First published August 2016.
IMP IMPRESSIONS by Nigel Raeburn.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the Hillman Imp. I only ever did one serious rally in one, which I shall relate below, plus a small club social rally with a girl-friend in hers. However, I had a close insight into just how well they could go in 1968 when Colin Malkin / John Brown were dominating the British rally scene in their Imp and on a few occasions Will Sparrow and I ran in convoy with them over some of the Welsh classic roads – and it certainly was spectacular to follow them!
It was a shame that this innovative design was never a real commercial success, although half a million were made. Its layout was quite unlike other cars of its time (introduced in 1963) with its rear aluminium engine based on a Coventry-Climax design – closer to a Porsche design than other economy small family cars. Racing driver Mike Parkes was one of the designers, which maybe explains some of this. Building a new factory in Linwood, Scotland was another bold move – but sadly reliability was the achilles heel and it was never the success of say the Mini which was its main competitor.
The one serious rally I did in an Imp (which was actually badged as a Sunbeam, not Hillman) was the 1971 Manx International which I did with Andy Dawson. Andy was yet to make his mark as driver and engineer but was well up the learning curve and we managed to come a fine 6th overall which was at the time Andy’s first top-level result. It was described in a report of the rally as ‘the sensation of the rally’ to get the little 1 litre Imp up among the top ten of which 7 were Escorts. The winners were Roger Clark / Henry Liddon in a works Escort.
Andy of course later went on to score many fine results in the Clan Crusader, Escorts, the Lancia Stratos and Datsuns – I think he was the Datsun team manager for quite some time. He was a renowned engineer and car preparer/developer too – and he had prepared our Imp for that Manx – described in that report as a ‘twin-choked Solex carburettor Group 6 Imp’. I think Andy’s father was MD of Solex so that may have helped!
I first remember meeting Andy at a Birmingham University Motor Club evening when Will and I were invited to give them a talk – Andy having studied at Birmingham. I especially remember the conversations about the lap record round the campus ring road – which of course was held by Andy!
I cannot recall having a service crew although maybe we did – Andy did all the work on the car himself – how times have changed! The car ran reliably and was an exciting car in which to rally. The traction out of bends was terrific, the high-reving engine sounded great and with its excellent agility every corner was dramatic with lots of wheel-waving and the like. Andy was definitely a ‘press-on’ style of driver too – but I cannot recall any worrying incidents.
One thing I remember from our recce was that it was the first time I ever met my wife-to-be Margaret! She worked for Chris Coburn who was running the Vauxhall team and she was on the island to do the catering for their team in some chalets they were all staying in on the edge of Douglas. For some reason Andy and I called there during our recce to borrow or loan some item. A few months later Margaret and I met again at Coburn’s base in Hampstead when Will and I did the RAC in a DTV Viva – and now we’ve been married for some 43 years!
So we were delighted with our 6th place and I have lasting memories of how good a car the Imp was. The following year, Andy, with John Foden, drove an Imp-based Clan Crusader and came second, again behind Roger Clark – so Andy was well on his way to the top by then.