the workforce. The cars from about 1965 to 1968 were much better – most of the design problems were resolved. I worked for Ayr County Council in the early 1970s which had a large fleet of Imp vans and cars and we got good service from them. After that Chrysler started penny pinching and they got a lot worse with the final production Caledonians [cherry red with tartan seats] being particularly bad. Remember that this was the time of upheavals in the steel industry and much of the steel used by all manufacturers was imported and of poor quality. One of the critical weaknesses was the length of time they took to go through the chocolate dip when the lower body was immersed in rust proofer. If the line was running fast it did not get into the sills properly.

    It is easy to be too critical of the plant. Remember that previously as Pressed Steel they built many thousands of 16 ton mineral wagons and a large batch of 3 car electric trains [later class 303] which were regarded as the highest quality and best designed suburban trains ever supplied to BR.

  24. the 928cc engine is better ,but if the 1020cc or lager ones Coventry climax were fitted it would have been great ,

  25. Linwood had its problems like every other car factory of that era, but I think it was nowhere near as bad as Longbridge and it was a bit cruel to see it sacrificed in 1981 as the town never really recovered.

  26. It was a familiar sight in Scotland as it was considered Scotland’s car and was a popular panda car for many Scottish police forces. Once fettled, the Imp was a fine car and way better than the Mini, which wasn’t exactly reliable.

  27. My first car was a 1969 Hillman Imp and it gave excellent service. I drove it all over the UK and took it over the channel on the Hovercraft and got as far as Lake Constance before we started making our way back. The only breakdown I ever had was the result of buying bad fuel in Scarborough. Its biggest fault was the brakes. With drums all round and no servo a crash stop from high speed could leave you standing up on the brake pedal getting the thing to halt. A mate of mine rallied a tuned version and he moved the rad to the front and fitted disc brakes. He was rather successful in the 70’s

  28. IIRC Rootes & Ford were given the chance to oversee the running of VW after the war but turned down the chance.

    I presume some Rootes personnel have the chance to look at the factory & make some notes first.

    • Seems that aside from Fedden and Kendall (who initially produced their own government-backed Beetle-inspired projects that inexplicably used radial engines), it was parts of the Attlee government that really wanted to produce the Volkswagen in the UK.

      Cannot see that working in the short of the UK Volkswagen being significantly re-bodied and using non-Volkswagen mechanicals (e.g. Jean-Albert Gregoire’s AFG project) in order to overcome anti-German sentiment, maybe styled in the mold of the Beetle-based Volkshart V2 Sagitta.

      Have read elsewhere that the flat-twin in the post-war Little Jim project might be related to the pre-war Porsche-designed Volkspflug tractor project.

  29. Has there ever been a direct comparison of Imp and NSU? They follow a very similar styling route and seem to be very similar in character with very sporty engines, even if the NSU’s is air cooled.
    Would be very intresting to see a match between a fast(er) Imp and NSU TT or TTS.

  30. Linwood was created as part of a government plan to create employment in areas where traditional employment was dying out and to create well paid employment in these areas( beats the more modern approach of call centres and warehouses). It’s a shame as Linwood only lasted 18 years, it was a branch plant for Rootes traditional Coventry factories and cost Rootes and Chrysler a fortune to keep going, while similar plants set up by Ford and Vauxhall on Merseyside continue to do well, probably because they’re closer to the Midlands.

    • One problem Rootes had with Linwood were so many parts needed to between there & Ryton & back, which must have put up production costs, even with good transport links.

      Maybe it would have done better if this traffic was 1 way.

      I know there were plans to move Hunter production there, which might have made the logistics simpler, but the costs of moving the tooling was too high.

      • I think this evidence of the poor planning that Lee Iaocca was on about. If planning had been done properly you would not have parts floating back and forward between sites. Modern car assembly shows that it can be efficient but Rootes just got it wrong.

        • I read that Studebaker painted themselved into a corner by the layout of their South Bend plant, which had a crane to lift things between 2 buildings.

          It seems they didn’t have enough spare money to build a proper bridge or something like that.

    • Linwood was built mostly because there were sever skill shortages in the Midlands. The area had a skilled work force experienced in light engineering. Car Manufacturing had only stopped in the area twenty years previously, and light trucks had been produced local as recently as 1946. Additionally Fisher pressed Steel and Ravenscrag were near by producing body parts. The site had excellent rail links and was close to sea links. The site performed no worse than any other Rootes plant.

      • I think Lingwood was built because of the industry board policy to create jobs in areas that were loosing them. Routes did apply to expand their factory, as detailed on this website, but we’re not given permission. If you look at BL they opened factories everywhere because of this government policy.

        • Could other industries in place of the UK automotive industry have been encouraged to build new factories in areas that were losing them as a result of government policy?

          • I think they were. Remember this was a labour government who were interfering with British industry across all levels. Part of British aero industry was forced to merge to create BAC, and policies that pushed forward a supersonic plane instead of mass movement proved to be wrong. In fact most of the policies set out after the war for industry by both labour and tory governments helped it fall apart.

          • Regarding the motor industry and the government, sort of wished Fedden’s plans to become a government-backed carmaker was a success if only so Fedden Cars could have one for the team so in speak in becoming the labour government’s plaything and focus of attention by building factories in places like Linwood. Leaving the rest of the motor industry to expand existing factories or build new factories more locally.

            Additionally when thinking about it further had the government enacted new reasonable regulations on microcars during the war or in the immediate post-war era that were akin to Japan’s Kei Car class (albeit more Fiat 500 / Subaru 360-sized instead of Mini-sized) instead of being very punitive, it would have potentially allowed other industries to diversify (such as the motorcycle industry, etc) to provide domestic transport while mainstream carmakers were being told to export or die (notwithstanding the steel shortages), thus they could have also later taken one for the rest of the motor industry by building factories in deprived areas as a result of government policy.

            Neither happened though both had still had the potential to play such roles so long as they are not badly executed due to the government.

        • Why do you think there was such a policy; to address labour shortages. Linwood was not in an area loosing jobs and in fact was was in one of the most prosperous parts of Scotland at the time (things have changed now)

  31. Post war industrial policy in Scotland was based around dealing with the decline of coal and shipbuilding. By the mid sixties, most of the Ayrshire and Lanarkshire coalfield was exhausted and shipbuilding was in decline as air travel replaced sea travel. It was in this period that Linwood and Bathgate opened, creating 13,000 jobs, and a huge expansion of the Ravenscraig steelworks took place to supply these factories with steel. Also it was a source of pride for Scotland to have its own motor industry and for a time the Hillman Imp was promoted as Scotland’s car.

    • In which case you’d have put the factory in either Hamilton of Greenock.
      Neither of these industries were actually in decline until the seventies, by which time the factory had been there for a good few years.

      FYI a proposed expansion of the Greenock shipyards to meet demand for container ships was halted by the Labour government in the 50s leading to investment being diverted to Newcastle and other yards.

  32. A similar situation happened when nissan opened their sunderland pland. Yes there were financial incentives, but Nissan took the decision that the workforce at Sunderland was a better match for their requirements than the work force in the West Midlands and identified a number of stategic advantages that led to them being based there.

    Similarly once Rootes realised they could not expand at their existing sites they looked around and identified the site that suited them best.

  33. Would it be accurate to say the original dry-liner Imp engine’s capacity range was around 800-948cc (since the 998cc was only intended for motorsport use), while the planned 5-bearing tall block unit had a likely capacity range of 998-1150cc (if not more)?

  34. Two additions to this story.
    1. Pre Imp. It was mentioned that in 1964, Rootes Group, having fallen on hard times, received “its first injection of cash from the acquisitive Chrysler company…” What I have never seen documented is the fact that Chrysler had shown interest in Rootes six years earlier, in 1957, and seemingly Rootes had not rejected the approach. This was several years before Rootes’ financial health was known to be seriously threatened, first by a 1961 strike at the Rootes-owned stamping/pressing plant, BLSP, which shut down vehicle production for 13 weeks, secondly by the reliability problems that plagued the early Imps. I am aware of the early overture by Chrysler to Rootes because of an incident early in 1957. The Suez Crisis had devasted car sales for British car manufacturers, and many plants, including those of Rootes, were put on “short time”, with workforces on layoff. But the layoffs did not apply to Rootes pupils and apprentices in Coventry who were still required to come in and hang around the darkened and deserted shops. I was a pupil (aka student-apprentice) and one day in March 1957 we were told that a delegation from the American company Chrysler was being shown around – we were to ensure we were wearing clean coveralls, keep at a distance but look busy. Rumour was that Chrysler was looking for a British or European partner to provide small cars for fast-growing demand in the USA and Canada. But it seems Chrysler’s interest in Rootes did not go further at that time, for the following year, 1958, Chrysler purchased a 15% interest in Simca.
    2. In the Autocar photo of Mike Parkes beside the Slug, the other person standing there is Ernie Unger. (Not, please note, Tim Fry, as I have seen wrongly stated on other captions accompanying this particular photo). Ernie Unger was a year ahead of me in the pupil programme. He had worked for Colin Chapman prior to coming to Rootes, but had decided that he would get a broader training at Rootes; because of his Lotus experience he was an obvious fit for the Apex/Imp development team. Later in his career he was partner in a company which designed and built the Unipower GT, a small coupe with the Mini Cooper engine amidships; approx. 70 were sold, many campaigned in racing

  35. If Mr Douglas Field is still in touch with this site please get in contact with me. I‘m carrying out a research in order to write the biography of Mike Parkes. The project is almost finished but input is always appreciated of course. Regards, Andreas

  36. It has been said that the Imp engine was expensive to produce, yet what is not clear is how much of that was down to the nightmarish and costly logistics (involving 600 mile round trips) vs the design and usage of aluminum?

    Had for example Rootes succeeded in expanding Ryton and pushing back against the government like Rover did, surely the improved logistics would have helped significantly reduced costs for what was an advanced engine / project along with helping to remove or mitigate other issues surrounding the Imp and the general background of the project (e.g. the costs of the Honeymoon / Acton strikes during Rootes expansion phase, etc).

    It is easy to deride the Imp for an inferior rear-engined layout and while being a small company they were not in a position to quickly start anew when the Mini appeared with a FWD successor, the likes of Simca, Fiat / SEAT, Renault, Skoda and others were still doing pretty well with their mostly similarly-sized rear-engined cars.

    Leading one to believe the Imp was salvageable in spite of its rear-engined layout and poor execution for a few more years after the appearance of the Mini, the Simca 1000 in particular would prove to be commercially successful over a similar period of time and had a feature (like the SEAT 850) neither the Imp or the Mini possessed – 4-doors.

    The Simca also featured a 777cc version in France, which together with the Spanish 844cc and regular 944cc models pretty much covers a very similar projected capacity range for what the Imp engine was actually capable of displacing in its existing form (leaving aside the wet-liner 998cc Rallye spec and other tall-block derived units).

    • If was such an expensive engine to make, why did Coventry Climax continue to make a variation as a water pump! I think the stupid logistics was probably what made the engine expensive.

      We know that Chrysler did look at building a Hilmanised (I know but what else can you call it!) version of the Simca 1000 as per Car Design Archives, but probably would have cost more to refit the factory to produce the 1000 at Linwood, or importing them from Poissy (as we still wasn’t part of the EEC).

      • I presume the demand for the engine for running a pump was a lot lower, & could justify the higher costs. The problem seemed to be scaling up the production for mass production. I did wonder if Rootes ever considered making an iron block version of it, that might have been simpler to make & less troublesome.

        I presume the 1000 could have been assembled at Linwood or Ryton from pressings brought over from France.

      • Agreed. As for an iron block version it would depend on what the weight penalty was compared to the originally all-alloy, even if the former featured an alloy-head.

        Did wonder if like how Rover during talks with Standard-Triumph reversed-engineered the Wet-Liner diesel to create the 2-litre diesel and 2.25-litre petrol Land Rover engines, Rootes could have taken a similar approach against Standard-Triumph once more during merger talks in the same decade by reverse-engineering the SC engine and Standard Ten / Pennant.

        Even funnier would be how Standard-Triumph’s own ideas for the post-war Eight, considered the Renault 4CV as a possible pattern for the new car before dreary realism took hold and the idea was abandoned. More so if Rootes took the same all-alloy approach with the reverse-engineered SC engine as Reliant did to create the all-alloy Reliant OHV.

        Based on the Imp’s Corvair influences, could a better way to help differentiate it from the existing ordinary-looking saloon body (and thereby bestow it with Mini-like chicness in form if not in function) be found by drawing inspiration from the similarly Corvair-influenced Vauxhall / GM XP-714 project?

        The early versions of XP-714 actually had a similar length as the Imp and though conceived with FWD in mind, the link below features an image of a full-size package rendering for a hypothetical rear-engine RWD version.—viva-part-1

  37. The Imp had an unlikely product placement, when one was trashed in the Norman Wisdom film A Stitch In Time, one of Wisdom’s funniest films and probably not what Rootes wanted to see for their new car.

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