Hillman Imp Fifty Years
1963 - 2013

Hillman Imp 1963, Submitted by Rick Feibusch

 Hillman Imp 1963

Hillman Imp Fifty Years
1963 - 2013

By Geoff Wheatley

Million of words have been written about the now famous MINI that saw the light of day in 1959. Without doubt one of the top Motoring Success Stories of the last century. In 1963 the Roots Motor Company in the UK presented a challenge to the then established Mini, the Hillman Imp. It was larger than the Mini with more space and a rear window that could be opened and the rear seat could be folded to give optional storage space. The rear engine, (a feature not usually associated with British Cars) was easy to access, located in the lower section of the rear, with the performance listed as 75 MPH. Engine size similar to the Mini at 875 cc, while MPG was slightly better despite the extra size.

1960 Austin Mini 850

1960 Austin Mini 850

The car looked more like a standard motor car, square with a full front, a design feature of the time. The Hillman Company was part of the Rootes Motor Group and had a sound reputation for producing solid reliable, (if somewhat dull), cars. The type of vehicle that your middle aged Bank Manager would drive. The plant was based in Coventry in company with many of the other British Motorcar producers except, Morris Motors, Ford UK and Vauxhall (GM), who were located some 120 miles south. To be honest the Imp was not designed as a competitor to the Mini, it had been on the drawing board at the Hillman Company for several years. The cost of fuel in the UK had been increasing almost year by year and there was a general feeling that smaller cars would be the market of the future. The fact that BMC were a couple of years ahead of Rootes with the Mini simply endorsed this need. Like other British Motor manufacturers Rootes did not have the resources to develop their small car while BMC representing the combined wealth of both Austin and Morris did!

Hillman Imp
Tim Surman Photo

Hillman Imp

Rootes went to the Conservative British Government of the day and asked for financial support. It was granted but with certain conditions. Despite the fact that Hillman was based in Coventry, because of political reasons, which in real terms means that you locate your government supported industry in a depressed area where the voters will be grateful. The loan of fifteen million dollars representing 40% of the estimated costs for a new factory, (About $130 Million today) was conditional that the production should be located in Scotland where the economy was on the decline for a variety of reasons, textile competition from overseas. Shipbuilding, for much the same reason with Scottish unemployment over 15%. The small town of LINWOOD (population about 2,500) a few miles west of Glasgow was chosen. As to be expected the arrival of Hillman and the promise of at least 5,000 new jobs created quite a lot of excitement.

1981 DeLorean

DeLorean 1981

Now add the construction of 1,900 new homes by the local government for rent and of course three new schools and a major shopping complex to serve the estimated 15,000 new residents. His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh opened the new factory May 1963 by driving the first production Imp out of the factory. The media had a wonderful time and for weeks after no news report was complete without some up-beat news from Linwood and the success of the Hillman Imp. What it did not say was that the principle components like the Drive train. Pressed body etc., was still being made in Coventry by the Hillman Company and delays were the order of the day for most components. On top of that the local Scottish labor who had made ships for the past two hundred years were not quite up to the required skills of modern production. Quality control was not a required skill when putting these cars together, a problem that the Thatcher Government would experience a few years later with the De Lorean plant in Northern Ireland.

Around 1967 I purchased a Hillman Imp for family use. It was ideal for collecting groceries or whatever especially with the rear seat down. Performance was not as good as the Mini but remember that by then the Mini had a 1000 cc engine and was well tuned for performance. After a few months things began to fall off the car like the front name plate, and the rear lighting arrangement. Now add the various problems with the Aluminum engine that the local dealer could not resolve. At the same time continuing industrial disputes were the order of the day at the factory...(Where have we heard that before?) The original estimate of production was 150,000 cars a year but that was now reduced to around 50,000 with at least ten percent requiring after sales attention!

In the year that I acquired my Imp the Rootes Group was purchased by the Chrysler Corporation at some give away price. (Again where have we heard that before?) A couple of new models were introduced but sales remained in the dumps and each car lost money.

Imp production ended in 1976 and in 1978 Peugeot-Citroen purchased the Chrysler interest and closed the Linwood factory three years later.

They say history repeats its self and remembering this and the fate of the De Lorean enterprise, again with British taxpayer investment, I think that might be true. In reality the dream of a new Scottish motor industry went up in smoke in company with thousands of jobs. Unemployment returned as dreams went out of the window. A Scotish Member of Parliament described the situation in simple terms..."The Death of a Town", and of course it was. The local government had the cost of rental housing around its neck for a very long time. The shopping complex never got off the ground as a desirable destination, not difficult to understand with the City of Glasgow easy to reach by public transport, assuming you still had a job!

In total over 440,000 Hillman Imps were produced at Linwood, how many survive today is unknown... However I can say for certain that mine never did!

© 2013 Geoff Wheatley Contributing Reporter/Writer

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