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Little rascal launched too late Add to ...

Imp may have been a big improvement over Slug, the less-than-complimentary tag hung on an early prototype, but when the clever little car created by Britain's Rootes Group finally made it to market in 1963, it was a little too late and had its engine in the wrong end, with the result that it didn't enjoy the success it deserved.

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But the Imp did nevertheless affect a surprising number of lives, including that of Billy Meikle of Oshawa, Ont.

Like the Austin Mini, the Imp was a response to the Suez Crisis, which was creating havoc with fuel supplies in the mid-1950s and eventually resulted in fuel rationing. This forced many British drivers into even tinier and more fuel-efficient cars than the mainstream "motors," as they called them, of the day.

Sounds a bit like the current Canadian situation, with gas prices moving us further away from traditional large vehicles and into entry-level autos, which now account for about 50 per cent of the market.

As all that 1950s strife began to unfold, Rootes Group - which then comprised the Singer, Sunbeam, Hillman, Humber, Talbot, Commer and Karrier marques - didn't have a small car in its lineup. And while its executives were quick enough to see the need, launching design studies for a small car in 1955, it apparently was without much enthusiasm.

The result was the too-small "Slug," powered by an air-cooled engine. It was followed by a second Slug and then the larger and somewhat more orthodox Apex, with a very neat little Coventry-Climax racing-engine-inspired power plant tucked in its tail.

This 875-cc, all-aluminum, single-overhead-cam four-cylinder was considered a little gem. It revved freely and produced 39 horsepower, which was fed to the rear wheels through a very slick four-speed manual gearbox. Not surprisingly, given its heritage, it proved very tunable, and race- and rally-prepared engines produced considerably higher outputs. It also became a favourite of motorcycle sidecar racers.

It was fitted into a three-box monocoque that eventually came in two-door saloon, coupe, estate and van body styles. The saloon was 3,581 millimetres long (about 400 mm shorter than a Honda Fit) and weighed 725 kilograms (a Fit weighs 1,091 kg). Suspension was independent front and rear, and drum brakes were fitted all round.

It was launched as the Imp in 1963, as the frugal 1950s were becoming a memory, and four years after the Mini had pretty much established the supremacy of front-engine/front-drive architecture for small cars. It was sold initially as the Hillman Imp, but then badge-engineered into a Singer, a Commer (commercial) and Meikle's 1967 Sunbeam.

Meikle's involvement with Imps of all ilks - he's owned an example of every model that bore the name - stretches back to shortly after his birth in Paisley, Scotland, in 1961. In 1964, his parents moved to the newly created town of Linwood near Glasgow to help screw these diminutive rear-drive cars together in the just-opened Rootes plant that was its industrial anchor.

For his mother and father and thousands of others in the job-poor Scotland of the day, the arrival of the Imp was obviously a good thing. But for Rootes, which was based in Coventry in the English Midlands almost 500 km away, being forced by government policy to build a plant there proved a labour and logistics nightmare.

Labour stoppages were apparently frequent and the plant built only 50,000 of a planned 150,000 units in 1964. Having the locally cast engine blocks make a round trip to the Midlands to be machined didn't help.

And despite its long gestation, the Imp suffered from a lack of development, which, exacerbated by poor build quality, resulted in reliability issues that didn't do much for its reputation.

A redesign sorted most of this out in 1966, but little further development was in the cards. Rootes was taken over by Chrysler in 1967 (and later sold to Peugeot) leaving the Imp to limp on until 1976, by which time only about 440,000 had been built.

The Meikle family's first car was a second-hand Imp. "They were cheap and economical and easy to come by. Everybody drove them. A throwaway car they were called," he says, popular mainly because they were built in Scotland.

By the age of 12, Meikle was working in an uncle's garage fixing cars. He later apprenticed as a mechanic, messed about with rallying, came to Canada in 1985, switched to the plumbing trade and then established Toronto-based MGS Mechanical, which specializes in high-rise service work.

"I had cars from the age of 15," Meikle recalls. "We'd keep them at a buddy's place and take them out running the back roads at night, when parents are meant to be asleep."

Meikle did drive publicly, including operating his uncle's tow truck for a couple of years before taking the test for his licence at the legal age of 17. "That night I was stopped, because I had a back light out. He [the police officer]looked at my licence and said, you only got this today, and you've been driving for years."

Meikle bought the Imp 14 years ago. He was running a pair of Minis at the time and one morning heard about an Imp for sale in Vineland, Ont. "That afternoon I drove down and bought it," he says.

What he got for his $500 was a rough, bare shell accompanied by boxes of bits. He found an engine in Thunder Bay, another in London, a cylinder head in Nova Scotia and his holidaying mother brought the rocker panels over from Scotland in her luggage. After a couple of years of his own work, the Imp was back on the road.

Meikle drove it sparingly, putting about 8,000 miles on its odometer, then acquired a Victory Vegas motorcycle, which pretty much sidelined the Imp for the past four years.

But it's seen some use this summer, which seems to have rekindled Meikle's enthusiasm. "I'm planning on driving it a lot more," he says of this rare survivor of a car that has played a part of his life for so long.


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