The Hillman Imp was manufactured from 1963 to 1976 for the Rootes Group, then later for Chrysler’s European group. It was sold in the lineup of a number of marques – Hillman, Singer, and Sunbeam – and in a number of configurations; coupé, saloon, estate (the Husky), a van and others. It was meant to be a direct competitor to the BMC Mini, and the two cars did fight it out for supremacy in the subcompact/starter car market, at least for a few years.
The Imp was conceived as a sort of alt-Mini; rear-mounted engine instead of front, aluminium block and head to save weight, automatic choke and a diaphragm spring clutch – all firsts in British cars at the time. It had actual working gauges for temperature, voltage and oil pressure. It also had a number of packaging improvements to increase its tiny luggage carrying capacity, like an opening rear window (essentially a hatchback) and a folding rear seat.
However, for all its ingenious features, the Imp could be notoriously unreliable (the throttle and choke were particularly troublesome). Still, the weight distribution and the handling of the car led to a small yet cult-like following of enthusiasts. Rootes’ engineers had modelled the Imp on the Chevrolet Corvair, the famous American rear-engined compact of the early 1960s, and had experienced firsthand its notorious suspension and handling problems. This led to a number of significant improvements in the suspension of the Imp. If you could get the thing running, some said, it handled almost as well as another rear-engine car that debuted in 1963: the Porsche 911.
The similarities to the Corvair did not stop at the mechanicals. The styling and packaging looked like a Corvair’s baby brother; the squared-off massing, the strong horizontal character line and a simple grille-less front mask that looked like it had been lifted straight from the Corvair – and all strongly influenced by that car’s rear-engine layout.
The Imp’s racing bona fides were established at Holland’s Tulip Rallye of 1965. Rosemary Smith won the race and her achievement convinced Rootes' executives to create a special rally version of the Imp, which soon began racing all over Europe. The Imp was successful in touring car racing as well, winning three consecutive British Saloon Car championships from 1970-1972 with Bill McGovern at the wheel. The presence and success on the rally and touring car circuits may have saved the Imp from an early exit from the marketplace.
The British were not the only ones keeping an eye on the Imp. The Italian Carrozzeria Zagato had desired to enter the UK market with a GT coupé that would be light and aggressive on the road. The Imp seemed like the perfect platform for such a car. Three Imps were sent to Milan for study and reconstruction, while Rootes’ executives worked with the Italians to set up British Zagato Ltd, which would build the new cars with Imps provided under a gentlemen’s agreement with Lord Roote.
In Italy, the project was put in the capable hands of Zagato’s Ercole Spada, responsible for the Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato, the Alfa Romeo Giulietta SZ and TZ, and a long list of other classics. The car soon acquired the name Zimp, short for Zagato-Imp. Spada, knowing the project was on an accelerated timeline, chose to keep the mechanicals the same and focus on the body shape. He drew upon experience from a previous concept car, the BMC Mini Cat of 1961.
Spada would later recall, “the Zimp was loosely based on the form language we had developed earlier for the Mini Cat, but better executed and more beloved."
Perhaps the strongest feature of the design was the horizontal line that ran completely around the car, moving the eye across its form. This line was continuous, even though it meant covering the top of the headlights, giving the little car a strong glaring aspect and anticipating today’s scowling face designs by some five decades. “I didn’t want to interrupt that line, so I invented electronically operated eyebrows [hinged on the inner edge] which arose when the head lights were switched on.” Spada also simplified the front and rear fascias of the Imp to create a stronger emphasis on the continuous character line.
The side profile reveals classic Italian proportions as the upright structure of the original Imp is replaced with a sleeker, more coupé-like glasshouse. Visibility is excellent, with both bonnet and tailgate sloping away from the driver allowing a superb view of the road.
The side profile of the car is almost symmetrical around its center axis, with a slightly longer bonnet and shorter deck. The horizontal character line, so prominent and Corvair-like on the Imp, is made more subtle by creating just a crease in the aluminium sheet metal all the way around the body. The light breaks over this crease to create a strong horizontal line without having to resort to chrome or similar trim.
On the interior, improvements were kept to a minimum to rein in costs. Still, plusher vinyl seats, a wooden steering wheel and more streamlined door appointments gave it a subtle continental feel.
The Zimps were constructed on a fast-track schedule of just nine months to be available for the 1964 Earls Court Motor Show. All three made it to the show, but storm clouds were gathering over Rootes, which had been having funding troubles. Chrysler, already invested in the company, managed to get three of their own members on the Board of Directors, and soon, special projects such as the Zimp – no matter how promising – were cut from the budget. Lord Roote himself would die at the end of the year and Chrysler would begin the slow but sure process of taking control of the company over the next few years, merging it into their European operations.
The Imp would stay in production until 1976, but sold only about half a million units, far fewer than the 150,000 per year projected in the early 1960s. The Imp had been considered a victim of the decline of the British car industry, but more recent assessment was that despite some early mechanical issues, the car was innovative and an affordable, street-legal rally car with advanced suspension that could be easily tuned.
Zagato is still in business, but in a much altered form as part of a larger conglomerate. Ercole Spada has had a long and storied career, having penned too many classics to name here. He now owns a design consultancy with his son. Rosemary Smith, the racer, is in semi-retirement now, but runs a driving school in Ireland with the support of Renault. Bill McGovern, who was so successful racing an Imp in the early 1970s, retired in 1974, but has raced on occasions since.
Looking back at the design of the Zimp, it was an elegant solution to the problem of the small car. Minimal lines, bold form and superb proportions characterised the design, yet it seems so basic and approachable. As we reconsider some of the overly fussy designs of today and look to a back-to basics approach to automotive design, we should have a photo of the Zimp tacked to the walls above our desks for inspiration.