Not a member?
Register and login now.

Issue 68 - 50 years of Scotland's car

Scotland Magazine Issue 68
April 2013

 

This article is 4 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2017. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

50 years of Scotland's car

Hillman Imp fan Paul Coulter explores the history and Scottish roots of this iconic vehicle

From the late 1800s, Scotland built up a strong reputation as pioneers in the new motoring movement, with the names Albion, Arrol-Johnston and Argyll becoming synonymous with quality motor manufacture. However, it was an English company, The Rootes Group of Coventry, who would go on to make the biggest success with a car they manufactured in Scotland, the Hillman Imp. The Imp carried on the pioneering achievements of its Scottish relations and was manufactured and exported in a mass scale previously unheard of in the country. It was the Imps’ radical design and forward thinking ambitions however, that led to its’ ultimate demise after only 13 years. The Hillman Imp was born two decades too soon and by the early 1980s when the Imps’ innovations were being widely adopted by motor manufacturers around the world, car production in Scotland ceased for good, marking the end of a century of pioneering achievements in motoring. Scotland left the world of however with tarmacademed roads, pneumatic tyres and the combustion engine as well as the humble Hillman Imp.

The Imp made its debut at Linwood, Renfrewshire on 2nd May 1963, only to cease production in March 1976 after 440,000 cars had been produced. The factory continued to make other models such as the Talbot Sunbeam and Avenger for a few more years but by 1981 the factory had closed and the 9000 jobs of it’s hey day were lost.

Much has been written about the decision to Info build in Scotland, trade union authority, strikes, poorly motivated workforces and poor build quality. Although relevant arguments in the contribution to the demise of the Hillman Imp, it is Important not to forget what the Hillman Imp gave to the world and what it meant for manufacturing in Scotland.

The Hillman Imp was The Rootes Group’s answer to Alec Issigonis’s Mini, which was produced by Austin / BMC. The Imp and the mini appealed to a new post war working class, who for the first time, could enter the world of private motor car ownership in a large scale.

The Rootes Group commissioned two young designers in their early 20s to design a new car for the new and prosperous era of the 1960s. Mike Parkes and Tim Fry started by putting the engine in the rear over the wheels and added all independent suspension to create sports car like handling. The engine was the tried and tested Coventry climax 875cc and this light weight all aluminium engine helped the Imp become a fast and nimble car for the new decade. Bob Saward then came along and designed an attractive body that was so successful and modern that it was never changed throughout the Imps’ production life.

The design endorsed new and innovative technology, such as the pneumatic throttle, automatic choke, greaseless kingpins, a rear opening hatch back and the coupe version introduced split folding rear seats. Many aspects of the Imps’ design are now standard in car design.

In the late 1950s when the Imp was being developed, The Rootes Group of Coventry needed a new facility to produce this brand new design. Politics at the time prevented factories opening in certain established industrial locations and tempting government grants were available to motor manufacturers willing to build in areas seen as deprived or suffering from ageing industries.

The Central belt of Scotland had historically relied on ship building, but as ships were falling out of favour, due to the increase in passenger air transport, new industries were needed to keep the large manually skilled work forces in jobs. Motor car manufacturing was therefore welcome. The prime minister at the time, Harold MacMillan, born in the Isle of Arran, and Lord Rootes, were both land owners in Scotland. Their love of the country, together with the financial backing, sealed the decision to build the Imp in Scotland.

The Imp was built at a completely new factory constructed on a virgin piece of ground near the village of Linwood in Renfrewshire, close to the town of Paisley, and around 10 miles west of Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow. The factory occupied a prominent position close to the new and expanding motorway network, a railway line, the River Clyde and the expanding Glasgow Airport at Abbotsinch. The chosen site was flat and easy to build on.

As the village of Linwood was small, a mass housing development was constructed speedily to house the new workers, many of whom were relocating from Glasgow’s inner city slums and were only too happy to make the move to this exciting new town.

Initially the steel for the Imp came from a steel works in Gartcosh, but as the new Ravenscriag Steelworks opened in nearby Motherwell, the steel for the majority of Imp production came from here. Once at Linwood, the raw steel went to the former pressed steel plant where the shells were produced before being carried on a hanging conveyor belt system linking to the new assembly plant to be finished. The engines were cast at Linwood in the die cast plant, before being transported to the Rootes Group facility HQ in Coventry by train. They were then returned complete and fitted into the Imp.

The Imps were all built in Scotland; however some were not built complete and instead packed as a kit in what was known as Complete Knocked Down form. These CKD kits, were exported in crates to faraway areas where they were then assembled locally.

The factory was opened officially on 2nd May 1963 by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and the Imp went on sale to the public the following day. The Duke then drove himself in the new Hillman Imp back to nearby Glasgow Airport.

During it’s lifetime, some 440,000 Imps and Imp variants were constructed at Linwood including the Singer Chamois, Imp Californian, Sunbeam Imp Sport and Sunbeam Stiletto as well as a Commer van variant. Over time the basic design did not change at all. Quality in construction however, was said to have deteriorated by the end of production, with thinner steel and production cut-backs taking a toll.

It is widely accepted that the Imp went into production too soon for a new innovative car. Despite rigorous endurance testing of the new components in extreme climates from Africa, the Arctic and throughout Scotland, proving positive, the designers failed to actually test the vehicle in the capacity in which most would be used.

The Imp was often used for short journeys to the local shops. Such short trips meant that the car was started, run and then stopped again without getting the opportunity to heat up properly, as it had in endurance testing. The new greaseless king pins began to seize with such limited use and the all aluminium engine in the rear could overheat. Sometimes the pneumatic throttle rubber perisheddue to limited use and the leakage of air would cause the throttle not to work.

The Rootes Group quickly rectified all these problems very early in production, but with such hype surrounding the launch of the new car reliability issues were firmly in the buying publics’ minds and together with the bad press in it’s first few years, the damage was unfortunately done.

Despite the Imp being developed throughout its production run into an excellent car, some buyers were put off by poor reliability concerns. To add to the gloom, the success of BMC’s rival mini becoming the icon of the 1960s, did little to help the Imp compete. When American car giant Chrysler took over in the late 1960s, they axed many of the Imps’ upmarket and sporting variants from the range, leaving the humble Hillman Imp deluxe and Super Imp to soldier on to the end. Poor industrial relations with the work force and management led to many of the infamous Linwood strikes and it would be fair to say that financial cut backs did mean that the quality of Imp production in later years was not as good as that of the early cars.

Production finally ceased in March 1976 with the special edition Caledonian model, arguably one of the best equipped Imps of all time, but the addition of tartan seats and all the optional extras fitted as standard, unfortunately, wasn’t enough to keep mass motor manufacturing in Scotland alive.

The Imp did however have a very successful motor sport career and names such as Rosemary Smith, Tiny Lewis and Andrew Cowan would take the Imp to crowing glories in the international rallies of the 1960s. Bill McGovern also drove his Bevan built Imp to victory winning the British Saloon Car Championship three times in a row in 1969, 1970 and 1971. Such sporting prowess and fondness for the little Scottish car has meant that a good number have survived in the hands of enthusiasts. The Imp celebrates 50 years this year and to mark the occasion The Imp Club is holding an international gathering for owners at Perth Racecourse on 2nd to 5th August where 500 Hillman Imps will show the world Scotland could indeed build a motor car of which to be proud.

Info
Paul Coulter is a 34 year old chartered surveyor by profession and a life long Hillman Imp fan. Since buying his first Imp as a 16 year old school boy he has owned no fewer than 16 Imps and still owns 5, including a very rare original Imp police car. As well as a voluntarily writing for The Imp Club’s magazine, Impressions, Paul has developed a second career as a professional writer. His first theatre play “Redundant” set against the backdrop of the Linwood factory closure was performed in 2012. Paul also works as a freelance motoring journalist for Classic Car Weekly and other national motoring publications. Paul has appeared on television and radio as well as newspapers as a Hillman Imp expert. His first book, Our Hillman Imp takes a nostalgic look at the Imp. It is 104 pages long with history and memories of the Imp and 300 colour photographs. It will be published in 2013 priced £9.99, and can be pre-ordered direct with the author via
Email: paul@Impcaledonian.co.uk,
or Post: Tartan Shawl Publications, 8 Manor Place, Edinburgh EH3 7DD.