The Towns Hustler: not so much a car, more a way of life…
There’s so much more to this amazing kit car than its extraordinary looks – Keith Adams tells the story of what was one of the most memorable specialist cars produced in the UK.
Towns Hustler: thin end of the wedge
The Towns Hustler started out as a simple yet striking modular concept devised by William Towns in July 1978 to demonstrate that such a car could be viable for low-volume production. When the first prototype emerged in the autumn of that year, it was like no car that had gone before: built around a pair of Mini subframes connected by a low-slung, monocoque steel floorpan, its lower body panels and clamshell bonnet were formed from fibreglass, while its upper-body styling mated a rakish front end to a boxy, hatchback-style rear framework filled with large panes of glass.
It was topped off with the a vinyl-covered roof fashioned from marine-grade plywood. The finishing touch was provided by a pair of Matra Rancho-style spotlights mounted at the upper edges of the windscreen. Inside, the car was just as unusual: seating came in the most basic form imaginable – a set of stacking, injection-moulded canteen chairs, while the floor was covered in practical yet stylish black rubber matting. Hanging from the simply-styled dashboard was a satchel, serving as Towns’ quirky interpretation of the glovebox. Access was gained via sliding glass panels – ‘windoors’ in Towns-speak – on either side, with a top-hinged tailgate at the back.
The car received an enthusiastic reception from the press and, when Towns started to get numerous requests to build replicas, he was convinced that the car should enter production in kit form. After initial talks with Jensen fell through, Towns took the bold step of financing the venture himself and so, in 1979, he began turning out Hustler kits at his Interstyl Studios near Moreton-in-the-Marsh in Gloucestershire. Over the next ten years, more than 200 kits would be sold, in a vast array of different bodystyle and mechanical configurations.
First to emerge was the Hustler 4, a simple four-wheeled model which remained true to the original concept car, but could be built in a variety of different forms if the standard hatch-back style didn’t fit the bill; options included a pick-up (called the Hobo), beach car, flat-bed truck and even a camper. Demand for increased capacity meant that a longer version – the Hustler 6 – was soon added to the range, but as the name implies, the extra length was gained not by stretching the wheelbase, but by adding a further Mini subframe at the rear, making this version a very distinctive 6-wheeler.
Needless to say, most (if not all) owners chose to forego the original austere interior treatment in favour of something more comfortable, and some Hustlers were very lavishly trimmed indeed. Towns quickly responded to this demand by introducing a leather-grained facia panel and headliner package, complete with aircraft-style overhead console, along with a variety of improvements to the structure and finish of the internal bodywork panels.
Adding to the Hustler range
Next came the Hustler Sprint – a lower, sleeker sporting version with flared wheelarches, front spoiler and a comfortably-trimmed, 2+2 interior. During the 1980s, many more Hustler varieties would emerge. The extraordinary ‘Hustler in Wood’ was presented at the 1980 British Motor Show, demonstrating that anyone with average joinery skills and a set of plans could produce the car’s bodywork in marine plywood as an alternative to the standard fibreglass.
The eye-catching show car featured highly-varnished, mahogany-veneered ply edged in contrasting ash, and Towns could now justifiably claim that his increasingly prolific creation ‘grows on trees!’ The wooden version also brought several practical advantages: Interstyl could sell and ship the kits more cheaply without having to include bodywork panels, while the buyer was able to specify his own grade and finish of wood at his local hardware store. There was also the prospect of cheaper repairs for minor knocks and scrapes.
1982 saw the introduction of the Hellcat, a very basic open-top, Jeep-like version which dispensed with virtually all of the exterior body panels apart from the bonnet; again, this was offered in either four- or six-wheeled variants. The following year, Towns added the Huntsman to the range, featuring revised styling, larger-diameter wheels and Hydrolastic or Hydragas suspension, reflecting the fact that this new model was based not on the Mini, but on ADO16 or Metro parts.
Growing in stature
In 1985, the range was expanded still further, with the addition of the Force 4 and Force 6 models, which were the first Hustlers to feature conventionally-hinged doors. Later that year, Towns unleashed the last word in Hustlers: the awesome Highlander 6, powered by the 5.3-litre, V12 Jaguar engine, which apparently only found eight eager customers.
It didn’t stop there, though. According to Chris Rees’ book, British Specialist Cars, later versions included the slant-fronted Holiday; a Crayford Argocat-based eight-wheeled amphibious version; and even a Hustler sailing boat, taking the marine plywood theme to the extreme! Rees goes on to explain that, by the late 1980s, plans were also afoot for a new, more rounded version of the car, this time being based around the Ford Cortina.
However, Hustler production ended before this version saw the light of day and, in any case, by this time Towns’ attention had presumably turned to the Railton project.