Having completed his apprenticeship, in 1952 Mike was taken on as a Rootes employee in the experimental department and was involved in development work on a number of different models, including the Sunbeam Talbot 90, the Humber Hawk, and early Sunbeam Rapiers.
Then in 1955 he was allocated to a completely new project. For some years the Rootes group had been toying with the idea of producing a small car for the mass market. In the early 1950s the company had already developed a prototype (nicknamed “Little Jimmy”) but the management decided that the project was not viable and it was shelved. In mid-1955 they decided to resurrect the baby car idea. The Board had still not taken a definite decision to go ahead with manufacturing a small car, but nevertheless wanted to experiment with a prototype. Bernard Winter, then Rootes’ Engineering Director, asked Mike Parkes and Tim Fry to make an analysis of the current small car market; their brief was to assess the kind of car Rootes would need in order to be competitive.
Various competitors’ cars were bought or studied to assess their design merits; these included the Fiat 500 and 600, the Goggomobil, a Citroen 2CV, and the BMW four-seater with front and side doors. After carrying out their analysis of the competition, Parkes and Fry embarked on producing an embryo car design. Fry concentrated on the body, while Mike worked on the suspension and power unit. The result of this initial experiment was a first prototype named “The Slug”, powered by a rear-mounted Citroen 2CV engine, used as a temporary substitute while they awaited the design of a new 600c.c.Villiers engine. The car had a number of rather unconventional features, and was also remarkably ugly in appearance, but in one respect it fitted the brief: on its first test run in the Cotswolds it did 82 miles on one gallon of fuel. Even the Slug’s creators realized that it had many unacceptable features. The Rootes hierarchy came to view the car, did not like it at all, but decided to put the project onto a higher level, bringing in some of their main design team.
Drawing on the work put into the Slug, further “Apex” prototypes incorporating major changes in the conception of the car were produced. The two-cylinder air-cooled engine was replaced with an 875 c.c. four-cylinder aluminium water-cooled engine, the styling was redesigned, a more refined rear suspension was incorporated, and the 10-inch wheels were replaced with 12-inch wheels. Essentially the car was upgraded to make it more powerful, more comfortable and more sophisticated. At this point the company decided to go ahead with producing a model based on the Apex design, which was christened the Hillman Imp.
In May 1961 work began on building the production plant, at Linwood near Glasgow. The Rootes Group would have preferred to build a new factory in the Coventry-Daventry area, but the government of the day, anxious to create new industries in depressed areas, obliged the company to choose a site elsewhere, which created considerable difficulties.
Mike collaborated in the development of the car virtually from start to finish and was responsible for much of the test driving. In an interview for “The Motor” of March 1968 Mike described one of his testing expeditions: “We set off in an 800 c.c. prototype on an extended test run. … It was a bit late in the year, about September, and as the weather wasn’t awfully hot we went from there right down to the eastern Coast of Spain to Granada in the South. We were looking for dusty roads, mountainous country and high temperatures as well. We tested the car very thoroughly, but the trip had its lighter moments. We got lost late at night in some village in Spain and the only way out of the market square seemed to be up a flight of stairs, so we drove the Imp up them”. Another comment in the same interview gives an insight into his approach to car design:” The basic thought was then and still is, as far as I am concerned, driving must be fun. If you have got a piece of equipment … if it’s fun to use and you enjoy using it then you will use it better. If a car is fun to use, in spite of the fact that it’s hard work to drive across London, not only do you enjoy driving it, but you drive better as well. This was one of the things we felt was extremely important; to make this car easy to drive and fun to drive.”
When production finally started in May 1963, Mike had already left Rootes and moved to work for Ferrari in Italy.
Commercially, the Imp was not a very successful car, for two main reasons: firstly, it was in the same price and size range as the Mini but was launched four years later, by which time the Mini had consolidated its image as the trendy small car; secondly, the Imp had numerous initial production problems, which gave it a reputation for unreliability. Nevertheless, it remained in production till mid-1976 and a total of 440,032 units were made. The Rootes Group produced a series of other models derived from the basic Imp design, and the Imp was very successful in races and rallies in the 1960s. Mike himself owned a 1000 c.c. Rally Imp for many years.
Throughout the period in which they were working on the Imp Mike and Tim Fry spent a lot of time together. In the spring of 1956 Mike suffered a major personal loss: his mother died of cancer. Two years later, in 1958, his father remarried and at that point Mike decided to move out of the family home and go and live in lodgings near the Rootes factory. He moved into Binley Common House, where Tim also lodged, so they spent a lot of their free time together. The lodgings can’t have been very luxurious: Mike remembered that sometimes their rooms were so cold in winter that there was ice on the inside of the windows and they went to sit in the car with the heater on to keep warm! They appear to have fooled around quite a lot, as Tim remembers: “Michael used to spend most of his time trying to frighten me and I spent all my time not allowing him to succeed. … We used to go very fast everywhere even when there wasn’t a reason to do so. Very often we were using the company’s car and of course part of our job was to find out the limitations of it, wear the tyres out as fast as possible and see if anything broke, which it quite often did.” “[One day] Mike took me up to Baginton aerodrome where Johnnie Williams was the chief test pilot [for Alvis, the company of which Mike’s father was Chairman]. Mike carefully explained to Johnnie Williams that I had never been in an aeroplane before. So he put me in this thing and went flat out across the aerodrome, holding it down on the ground until the last possible minute, then went straight up and put the aeroplane through its paces and did everything that makes a new air passenger uncomfortable. I’m sure it was on instructions and so I vowed I was going to get my own back, sometime. … One afternoon Mike went off on one of these fuel consumption runs … There is a pre-set course and there are times at which you are supposed to be in certain places. So once he had started off I knew exactly where he was going to be and at what time. I rushed off to the airport to see Johnnie Williams and off we went to try and go and beat him up on this course. And sure enough, there he was, we picked him up exactly where he should have been, at the right time, and Johnnie Williams said: ’Right, we are going to put tyre marks across his roof’. So we did everything we possibly could to try and get him while he was out in the open. We dive-bombed him. … I seem to remember he found a police car, so he stayed behind it for a long time so we couldn’t have a go at him. … We could see, when he was haring down a road with a kink in it, that there was a tractor and hay cart coming up the other way and we knew that he was going to have to work very hard for his living very shortly. There was no way we could warn him and we just had to watch it happening. I think he had to go right up the bank and down the other side again.”