Cohort Classic: 1959 Humber Super Snipe Series I – The Last Big Car From Rootes; The Last Real Humber

The larger saloon was a consistent feature of every British motor manufacturer’s range from the late 1940s to the late 1960s and beyond. The Austin Westminster, Morris Six and Isis, many iterations of Ford Zodiac, the Vauxhall Cresta and later Viscount, and sitting a little lower down the order, the Standard Vanguard. Go a little upmarket and there was the Wolseley 6/99 and later 6/110, twinned with the Austin Westminster, go further up market and you could have a Rover 3 Litre (P5) or the Vanden Plas Princess R, or perhaps a Jaguar 2.4 Litre or  3.4 Litre (the Mk 1 or its derivative, the better known Mk 2). These are listed in ascending order of golf club respect. Sitting somewhere between the Wolseley and the Rover was the Humber Super Snipe; sitting closer to the Ford Zodiac and Vauxhall Cresta was the Humber Hawk. Against the Princess R was the Humber Imperial.

Hawk, Super Snipe and Imperial were all old Humber names, with use dating back to the 1930s. The first Snipe was a large saloon powered by 3.5 litre six cylinder engine and either a standard body from Pressed Steel Co or a coach built body, often from Rootes’s in house coachbuilder Thrupp and Maberly. Various versions existed throughout the 1930s, including a larger engine Super Snipe and a Snipe Imperial.

Rootes did a steady trade in cars for mayors and other official users; General Montgomery used one, nicknamed Old Faithful and now preserved,  in Africa, then in Normandy and to cross the Rhine in 1945. Here it is coming back to Coventry in late 1945.

Rootes brought the Super Snipe name back in 1945, alongside a new Hawk as well, essentially as refreshed versions of the pre-war cars. The first true new post war cars came in 1948, with a new chassis clothed in brand new and very different Raymond Loewy bodywork.

The major differentiation between the Hawk and the Super Snipe was the engine – the Hawk made do with a 2.2 litre 4 cylinder with 70 bhp to pull 3100lb along. The Super Snipe had six cylinder of 4.1 litres, shared with a Commer van, with 116bhp but substantially more torque. Mind you, it weighed 4000lbs, so the benefit may have been in refinement rather than performance. It certainly wasn’t in economy.

The Super Snipe, with its longer straight six, had an increase of 10 inches in its 115 inch wheelbase, a longer nose and a longer, reprofiled tail. All in, Rootes built a total of 45,000 examples of these, but the days of the chassis frame in this area of the market were ending. The next Hawk, and Super Snipe, would be a monocoque design.

The Hawk came first, in late 1957. The four cylinder engine was carried over but little else was. There was a monocoque, with wishbone front suspension, leaf springs at the back, recirculating ball steering, an option of manual or automatic transmission, both with column changes, and all-round drum brakes. The styling was another major break for Rootes, with Loewy not involved, although his influence is arguably still there.

The styling was officially credited to Ted Green, Rootes’ head of styling, and his no 2 Ted White, though the stylists of the 1955 Chevrolet might also make a claim. The links need little identification, or explanation given Rootes’s history of American influence. Arguably, every Rootes car from 1930 to the 1970 Hillman Avenger had some American influence in its style.

Rootes had a genuine novelty for the Super Snipe, which came a year later in late 1958. The Commer van engine was dropped as a new engine had been developed just for the Super Snipe, and Rootes took a surprising route to get there.

The Coventry motor industry was always a close knit environment, and one business in the area that is now less remembered was luxury car and aero-engine builder Armstrong-Siddeley, who were then building the Sapphire 236 and 236. These were traditionally coachbuilt on a chassis, and the two versions differed principally in engine. The 234 had a 2.3 litre four cylinder engine with around 120 bhp; the 236 an unrelated 2.3 litre six cylinder with around 85bhp. One was intended as a sports saloon, one more of touring saloon; in 3 years, fewer than 1500 cars were built.

But something attracted Rootes. That something was Armstrong-Siddeley’s engineering ability to design a modern engine, and their capacity to produce it. Rootes commissioned Armstong-Siddeley to design a 2.6 litre six cylinder engine based on the 236’s engine, and largely build and assemble it in the Parkside factory in Coventry, just for a new Humber Super Snipe.

The result was a straight six, 2.6 litres, with two overhead valves per cylinder and a four bearing crankshaft. Power was 112 bhp at a fairly racy 5000 rpm (how many Humber drivers got to 5000 rpm?). It was connected to a three speed column shift gearbox, with options for overdrive or Borg-Warner automatic. Visually, aside from a more complex front grille, the first cars were practically indistinguishable from the Hawk, sharing the same body with no wheelbase stretch this time.

The interiors were, unsurprisingly, the traditional British wood’n’leather, with a classic Rootes style dash.

Rootes did not publicly acknowledge the Armstrong-Siddeley link, though some of the press “noticed” it in the way only a tame press can. Armstong-Siddeley later used a 4 litre version of the same engine in the Star Sapphire.

The Series 1 came to the market in late 1958. This car was seen by Brent Dean, at a guess in British Columbia, and is the first Super Snipe I have seen on the road (or close to it), as opposed to at a car show for many, many years.  Canada was a relatively strong market for Rootes in the 1950s, so spotting a Super Snipe there with its British interior and American styling maybe isn’t a great surprise.

There can’t be many though – I haven’t got exact numbers but Rootes built around 70,000 Hawks and Super Snipes in total over 10 years,  so perhaps 1000 a year to Canada? Am I being generous?

The manufacturing logistics for the Hawk and Super Snipe were fairly laborious. The bodies were pressed, assembled and painted at Rootes’s pressing business British Light Steel Pressings (BSLP) in Acton in west London, and then trucked to Ryton near Coventry for trimming and mechanical assembly at Rootes’ main assembly plant. The six cylinder engine was assembled by Armstrong-Siddeley using blocks and crankshafts cast ands machined by Rootes themselves.

The estate car was handled differently, and perhaps more complex still. Initially, they were assembled at the Singer factory in Birmingham using bodies pressed and assembled in Acton. In 1959, Rootes centralised their spares parts business in the Singer factory, so final assembly of the estate car was contracted out to Carbodies Ltd in Coventry, a specialist short run builder, converter and sub-contractor Rootes had used for many years, using some BLSP supplied pressings and sub-assemblies. The estate’s styling shows clear Chevrolet Nomad hints, as well as the Rambler that has been linked to it here previously.

The Super Snipe went to a series II in 1959, with an enlarged 3.0 litre engine, front disc brakes and optional power steering. Visually, there was little change – essentially this was confined to badging and is what enables me to identify this car as a Series II. Power was now 121 bhp and torque 162 lbft, up from 138 lbft and available at a lower engine speed. There remained the option of limousine divider should you wish to have a chauffeur, an option also available on the four cylinder Hawk, but not on a Ford Zodiac.

Rootes were perhaps the most ardent of the UK manufacturers in following the annual model year change, often perceived in Europe as being an American practice.

For 1960, the Super Snipe Series III got a new longer nose which fully distinguished it from the Hawk. There were four headlamps with a lot of chrome, and a three inch extension to support it all. Little else changed.

In 1962 the rear window was gently reshaped, to give the Series IV and in 1964 a reprofiled roofline and rear window treatment, gaining a rear quarter light in exchange for a wrap around rear window, identified the Series V. The Hawk got the same revisions and the more compact Hillman Super Minx and Singer Vogue got similar treatment at the same time. For the truly pedantic, there was also an Series VA, with an enlarged front windscreen, for 1966 but sales were now down to around 1000 a year. Still, 1960s Prime Minister Harold Wilson liked it, and some say he bought one from the Government when he left office. File that under “long shot” I suggest.

Some police forces used the estate cars, which had advantages in size, capacity and performance as well as some rear view mirror credibility.

In a final effort to garner some interest, Rootes reintroduced the old Humber Imperial name, for a fully luxury specification version for the Super Snipe Series V and VA, above. This came with a vinyl roof, automatic transmission and the contents of the Super Snipe options list, as a response to the Austin Westminster based Vanden Plas Princess.

The Super Snipe, Imperial and Hawk were all discontinued in 1967, as Rootes’ new masters from Chrysler tried to get their heads around the business. This killed any ideas Coventry had of adding an American V8 to the Super Snipe, as had been done to take the Sunbeam Alpine into the Tiger. Some prototypes were built and one is said to be still around, somewhere.

The Austin Westminster and Wolseley 6/110, perhaps the closest competitor to the Super Snipe, were discontinued at this time too. The big Vauxhalls, the Cresta and gussied up Viscount, endured in declining numbers to 1972. Even the car Rootes probably aspired to compete with most, the Rover 3 Litre and later 3.5 Litre was allowed to retire unreplaced in 1973. The market was moving on.

From 1963, Humber had offered the Sceptre, an upmarket derivative of the Hillman Super Minx, which in retrospect can be seen as perhaps the first attempt at a more affordable take on the compact sport-executive car best embodied then by the Rover 2000 and Triumph 2000. Sceptres, in two generations, the second based on the Hillman Hunter (Sunbeam Arrow) lasted until 1976, when Chrysler shut the brand.