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…
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…
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.
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 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.
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.’
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…
Pictures courtesy of Autocar, supplied by Jerry Ford.
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