COAL #2: My First Imp


Technically an Imp, yes. But the Sunbeam Marketing Department probably would not agree.

While I had a car I could drive, the 2CV, there was a longing to own a “real” classic car. The 2CV was just an old Citroen, there were many on the streets and if you wanted you could still buy one new. I really would love a rare (by Dutch standards) British car from the swinging sixties, when everything was possible and the car makers optimistic.

One day, on my way meeting a friend, I took a different route than normal. Wait, what was that? On the drive in front of a house sat a car I had never seen in the flesh before. However as a result of reading British Classic Car magazines for quite some years, I recognised it as a Hillman Imp.

It looked a bit sorry for itself, flat tires, front sidelamps and all badges were removed and rust spots were visible. As a cheap student I saw the positive in this: it meant that if it was for sale they could not ask much for it. Which was good because I had no money. So I rang the door bell and asked it it was for sale. The owner was reluctant to sell because the engine did not run and as such it should go for scrap, was I sure I wanted such a car? This was the same argument I had experienced before with the 2CV. So, like the 2CV a deal was made and I got the car for scrap money.


Just bought. Looking a bit sorry for itself without badges and indicator lamps. My 2CV just visible.


When transferring the car documents I learned the make was Sunbeam, not Hillman and the type Chamois, not Imp. It was the luxury version of the Imp. The “luxury” part consisted of: wider chrome strips on the sides, wheel trim rings, full carpets, four headlamps, a temp gauge, and …. that was it. I also noticed the car was only 13 years old.

This is so different compared to today: cars from 2010 and older are everywhere and most look in very good condition. Then, a car was already considered old by the age of 8.

With help of my friend Frank and the Mitsubishi Galant of my father, we towed the Sunbeam to the Volvo Specialist where I still helped out on Saturdays. With help of Frank I got the engine running and sold the 2CV.


Missing bottom name badge


That summer, Frank, two other friends and me went to the UK for a camping holiday. I had never been there before and was very interested to go there, information being fed from UK classic car magazines. We had our camping gear loaded up in the 4 year old Opel Kadett owned by Frank’s mother. Our arrival in the UK was remarkable. On the ferry we saw the white cliffs of Dover from far away. When we got closer, we could see activity in the docks and the outlines of cars became visible. The actual first recognizable car we saw in the harbour, and as such the very first car I ever saw in the UK, WAS A HILLMAN IMP!!!! I could not believe my eyes and so could not my friends who only knew my car, and never had seen another of the type. It confirmed my thoughts that the UK was a classic car heaven country.    


It was nice to own such a strange and rare car. Most people did not know what it was, it was often recognised as a NSU Prinz which was sold in much greater numbers here in the Netherlands. Parts were not easy, Sunbeam dealers did not exist anymore and I never found a similar car in the scrap yards. Only when I became a member of the Dutch Sunbeam club this improved. Through the club I met a couple of people that also drove Imps and more importantly at the time, had parts or knew where to get parts. A club member kindly offered me the rear Sunbeam badge and front Chamois badge.


A club meeting mid 80s in Hoogeveen, at a former Rootes dealer. My Chamois on the right.
Fifteen years later I became the owner of the white Imp, third from left. Still own it!


The Imp was originally designed as basic transportation, but it had a good development path. Its designers, two young employees from Rootes (the mother company of Hillman and Sunbeam) managed to put in a light, efficient high-revving engine and tuned the suspension so that the rear weight bias was not a big disadvantage to the road holding. After finishing the Imp development, one of the two engineers (Mike Parkes) moved to Ferrari. It is nice to think that transfer was because of his work on the Imp but I am not sure there is conclusive evidence of this. It is a good story though.


Corvair and Sunbeam


There are similarities to the Chevrolet Corvair which came out 4 years before. The Imp got more than a touch of the Corvair styling and of course also has a lightweight engine at the rear. I knew the Corvair had maintenance problems in the USA because the common Chevrolet mechanics were not used to modern aluminum engines and different tire pressures. The same happened to the Imp: Hillman dealers were not used to such an advanced engine (overhead camshaft meaning not easy valve adjustments, the need of special anti freeze inhibitors, careful torquing of bolts and nuts on the engine and gearbox) so maintenance and repairs suffered as a result.



As good as the Imp was when it came out (the car press was enthusiastic), the car was a commercial failure. It seems that apart from the actual car, everything was against it. The factory in Scotland was built brand new with unskilled ship-yard laborers meaning there were many problems with the quality of new cars. Thorough long distance pre-production tests were done including in hot deserts and bitter cold, but there were no tests which resembled the daily average usage: starting in the cold, a short drive, standing for a few hours, another short drive, maybe a motorway drive including traffic jams in hot weather, standing for a few days. As a result parts were under developed: the water pump needed several redesigns, the radiator really should have had a bigger capacity (it could only cope when everything was 100%).

The Imp got a bad name soon and sales suffered. It was always too expensive in continental Europe to compete against other cheap basic cars so not many were sold there. In the US it was just too small and fragile to become a success.



Despite all its faults, a good sorted Imp is a great car to drive. So great in fact that I have owned a couple of Imps, still have one! Even now, sitting behind the large steering wheel and hearing the willing small engine makes me smile. It feels quite fast even though it is not really, it has good road holding (you can throw it into a bend), the steering is light and fast, gear change is very good, comfortable suspension. Seats are pretty good as well.


Three layers of Imps!


My first Imp was not a very good example. The wheel arches and sills were rusted quite bad. I tried to cover these but every few months rust spots reappeared. One day I got stopped by the police. They ordered me to go to their testing facility. At that station, it was found that the car was deemed unroadworthy because of extensive rust in the sills and brake lines. The registration documents and number plates were taken in, I was told it would be smarter to leave the car there. The alternative was to transport it home, do the repairs and retest. I did not want my rare car to be scrapped so towed it home.


My car in front of the Volvo specialist. Repaired and ready for a retest to get back the registration plates.


A friend of the Volvo specialist was able to shape and make sills and weld them on top of the rotted sills. The wheel arches again were, now a bit more careful, “repaired” with bondo. Rattle can sprayed the sills and wheelarches so it looked presentable. I made new brake lines from cunifer, a copper/nickel/iron metal which is corrosion resistant and very bend-able. The car got through its re-test and I could screw back the number plates.

From high pile red house carpet I made new carpets (old ones were soaked and rotted). The engine blew up on the motorway – the temp gauge did not work and the water pump was faulty. A not so good friend (how could he) suggested I should fit a more reliable Opel engine instead of the troublesome original. The horror!
It was not easy to find a replacement engine, no one at the club had a spare. Then I spotted an engine at a scrapyard. The label said “1978 Sunbeam” and looked very much like my Imp engine. I decided to buy it and take the chance. What could go wrong? Sylvia loaned me money to buy it (I was still a poor student).


Chrysler Sunbeam. Successor of the Imp.

At home, I discovered my newly acquired engine was not from an Imp but from its successor, the Chrysler Sunbeam. The cheapest version of that car used an Imp based engine, now 930 cc instead of 875 cc, mounted at the front driving the rear wheels. I studied the differences and by exchanging some parts (front chain cover, carburetor, manifolds) and adapting some others (the starter motor was different, flywheel needed an extra ring added in order to accept the Imp clutch) I got it working. As far as I know I was one of the first doing this, adapting a 930 cc engine in an Imp instead of the original 875 cc. It was successful, I drove many years with this engine.


On a motorway in a traffic jam, somewhere late eighties


For several years my Imp was used extensively as it was my only car. We used it for holidays and club meetings in the UK. I remember using it in the freezing cold winter of 1985/6 when I was in the military service. Because I was living on my own (in a students flat), I was allowed to go home every day. The motorways were full of snow and very slippery but that did not keep me from using my Imp for the commute. A leaky windscreen rubber meant I had to scrape ice from the inside of the windows too – the heater was not that good. Lovely days, hard to imagine now in the days of heated seats, mirrors and steering wheels.


Sylvia washing the Chamois. Her black Mini 1100 Special on the right


When I had my Chamois, Sylvia had her black Mini. It was easy to compare both cars. Like the Imp, a Mini is quite special to drive – very different to “normal” cars. Both the Imp and Mini are cheap to own and drive. Both are very small cars but can be driven very sprightly and have just enough power to make longer motorway journeys possible. The Mini was much more successful commercially but I prefer the Imp. It has the underdog advantage, is more comfortable, more room, easier to maintain.

Living on the street, salt in the winter, the condition of my car was not improving. I needed to come up with something better about the rust. Worryingly, the sills got bad again and the floor to sill area had become weak. Also the front lower corners and front suspension pickup points would need work. In our country a new yearly test was introduced, I feared these more and more. After nine or ten years in my ownership, I had to scrap the car. It had become just too rusty to repair. But I could not really let it go, it was one of the few remaining (approx 20) Imps on the road in the Netherlands.


Body shell looks awful but is in fact very good

Someone in the club mentioned he had a rust free Imp body shell which he wanted to sell. One good body shell plus all the parts from my mechanically sound, but rotted Imp makes one excellent Imp, right? So I bought that shell, “temporarily” storing it in a shed. Check 2023: yes it is still there!

I dismantled my Imp, saved everything but the bare rotten body – a scrapyard lorry took it away. All parts of my old Chamois were taken to the shed because I had not much space at home. In the near future when I would have lots of time I would begin with the rebuild. A sound plan, the Imp would survive! Or so I thought….


Keeping company with the Herald


Franka Steenhuis – The Imp Site