Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

Classic Cars: Hillman Minx

The gutless Minx stayed in production for decades. Amazing, says Brian Sewell

In 1931, when the Great Depression was killing car manufacturers by the hundreds, one of the more secure but least deserving, Hillman - unadventurous and utterly conventional - introduced a new small saloon and called it, not the 10/4 nor the 1185/30, but the Minx.

It was a very Roaring Twenties word, with an air of sexual mischief about it. Minx, by then, meant a playful hussy rather than the whore of the 17th century. Had they called it the Hillman Whore no one would have bought it, and even the Hillman Hussy would have raised eyebrows, but as a Minx the car stayed within the bounds of decency - and seemed infinitely more enticing than the Nines, Tens and Heavy Twelves of other manufacturers.

Ten thousand were sold in that first year, and the Minx swiftly took firm hold on one-third of the total British market for cars of its capacity.

The Minx was not the first small Hillman, but it was the first to strike gold. It lifted the firm out of the Depression, and in one form and another its formula survived until 1970 when the despairing Chrysler, who had absorbed the marque, throttled it.

In 1931, its name was the only new thing about it. It was indeed a new car all through, but its engine, a side-valve iron lump of 1,185cc, narrow of bore and long of stroke, producing 30bhp, was as technically uninspired as anything by Austin, Morris and most others of its day. As for its body, that was as dully sit-up-and-beg as it could be, seating its rear passengers well back over the axle.

Performance was appalling; it could not climb steep hills, nor could it be stopped on the descent. But it was ruggedly made and competitive in price - £159 for the plain version, £175 for the Saloon De Luxe.

The model was given to offering such extras and variations as a free-wheel, a sliding roof, double sprung steel bumpers and even, in the Melody Minx, the luxury of a radio - the first car ever to have one as standard. The Minx was quickly established, in the parlance of the time, as the most desirable of Tens.

Within two years it spawned the Aero Minx, a would-be sporty version on a shorter chassis. It had coachbuilt bodies which, though they looked either mildly aerodynamic or conventionally dashing, were disappointingly heavier, making the car slower; it was promptly dubbed "the Minx in the party frock'.

The Minx that broke the mould came in 1935, the Minx Magnificent. The engine was unchanged, but the gearbox had synchromesh on all four ratios - at least for the first year or two. The body was distinctly American, its corners rounded, its contours smoothed, its tail sloping.

It had no running boards, its radiator was reminiscent of the Hudson Terraplane and it had a separate luggage boot. It even came in cream with red upholstery. But it was still a bog-standard gutless family saloon with six windows and four wide doors. Its recommended cruising speed was 45-50mph; at a pinch, it could just exceed 60mph.

With cosmetic tinkering, the Minx remained top of its class until the war - and then came its triumph as an army vehicle, a staff car for officers of piddling rank and, in "tilly'' form (flat-bed truck with canvas tilt), for NCOs and troops. This was the monocoque Minx announced in September 1939, manufactured in their thousands throughout the war and ready in 1945 for immediate civilian production, the engine still the same block but now producing 35bhp at 4,100 rpm.

In 1947, the front wings were swollen to contain the headlamps and the brakes were at last hydraulic, but underneath the now old-fashioned transatlantic skin it was still the same car of 1931, the performance and handling still dreadful.

The first truly post-war car appeared in 1948, working parts still unchanged but its new monocoque body designed by Raymond Loewy, from whom Hillman had taken advice on styling 10 years earlier. Slab-sided, it bore a faint resemblance to Loewy's bodies for Studebaker, but with nose and tail cut short, its proportions were stunted and boxy.

Continuing the pre-war policy of annual cosmetic revisions, the ugly duckling gradually improved and the drop-head coupé and Californian derivatives were almost elegant.

Alone among the manufacturers of Tens, Hillman had long produced a drop-head variant, always more elegant than the saloon; in 1953 they went further and produced the Californian, which was essentially the drop-head with a fixed steel roof and a wrap-around rear window that made the little car seem as excitingly American as the Jensen Interceptor. "Looked at or looked out of - the view is superb,'' was one of the Californian's advertising slogans; for its two-tone paintwork, they employed the now unfortunate slogan "The Gay Look".

With its two bench seats and a steering-column gearshift, the Californian could just about seat six in cuddly discomfort. It seemed a lot of fun when passengers slid from side to side as it leaned and lurched round corners. Serene enough in a straight line, its roadholding was appalling, swiftly reaching a point on every fast bend at which the driver sensed diminishing adhesion.

At first fitted with the original 22-year-old Minx engine bored out to 1,265cc to give a pathetic extra 2.5bhp, the Californian was as gutless a wonder as the Aero Minx had been and was, like it, a passenger's weight heavier than the four-door family saloon. One year into production, it was powered by a new overhead-valve "square'' engine of 1,390cc, giving 43bhp at 4,400rpm.

With this, it at last had the potential to match the Simca Grand Large coupé that I have always thought was its inspiration. But the soft suspension defeated any sporting pretensions, and as it weighed just about a ton (1,000kg), performance was far from sparkling; 70mph flat out and 35 seconds from standstill to a mile a minute. Its petrol consumption was, at best, 30mpg.

Any man fool enough to think the Minx in any of its guises a potential classic should get a Californian. It died in 1955, translated into the first Sunbeam Rapier, but in its short life Hillman had made a point of exhibiting it at motor shows on the stands of Thrupp and Maberley, their associated, once noble coachbuilder, implying a hand-built quality - and indeed, any purchaser wanting leather upholstery or some particularly odious combination of "gay paint" could boast that his car had been breathed on by Messrs T and M.

In 1956, a slimmer Minx by Loewy usurped his slab-sided Phase III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII and VIII A with the even more confusingly similar Series I to VI (omitting Series IV). The picture was yet more confused by equivalent but more upmarket versions sold as Singers. Then came the Super Minx Marks I to IV (with more Singer variants and an even further upmarket Humber).

The last Minx of all was the model of 1967-70, a downmarket and under-powered version of the awful Hillman Hunter.

Traditionalists, it is said, were furious when Chrysler, after 39 years in continuous production, finally killed off the whore - but did any sane man really care?

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