Small-Car Topics

A Section Devoted When Deemed Necessary to Cars the Engine Capacity of Which Does Not Exceed 1,000 c.c.

A Strenuous Test of the Latest O.H.C. 875-c.c. Hillman Imp

Apart from a brief encounter with the interesting new 875-c.c. Hillman Imp at the time of its introduction to the Press, it eluded me until Easter this year. Perhaps this was just as well for the Rootes Group, who have courageously contrived to build a new factory in Scotland for the manufacture of Britain’s first current rear-engined small car, because I gather that Peter Ware, their Engineering Director, has since effected several improvements.

The cheeky little Imp, which can be likened to a cross between a VW and a Mini, with something of the appearance of an N.S.U. Prinz, Simca 1000, Renault 8 or B.M.W. 700, began life before the war as a water-cooled 750-c.c. front-engined, rear-drive 11 ft. 3 in.-long project. In 1956, under the code-name Apex, it was revived, but as an air-cooled, twin-cylinder 600-c.c. rear-engined car 10 ft. 4 in. long. By 1959 an 800-c.c. water-cooled engine had been decided upon and the overall length had been increased by 6½ in. The final project encompasses a 68 x 60.4 mm. 875-c.c. rear engine in a 4-seater saloon measuring 11 ft. 9 in. from bumper to bumper; 42 (gross) b.h.p. is developed, at 5,000 r.p.m.

My experience of the Imp began in Easter traffic, leaving Rootes’ Barlby Road depot (where Roesch Talbots were once built) for Hampshire. Almost immediately, once I had become accustomed to the light, rather short-travel clutch and the pneumatically-actuated throttle, I found the Imp extremely easy to drive. The steering is firm rather than light, and quick (2½ turns lock-to-lock) with no free play in the rack-and-pinion mechanism, visibility extremely generous thanks to a low waist-line and tall windows and screen, while a short, if wide, bonnet, enables the driver to close up on vehicles in front with the facility normally associated with forward-drive commercials.

Add to this a splendid gear-change, from a rigid central lever which feels shorter than it is, has short movements, standing vertical in 2nd and top, at an angle in 1st and 3rd and possesses a big, pleasant-to-grip, knob, and it should be apparent that the Imp is a little car of real character, very pleasant to drive. The gear-change is as good as the gear lever promises, quick, light and precise, in the “non-mechanical feel” category but for a slight need to feed-in bottom cog. There is unbeatable synchromesh on all four forward gears, so that 1st was usually easy to engage; reverse is also very easy to get, beyond 2nd gear position. Towards the close of the test, 1st gear became more difficult to engage and the lever sometimes jumped out of third.

The hand-brake lever lies centrally, rather close to the floor and a quite large steering wheel is fairly well placed. The minor controls have obviously been planned with forethought. Hooded neatly before the driver is a broad-arc speedometer, easy to read, going up to 90 m.p.h. and incorporating mileage indicator with tenths, main-beam and oil-pressure (and water temperature warning) indicator lamps, fuel gauge and, on the de luxe model I tested, a temperature gauge.

From the base of this instrument binnacle protrude two cranked control stalks, the l.h. one for dipping the headlamps after the lamps (side or head by two-position flick switch) have been switched on separately, Continental-style (this brings in instrument lighting, which cannot be put on independently) and providing for daylight full-beam flashing when pulled down. The r.h. stalk is for the self-cancelling direction flashers, which have a single facia warning lamp, and pulled upwards, it sounds a delightfully “Continental-note” horn. These stalks, not being on the wheel, are slightly less easy to locate with the forefingers than normal stalks, but this is, perhaps, a niggling criticism; fairer comment is that as the r.h. stalk moves to work the turn indicators and comes back automatically as it cancels, the horn control which it also comprises is somewhat elusive at times. Flick-switches control wipers and heater-fan, a rubber push-control on the left of the binnacle the screen-washers, and a lever traversing the centre bottom of the facia sill varies the volume of hot or cold air, being marked in red and blue at its respective extremities.

A very light drop-handle centrally located under the scuttle selects heat off, to screen, screen and car, or car (interior) only. I am willing to report that this water-cooled rear-engined Imp has an extremely effective heater but that its volume control is insensitive, called for frequent attention to cope with the effect of varying road speed and, even then, tends to flood the body with either too-hot or too-cold air. But for those who like a fug, it can make the car amply warm. There are proper wind-up windows in the “tinny” doors, their handles geared 2½ full turns.

What else? Well, there is no courtesy lighting, but a screen-rail interior lamp has a nice push-pull switch. The door ¼-lights are large but devoid of gutters. Entry and egress into and from the baby Hillman is facilitated by wide doors with good “keeps.” The ignition key has 3-positions and a guard against starting the engine when it is running. The front seats have small, typically Minicar squabs, but very comfortable, slightly spongy cushions. These separate seats lift to give access to the back seat of the 2-door body. Head and leg room are ample for average-size adults, and vision good through the big rear window. The rear-view mirror is somewhat blanked by the window frame. This opens for loading luggage into the space behind the back seat, an excellent solution with a 2-door body. Although the floor here is high to clear the rear engine, I was surprised at how commodious this space is—and butter stowed there didn’t quite melt. The seat squab, moreover, folds flat to take additional luggage, estate car style.

There is also more luggage space under the front bonnet (the lid of which has a long prop to keep it open—Peter Ward’s penance for petrol-pump attendants!) than I had expected, although fuel tank and spare wheel live there. The fuel filler and hydraulic brake master cylinder reservoir-filler are very accessible on the front edge of this compartment when the bonnet, the release toggle for which is above the front passenger’s knees, has been opened. Moreover, there are Mini-style rigid metal pockets in both doors and at each side of the back seat—more rigid but less wide in front than those contrived by B.M.C. There is also an underfacia shelf, so accommodation for maps, hand bags and oddments, is exceedingly generous, even with a radio in the o/s section of the underfacia shelf.

Not only are all these items well planned, but the function of the controls and contents of the fuel tank (6 gallons27 litres) are clearly indicated in white lettering, Rootes having long made a point of such labelling. There are dual, swivelling, soft anti-dazzle vizors on the de luxe model, and the test car had fog- and spot-lamps.

Let’s get back on the road. . . . As traffic thinned out I discovered the willing little Imp to be very decently accelerative, and able to go up to indicated maxima of 30, 55 and 70 m.p.h. in 1st, 2nd and 3rd gears, respectively. In fact, the speedometer is marked with safe top limits of 20, 35, 53 and (in top) 70 m.p.h., respectively!

If the light-alloy Coventry-Climax engine tends to buzz a bit towards full throttle, it is commendably quiet at cruising speeds, so that road noise is the greater, and even this isn’t excessive. I even thought the Hillman quite quiet for an 875-c.c. car along the Staines By-Pass—and then found I had omitted to change out of 3rd, which speaks for the smoothness of the in-line 4-cylinder race-bred power unit and silence of the gearbox.

It was soon evident, too, that the Hillman Imp has very clever suspension. Students of design will be aware that a coil-sprung swing-axle is used at the front, with telescopic dampers, while at the back trailing-links, also coil sprung, replace the anticipated swing-axle in a deliberate attempt, which has been successful, to obviate oversteer in a rear-engined car. Not only does the Imp take its corners extremely well, and very fast if given its head, lightly or over-loaded, with normally neutral steering, but the ride is commendably pitch-free and very comfortable. The steering is light for parking, less so when cornering. Oversteer has indeed been obviated, understeer being quite pronounced on fast corners with standard tyre pressures.

Without taking an Imp round a deserted race circuit wearing my “go quickly” gloves and immediately doing the same exercise in a Mini, I am not prepared to state which car corners faster, or more safely. In road motoring the Hillman does not, to me, feel quite so glued to the road as the B.M.C. product, and it corners fast due to a feeling of good balance rather than f.w.d. traction, the suspension being livelier than a Mini’s, but the Imp does corner extremely well, with no noticeable roll, while possessing a less choppy ride than a Mini. Before we depart from road-test detail to generalities, the Imp can be summarised as a small, almost-Minisize car which is endowed with a pitch-free ride, corners predictably and runs quietly. That delightful gear-change, light clutch and accelerator, and the very definite individuality of this new British small car—of which nearly 40,000 were built in the first 10 months’ production at Linwood—make it an enthusiast’s car, and as the comfortable interior, generous window area and good finish and detail work will sell it to the ordinary small-car user, I would say it has a successful future ahead of it.

* * *

Having got the Imp home, next day it was grossly overloaded and driven, four-up, as hard as it would go, non-stop for 170 miles. The load pulled the performance down somewhat, which was a good excuse to enjoy the gear change, but did not affect the aforesaid good handling qualities. Fuel consumption, inclusive of Gloucester’s Easter traffic-clogging, came out at roughly 35 m.p.g.—and premium suffices in spite of a 10 to 1 c.r. The tank ran dry a few miles from our destination, the absolute range being 215 miles.

On this journey the performance had been such that we could keep up with fast traffic by frequent use of the gearbox and were baulked by the run of average drivers. Braking power was sufficient, but only just. Further experience of the Imp showed that the brakes (8 in. drum Girlings) are the little Hillman’s worst feature. Very firm pressure is necessary on the pedal, which, like the clutch pedal, is small, and this becomes tiring, while under extreme conditions, such as descending Welsh alps at speed, retardation is scarcely reassuring, unless a really hefty prod is given to the pedal. A servo will no doubt be the solution.

The suspension is actually quite firm, so that some shudder is transmitted to the body, releasing a few mild rattles. Early Imps suffered from chronic scuttle shake at speed, but this has been cured, leaving only rather severe vibration, felt through the steering wheel, which also transmits some kick-back on rough roads. As I have said, the engine is quiet unless accelerating to high revs., but there is little point in going beyond a speedometer 60/65 m.p.h. in the 5.7-to-1 third gear. Road noise is the greatest intrusion, the 12 in. Dunlop C41 tubeless tyres at 15/30 lb./sq. in. making their presence heard on certain surfaces. The inevitable rain early on Easter Sunday proved the wipers and washers (with their Fiat-like button) to be very efficient.

The engine takes a good deal of time to attain working temperature and tended to stall. It starts faultlessly on its automatic choke but this gave fast initial running, which might disconcert a learner driver. As to maximum speed in top, despite the speedometer marking Rootes claim 77-80 m.p.h.

It was my intention to compare the rear-engined Imp with the f.w.d. Mini-Minor over some very rough country and up a famous trials hill, to wit, “Dunlop’s Dividend.” Unfortunately the latter was so water-logged as to be declared impassable by the farmer on whose land it lies (even the “Six Days” motorcycle boys used to by-pass the ford at its foot) and the Forestry Commission have all but obliterated the rest of the “colonial sections” I sought. But I did take the Imp over sufficient bad going to report that it climbs muddy hills with reassuring grip, the suspension coping well with boulders and gulleys, and that ground clearance is adequate, although the tendency of the brakes to lock the wheels and the engine to stall in bottom gear rendered downhill descents on slimy clay rather adventurous. Due to casual signposting we got lost for a time on Forestry Commission territory, barred by locked gates, having miles of their new, elevated tarmac roads all to ourselves, in magnificent scenery. Eventually a very wild route to civilisation was discovered, barred only by a closed farm-gate, cows and a bull with a ring in its nose—which it rested on the bonnet of our red car, which contained the motoring dog, an unfortunate set of circumstances, especially as the hill was too steep to climb in reverse. Luckily, I was able to convince this bull that the back of an Imp is as nice to look at as the front, my passenger slipped out and opened the gate, and we were through, and away.

Before this I drove over a certain Welsh mountain road, with equally magnificent but more spacious views, of peaks rising from 1,600 ft. to over 2,100 ft., meeting only three cars in 13 miles, and this was on Easter Saturday. I am going to be selfish and not reveal the location of this fine road; the Imp negotiated its tight hairpins and undulations with spirit and fuel consumption was approx. 31 m.p.g. with this tough driving.

The piano-lid of the rear boot, held shut by two simple handles, stays open on its own to reveal the interesting power unit, the Coventry-Climax engine steeply inclined to the o/s, with the Fiat-600-like radiator and fan beside it on the n/s. Rootes intend the engine to consume a reasonable amount of oil and consulting the fairly accessible dip-stick after the aforesaid strenuous driving I found the oil level half-way between “full” and “low,” which is marked “1 quart,” so a pint had been consumed, in 370 miles. No. I plug is difficult to reach; the Lucas 12-volt battery, on the extreme o/s of the engine compartment, ideally placed for topping up; and the rear lamps illuminate the engine compartment. The cooling fan is surprisingly quiet, merely making a low hissing sound; there is some gear noise, probably from the final-drive, on the over-run.

The Imp could be hotted-up to some advantage, but unfortunately vibration becomes so excessive above 75 m.p.h. and the steering then feels so vague, that I hesitate to recommend this—a pity, because it will work up to an 80-m.p.h. cruising gait. Cross-winds cause this rear-engined Imp to wander. There was a noise like mild “pinking” when picking up from a crawl in an appropriately low gear, which I am told comes from the clutch; the steering column had about 1/8-in. up-and-down play.

After the Easter rough-stuff had failed to break the Rootes baby, it went into ordinary service, making journeys to London, being used for local pottering, and so on. It was returned 1,160 miles later, the overall consumption of premium petrol averaging 33.0 m.p.g. This is far below Rootes’ economy claim but this particular Imp was pressed quite hard. Nevertheless, this leaves room for considerable criticism. . . . 1½ pints of oil had been consumed. A jolly good little car, refreshingly “different,” well-planned, practical. I can’t think why Rootes didn’t persuade me to try the Hillman Imp sooner. The de luxe version, as tested, costs £532 4s. 7d. inclusive of p.t., the more spartan version £508 1s. 3d. There are no greasing points and routine servicing is only needed at intervals of 5,000 miles.—W. B.