Concepts and prototypes : Rootes Swallow saloon (1959-1964)

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

It did not progress very far – which, as events unfolded, is probably no bad thing.


This Swallow would never make spring…

Rootes Swallow

The story of Rootes’ Swallow dates back to the 1950s, and shows, yet again, how the British motor industry enjoyed a good deal of cross fertilization between the companies. It might have been conceived as something quite innovative to replace the popular Audax model range, but its origins are far more interesting.

In the late-1950s, Dunstable-based automotive consultancy company ERA was commissioned by BMC to produce its idea of an advanced saloon car. It was an ideas-generating project to challenge BMC’s own Designers, with a view to taking the firm in another direction, had it been suitable.

The resulting rear-engined car (below) was then sold to back BMC, which quickly dropped the idea, figuring that the front-wheel-drive Mini concept was just fine when scaled up. The rest, they say, is history…

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

Making the move from BMC to Rootes

So, what is the link between this amusing concept and the Rootes Swallow? In 1959, ERA was sold to the Zenith/Solex concern, which had little interest in producing cars. Instead, it preferred to concentrate on research into carburettors and fuel injection systems.

The Design Team responsible for ERA’s BMC proposal concluded that it was time to jump ship, instead preferring to remain in the car business. David Hodkin headed that team, and they found a berth at Rootes, which at the time, was also attempting to re-invent itself.

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

Hillman Minx

First attempt: Rootes Swift

Almost immediately, the Designers set about producing concepts for the new car. These first cars (dubbed Swift) pretty much picked up where ERA had left off and continued the slightly off-the-wall thinking that led to the original car.

The Swift was conceived as a family of cars that could be powered by an in-line four or V8 engine, driving the front wheels (ahead of the axle-line, just like 1970s and ’80s Audis), but it soon became clear that the car’s packaging would be difficult and, when management started making disparaging noises about the Swift, an Imp-like rear-engined layout quickly emerged as the preferred option.

The move to a rear engine came by way of a mid-engined layout. However, it was then decided that the best place to mount the engine would be in the space aft of the rear seats, but ahead of the axle line, a mid-rear layout, in effect. This allowed for a boot to be retained at the rear, while ensuring that the style did not become too tail heavy.

Swift becomes Swallow in 1963

Unfortunately, marketing requirements (of a 14-foot length) subsequently meant that the Design Team had to drop the idea of producing a V8-engined car – which, in turn, meant that the move to a rear-engined layout would not have been necessary, after all.

The engine was to be one of the most interesting aspects of the Swallow. As with the Imp, Rootes asked Coventry Climax to produce an engine for the Swallow and, also like the Imp, it was based on an existing unit, the 1220cc FWE.

This engine had already found a home in the original Lotus Elite and proved to be an excellent basis for a range of family car units. Swallow was designed to use 1250cc, 1500cc and 1750cc versions.

Ford Cortina Mk1

Ford Cortina plays its part

By early 1963, the car had crystallised into the Swallow, but thanks to the announcement of the immaculately costed Ford Cortina (above), it came under financial scrutiny from the Rootes Group’s management. After being instructed to limit the car’s length to 14-feet, the team was then given permission to grow it to match its rival.

However, it couldn’t be allowed to get heavier – because of the Cortina’s influence, the Swallow’s body engineering would need to be as light and efficient as possible. Pressed Steel produced a shell that met these demands (6000 lb ft/degree compared with 4,650 of the later Hillman Hunter/Rootes Arrow range).

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

Rootes Swallow front

It drove as well as it looked

Former Rootes Engineer, Colin Ward, recalled his time on the car: ‘I worked on the Swallow project as a Chassis Design Draughtsman before moving on to the Hunter when the Swallow was dropped. Because the engine was installed transversely across the chassis the tail end weight was not a problem.

‘I had the opportunity to drive the prototype and found the vehicle to be very neutral and it did not have any bad characteristics. The front aspect of the vehicle was influenced by the front mounted radiator and cooling was a problem.

‘Pressurising the cooling system to improve the cooling proved to be difficult as a result of the pipework required to connect the rear engine to the front of the vehicle and development was required but the vehicle was dropped before work was begun.’

Rootes Swallow rear

Swallow: too much cost to bear

So, why did the Swallow not make it into production? Rootes had already felt the financial effects of the new Linwood factory, and the profit margins of the Hillman Imp were already looking slim.

Management insecurity over this led to the Swallow project being re-appraised. After all, the smaller, cheaper Rootes Arrow project (which had run concurrently with the Swallow since late 1962) managed to look favourable, and had potential as a bigger car, as well.

In November 1963, management bit the bullet and issued the edict that the Swallow was cancelled. Given that Pressed Steel had already built one prototype body, the car was completed anyway, and it was run in 1964. It was academic by then, and soon after, the Swallow was mothballed. A sad end to an interesting idea…

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

Pictures courtesy of Autocar, supplied by Jerry Ford.

Keith Adams

21 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

    • Conxidering that the rear engine Imp had excellent handling, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine the Swallow would handle well too. I love the hunters, but think this could have done very well.

      Did they ever consider putting the Coventry Climax engines into the Hunter?

      • I don’t think so, but a good time before the Sunbeam arrived they had an Avenger at Whitley with an Imp engine which took part in a number of economy driving challenges that were popular with the motoring press following the oil crisis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  10. The section between the A pillar & C pillar looks very similar to the Triumph 1300. Looks like it would have dated better than the Hunter. I reckon that it would have won the toss had it been given a front engine.

  11. So the Swallow like the Arrow was originally conceived as a roughly Avenger sized car before it was grown slightly towards a more Arrow sized car to challenge the Cortina by the time the project was abandoned?

    Have to wonder whether there was any further stretch left in the proposed Swallow engine from 1750cc towards 2000cc, thereby anticipating the Cortina mk3’s growth to 2-litres.

    While Rootes were in trouble it would have been interesting seeing Swallow-based analogue of the Imp-based Rootes Asp to replace the Sunbeam Alpine, though presumably such a car would have been given another name to avoid complications with the renowned French Alpine marque.

  12. Interesting to see different bodyshell ideas being tried out, in the colour photos of the early prototype. The rear doors had the Arrow shape even at that stage. The front doors…not so much.

    But what’s going on with the door handles, set so low? Was that to allow changes to be made to the sheet metal without disturbing the internal parts?

  13. I did the torsion tests on the prototype Swallow bodyshell at Pressed Steel in the early 60s, and it was considerably stronger than the outgoing Audax (Minx Mk Vs)bodies. Soon afterwards we had an FVE (Foreign Vehicle Evaluation) Mk 1 Cortina in to test, and the Swallow almost THREE times as strong as the Cortina! The engineering staff disbelieved the test figures I produced for the Cortina and had me do it all over again as they figured a car would never last on the road while being that flexible!

    • Ford had over engineered the body on the Classic, which struggled with it’s weight. When the designed the Cortina, Ford went all out to reduce cost and weight, so it doesn’t surprise me that your figures were that wildly different.

  14. The earlier idea for a family of FWD cars that could be powered by an in-line four or V8 engine, not only brings to mind 1970s-1980s Audis but also the Saab 99 / 900 as well as by virtue of the Coventry Climax-derived Swallow engine.

    Which is interesting because Triumph were said to be influenced to some degree by what Coventry Climax was producing, when it came to developing their own Slant-Four (together with Saab) and Stag V8 projects. The Stag V8 initially started out as an injected 2.5-litre V8 based on a pair of 1.2-litre Slant-Fours.

    https://www.classicandsportscar.com/features/separated-birth-saab-99-vs-triumph-dolomite

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