William Hillman was first known as a designer of the velocipede, a forerunner to the bicycle and he had been involved with a group of entrepreneurs who were importing them from France. He was born in 1849 and worked for the Coventry Machinist Company, a company that made small machines.
In the mid 19th century, Coventry in England was the centre for sewing machine manufacturers and many of them switched to bicycles as they already had a mechanical workforce in place and the bicycle was the latest in technology! This meant that Coventry also became the centre of bicycle manufacturing in England – Triumph did this as well.
Hillman and John Starley had taken their new design of bicycle on a tour of southern England to sell the idea to new buyers. Hillman’s partner in bicycle design, Starley, went on to form the Rover Car Company whilst Hillman formed the Hillman and Herbert Cycle company which went through a couple of names until it morphed into the Hillman-Coatelen company in 1907 to make cars. Louis Coatelen, a French designer worked with Hillman for two years until jumping ship to Sunbeam in France. Little did they know that these companies would come together 40 years later!
In 1910, Hillman-Coatelen re-registered as the Hillman Car Company producing cars with 6 and 9 litre engines that sold in small numbers. It was when they started to sell cars with more modest 1.3 and 1.6 litre engines that sales started to take off. These pre and post WW1 cars put out a very small 9, 11 and later 14 horses, enough to make them move but that was about it!
In 1928 Hillman was bought by Humber who had also been a bicycle manufacturer around the same time as Hillman. Thomas Humber had several factories including one in Coventry, so there were some synergies between them.
Three years later the combined company was gobbled up by the Rootes Group as they created their car empire. Hillman became the foundation of the group as the brand was used for the cheaper run-of-the-mill cars whilst Humber were classed as luxury vehicles.
Hillman models from the 1930s included the Minx, Wizard and Hawk – the Minx name lasted 20 odd years at least. Then there was the Husky and in the 1960s the Imp. Most Hillmans, except the Imp, used an 1100cc engine although some had 2.6 or 3.1 litre engines, shared with the Humber models.
It was the Hillman Imp that had a significant contribution to the downfall of the Rootes Group – each car started it’s build in Coventry then was shipped to Scotland for some parts to be added and then sent back to Coventry for finishing. It was a huge loss maker even though it was trying to compete with the very successful Mini. The Government at the time wanted this arrangement to lower unemployment in Scotland. It also enjoyed the classic 1970s concept of badge engineering, being sold as a Sunbeam, Singer and as a Commer commercial van. It was also built in Australia and New Zealand. The Imp was powered by a modified 875cc Coventry Climax engine – originally designed as a fire pump!
The other model that everyone knows Hillman by is the Hunter, which was still being produced in Iran 35 years after it was launched. It used a 1.5 or 1.7 4-pot motor and was a direct competitor to the Ford Cortina and Vauxhall Victor and was also badge engineered – it was also sold as a Chrysler, Dodge, Humber, Paykan Singer, Sunbeam and was built in Ireland, Australia and New Zealand as well as Iran.
By 1967, Chrysler had complete control of the Rootes Group and the brands were starting to be killed off. Hillman survived initially with a new model, the Avenger – which was also badged as a Dodge and Plymouth – even a VW in South America after the German company had bought a manufacturing plant from Chrysler.
The Avenger was the last Hillman to be produced as very soon all of the Rootes brands were dropped in favour of the Chrysler moniker and another grand old name from the British car industry was lost by 1976.
The Hillman manufacturing plant in Ryton, near Coventry, was used by PSA Peugeot Citroen after they acquired the European arm of Chrysler and was only recently razed to the ground in favour of development having closed at the end of 2006.