Curbside Classic: Sunbeam (Hillman) Imp – The British Corvair

(first posted 8/19/2011)      The Hillman Imp shares much more with the Corvair than its obviously cribbed styling. It’s a classic tale: a maker of very conventional front engine-rear wheel drive cars sets out to ambitiously build a clean-sheet small car. And stumbles badly, when the end result is flawed, despite its many advanced features, and sporty capabilities. What both Rootes and GM (and others) failed to grasp with their adoption of the rear-engine configuration after 1960 was this: what was state of the art in 1938 or even 1948 was no longer so by 1958. And it was none other than the Imp’s competitor, the Mini, that really cemented that fact in the UK. Yet Rootes pushed ahead with a new small car, from the rear.

The Imp has its roots in the same era that spawned the Mini: the Suez Crisis of 1956, Britain’s preview of the OPEC gas crisis. German bubble cars were selling, and the initial impetus was to build something along those lines. A glorified version of a bubble car developed, using a Villiers two cylinder engine. Lord Rootes was not amused. The traditional maker of middle class (Hillman) and somewhat higher level (Singer) and sporting cars (Sunbeam) knew it had to do something smaller, but the “Slug” was not it.

A more ambitious clean-sheet project “Apex” was initiated, this time a proper four seater with a four cylinder engine. The Coventry Climax engine, a very modern alloy OHC four originally designed for a mobile fire pumper, was adopted and extensively modified for the Imp, in 875 cc form. And as these early styling bucks make clear, its styling followed the conventional fifties idioms. (allpar, as usual, has detailed historical info here B/W pictures courtesy allpar).

The Corvair’s arrival in 1959 instigated a complete redesign for the final version, which arrived in 1963. But this was not strictly stylistically only. The issues with the Corvair’s swing axle rear suspension led Rootes to develop a semi-trailing arm rear suspension. The result was superb handling, thanks to the lightweight all-alloy engine tucked in low and the improved rear-wheel geometry.

The Imp’s transaxle was also an excellent unit, one of the cleanest shifting of its kind, and distinctly better than the early Mini’s unit. The Imp’s very modern-looking engine can be seen here, tilted 45 degrees, and its radiator on the left. One of the disadvantages of a water-cooled rear engine is a fan powerful enough to overcome the lack of natural airflow.

Due to the government subsiding the Imp’s production facilities, there was a final rush in getting the Imp into production. The results were predictable: many issues with water pumps, the unusual pneumatic throttle control, automatic choke, overheating, body leaks and rust, etc..the usual litany when a manufacturer bites off too much too quickly. In relative terms, the Corvair had a less problematic birth.

The Imp was eventually improved, but its reputation was permanently dinged. The Imp’s financial drain led to Chrysler eventual takeover of Rootes, and Chrysler was more interested in rationalizing its European production of traditional cars, and it already had a rear-engined car in the similar Simca 1000. The Imp soldiered along for over a decade, but like the Corvair, it’s inevitable demise was sealed within a few years of its birth.

But during its run (which ended in 1976), the Imp generated the kind of enthusiast following as the Corvair did. It may never have become the mainstream sedan success its builders envisioned, but as a sporty pocket-rockette, it brought Impish smiles to its devoted fans. And sporty versions a la Monza, Spyder and Corsa were developed to satisfy them. The whole lineup of models gets a bit confusing for those of us not exposed to them extensively, but there were Hillman Super Imps, the Hillman GT for Australia, and a raft of Sunbeam models, including Imp Sport, Chamois, Stiletto, and Californian.

The coupe versions were know as the Hillman Imp Californian, Sunbeam Stiletto, and Singer Chamois.

And just like the Corvair, a wagon version, the Husky, was also built, as well as a windowless panel-van Commer.

Now that’s what the Corvair was missing: a panel delivery version.

Speaking of the Imp’s utility, it had a rather unique lift up rear window. Not exactly a hatchback, but a different approach to making the rear cargo area behind the rear seat more accessible than in the Corvair and VW. This one was either locked or rusted shut.

Not exactly huge, but storage space in a rear-engined car is always a bit scarce, and this was a way to put it to good use; just drop the shopping bags in through the window. I assume the rear seat folded down too.

And here’s the best seat in the house. From the look of that instrument cluster, this Imp is of relatively early vintage. And I should point out that the Imp was only sold as a Sunbeam in the US, for what exact reason I’m not sure. Normally, the Sunbeams were the more sporting variants, but this one is just a basic Imp.

Hillmans were fairly popular in the US during the import-mania of the fifties, but Imps were always a rare sighting, and a noteworthy one. I don’t have any statistics, and the only thing the very flawed standard catalog of Imported Cars has is a brief entry saying Imps were imported starting in 1964, with a 42 hp version of the 875 cc four and priced at $1495 ($10,400 adjusted), somewhat less than a VW.

Like the Corvair, the Imp makes for great history, and amusing driving. Meanwhile, the rest of the automotive world was moving forward, and in terms of small cars, ever more so by their front wheels.