Home | Motoring in Australia | 1960s | Hillman Imp - 1967

Motoring: Hillman Imp - 1967

In the aftermath of the fuel shortage caused by the Suez crisis in 1956, European car manufacturers rushed to create small cars which used less fuel. This was the era of the first Morris Mini, a small car capable of carrying a small family. The Coventry-based Rootes Group developed such a new car with a number of unique features - an aluminium alloy engine, positioned at the rear and angled at 45 degrees instead of vertically. Perhaps as an unintended prediction of the car's unreliability, the car had a wheel brace which could be used as a hand starter if the electrics failed! Known internally within Rootes as the "Apex", the Imp was intended as a rival to the Mini.

To manufacture the new car, the company needed a bigger manufacturing plant. But instead of expanding in their English factories in Coventry, the British government (full of ideas about how commerce and industry should manage their businesses) persuaded Rootes to build in the unemployment black spot of the West of Scotland. Thus a factory in Linwood near Paisley and 14 miles west of Glasgow (across the road from a pressed-steel plant and not too far from the steel manufacturing plant at Ravenscraig in Lanarkshire) came into being.

The Duke of Edinburgh officially opened the plant in October 1963 when he drove the first production Hillman Imp (which is now in the Transport Museum in Glasgow). Although the car was sold in large numbers in England - and attempts were made to export it abroad - the Imp was seen as a "Scottish" car at least in Scotland. The Imp was often the first car that many Scots had ever owned. Most of the workers were Scottish (few English employees were willing to transfer to Scotland, leading to a lack of experienced staff). Many of the production line staff were in fact from the declining Clyde shipyards.

The car was launched in 1963 with too few cars in the showrooms and as production was rapidly expanded, quality control suffered and the car began to develop a reputation for unreliability. The Glaswegian workforce recruited from the shipbuilding industry were not versed in the intricacies of motor vehicle assembly, and Imp build quality and reliability suffered. They also brought with them their militant left-wing values, and as a result strike action and industrial disputes were a rule rather than an exception. In 1964 there were 31 stoppages and only a third of the plant capacity was realised - 50,000 rather than 150,000. Even so, 1964 was the high point of production, declining to only 19,000 in 1975, the last full year of manufacture.The daring design of the Imp was also somewhat underdeveloped, and mechanical problems were common in the early cars. In 1966 a major revision of the Imp was released, effectively splitting the marque into Mk I and Mk II cars. In total, 440,013 cars were built by the time the last car rolled off the production line in March 1976.

Sunbeam Californian

A coupe was introduced in 1965 that had a non-opening rear window that was more steeply raked than the saloon hatch, and a roofline 2 inches (51 mm) lower. In 1965 a Van was introduced and the same pressings were used to create the estate, badged as a Husky in 1967. Both vehicles were retired in 1970. Through the use of the opening rear window on saloon models, the car was effectively a hatchback. In true Rootes (and British) tradition, there were also some badge-engineered derivatives, such as the luxury Singer Chamois, and the Sunbeam Sport (photo above) with a more powerful twin-carburettor engine. The coupe bodyshell was used to create the Imp Californian and Sunbeam Stiletto variants.

The huge investment in both the Imp and the Linwood production plant proved to be the undoing of Rootes, and its commercial failure led to huge losses. By 1967 the company had fallen into the hands of Chrysler, to become part of Chrysler Europe, whose stewardship led to the death of the Imp in 1976, and the entire empire's collapse two years later. Chrysler sold out to the French Peugot-Citroen who renamed their UK operation Talbot. Car production continued at Linwood on other models - the aged Hillman Hunter and Avenger models. In May 1981 the entire Linwood manufacturing complex was closed, making 5,000 workers redundant.

Phone: 0412 879 698 | Email us
Content © 2017 Australia For Everyone