Cute, sprightly and great fun to drive – can there possibly be a catch to owning a Hillman Imp?
The Hillman Imp quickly established itself as a firm rival to the Mini thanks to its revvy Coventry Climax-derived all-alloy engine, cute-as-a-button looks and clever marketing. This latter was particularly impressive, with Rootes Group indulging in such historic badge engineering as Singer (for the Chamois) and Sunbeam (for the Stiletto), as well as offering a rakish coupé and practical estate/van derivatives.
Alas, much of the good work was undone thanks to a combination of a farcical production set-up (engine castings made at the new Linwood factory in Scotland had to be sent to Ryton near Coventry for assembly, and then returned to Linwood for installation into the cars) and early poor reliability, but how do they stack up today?
Engine 875/998cc, in-line 4cyl, overhead camshaft, single Solex/twin Stromberg carbs
Power 39bhp@5000rpm to 65bhp@6200rpm
Torque 52lb ft @ 2800rpm to 52lb ft @4300rpm
Top speed 75-90+mph
Gearbox 4-speed all-synchri manual, rear-wheel drive
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Hit and miss anti-corrosion protection at the factory – especially on the earlier cars – means that Imps rust with the best of them. Among the worst culprits in this respect is the double-skinned front bootlid; seemingly minor corrosion along the leading edge of this panel can easily develop into terminal rot if not attended to in time, leaving direct replacement the only really viable option.
Just as obvious will be rotten lower door panels; if the drainage holes get even partially blocked with the usual road detritus, water can get trapped and instigate inexorable corrosion. Frilly lower wings are common for similar reasons, but don’t stop there be sure to remove the spare wheel; the well in which it nestles is notorious for allowing water in, and then slowly rotting away. Be vigilant for lousy welding along the sills, too, and while you’re scrabbling underneath the car take a torch and assess the state of the car’s underside. Don’t expect any car to be rust-free here, but impact damage, especially on any car that has been used in sprints or hill climbs, can be bad news.
Check also the metalwork where the suspension components attach to the car – any significant rot here can dangerously compromise the car’s handling, likewise indifferent welding. You can be sure the car will fail its next MoT, too.
Dark mutterings about chronic overheating problems have dogged the Imp for years, and while this reputation isn’t entirely underserved, there are precautions that diligent owners can (and do) take to ensure that the Coventry Climax-derived all-aluminium engine keeps its cool.
Chief among these is ensuring that the antifreeze is kept scrupulously topped up, and maintained at a strong enough mixture to prevent any corrosion from setting in. A careful owner will also have made sure that the coolant is fresh and to the recommended level, and sorted any head gasket-related issues before they deteriorate. Low coolant, weak anti-freeze and a head gasket that’s past its best are all sure-fire signs of a car that hasn’t been maintained properly.
Repeated overheating will also eventually have a detrimental effect on the engine block and head (they’re both aluminium, remember) – if the service history makes mention of a recent head or block skim (and this is reinforced by noticeable ‘pinking’ under load), then walk away. Later cars are less prone to overheating, but not immune – what can appear to be a reassuringly low water temperature gauge reading may, in fact, be down to the fact that an unscrupulous vendor has removed the thermostat, so be sure to check it.
Don’t be too put off minor oil leaks – all Imps seep oil to a degree, but major slicks should start alarm bells ringing.
The Imp is a match for the venerable Mini in many respects, and its gearshift quality is one such area. Anything other than slick, razor-sharp up- and down-shifts suggests problems, but since repair costs are often so low, they shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. A woolly shift action is usually as a result of something as simple as shot gearlever bushes, but crunchy shifts – especially in first and second gear – usually means either a re-build or direct replacement is necessary, and direct replacement is an engine-out job.
Suspect worn steering bushes or kingpins on a car whose helm feels overly heavy, and if aftermarket wheels are fitted, make sure they don’t foul the arches.
You’ll hunt in vain for new-old stock interior or exterior Imp trim these days, but parts back-up from the club is still impressive, with most things available. Hillclimbers tend to strip their cars of superfluous items to keep the weight down, so keep an eye on the small ads – it’s not entirely unheard of for complete interiors in particular to come up for sale from time to time.
For reasons that remain unclear, the Hillman Imp has never really attained the superstar status enjoyed by the Mini, or the strong values maintained by the similar-sized (if somewhat rarer) Renault 8. The most likely reason for this is that reputation for engine overheating, but since most enthusiast-owned cars will have been rectified and properly maintained by now, this hardly seems a problem.
Factor in seating for four, cute good looks, a super-revvy engine, slick gearshift, direct steering and light weight, and the amount of car you get in return for a relatively lowly outlay can prove mighty tempting.