Man In A…Hillman Imp???

June 22, 2018

A brief investigation of McGill’s choice of motors…

Think of any TV detective or action hero from the ’60s or ’70s and you’ll almost invariably think of their car. Where would John Steed have been without his green label Bentley, or Simon Templar his white Volvo P1800? Even John Drake had his nippy Mini Cooper. But it was a different story for McGill in Man in a Suitcase, who had to make do with a succession of Hillman Imps; humble motoring for a down-at-heel investigator who clearly couldn’t afford anything better.

It’s easy to sneer at McGill’s crummy cars, but the Imp was extremely popular in its day (it was in production from 1963 until the mid 70s), and it had a solid track record as a rally car, with a rear engine that was easily tuned to improve performance.

The Rootes Group vehicle took its styling cues from the small European cars of the late ’50s and early ’60s, and the influence of models like the NSU Prinz can be clearly seen. Perhaps this European styling was what drew the production team to select an Imp as McGill’s mode of transport, a go-anywhere car for a go-anywhere guy. Or was it the luggage space under the bonnet? (Ample room in there for a suitcase). 

Unlike Steed and Simon Templar, whose cars were enshrined in die-cast form, McGill’s Imp escaped the attentions of the marketing men at British toy manufacturers Corgi and Dinky, which is ironic, since both companies had already issued models of the Imp, and both came complete with a plastic suitcase! Dinky’s model even matched the metallic olive green of the Hillman Super Imp driven by McGill in a number of episodes. Unlike either The Saint or The Avengers, however, Man in a Suitcase simply wasn’t considered suitable fare for younger viewers, and while Dinky saw fit to offer a Prisoner mini-moke model towards the end of 1967, there would be no corresponding McGill Imp.

Like many cars of the era, Rootes Group models in particular, the Imp was prone to rust, and although it remained in production until 1976, the model was largely gone from the roads by the 1980s. Despite enjoying one of the longest production runs of any British car, reliability issues and logistics problems didn’t help, (cars had to be rail freighted between factories 300 miles apart in Rhyton-on-Dunsmore and Linwood), and ultimately, sales never lived up to expectations.

The Imp’s ephemeral qualities seem appropriate in retrospect for a character like McGill, who lived on the edge and, like his car, didn’t look likely to survive for very long. If anything, the uncool car signified a sea change amongst ITC detectives, and in the coming years, drab family cars like the Vauxhall Victor would become the norm for the likes of Jeff Randall, and even the Department S operatives (with the notable exception of a certain Mr. King). Adam Strange, of course, played the wild card with his FX3 taxicab…

For a guy like McGill, though, cars didn’t really matter, as long as they got him where he needed to be. And whatever he drove had to blend in with its environment, as he explains to gang member Rufus Blake (George Sewell) after picking him up in the Imp in The Sitting Pigeon… 

Blake: “Is this the best you could do? This heap of junk?” 

McGill: “Don’t want to attract too much attention.” 

Blake: “I thought you Yanks liked flashy cars… this one’s for peasants.” 

McGill: “That’s us.” 

Some of the Imps seen in Man in a Suitcase…

JML 272B Singer Chamois, pale blue 

109 GHX Hillman Imp Deluxe, white 

FHP 198C Hillman Super Imp Rallye, green

FPX 672C Hillman Imp, red 

See if you can spot them!

Martin Cater

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  1. Andy Hough Reply

    Great article however, I wouldn’t single Rootes out as a particular manufacturer with Rust problems; BMC , Vauxhall, Ford even Jaguar had issues with the dreaded tin worm. Sadly for the Hillman Imp and all its badge engineered variants it was the cylinder head/overheating issues that derided the car’s popularity with the motoring public. Sad really it was a nice clean design and was ahead of it’s time.

  2. Gilbert De Borgher Reply

    The white one was in Man From The Dead
    The red one was in The Jigsaw Man
    The light blue one was in Castle In The Clouds
    The green one was in different episode
    A MIAS fan

  3. Darren Read Reply

    Just checked on the DVLA site to see if any of the cars listed are still registered………. unfortunately none are and I am guessing they have all gone to the scrap yard in the sky.

  4. Jeff Leach Reply
  5. Keith Snowdon Reply

    An Unusual choice of car which epitomised this unusually violent (even for 60s series) programme.
    After Randall and Hopkirk and The Avengers, my third favourite.

  6. Dan O'Neill Reply

    I remember driving home squeezed into a mate’s Hillman Imp with a couple of girls we pulled at a disco! The throttle cable broke and we rolled to a stop on Acton High Street at 2am. The only way he could keep the engine running was to wedge the carburettor gate wide open. The sensible thing to do would be to call a cab to send the girls home and wait with the car for a tow truck.

    What did we do?

    We shot down Ealing Broadway with the engine and the girls screaming at full throttle all the way to Twickenham and made it home to our flat in one piece. Great little car!

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