Today is about Imp again. Sunbeam Chamois, Hillman Imp, Commer Imp van. A few weeks ago there was a COAL about my first Imp, I needed a second chapter because they have been in my driving life ever since I got my driver’s license.
After scrapping my beloved white Sunbeam Chamois in the early 90s, I had no driving Imp for a while. This was not good. I loved to drive an Imp, it is so different to other cars. It had became a part of me so how I could now be without an Imp?
In the ten years I owned the Chamois, I had become kind of an expert on Imps. I had a collection of everything that was said about Imps in the Dutch press, had all the books, I knew the specialists, knew the various types. I knew also what I wanted, not another “Chrysler” era Imp. My previous Chamois (1969) was a Chrysler-era Imp. Now I wanted a “Rootes” era Imp which came before the Chrysler-era.
Rootes was a British car conglomerate. It started before the war and began to buy car makes like Hillman, Humber. Later Sunbeam (-Talbot) was added, and in the fifties Singer. They owned truck makes Commer and Karrier. Rootes glory days were late fifities, early sixties but it turned bad soon. Rootes was in a dire financial way in the mid sixties. It needed money so a take-over offer from Chrysler was accepted. In the following years Chrysler would become 100% owner of Rootes. This was good for the short term but it had its negative effects on cars. The make-over of the Imp is a good example.
After 5 years and having acquired a bad name (reliability), the Imp needed a new lease of life – or so they thought. In October 1968 the new Imp was presented. Most visible of the re-design was a new full length plastic dashboard, it looked impressive with many “gauges”.
But many gauges were not gauges but warning lamps or switches. There were new seats, a steering wheel, new front grilles and badges. Were these needed? With hindsight it is easy to say no. But at the time a fresh, modern design maybe was a plus. And of course they could say the car was now improved and so much better. Maybe it worked for the greater public.
However most Imp enthusiasts now prefer a Rootes era Imp – an Imp before the Oct 68 changes. These had the nice early “binnacle” dashboard which actually was better ergonomically with special (non-standard) levers.
The seats were different and seem to have better quality vinyl, sewn together not heat-welded. The carpets were of a thicker quality. A Rootes-era Chamois had real shiny walnut wood on its dashboard and door cappings. My 1969 Chrysler-era Chamois had plastic wood on the dash and doors. Chrysler-era cars feel cheaper everywhere.
The Green Chamois
Back to the early nineties: the problem was these cars always have been pretty rare in the Netherlands so it was hard to find one, especially for a cheapskate like me. After months of searching and asking fellow Imp owners a club member was willing to sell a dark green 1968 Chamois. It has been his mothers car and had been standing for a couple of years. It looked nice although one rear wheelarch was rotten. I made an offer and got it.
Maybe I was too fast in buying this car. It had the right specs but was not as good as I wished. Being so rare I had to buy it, where would I find another?
A year before I had bought a MIG welder because I was not impressed by the quality of work some shops did to customers cars. Also they were too expensive in my view, I wanted to be independent and be able to do my own repairs. Guus, a friend and Imp fan, lived in a farm some 3 hours driving away, he had a big workplace. I would go there for a week, he would help me with the welding and the idea was that I would help him with some jobs on the farm. I bought new wheel arch, sill and ¾ rear bottom panels from an Imp Specialist in the UK and got these sent over.
That was a nice week. However no welding was done! On the way to Guus I found out the clutch was slipping badly. This had to be fixed #1. Luckily Guus had a new pressure plate and clutch plate. We removed the engine at his workshop and replaced the clutch. Other things were done on the car and on the farm, we never got to welding phase.
So the welding was done later by myself. It was an interesting experience. I cut out the back part of the sill and carefully cut out the wheel arch. The rear bottom ¾ panel was cut out. Inner wing repairs where made where they meet the outer wheel arch. After the welding, to a quite good standard I am proud to say, I painted the lot green. There was no time to sand and fill the bubbly welds. I would finish it later when I had more time. Sounds familiar? Well, this never happened and I drove around for the next couple of years with a strong rear wheel arch which did not look too good.
I loved many things about my new Chamois. The old dash was so much nicer than the new one, I also found the old front fascia (two headlamps only) more attractive. The seats seem to be more comfortable.
The green Chamois was not the only car in our household and it was not the daily commuter car.
We used it for club trips –
We used it for holidays –
These cars are made for the English country lanes, great to drive there. Roads are seldom straight, many corners and hills. The opposite of what we have here in the Netherlands where there are no hills and every road is boringly straight with always the next traffic light already in sight.
We used it for camping –
We went to an UK Imp Specialist to have the gearbox changed for a reconditioned one, the gearbox in my car would sometimes jump out of gear. We arrived at his place at lunch time, walked to the city centre for a good stroll and turned back a few hours later – the Imp was ready! Many thanks Malcolm!
Although the car was running well, its body was not very good. The bonnet (hood) was rusty, a known rust spot on Imps so near impossible to find a good replacement and difficult to repair being double skinned. The doors would need attention at the bottoms. The front corners were rusted and needed repair. That left rear wheelarch still needed finishing. Lots of welding work. I envied other owners with nice shiny Imps, knowing that it would be too much for me to ever get the green Chamois in that condition.
The Silver Imp
Mid nineties. From the British classic car magazines and the UK Imp Club I saw that cars in the UK were much cheaper compared to similar (if they even could be found) cars in the Netherlands. Why not buy one there and drive it over? I had enough spare parts to convert a Right Hand Drive Imp to Left Hand Drive.
Easier said than done. It was not as easy as it is nowadays where you have email and internet. I choose a couple of ads in the magazines and (Imp) club magazines and enquired by phone. Pretty difficult to find candidates that were not too far away, around London, and available to meet in a time span of a few days. In the end I got three or four Imps I wanted to have a look at. My brother would come along, plus a friend, for a long weekend. This was a fun weekend. My friend owned a fast Lancia Thema, an excellent car for this kind of trip. Well, the first Imp we saw I immediately knew it was nothing. Described in the ad to be in “very good original condition”, it was obvious from a mile away it had partial resprays and dodgy body repairs. The second Imp was a two hours drive away but was worth it. A very nice pastel green Imp Super from 1964. Was sold by the daughter of the first owner. Original paint, very good interior and low mileage. “Need some minor work” said the ad. The ad also said it was driveable. Yes it was as long you stayed in gear because gear shifting was a problem. The “minor work” would include at least a replacement of the clutch (engine out job). So, nice as it was, this was not a car we could drive home. With a sorry feeling I left it there.
The third car was in London. The owner was the son of a long time Imp owner, and the son had restored this Imp under his supervision. It was a 1972 Imp, in resplendent Silver. The interior was a very rare blue metallic-ish seats and door panels. Door top panels were from a Californian, a bit nicer than the usual Imp ones. The car had some nice extras such as Dunlop aluminium sport wheels which were an option back then. There were also USA type front and rear chrome underriders and spot lights on the front bumper. Overall, this car was in very good order, paint perfect, chrome perfect, interior perfect, no rust anywhere. It also ran beautifully.
BUT! It was a “Chrysler-era” Imp and I really wanted a “Rootes–era” Imp like the green Chamois. Then again, such a good car for not much money? I decided to set aside some preferences and go for the best. Back at home it took me a couple of days to move the steering wheel and pedals to the other side. Now I had a really beautiful Imp, never before I was in the possession of a classic car in such good condition.
The green Chamois was sold to another enthusiast who wanted a car to restore.
I used the Silver Imp a lot, for my commute to work. Sylvia used it too, she also loved the car. One day she rang from a fuel station (no cell phones back then), the front windscreen was in thousand pieces! I went to the shed picking up a spare windscreen and taped it on top of the shattered one (after creating a big hole in the damaged windscreen). Although I had never done it before, replacing the windscreen was without problems. These old cars had their windscreens fitted in rubber, not glued to the body.
I had found a small old trailer from the sixties which was repainted, wheel bearings renewed and new tires fitted. I fitted a tow bracket to the Silver Imp and packed the trailer with camping gear.
Off to Wales (UK) we went, with our 1½ year old son in the child seat fitted in the middle of the rear bench. In our small tent, the baby cot would just fit inside.
Then, disaster struck.
After dinner one night in a good pub, I did not see a car coming from the right. He smashed into the front of our car. The front hood of the Imp flew away and contents of the front trunk were everywhere. Luckily the other car was not damaged much and the driver unharmed. We were very lucky to come out unharmed as well. People arrived at the scene, they were the same people we had a nice talk with in the pub. They said there have been many accidents on this dangerous spot because it is on the top of a hill and you just cannot see a car coming up, only just at the very last second.
These nice people invited us to stay over at their home nearby where we called insurance the next day. We got a rental car, our previously smart Imp was taken away. This finished our holiday, we wanted to go home.
A week later I could pick up the damaged car locally. What to do with it? I could probably get repair panels and do the welding but first the car had to be inspected for distortion. Was it even repairable? I was not sure. Anyway, I was not looking forward to it. It would never be the same again. There was someone in the club who was very experienced with damaged cars and Imps and who was willing to take over the car and repair it. That was the end of the Silver Imp for me, Impless once again.
The Commer Imp van
Commer was the main truck make of the Rootes company. They were known for their big lorries but they also made car based vans. The Commer Cob, also sold in the USA, was a van based on the 50s and 60s Hillman / Sunbeam Minx. The Imp based van was just called Commer Imp van, sold from 1965 to 1968 when it was replaced by the (Chrysler era) Hillman / Sunbeam Imp van.
This actual van had been on my radar since the late eighties when I met his owner, Guus. Guus was heavily into Imps and had been for years, since the mid 70s. He had owned and scrapped many Imps. He preferred Imps because it was one of the few small cars he could drive comfortably, him being 2 meters long (6ft 7in). In the late 70s he rescued this van from a scrapyard because he knew it was one of the last remaining. He was right, because since then only this van plus another (a later Chrysler era version) are the only known remaining LHD Imp vans known. Or maybe not as there supposedly is one in Portugal but I have not seen actual evidence of that.
Guus restored the Commer to its original bare van specification which meant: no passenger mirror, no passenger sun visor, no opening door quarterlights, no carpet (a rubber floor mat instead), thicker gauge steel wheels, thicker drive shafts. The one thing he did not do was to use the vans unique lower compression engine, he used a standard higher compression engine. His van was shown extensively at many shows and he traveled all around the UK, visiting the Imp factory in Scotland and meeting other (UK – RHD) Imp vans.
When Guus needed move away from his farm in the late 90s, we came to an agreement. I took the van plus some other cars and stuff.
This car was amongst the rarest of all Imp variants. But it was not a showroom piece, it could actually work for its living. However, as I found out when I owned the van, for me it was not very practical. When I wanted to take the van to shows or meetings, having just two seats meant I could not take my family. Which was a pity because Imp gatherings are all about meeting the people and I wanted to take the family!
When I owned the van, I commuted a lot for my work and even had a company car. If I would have owned the van a couple of years earlier, I could have used it for commuting but that was not a possibility now. I kind of regret that, no real daily use for that well sorted van. When the van had not been used for a year or so I made the decision that it was not for me.
However, this was not the last Imp I owned. Another one came up before I sold the van. It is a car I still own and drive, and have no plans in the near future to sell it. More about that in a future COAL!
Really enjoying your Imp adventures, as our blue 1965 Imp is one of the first cars I remember being toted around in as a baby…
Thanks Huey. Nice to have those memories – as a baby though?
Imps arent particularly rare yet and there are several vans on the road here and several more in pieces awaiting assembly I drove past the Sunbeam owners club wrecking yard/parts division last week theres a Sunbeam Imp on a treestump at the gate marking the place,
Ive been lucky with Hillman parts I have a large pile of stuff that came with my current car and Horopito motors or smash palace as it gets called has some estates and several sedans, in fact for any old car part you simply cant find anywhere go there they will have several to choose from.
Not sure what country you live K. But even in the UK Imp vans are pretty rare and command high prices (relatively). On the (Europe) continent vans are almost non-existing save for a handful.
Horopito Motors is in New Zealand.
Great read, your positive observations of the UK and British cars are interesting, and much more like my experiences.
I was gutted for you when I got to the silver Imp crash, the car came from the right. In the UK you always look right first, I have been caught out a few times driving in Europe and not looking left first but fortunate not to have had a crash.
It has been my only real car crash and I was gutted. But at the same very grateful no harm was done to us and the other people.
Another great article with lots of great pictures! I have the same toolbox that can be seen in the frunk of your sadly crashed Imp…
I got the toolbox from my father when I moved out of my parents home. But it is a very generic type, I believe you can still buy these new.
I made one, very similar, as part of my engineering degree training, though where it is now…?
A crash where nobody is hurt is always a good thing, but it is not so good when a loved, unusual car is damaged. It is good that someone you knew was willing to take on the repairs of the silver Imp. I hope it remains on the road.
And don’t feel alone over there in Europe – Chrysler cheaped out the interiors of its cars in its main US market in the late 1960s too.
I have noticed your comments on the cheapening of the interiors of Cadillacs during the 60s. It seems it was a common thing to do amongst car manufacturers. That is not so strange. I once removed the door panel of a sixties Austin and was surprised to see the arm rests were made from special shaped pieces of wood, cladded with foam and leather. Very labour intensive.
Great COAL and fascinating cars! I’d never seen the van version. Very cool.
Always enjoy your posts. As a lover of BIG cars, I was hoping for three Imperials. Everyone has own opinions, which I respect. However I have never heard of an IMP!
Always enjoy your comments too, Rick! There will be COALs coming up about larger cars however not so huge as Imperials 🙂
I love the Imps, but the fact you took one camping in another country with a trailer, and a young child, priceless!! Thanks for a great Sunday morning read.
It did not seem that special 30 years ago 🙂
As a small car Enthusiast/Owner/Mechanic/Nutter I find this series well written and compelling .
Glad to hear no one was hurt in that crash .
The third picture, showing the Chrysler Imp’s interior appears to have a left hand accelerator pedal ~ (?) .
You got me there Nate! It was a picture from a RHD car which I reversed because I wanted to have a similar pic to the other interior.
“small car Enthusiast/Owner/Mechanic/Nutter” – love it!!!
You converted the silver Imp to LHD, but the wipers were still oriented for RHD. How did that work out in the rain?
A couple of cars that I was very fond of were totaled in crashes–I feel your pain.
A bigger non wiped area in front of the driver. But not enough to make it dangerous. Not sure why I did not change the wipers to LHD, I guess it did not bother me enough.
Plenty of UK cars (eg Hillman Hunter, Morris Marina, Austin Allegro, Triumph Dolomite) had nominally LHD configured wiper patterns in the 60s/70s.
As I understand it, yes, there was an unwiped triangle on the driver’s side but the the wiped area did go to the edge of the screen, rather than leaving an unwiped gap parallel to the pillar. And of course, screens were taller and roofs higher back then, so the triangle could be lifted relatively speaking.
But they weren’t swapped (usually) for LHD markets….
One of two RHD Imp vans; what a rarity.
Another very enjoyable Sunday morning read. Thanks!
That would be LHD 🙂 Glad my stories are appreciated
Judging by the annual sales figures, the Chrysler Imp facelift had a negative effect on sales. In reality the car needed rebodied and probably renamed, but there was no money for this.
Seems no British car manufacturer had money for proper development. Going downhill from the sixties onwards.
Your Imp stories – in particular this edition – remind me so much of the NSU Prinz stories. Not just because of the car’s styling but because it starts with an economy car and ends with a community of dedicated fans. Thank you so much for sharing!
Thanks Wolfgang. The Prinz was much more common in the Netherlands at the time, I am sure there are many fans for these cars. May be a good idea to arrange a meeting with both owners clubs!
The wheels on the silver Imp look like JBW Cosmics to me. I didn’t know that there was a connection between them and Dunlop.
No idea Paulson. I was told at the time they were Dunlop but am not knowledgeable enough to be sure they actually were.
Nice tale and great to see someone else appreciated the Imp!
Your van looks a ringer for the one my Mum had as a second family car in the early 1970s – bought because the dealer we used had it and no other reason (dad was loyal to his dealer). We had a rear seat as well., though not exactly very comfortable and no side windows.
You’re right about the later dash – more contemporary, less ergonomic and actually a bit cheaper to use and feel, as was the rest of the interior. Was it better or just fresher and different?
I’m really enjoying your COAL series on UK cars – your love of the UK and, I guess at least some of, its people is really great to see/read/hear, especially given some of things people who ought to know a damn sight better are currently saying about the European Union nations and organisations. Attitudes and behaviours like those you show are always welcome and you and any Dutch (and other) people like you will always be welcome to the UK as far as I’m concerned
Thank you Roger. There is a minority of people in the Netherlands who like British cars. But it is quite a strong group. Apart from the cars, Britain is a beautiful (holiday) country. A main reason for us to get there are the roads and (walking) the rolling hills of the countryside. History is very visible if you have an eye for it (towns, old industry) which combined with excellent pubs everywhere makes for a good few days out.
I learned to drive in my father’s brand new 1967 Rootes Imp – it was completely reliable for the 3 years he owned it.
Of course! Nice to hear a positive comment on these early Imps.
Excellent read ! Thankn6ou for sharing your Imp adventures.