Rootes’ Conception of a “personalised” car
THE Hillman GT, introduced last year at the Paris Show, makes use of the well established engine from the Sunbeam Rapier H120 with its twin Strombergs, but a new radiator, this 88 b.h.p. at 5,200 r.p.m. alloy head 1,725-c.c. power unit being installed in a Hunter shell with Rapier front suspension and stub axles, and wide-rim Rostyle imitation road shod on the imitation alloy road wheels, shod on the test car with those India Autoband radial-ply tyres which have served so well on my hack VW.
It might be thought that Rootes’ victory in last year’s London-Sydney Marathon was the event which prompted the introduction of this GT model Hillman. In fact, a Rootes’ spokesman told us that there is no intention of stressing any such motives and that the new Hillman model is a high-performance saloon which the availability of suitable components and know-how made possible, to sell for less than the Hillman Hunter, appeal to sporting customers, and have performance rather better than that of the Ford Cortina GT saloon which it so closely resembles—but somewhat inferior to that of a Ford 1600E.
Rootes’ products used to be noted for more equipment and greater individuality than run-of-the-mill models in equivalent categories. This remains true of the Rapier H120 but is less evident in the case of the Hillman GT. If I felt somewhat embarrassed when seen in the Sunbeam, like being a family man trying to live in the Ferrari image, I felt foolish in the Hillman GT, because I am as square as the car’s styling in being unable to understand how a car can be made to go faster by painting speed stripes along its sides and equipping it with racing mirrors, crossed competition flags and GT emblems. All these the Hillman GT has and to me it seems rather a case of “I took my car to a circuit but nobody asked me to race”. So I felt a fool driving about without string-back gloves and a crash-hat on the parcels’ shelf. The safety front seats, required apparently by US safety regulations, were on the test car, to complete the picture. They are hard, flat, unsupporting van-like seats the squabs of which do not adjust, so that the driver’s head was seldom on the rest, they restrict the view when reversing, and cause the back compartment passengers in this four door saloon to ride in miserable isolation.
Personal prejudice apart, I was able to judge the Hillman GT on a weekend journey to Devon and Cornwall. First impressions were that the car is less suave than the earlier Ford Cortina GT in respect of smooth power flow and gear-change, and in the quality of the door and boot locks. But there is no denying that it motors very well, especially if good use is made of the “six-speed” transmission—i.e., the usual Rootes arrangement of four-speed gearbox and overdrive on third and top, controlled by a slim l.h. stalk lever, o/d disengaging automatically if a gear lower than third is used. Another “GT” gimmick is a small swivelling tachometer on the screen sill, facing the driver. This has a red line at 6,000 r.p.m. to which the five-bearing engine runs very readily, so that respective maxima of 29, 45, 75, 92, 96 and 95 m.p.h. are possible from the six-speed transmission. Overdrive is an extra (£55) but should be specified as if it were a standard item. Reclining front-seat squabs are also available (£16) and obviate those oppressively high seat backs.
The control arrangements cover a r.h. handbrake, a central floor gear-lever working smoothly and precisely, reverse, in the same plane as top gear but to the right of it, engaging easily against strong spring loading that only the ham-fisted will object to, and a r.h. stalk for dipping the beam of the rectangular headlamps, sounding the horn and signalling turns. A rather odd part-ribbon/part-arc 100-m.p.h. speedometer (no trip mileometer) is flanked by fuel gauge (E, 1/2, F) and water thermometer, there are square-headed knobs for wipers and choke, the former well positioned, rather gaudy and “fumbly” plated recessed toggle switches for lights, panel lighting (which includes the high mounted tachometer) and noisy single-speed heater-fan, a nice drilled spoke leather-rimmed steering wheel, well-contrived door handles and sliding internal door locks, etc.
I missed the one-time Rootes habit of calibrations in metric as well as British readings (although the fuel gauge does say the tank holds 45 litres or ten gallons) and the well-stocked Rapier instrumentation, and was disappointed to find only single-speed wipers (rather slow but with good screen washing if the control is pressed), and no courtesy lighting when I opened the doors—and attempting to get some by twisting the circular roof lamp merely caused its glass to fall off. Another irritating item is the bonnet release, placed beneath the front bumper, which took a good deal of finding. A rear lamp bulb also fell into the boot, still alight, but was easily replaced. The bonnet lid has to be propped up, revealing the slightly inclined power unit, which develops ample power for a non-cross-flow design.
Inside the body, which can be regarded as a four rather than a five seater, there is a big unlockable cubby-hole and a full-width underfacia shelf, fresh-air vents at the facia extremities in conjunction with a good heating/ventilation system on the Ford pattern, fixed 1/4-windows, and visors lacking a vanity mirror, mounted, like the interior rear-view mirror, rather too flexibly. There is a drawer-type ash-tray for the driver, which is distinctly awkward for a front-seat occupant to reach. The upholstery and trim is in black PVC, with the exterior body colour intruding on the door sills and around the screen; the back compartment is rather sombre, and lacks refinements such as a central armrest, etc. The boot is large, with the spare wheel clamped to the bulkhead, out of the way of the luggage.
On the road this Hillman GT is a pleasant enough fast family saloon. The engine is flexible and docile, emitting some roar when accelerating, to do which effectively the revs, have to be kept up. The suspension, by Macpherson struts and coil springs at the front, the beam rear axle being sprung on half-elliptic leaf springs unaided, as on the Ford Cortina GT, by radius arms, is on the hard side, causing some body shake and lurching over bad roads but the ride is, I think, superior to that of the Dagenham product, nor does rear axle tramp normally intrude. The disc/drum brakes are light, being servo-assisted, and quite effective and progressive. As to handling, I have no grumbles about the adhesive properties of the India Autobands on wet roads: The tendency is conventional—understeer changing to rear-end breakaway if provoked, in a non-dramatic manner. On the whole I think the Hillman handles better than a Cortina—there is less “balancing on a tightrope” feeling and the well-placed steering wheel corrects nicely through light, kick-free steering geared 3 3/4 turns, lock-to-lock. The headlamps beam is quite good if a bit scattered and the dipped illumination adequate.
In return for useful acceleration delivered with reasonable refinement fuel consumption averaged a remarkable 31.0 m.p.g. of four-star spirit on a quick but not frantic journey, mainly over main roads, using o/d wherever possible, which the engine accepts from 1,000 r.p.m. onwards, belying its lumpy 1,000 r.p.m. tick-over. I drove 276 miles from full to empty tank. Wind noise is low, too, except for some buffeting round the rear door pillars. The sturdy engine asked for oil at the rate of approx. 300 m.p.p. The Hillman GT, as a conventional saloon with sports-car performance, pleasant to drive, is worth considering, at £1,017 with o/d.—W.B.