From Humble Beginnings to British Mainstay: Hillman Motors

Hillman Motors, a quintessentially British marque, has a storied past reminiscent of much of the early UK car industry. Transitioning from bicycles to some of Britain's most famous cars, the history of Hillman cars epitomises a remarkable trajectory of outstanding achievement, followed by a slow decline into obscurity.

Automotive History
14 December 2023

The story of Hillman motors began in the early 20th century in the rich industrial heartland of Coventry. William Hillman, who had made a fortune building pedal bikes, held lofty ambitions to build motorcars.

In 1907, Hillman joined forces with Louis Coatalen, a French Breton who eventually took British nationality, to form Hillman-Coatalen. Combining Hillman’s business acumen with Coatalen’s technical prowess, this partnership saw the history of Hillman automobile begin and laid the foundation for a company that would leave a lasting imprint on the British motoring landscape.

The early years in the history of Hillman motors were crucial in establishing the marque’s reputation for dependable, well-engineered cars, setting the stage for its future successes. Two standout models were the Imp and Minx, however the company’s fortunes took a dramatic turn in the 1960s when American giant Chrysler took over.

Struggling to maintain its identity, Hillman was acquired by Peugeot in the following decade, and from there, Hillman motors gradually disappeared from British roads.

This tribute to a true British classic charts the formative years of Hillman, its peak as a maker of first-class cars, and its downfall and drift into automotive oblivion. This is the history of Hillman cars.

The Realisation of a Dream

An Ariel 500 belt drive three-wheeler, 1914. (Credit: Heritage Images / Contributor via Getty Images)

William Hillman began his career in the mid-19th century as an engineer with the Coventry Sewing Machine Company, which later ventured into producing bicycles. By 1870, he had patented the bicycle “Ariel” with James Starley, and by 1885, he became a partner at the bicycle manufacturing firm Hillman Herbert and Cooper, producing the “Kangaroo” bicycle.

After the success of the Ariel and Kangaroo, Hillman set his sights on four wheels. Thus, the official Hillman cars history starts in 1907 when Hillman and Louis Coatalen, an engineer and racing driver, set up shop in the grounds of Abingdon House in Stoke Aldermoor, a few miles southeast of Coventry. The first Hillman-Coatalen-produced car, the 24HP, crashed in the 1907 Tourist Trophy, but it got noticed.

Coatalen left the company in 1909 and a year later, the company changed its name to the Hillman Motor Car Company.

The initial range of Hillman motors featured substantial engines, including a 40hp, 6.4-litre straight-four and an even larger 60hp, 9.7-litre straight-six. However, it was the more modestly sized 9HP model, equipped with a 1.4-litre side-valve, four-cylinder engine, that became the company’s first major commercial success. Following World War I, this model received an upgrade to an 11hp, 1.6-litre engine, enhancing its appeal and performance.

Other cars followed, including the 10HP, the Hillman 11 and the beautiful Hillman 14, a two-litre straight-four family car priced at £345, dramatically undercutting the rival Austin and advertised as ‘the car that cost less than it should.

But everything changed in 1928 with the arrival of the Rootes brothers.

A New Era for Hillman Motors

Hillman Minx (l) Hillman Wizard (r) (Credit: Topical Press Agency via Getty Images)

Managed by brothers William and Reginald Rootes, the Rootes Group emerged as a leading automotive powerhouse in the UK from the mid-1920s to the late-1960s, renowned for being among the country’s most influential car dealers during that period.

At their height, they owned some of Britain’s most famous car marques including Humber, Singer, Talbot, and Sunbeam, as well as light commercial vehicle makers Commer and Karrier.

In 1928 they took a controlling interest in Hillman and the company started producing reliable, high-quality vehicles, catering to an emerging market of middle-class motorists. The company’s approach to car manufacturing, emphasising both style and substance, led to the creation of several notable models.

The six-cylinder, 2.8-litre Hillman Wizard, hailed as ‘The Car for the Roads of the World,’ was specifically designed targeting the burgeoning US export market. In 1932, Hillman launched the Minx, arguably their most iconic model. Initially a 1.2-litre vehicle, the Minx evolved through numerous variants, including an elegant sports tourer, a stylish drophead coupe, and a GT version, along with saloons, convertibles, estates, and even a compact utility truck. While exact production figures for its four-decade lifespan aren’t available, estimates suggest over 1.3 million units were produced.

The 1936 model, named the Minx Magnificent, was offered with the optional extra of a rear-mounted luggage rack for two pounds, seven shillings and sixpence!

Iconic models like the Hillman Minx, and latterly the Hillman Imp which followed in the 1960s, captured the public’s imagination, balancing performance with practicality. These cars not only solidified Hillman’s place in the market but also mirrored the changing tastes and needs of British society. The Minx, in particular, enjoyed widespread popularity, becoming a symbol of Hillman motor’s commitment to providing affordable yet quality vehicles to a broad audience.

Yet, like many of the famous pre-war British car brands, Hillman automobile’s history was about to start a sad decline into motoring obscurity.

Keeping Up with the Joneses

1964 Hillman Super Minx (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

In the UK, automotive giants such as Austin, Morris, and Ford were taking larger segments of the market by offering a diverse selection of cars that catered to a wide range of consumers. Their proficiency in mass production techniques allowed them to manufacture cars more efficiently and, crucially, more cheaply. This advantage translated into more competitively priced vehicles, presenting a challenge for smaller companies like Hillman, which struggled due to limited production capabilities and higher production costs.

On the global front, the industry saw increased competition as American and European manufacturers made significant strides in market penetration. Leading brands like General Motors and VW were setting new benchmarks in vehicle manufacturing and marketing strategies. This shift raised the bar for the industry, putting additional pressure on companies like Hillman Motors, which found it difficult to adapt and keep up with the rapidly changing dynamics of the global automotive sector.

By the 1960s, the Rootes Group was bearing the brunt of these challenges and needed to offload. American giant Chrysler took a financial stake in Rootes in 1964 and assumed full control by 1967.

The Beginning of the End

1967 Hillman Imp (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

By the late 1960s, the history of Hillman cars was in its death throes. The Hillman Avenger, a mid-sized family car, similar in style and shape to the bestselling Ford Escort, was the first – indeed only – model to be developed under the ownership of Chrysler.

Introduced in 1970, it was known for its modern and stylish design, including a semi-fastback rear end, a notable shift from the more traditional styling in earlier Hillman cars. It featured a range of body styles, including saloon and estate versions, catering to a diverse market. The car was initially available with either a 1.3-litre or 1.5-litre engine, later expanded with more engine options, including a more powerful 1.6-litre unit. It was one of the most popular cars in the UK in the 1970s.

However, by the end of the decade, with increased competition from Europe in the shape of the VW Golf and others, production finally ended in 1981. By this time, Chrysler had sold its European operation to Peugeot and the Hillman brand was phased out.

It’s believed the rights to the Hillman brand name are still owned by Peugeot, but they appear to have no declared intention to revive one of the great names in British automotive history.

The End of the Road: The Hillman Legacy

1935 Hillman Aero Minx (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

The history of Hillman cars, from its inception to its eventual absorption into global motoring giants, encapsulates a significant chapter in British automotive history.

Through its innovative beginnings with the Hillman-Coatalen venture, its glory days marked by classics like the Hillman Minx, and its pivotal role during the Chrysler era with models like the Avenger, Hillman’s story is a tale of innovation, adaptability, and resilience.

Hillman motors’ legacy, though dimmed by the tides of corporate changes and market shifts, remains an enduring testament to the golden era of British car manufacturing, highlighting the ingenuity and spirit that once drove the industry.

The Hillman automobile history, in its various incarnations, not only mirrored the evolution of automotive technology but also the changing tastes and aspirations of generations, making it a true mainstay of British motoring heritage.


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