BOASTING an idiosyncratic design and eminently affordable price tag, it was envisaged as the homegrown motor car that would propel Britain out of the post-war doldrums, and bring car ownership within the reach of ordinary families.
With as many people who loved it as who loathed it, the Hillman Imp is a classic example of unconventional, quirky British engineering. As with so many automobiles, it held not only the promise of an exhilarating driving experience, but of wider, grander dreams, not least the vision of a vibrant Scottish motoring industry.
Unfortunately, the nightmare scenario duly ensued. Amid industrial disputes and allegations of faulty design, the bold enterprise faltered before finally grinding to a halt after just 13 years. In the decades that have passed, the Imp has lived on, with remaining models coveted and cared for by a growing coterie of collectors who eschew the modern age of sleek, foreign-built machines. Today, they have extra reason to rejoice.
On 2 May 1963, the Duke of Edinburgh drove the first Imp off the Rootes Group’s purpose-built production line in Linwood to great fanfare. Now, a half century on, a group of enthusiasts will return to the Renfrewshire town to pay homage to a unique product of Scottish industrial history.
By way of the plans to mark the anniversary and rehabilitate the vehicle’s image, a rally of classic cars, including of course, a host of Imps, will turn out today at the former plant’s administration centre.
Those in attendance – including Andrew Cowan, the veteran rally driver, and Anne Hall, the provost of Renfrewshire Council – will unveil a plaque commemorating the little car. Later, the convoy of cars will take the roads for a 320-mile journey drive to Ryton-on-Dunsmore, the former headquarters of Rootes.
For avowed fans of the wee motor, such celebrations are rich with meaning. “It’s great to have the 50 years recognised,” explained Graham Anderson, chairman of the Imp Club. “I started as an apprentice at 15 years of age and it’s a car that’s been with me for all that time.”
When it went on sale, the Imp captured the popular imagination thanks to its design, featuring the engine fitted in the back, and the boot to the front. With a top-speed of 78 miles per hour, and capable of reaching 0 to 50 in under 15 seconds, it packed a punch. The final carrot was the price – just £508 when it was first released.
In all, the omens for the Imp during its fledgling years appeared positive. At a time when motorists were keen to drive smaller cars, the rear-engined 875cc car was praised for its smooth engine and clever ergonomics, with its design overseen in part by former Formula One driver and engineer, Mike Parkes. A few inspired flourishes – which would later be incorporated in future cars by manufacturers the world over – included a folding back seat and stalk controls for the windscreen wipers and indicators.
However, the car’s shortcomings soon became evident. Its inadequate cooling system meant that the aluminium engines suffered blown gasket heads. Coupled with problems such as poor handling, faulty chokes and water leaks – a consequence, its critics say, of curtailing the vehicle’s development time in order to rush it to market – the public eventually lost faith, and the Imp’s competitor, the Mini, enjoyed blossoming sales. In later years the Imp would even feature in polls designed to ascertain the worst cars ever produced.
In 1973, the end was in sight after Chrysler acquired the plant, having viewed Linwood as a key way of gaining a foothold within Europe. The plan, however, did not come to pass, and by 1976, they stopped production of the Imp. Just two years later, Chrysler sold out to Peugeot Talbot, but the writing was on the wall. The factory eventually closed in May 1981 after turning out a series of cars such as the Hunter, the Sunbeam, and the Avenger, and the vast majority of its buildings were demolished.
Throughout its short life, the enterprise kept close to 11,000 people in work, producing around 440,000 Imps at a rate of 2,000 a week using vast, 25 foot-long slabs of Ravenscraig steel. Some of those cars remain on the road to this day thanks to astute maintenance by their owners. Indeed, he passing of time has seen the Imp assume collectable status among a select band of classic car aficionados, whose number includes Jarvis Cocker, the frontman of Pulp.
Even if the physical signs of Scotland’s last car manufacturer are few and far between nowadays, the Imp’s heritage has survived, if not flourished. As chair of the of the Imp Club, Graham Anderson presides over an organisation which counts enthusiasts from around the world as members. He said that the appeal of the Imp was easy to explain.
He told The Scotsman: “It’s a very popular car for people who won’t want to drive a Mini and it was ahead of its time. I still use mine daily and it’s very reliable. For a car of its size and age, the performance is very, very good indeed, and it will keep up with the traffic in today’s age.”
Mr Anderson, who is coordinating a series of events to celebrate the five decades of the Imp, added: “I’ve actually been working on Hillman Imps for over 40 years. It’s the same for the worldwide members of the club.”
Another devotee, Malcolm Anderson, was one of the first mechanics to learn of the technicalities and foibles of all matters Imp, having first worked on the cars. He later became a proud owner of several of the models, even competing with them in rallies in Europe. Nowadays, he runs a Somerset-based spare parts firm, dealing exclusively in Imps.
He explained: “They’re good, basic British cars that are underestimated. The Imp is very nippy, ergonomical, and a pleasure to drive. I started working with Imps in 1966 and today I supply 25 different countries with Imp parts.
“It’s difficult to compare the car with a modern equivalent, because it’s a classic car, but it’s one of the better early classic cars.”
Today’s rally in Linwood will take place in a building now known as the St James Business Centre, home to a cluster of small firms. For many, the clock will be turned back as the fleet of Imps turn up.
John Workman, who owns the centre, said the occasion would allow people who recognise the Imp’s place in motoring culture and Scottish industry to celebrate.
“It’s remarkable the affection people have for the cars,” he said. “There are 1,300 members of the Imp Club who have about 2,000 of these cars. There’s just under 4,000 registered still with the DVLA.
“The plant was very important to Renfrewshire. About 11,000 worked here over the life of the plant, 4,000 at any one time. They paid high wages for unskilled labour, and it was an important part for setting people up in life.”
He added: “Of course, it disappeared in the early 1980s and it wasn’t all rosy. There were strikes, but there were strikes all over the country. People who are coming to talk to me now about working at Rootes are talking to me about the positives. There’s generally a good atmosphere.”
The first Imp ever produced – the same one driven by the Duke of Edinburgh – now takes pride of place in Glasgow’s Riverside Museum, complete with a display telling the ill-fated story of the Linwood venture.
But the history of the Imp lives on. If you are journeying in the Central Belt today, keep a close eye, for you may even spot one in your rear view mirror.