The Wheel Deal

Fixing you up with life in the fast lane.
Posted: March 25th, 2013 | By Thomas Falkiner

Hillman Imp/Terence Tracey

It’s named after a small demon, but two local adventurers hope their ageing Hillman will get them across Africa, writes The Wheel Deal

Have you ever heard of a car called the Hillman Imp? “With a name like that,” I hear you mumbling, “do I really want to?”

I would agree on that. As vehicle names go, “Imp” has to rank as one of the worst. It’s up there with the Austin Princess and Datsun Cedric.

Fortunately, the actual car redeems itself by being easy on the eye. Designed to take on the original Mini Cooper, it looks like the illegitimate love child of the Fiat 850 and first Ford Cortina. But unlike the Ford, which proved to be fairly bulletproof, the Imp was not. I won’t go into the gory details but it suffered from various gremlins that led to its demise in 1976, after 13 years of production. Mini 1, Imp 0. Game over.

Or not. Today this quirky British failure has become an unlikely cult classic; one best enjoyed by those with a taste for the eccentric. People like 56-year-old Terence Tracey. “My love affair started when I was a teenager,” he explains. “My neighbour in Cork, Ireland, used to rally one. So I was always over at his garage watching him tinker. Then later my brother also purchased an Imp. Probably because the neighbour told him it was a great car. He must have been a liar because it wasn’t. I was chatting to him on the phone yesterday and he recalled, ‘We spent more time under that damn car than we did driving it.’ Anyway, I have finally decided to try and abolish this stigma.”

Indeed. Fed up with his beloved Hillman being the subject of jokes, Tracey and his friend, Geoff Biermann, will be driving one of his four Imps from Johannesburg to Coventry. Why Coventry? “Because the car is turning 50 this year and this is where the celebrations are set to go down. It is also the place where the car’s original engine was manufactured back in the day. I thought it would put a smile on the UK owners’ dials when Geoff and I rock up in an SA-registered Imp.”

Tracey slaps a bright, Technicolor map on the table and shows me the route. It is a 12000km über-trip I would be anxious about in a new Land Cruiser, let alone a 41-year-old coupé with no airconditioning and the odd patch of rust. But they’ll have a crack team of mechanics following in a back-up vehicle, right? “Nope, we’re all on our own,” says Biermann, 52, with a slight air of defiance. “And to keep weight down we are only packing the bare essentials — basic spares, tools, a first-aid kit and our personal stuff. What we don’t carry, food and refreshments for example, we will be picking up along the way.”

There’ll be no fancy hotels either. “We have a few contacts who have kindly offered to put us up along the way. Otherwise Terence and I shall be camping, staying in churchyards or at police stations. Uh, pretty much just making a plan as we go along.”

Armed with maps and a GPS, the duo aim to cover about 500km a day. After all, they’ve only got six weeks to make it to their destination. “We’re going to try our best to stay out of hot spots too: places that make the news for all the wrong reasons,” explains Biermann. “Southern Sudan and the west side of Ethiopia especially. Kenya is making headlines at the moment but hopefully things will have calmed down by the time we roll through.”

Tracey, on the other hand, seems more concerned about red tape, especially the paperwork involved in the ferry crossing from Wadi Halfa, Sudan, to Aswan, Egypt. “It is a nightmare,” he groans. “We need to deregister the car and then have it registered as an Egyptian car. Then when we finally leave Egypt, we have to go through the process all over again.” To my mind the most painful part of this journey has to be the tortuous inoculation run — no less than eight jabs are required.

Africa will be hard on these two drivers, but what about their machine? Some sections of the route, like the “road” linking Kenya to Ethiopia, sound as if they have been plucked from a war film. “The Imp will take a pounding,” says Tracey. “But we’ve worked in a few modifications that should make a difference.” Although his is a 1972 model, Tracey has equipped it with suspension nicked from an earlier Imp. Apparently the older cars were more robust. Other notable tweaks include a secondary fuel tank, rugged bakkie tyres, and some unorthodox radiator positioning.

“The rear-engined Hillman Imp has long had a reputation for overheating,” notes Tracey, “so we — cleverly, I might add — mounted the radiator up front with a nice big air intake and an electric fan. The water hoses run through channels in the car’s chassis. Look, this makes the interior a lot hotter, but the engine should run considerably cooler. It should come in handy when we’re up near the equator.”

After crossing the Mediterranean, Tracey and Biermann will zigzag through Europe until they get to France. Then it’s a short blast across the channel for the mother of all birthday bashes. “The Hillman Imp club has organised 50 cars, driven down from Linwood in Scotland [where the original Imp bodies were made], to join the celebrations. And they’ve asked me to lead that convoy in through Coventry to the motor museum. That’s the final meeting point.”

Now it is anyone’s guess if this aged lump of British steel will ever make it to the ticker-tape parade on the other side of the world. But if it does, its journey will only have been half-run. “My business partner’s niece will be driving it back to Johannesburg,” says Tracey. “She’s finishing her studies in Germany and asked if she could pilot it back towards the end of the year. She’s a skilled traveller who has driven all over Africa and Australia so I said, ‘of course, with pleasure’.”

Let me get this straight: what we’re looking at here is a 24000km round-trip, across some of the world’s meanest terrain, all within the space of a year. Ambitious? Certainly. Foolhardy? Perhaps. But if these adventurers can pull it off, then the humble Hillman Imp might never again need any introduction. Godspeed, chaps.

• Follow the adventure at http://jolonimp.wordpress.com/

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