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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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….
More reading about Imp:
Roger Carr – Auction Site Classic: 1966 Hillman Imp Mark II – A Car Too Far From Home, In Too Many Ways?
Paul Niedermeyer – Curbside Classic: Sunbeam (Hillman) Imp – The British Corvair
I’m a Mini person, but I once drove an Imp and it was great fun. Leaving Christchurch airport in NZ the other day there was a Hillman Husky (Imp estate) in front of me, being driven with some aplomb!
There used to be Mini versus Imp camps but (like most things) this has cooled down over time. Rare to see any Imp now, especially a Husky! These were always very rare.
The rarity is mostly based on sightings and if you know where to look plenty are about.
I stumbled on a magazine article about developing Imps and Vivas to beat Mini Coopers on race tracks, you put the engine in the back seat of an Imp which makes the balance better for cornering, the crownwheel must swap side to side VW style and Imp engines are very tuneable.
Hi Bryce, that is one possible direction. But do not forget the (Bevan) Imp won the UK Saloon Car Championship for a couple of years, beating Minis and the like. In more or less standard configuration. Cornering for a well set up Imp was never an issue.
Can’t do that swap in Imp, because final-drive is hypoid. Only way using Imp transaxle is to flip it forwards, but then you’re short of ground-clearance. OK for track though… vW and Fiat used spiral-bevel final-drive.
Smart little cars with crisp styling and great all-round visibility. Last time I rode in one must have been about 25 years ago and they were already classics. It belonged to Bob, who was in Warrington then, and was quite active in one of the Imp clubs at that time.
The Chamois over here had a Singer badge, the twin headlights (originally only on the Sunbeam Stiletto coupe) arrived in 1968. Two years later and the Singer name was discontinued.
The Imp Club UK Spares Coordinator is still a Bob in Warrington 🙂 Has to be the same guy.
I did wonder if he might be! Great guy.
Paul was right – the 1960 Corvair really did start a global styling revolution!
Not many times Paul is wrong.
Well – maybe in his preferences for dull German cars 🙂
I have to ask–after Sylvia washed the Chamois, did she dry it with a chamois?
Yes, I can actually remember drying it with a new chamois I bought the day before!
Of course! Love your Mini, by the way.
This is wonderful; I’m so loving this series already. I’ve never heard from an Imp owner; I can so see the attraction. It really is the European Corvair, in more ways than one.
I’d totally forgotten about the Imp engine being used in the Chrysler Sunbeam. There’s no analog to the Corvair there.
Indeed, the European Corvair. But the Imp aimed for a lower place in the range – a small car. Maybe the Corvair was seen as a small car in the USA, and a cheap car?
I can see myself falling into the Imp camp in the Imp v. Mini thing, just because of my tendencies towards being a contrarian. And having owned a couple examples of “Xs are great cars if you know how to take care of them”, I would probably take to Imp life just fine.
I too am loving this series!
That’s just where I stand. Why have the #1 proven car when there are so many other available? 🙂
Sure there will be problems along the way but nothing that cannot be solved.
Another interesting car hobbled by the shenanigans of the British car industry at the time. I’ve been reading about the difficult gestation of the Austin Allegro at the Driven to Write website. Of course the Allegro wasn’t nearly as interesting as the Imp. A family friend had an Imp when I was a teenager, it was a characterful car, and quite sporty. I salute your hard work to keep your Sunbeam on the road.
Hi Pisteka – it is not really hard work I have to admit. Just the normal maintenance. A proper Imp should be reliable (famous last words…).
Sigh. Yeah, I know the feeling. Wouldn’t it be lovely if this kind of thing didn’t go this kind of way so completely always?
I had to unload my shed half a year ago (the barn needed a new roof). There were some vehicles in there that had not seen the light of day for many many years. I made the promise myself they would not be there untouched again for the next four years.
In some ways, the Imp’s nose is cleaner than the Corvair’s. With the parking lights below the bumper, they don’t look ‘tacked on’, under the headlight bezels. And the body-coloured bezels do appear quite tidy.
I like the earlier version of the Corvair a bit better – without the long horizontal stripe. But I chose this one as it is more like the Stiletto below.
Another Hillman owner on this site, Imps arent incredibly rare in NZ there is a thriving club plus many more scattered about I can think of 4 vans Husky and Cob, no doubt there are more tucked away in sheds.
The Imp OHC engine was not the first in a Rootes car they inherited one when they bought the Singer brand and used it in the first models of the AUDAX body Gazelles so no OHC for 7 or so untill the Imp, what wasnt a help was peoples reluctance to spend money on coolant instead of using water for free on cooling systems. Once the design bugs were sorted out they werent bad little cars, a neighbour growing up had one it went when she wanted reliably.
There was a Lotus version of that Sunbeam you harvested your engine from, one definitely exists in NZ Ive seen it hidden away in a shed which is a shame but the guy has over 100 Rootes cars and he only drives one at a time, 220hp in such a light car would be a quick car.
Thanx to a recent cyclone where my Hillman is stored I cant get to it easily but hope to have it driving again soon its halfway thru some upgrades to the breathing nothing serious, its suddenly 9 hours away rather than 4 and most of the roads are broken in that area.
Good luck with your Minx Bryce! What year is it – you should really do a history on the/your Minx here!
A great story about an interesting car .
From what you describe making one a daily driver here in the Desert wouldn’t be a hard job .
I like the looks of it and it’s nice to know they’re fun to drive too .
It would probably need a front radiator though. Keeping the cooling system up is just doable by using a High Efficiency rad but I am not sure it would keep up at temps over 40 degrees C. A front rad is an often used modification. I try to do without as I am one who likes to keep my Imp as standard as possible. And we usually do not have these high temperatures here, which helps!
Understood and appreciate Dion ;
I too am a stock kinda guy and with today’s chemicals and maybe a custom made radiator or electric water pump I’d think this doable with out a remote radiator .
Many Hot Rods and Customs can’t handle the Desert heat but most stockers if properly built (no high compression) and maintained ( *exact* ignition timing is critical) I bet this would be a fun Desert runabout .
Wonderful, and I’m loving the period photos of the car and perhaps just as much the other cars in the shots of what was once common on the roads – Escorts, a 205, Kadett, and your dad’s blue Galant! I’d kind of forgotten that Mitsubishi was a relatively successful brand in Europe in the ’80s, along with Mazda they seemed more common than Toyota and Honda at the time.
Mitsubishi sold very well in the Netherlands. For some years they were even assembled here.
I was never a “new” car person so had no eye for the then new cars but I can see the attraction now. A Mitsubishi Galant may be more rare now than a Sunbeam Imp.
Your comment just reminded me of that, the Nedcar plant! The Volvo V40 we owned was built there I believe, a shared platform with the Mitsubishi Carisma from the 50/50 joint venture factory…The 70s Galant’s had loads of style, as did the early to mid 80s ones.
Nedcar indeed. It is still there, struggling to find car makers that want to assemble cars at the plant. At the moment BMW is building their Mini here but that contract will end soon. After that? No firm contract yet.
A Sunbeam Chamois? A new combination for me, as previously stated, Chamois was a Singer name in the UK, for a smarter Imp. In your case, Mk 2, 1968 on to 1976. The Chamois Sport came with the twin lamps and same front grille (dummy) as your car, and 50 bhp 875cc engine, so was a luxury version of the UK Sunbeam Imp, rather than the Hillman Imp. These details included for Imp pedants only. Either way, well done for keeping the car going and fitting the “wrong” engine, and buying another.
The 930cc engine for the later Chrysler (Talbot) Sunbeam allegedly only existed as the Government insisted on it, to use the foundry in Linwood, as part of the bailout of Chrysler UK in 1975
Hi Roger, around 1966 Singer and Hillman as makes were discontinued in the Netherlands. As a result all types were still available but now as a Sunbeam. I think this was the case for other continental Europe countries as well. The Chamois was only available until 1970, not after because no more Singers were made after 1970. As far as Imp pendants go 🙂 an Imp enthusiast would call the 1968 models and after “Mk3” Imps. These were the Chrysler-ised Imps with “modern” dashboard and so on. Mk2 Imps were made from 1965-68 and had Mk2 badges on the doors.
Interesting to find out that the 930 engine had to be produced by insistence of the government, did not know that.
I guess Mk 3 makes sense, but IIRC Chrysler/Rootes never called it that, which is ironic given how easily Billy Rootes would name a 1950s Minx with the slightest of revisions with a new Series number
My 1964 Imp drove Cape Reinga to Bluff (Aotearoa-New Zealand) Sept-October 2022 – with side-trips and of course getting to start and back from Bluff total almost 6000 km (actual 3721 miles). A recent long-weekend saw another 849 miles round-trip, in foul weather!.
LL – Leaping Lena! Good to see you here Gary. Great to see 4 Rootes cars in a recent picture. You should really tell your story here in full glory.
One crew used separate cars for each island, with the gold Fastback for the deep south. LL, the Rapier softtop and the green Alpine V did the entire Tour.