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Back to Rootes: Classic car fans mark 50 years of the Hillman Imp

The first model of the iconic car rolled off the production line in Linwood, Renfrewshire, on May 2 1963.

A Hillman Imp. The car built at the Rootes factory in Linwood, Renfrewshire, turned 50 on May 2, 2013.
Graham Robertson

With its compact frame, bulging headlamps and distinctive wing mirrors on stalks, the Hillman Imp was an unmistakable feature of British roads for two decades.

Now classic car enthusiasts have gathered to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the car's launch at the former Rootes factory in Linwood, Renfrewshire.

The first model of the car was driven off the production line by the Duke of Edinburgh on May 2, 1963, and half a million models were sold over the next 18 years.

Its low running costs and reliability, as well as its modest size, made it an ideal first car for many people in the 1960s and 1970s and it went on to gain cult status.

According to DVLA records some 4000 models are still on the road, 32 years after the Rootes factors closed in 1981.

About 100 people crowded into the car park at the St James business centre including former employees and owners and fans of the diminutive vehicles.

A ceremonial plaque was unveiled to mark the Imp's half century before a group of about 50 owners set off in convoy to the former Rootes Group headquarters in Coventry.

Ernie Payne, 67, from Johnstone, Renfrewshire, started an apprenticeship with the company in 1962 when he was 16 and went into production engineering.

"It was a very good car - it was way above the Mini at that time," he said. "Unfortunately it got a bit of bad publicity, but it was way ahead of its time - probably 10 years ahead.

Mr Payne met his wife of 43 years, Anne, at the factory and was given a white Imp by his parents for his 21st birthday in 1967. He described the car as his "pride and joy."

He started work as a 16-year-old apprentice on a salary of £19 1s a week, just short of £1000 a year - equivalent to £17,000 in today's money.

He said: "I think it was fantastic for the area, but there was people against it of course because the wages they were paying was a lot higher than the average about here.

"I think it was sad when it finally closed. I used to look out into the car park and see all the foreign cars the employees were buying, if only they'd bought and supported their own company.

"I've got a bit of a soft spot for this place and I've always lived in the area. When it closed it was a disaster for the whole area because over and above the 11,000 it employed there was a lot of people round about selling rolls and stuff like that to the workers.

"I'm delighted to see as many as there are here in such good condition. It makes me wish I had one back again."

Recalling the Duke of Edinburgh's visit, Mr Payne said: "I remember being on the Alphine (car model) line which used to produce the gearbox casings when he passed by. None of the apprentices got involved with anyone of that level, but we were on the shop floor when he passed."

The Imp launched by the Duke is now on display at the Riverside Museum in Glasgow.

Councillor Bill Brown, who represents the Renfrew North ward, said: "In 1963 they were looking to disperse work from the South and the Midlands, and Rootes came to Linwood to open up a plant.

"It's a very distinctive car. Nowadays if you lined up lots of cars and took the badges off you wouldn't tell them apart, but when you saw the Imp you knew exactly what it was.

"The area changed tremendously (since the factory closed), now it's effectively a retail park with offices. The heavy industry we did have and hoped to build up was never sustained, regrettably."

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