The Odyssey of an Imp
One of the best small British cars of the ‘60s and ‘70s, a sparsely populated field to be sure, was the Hillman Imp, built by the Rootes Group (later Chrysler Europe) in Linwood, near Glasgow. Nearly half a million were made between 1965 and 1976, in various iterations.
I would probably know nothing about these little cars if I and two friends hadn’t taken one on a road trip across Southern Europe in the summer of 1970, during which time I got to know the Imp intimately. Ours was, I believe, a ’68 “Mark II” model (“Mark II” meant it didn’t break down as much as the pre-’66 “Mark I”s), acquired at second or third hand by Colin, a Scottish friend of mine, from one of his relatives who’d once worked at Linwood. In spite of this it was an export model and therefore not a Hillman, a marque quite unknown outside Britain, but a Sunbeam, a name well-known abroad for its sporty Alpines and Tigers. Colin’s Imp was the same car as the Brit-spec one, however, bar the location of the steering wheel. It had a syncromesh 4-on-the-floor gearbox and aluminum alloy engine, both state-of-the-art features for the day. And, like so many other cars back then–Renault 8, VW Beetle, Fiat 850, Porsche 911, etc.–the Imp was rear-engined, therefore somewhat tail-heavy on the road. Rear-engined cars had some advantages, however. The noise of the engine was muted, and the absence of a transmission bulge meant more room inside the passenger compartment. Anyway, our little green Imp handled well and served us with stalwart reliability all the way around the eastern quadrant of Mare Nostrum. This was fortunate, because Sunbeam repair facilities were no doubt fairly thin on the ground in, say, Apulia, the Peloponnese, or darkest Macedonia.
I was 19; Colin the Scot and our mutual Swiss friend Réné, who was a good mechanic and had worked as a grease monkey during school vacations, were the same age, or slightly older; and we all boasted the average intelligence and common sense of teenagers, i.e., none. But we had high spirits, good health, and romantic imagination, and we’d just graduated from high school and stood on the doorstep of our dreams. It was to be, we decided, our Wanderjahre, our gap year before the doldrums of university and the greater doldrums of life beyond. Our families were unenthusiastic (unreasonably, I thought then; not now), but the siren call of the South was irresistible. Once Colin had acquired the Imp, all that remained was for us to pack our bags, pool our slender earnings from various short-term jobs we’d had, and assemble phone numbers of potentially helpful contacts. Réné changed the oil and pumped up the tires and we were off, a Scot, an American, and a Swiss, in our little green Imp. We went through the Valais in Switzerland and over the Simplon Pass without overheating (a good sign) and into verdant Lombardy, in pursuit of our visions of distant shores: Corfu; the Dodecanese; Anatolia…. Having lived for many years in Geneva, 50 miles from the Italian border, I’d been traveling in Italy all my life, but I’d never been to Greece or Turkey, so Istanbul was our goal, if not Ankara itself. We reckoned a couple of weeks would do it, assuming moderate fuel consumption on our part and the car’s. (Again, aggregate intelligence and common sense: nil.)
Italy was easy work, mostly. We took the Autostrada del Sole straight down to Naples, stopping in Rome long enough to get involved in a modern-day chariot race, Imp vs. Fiat 850 (its main Italian competitor), through the streets around the Coliseum; but the altercation, over a gesture at a traffic light, was short-lived, and we emerged victorious but unscathed. Then, at a place near Naples called Castellamare della Stabia, once thought to be the gates of Hades, on the threshold of the world of Circe, the Cyclops, and the Sirens, we embarked on the Amalfi Coast Drive, that classic route of overhanging cliffs and indented coves that snakes across the Sorrentine Peninsula to Salerno. On Amalfi’s jagged promontory, ancient towns perfectly harmonize with the timeless landscape and the mountains plunge into the sea, a bit wine-darker in our day than it was in Homer’s because of the odd oil spill, etc. (it’s been cleaned up now); but it’s still the most beautiful view in the world. The Imp, despite its tiny wheels and boxy form, held on to the twisting switchbacks like a barnacle, but I felt fortunate to emerge from that jaunt with mere mal de mer.
The Amalfi Coast
Afterward, we blew some cash on medicinal aperitifs at a café in Salerno. Then we spent the first of many nights by the roadside, curled up fetally in the Imp, not ideally built for three large lads; that first night, however, was shorter than most, because we scarpered when the ominous shapes of (I swore, and still swear) a band of mafiosi–the local franchise known in Naples as the Camorra–came out of the olive groves and approached the Imp, drawn by its Swiss license plates, carrying flashlights and yelling, “Ey, O, svizzeri (Swiss guys)! It costs money to park here! Give us some, or lots!” Or words to that effect, probably backed up with artillery. We split post-haste, down a winding road that would have perilous in daylight and at night was a roller coaster to Hades. We only escaped thanks to Colin’s driving abilities and the superb roadholding of the Imp–and the intervention of the goddess who was looking over us: Athena, I think, the gray-eyed gal from the Olympus agency, who handled Ulysses.
She did a good job for us all the way, actually, all down the Boot to Brindisi and across to Greece: Corfu, Patras and Athens, with nary a hitch, beneath the blue skies of the Aegean. In Athens the retsina flowed, the streets bustled, and all the taxis were gray Opel Rekords (they’re all yellow Benzes now) driven in fine mad Mediterranean fashion. So while there we stowed the Imp and walked everywhere, not forgetting to pay our respects at the temple of Athena on the Acropolis.
1970 Opel Rekord
By the time we made it to Salonika, a scant day’s drive from the Turkish border, our reserves were dwindling fast. Réné grimly informed us that if we left for home immediately and slept in the Imp all the way we had just enough for food or for fuel, but not for both. We opted for fuel, and pulled straws to determine which of us would be the designated food-and-drink scavenger. No prizes for guessing who got the short straw. Suffice it to say that it was a ludicrous but perilous assignment, with moments of near-panic: for instance, the removal from a butcher shop in Serbia of a roast chicken, mostly hidden yet still aromatic under my battered Irish walking hat; or the appropriation somewhere in the wilds of Thrace of a crate of melons from the village fountain in which they were cooling, and the subsequent pursuit by a ferocious Ford Transit van–not, thankfully, belonging to the police.
A 1970 Ford Transit van
That episode stands out in my memory as something of a mauvais quart d’heure, and another instance of the Imp’s tenacity and nimbleness. In fact, it was one of the few times Colin relinquished the wheel to me, and I made the most of it. The road was straight; the traffic was light; the sky was clear. The Imp fairly flew. It could crank up to about 85 m.p.h. if pressed, and it was then. Finally, the nasty Transit van gave up. It probably ran out of gas, which was never a problem for the Imp. It got something like 38-40 m.p.g., and there was of course no question of premium or hi-test, or even unleaded, back then, back there. Prices were high, but not as high as now. Anyway, the Imp was happy to run all day on whatever sludge we pumped into it–yes, that’s the word for it. It was a happy car. Happy cars don’t break down. As I recall, our only mishap was a blown tire on the heavily-policed road from Salonika to the then-Yugoslav border. I cowered as Colin and Réné changed the tire, fearful that cops, customs patrols, or–worse–a nasty Ford Transit van would spring out snarling from behind the bushes; but they didn’t. We survived. Athena the Wise stayed on the job until, white-lipped and trembling after a nonstop haul from Zagreb, we pulled into Colin’s driveway in Geneva at 3 a.m., three weeks and a bit after we’d left. We were young, so it took us all of a day to recover–physically, but financially took a bit longer and, for me, meant a long stint waiting tables. Unsentimental Colin promptly got rid of the Imp and replaced it with its Italian counterpart and nemesis, a Fiat 850.
We went our separate ways after that. Colin’s now an economics professor; Réné owns a fleet of taxis; I’m a writer. We’re all in our fifties, and it’s a different world out there. Or at least it seems to be. From where I sit, our little odyssey belongs to a long-ago springtime when life was full of promise, and the road ahead led to adventure and glory, and Greek goddesses roamed the earth. And sometimes there were Imps.