The latest Hillman proves to be a pleasant semi-sporting family car
The reputation of the Rootes Group was built up on solid, comfortable, well-equipped middle-class cars appealing to owners with upper-class pretensions. I have written many words of appreciation about these cars, after driving several Minx and the Humber, Singer and Sunbeam derivatives. But these cars gave me the impression of having a dead ride, a harsh engine and gear-change, and spongy steering. The steering was improved but these other characteristics spoilt, for me, what were otherwise very acceptable cars. Last autumn Rootes announced their startling change of policy— the long-lived Minx range was swept away and replaced by the cheaper-to-manufacture Hillman Hunter. This imitated Ford’s immensely successful Cortina in many ways, even to MacPherson strut-type i.f.s., a light but rigid body shell, and face-level ventilation with extractor action. Already the Singer Vogue version of the Hunter has arrived and the only models following the former Rootes concept are the Sunbeam Rapier and Alpine and Humber Sceptre—and how long will these remain ?
The de luxe touch had given place to utility. So naturally I thought of this “Coventry Cortina” as merely a no-nonsense family car, without sporting characteristics, and looking, as is the trend, much like others of its class. But soon after taking over a handsome royal blue example from the legendary Barlby Road depot I found that I was enjoying this four-door 1725 -c.c., 71 b.h.p. 5-bearing saloon. In comparison with the Ford Cortina it rides a bit better, has perhaps heavier, but more positive, steering, and feels, maybe, a bit more stable on fast corners, until it is driven really hard, when the understeer becomes squidgy. But the Hunter handles reasonably well in the wet on 5.60 x 13 Dunlop C41s, whereas the more recent Cortina GTs I have tried have had wide-base rims and radial-ply tyres.
The Ford seats five, whereas the Hunter is better with four up; but they enjoy better seats than the early Cortina possessed. The Cortina’s boot may be rather larger (but the Hillman’s takes a kitchen chair although the backs of the rear lamps are vulnerable) and the odd spare wheel mounting on the Hunter, angled up under the front wall of the boot, makes the wheel awkward to remove, and all the luggage has to come out. The fresh-air ventilation of the Coventry product is almost an exact crib of Dagenham’s, except that the swivelling facia inlets have cut-off controls in their centres. The extractor effect is less pronounced on the Hillman, however, so Ford’s excellent Aeroflow is still the better system; moreover, the Hunter retains 1/4-lights, with awkward catches. But the air inlets provide a very powerful stream of directable cool air, and the flow can be boosted with the fan.
In performance the Hillman Hunter, with a top speed in o/d of 90 m.p.h. and s:s. 1-mile acceleration in 19.6 sec., is ahead of the Ford Cortina 1500, as it should be with its bigger engine, but is no match for the Cortina GT. And it costs over £100 more than the normal Cortina and even a few pounds more than the GT.
Leaving such direct comparisons, the Hunter is pleasant to drive, with a good driving position, enhanced by unbiased pedals, excellent visibility all round, and quite comfortable front seats which have good reclining squabs. The gear-change is notchy but pleasantly positive (it sometimes baulks at 1st), and the rigid medium-length raked central lever comes right under the left hand. The floor hand-brake is out of the way on the right. The interior is spartan and the plated wells in which the switches are recessed look rather cheap. Instrumentation, apart from a neat speedometer, is confined to an uncalibrated thermometer and an accurate fuel gauge with scarcely better marking, but with tank contents expressed in litres and gallons. The switches, two on the left for 2-speed heater fan and panel lighting, one on the right for the lamps are set rather inboard of the thick-rimmed steering wheel and so are apt to be “fumbly” in the dark. A multi-purpose r.h. stalk, knobs for 2-speed washers/wipers and choke, and a l.h. stalk for o/d in top and 3rd gear, complete the controls. Stowage is well provided for, with a huge lockable cubbyhole, a full-width under-facia shelf, a useful rear shelf, and an open well behind the gear lever. Dual external mirrors give a view along each side of the car but are of the lethal diminishing type. The doors have torsion-bar “keeps,” novel sliding interior locks, and the small well-contrived pull-out interior door handles.
The Stromberg 150 CDS carburetter needs too much use of the insensitive choke/hand-throttle from cold and the alloy-head 8-port engine takes its time to get warm enough not to stall. It needs liberal use of the lower gears until the car is in its stride, when top-gear acceleration is good. The engine is fairly noisy but eagerly reaches the legal speed-limit in 3rd gear. There is an alternator (Chrysler influence ?) for battery charging. The clutch sounded as if it slipped momentarily when taking off fiercely but gave no trouble. Tumble-home of the windows results in rain on the front seats if the doors have to be opened when the roof is wet.
Ride and handling are above average for a family car, but the disc/drum brakes are unimpressive at low speeds and normal pressures, although adequate in an emergency. (This seems to apply to so many family cars these days. I recall how impressed we all were with the powerful, reassuring braking of the Peugeot 203 when it was tested as a new car. By 1967 standards they might not seem so good but it is certainly high time more modern family cars were endowed with brakes of comparative merit.) The turning circle is commendably small; at the cost of tyre scrub. One impressive aspect of the latest Hillman was how it went on and on without needing fuel. In fact the overall range was 309 miles, and checked in traffic and local driving the m.p.g. was 28.9 or 30.1 with liberal use of o/d, a truly excellent average of 30 m.p.g. Premium petrol is acceptable in spite of a 9.2 to 1 cr. As with too many recent cars, the fuel tank cannot be filled from an ordinary can and the filler cap is not secured against loss. After 600 miles one pint of oil brought the sump level back to normal. The Smiths Radiomobile radio gave very clear reception.
This £838 Anglo-American car, so much lighter and responsive than the old Minx, is generally very likeable and, with the help of Chrysler dollars, will, I sincerely hope, resuscitate Rootes.—W. B.