Historic Car Brands
The Hillman story is yet another British motor company saga that ended sadly. William Hillman had made his fortune after he and James Starley had patented a new type of ‘penny-farthing’ bicycle, using a spoked wheel that greatly improved ride quality that of over rigid wheels.
1884 Kangaroo Bicycle – Coventry Transport Museum
Hillman developed the very successful, smaller-wheel ‘Kangaroo’ from that design and soon found out the way to make a small fortune was to start a car company, beginning with a large fortune.
In 1907, Hillman teamed up with Louis Coatalen and entered the first Hillman-Coatalen 24hp car in the Tourist Trophy that year. It crashed out, but made an impression on the market. Coatalen subsequently left, to join Sunbeam and the company was renamed Hillman Motor Company in 1910.
1913 Hillman – Hillman Owners Club
The first production Hillmans were large-engined vehicles, with a choice of 40hp, 6.4-litre four-cylinder, or 60hp, 9.7-litre six. However, the volume seller was a 1.4-litre, 9hp RAC (16bhp) model that received upgrades to 1.6-litre capacity by 1925.
The Super Sports version of this model gave Raymond Mays his first race successes.
1929 Hillman 14 – Malcolm A
The 1926 Hillman 14 was designed by Hillman’s son-in-law Spencer Wilks, who later went on to design the first Land Rover. It was powered by a two-litre, side-valve, four-cylinder engine and remained in production until 1931.
In 1928 the hammer fell and Hillman was taken over by Rootes Brothers and merged with Humber in the same year.
Before the takeover, Hillman had already planned the releases of a fashionable 2.6-litre, overhead-valve, straight-eight model and the Seagrave sports saloon was one body style offered on this chassis. However, big-end bearing issues plagued this sluggish engine.
1932 Hillman Wizard – Hillman Owners Club
The Vortic eight-cylinder model arrived next year, with a dynamically-balanced crankshaft that was an attempt to ease the main bearing failure issue. However, the eights were dumped in 1932, in favour of the Wizard 75.
This 2.8-litre, side-valve, six-cylinder model boasted 55hp, but didn’t sell well. It was succeeded by the 20/70 that didn’t do much better.
In parallel with these large-capacity models, the Hillman 16 models were sold, with 2.2-litre and 2.5-litre sixes.
1936 Hillman Hawk Sports Tourer by Martin Walter – Steve Glover
In 1936, the 20/70’s replacement Hawk model was given increased engine capacity, to 3.2 litres and independent front suspension, for much-needed ride and handling improvements.
The six-cylinder cars were not as successful as had been expected, so at the October 1937 Earls Court Motor Show the Hawk, then badged ‘Humber Snipe’ and the Hillman Sixteen, badged ‘Humber Sixteen’, were displayed on Humber’s stand. There was no confirmation of the large-Hillman demise
Also, in October 1937 a new two-litre, four-cylinder Hillman Fourteen filled the sixes’ previous place in the Hillman range.
1937 Hillman Minx Saloon – GTHO
Hillman’s small-car 1932-model Minx had a pressed-steel body on separate chassis and a 30hp, 1.2-litre, side-valve engine that was rubber-block mounted in the chassis. It scored a four-speed box in 1935 and that was made fully-synchronised a year later, making the Minx the first mass-production car with an all-synchromesh transmission.
The Aero Minx was a sporting variant, with coupe and open tourer bodywork.
1935 Hillman Aero Minx – Vauxford
The 1936 model had a new name, the Minx Magnificent and a restyle with a more rounded body. The chassis was stiffened and the engine moved forward to give more passenger leg room. A Commer-badged estate car was added to the range.
The 1938 Minx was visually similar to the Magnificent and there were two saloons in the range: the basic Safety model and the De Luxe model, with leather trim, opening quarter lights and extra trim. There were no more factory-built tourers but some were made by Carbodies.
The 1939 model was different mechanically, with virtually the entire drivetrain improved, to the extent that few parts are interchangeable with the 1938 model.
Hillman 10hp light utility – Alf van Beem
During World War II Hillman devoted production to the War effort producing specialised vehicles, including its own version of the British Army’s ‘Tilly’ utility.
The Rootes Group made military vehicles, aero engines and aeroplanes. It also made one out of every seven bombers produced in the United Kingdom during the war; 60 percent of the armoured cars and 30 percent of the scout cars.
After the War, Hillman offered just the Minx. It went through a series of models with Phase numbers and the Phase VIII of 1955 saw the arrival of an overhead-valve, 1.4-litre engine. A smaller car, the Husky, with van body and the old side-valve engine, was also new for 1954.
1955 Hillman Mark VIII
A complete departure in 1963 was the Hillman Imp, powered by a Coventry Climax-designed, aluminium block and head, 875cc engine. A fastback version, the Californian, and an estate re-using the Husky name were also made.
1963 Hillman Imp Deluxe – National Motor Museum Trust UK
The rear-overhung engine in the Imp was the direct opposite of the front-wheel-drive Mini that proved to be the small-car design trend setter. Sales were disappointing and didn’t do anything to help Rootes’ financial situation.
1966 Nathan Imp at Brands Hatch
However, the Coventry Climax engine base was ideal for tuners. The best known were the Nathan Imp versions that won numerous races. The full-noise, one-litre Nathan Imps had 100hp on tap. (Allan Whiting did a few laps in a Nathan Imp in 1966 and loved it.)
A much more conventional car called the Hunter was introduced in 1966. With cash-strapped Rootes struggling, the cautious Hunter broke no new engineering ground. New parts were largely based on tried and tested Rootes components, using a five-bearing version of the proved 1.8-litre overhead valve four, which varied in output from 66hp (49 kW) to 88 hp (66 kW).
1967 Hillman Hunter – Charles 01
This engine was uprated by specialists Holbay, employing two Weber 40DCOE carburettors to produce 107hp (80 kW) for the Hillman Hunter GLS.
The Hunter’s greatest claim to fame came with a victory in the inaugural London-Sydney Marathon. The 1968 event was won by Andrew Cowan, Colin Malkin and Brian Coyle, driving a Hillman Hunter.
1968 Hunter replica – Allpar
Hillman Down Under
Rootes Australia was formed immediately after World War II, initially operating as an importing and distribution firm. In 1946, it began assembling Hillman Minx vehicles at Port Melbourne, Victoria.
The company also produced models which were hybrids of the three Rootes Group makes.
By the mid-1960s, falling sales and an ageing model line-up meant the Rootes Group was in trouble both in Britain and Australia.
In December 1965, Rootes Australia was merged with Chrysler Australia. Assembly operations were continued at the Port Melbourne facility and Hillman cars, Humber cars and Commer trucks were now sold by Chrysler dealers. Chrysler was quick to phase out the Humber brand, however assembly of the Hillman Arrow and Hunter range began in early 1967.
The last Hillman Hunter was produced in November 1972 and was replaced in the Chrysler Australia lineup by the Mitsubishi Galant.
We’re indebted to the Hillman Owners Club – Australia for the use of some photographs.