Humber: Upmarket Britsh cars acquired by Chrysler
Thomas Humber founded the Humber cycle company in Sheffield in 1868, and saw so much success he built factories in Nottingham, Beeston, Coventry, and Wolverhampton. Near the turn of the century, Humber started to flirt with tricycles and quadricyles — one of which sported front wheel drive and rear wheel steering.
In 1899 the first Humber car, the 3½ horsepower Phaeton, was built at Beeston; the Voiturette was brought out two years later, followed by the 1903 Humberette, which sported a tubular frame and 5hp single-cylinder engine. In 1902 a four-cylinder 12hp started to be produced, followed in 1903 by a three-cylinder 9hp and a four-cylinder 20hp model. Humber car production was concentrated at a new factory in Folly Lane, Coventry, which was close to Hillman; the two had no ties at that time.
After 1905, Humber dropped smaller-engined models; and in 1907, it added a 15hp model. However, in 1908, the Beeston factory, which produced higher quality cars, was closed to save money, and two-cylinder models were brought back. The chief engineer was hired away by Hillman.
In 1913, the Humberette model re-appeared in a new form: the car was powered by an air-cooled 8hp vee-twin engine. The company also shelled out £15,000 on a three-car team to compete in the 1914 Tourist Trophy race with cars designed by FT Burgess, and powered by double overhead camshaft 3.3-litre four-cylinder engines. The ambitious programme failed to deliver results, though.
World War I was spent producing arms and aircraft engines, but afterwards, Humber became well established as the producer of solid and reliable cars, which were mainly powered by side-valve engines. In 1922, a step towards modernity was taken with the launch of overhead inlet/side exhaust engines, and the 8/18 of 1923 made good use of it. It was a light and refined car, and proved sprightly for its day thanks to its light kerb weight and relatively powerful 985cc engine.
When the 8/18 received an enlarged version of its engine, it was re-named the 9/20. However, the body gained more weight than the additional power could easily manage, and its reputation for sprightliness was soon lost. Sales of Humbers remained buoyant during the late 1920s, when annual volumes exceeded 4,000, thanks to the continued success of the 9/20, 14/40 and 20/55hp models. Humber even bought Commer, a Luton-based commercial vehicle producer.
Humber and Hillman are swallowed by the Rootes Group
Humber was neither big nor exclusive enough to tough out the Depression, and joined with Hillman. It was not enough, and a single year later, Rootes Group bought the pair. In standard Rootes fashion, the product line was revised. Two new sixes were launched; the 2.1-litre 16/50 and the 3.5-litre Humber Snipe. In 1932, the overhead inlet/side exhaust engine was discontinued, and the following year, the company introduced a 1.7-litre four-cylinder 12hp which would not last long.
By World War II, Humbers were powered solely by six-cylinder engines; they were positioned as the more expensive cars in the Rootes range, and thanks to stylish bodies by Pressed Steel, the company's reputation was good. Production continued throughout the hostilities, when the 4.1-litre Super Snipe and its variants were built as staff cars. Monty had a Command Car called “Old Faithful,” and Winston Churchill was almost always seen in a Humber car — that wasn't an official car, according to Derek Harling, it was Lord Rootes’ personal car and chauffeur.
Humber was known for a number of military workhorses during World War II — the Humber Command Car (Montgomery used one), the Humber Scout Car, and Mk IV Armoured Cars. One of my friends owns a Mk IV that served with the Canadian Forces at D-Day, still has the 37mm main gun and .303 coaxial machine gun.
I own a Humber “Pig” Mk II that started life as a Humber GS1611 series radio truck for the British Army in 1953. In 1954, it was converted to an FV1611 type armoured personnel carrier FFW (Fitted For Wireless) and served as a “battle taxi” in Germany with the BAOR (British Army of the Occupation of the Rhine), in service from 1954 to 1969.
Then, made obsolete as the tracked APCs (FV432 series) came out, my Pig (12BK61) went to storage as the “troubles” in Northern Ireland were flaring up, and the Pigs there worked well in urban settings as they had a 5 speed manual transmission, and normal steering wheel — a simple (but really heavy) truck. So, in 1972, my Pig went for re-fitting and up-armouring (taking it from 10,000 lbs to 14,000) and being fitted with an experimental anti-riot chemical discharger system.
Pigs were the workhorses of Northern Ireland. Their 4x4 system was useless off-road as they were too heavy and “wallowed like a pig.”
After the war, a Hillman-based 2-litre four-cylinder model was installed in the Humber Hawk model; in 1953, Super Snipes and Pullmans received overhead valve engines, and the Hawk a year later, in 1954. The Super Snipe was briefly discontinued, only to be re-launched in 1959, thanks to customer demand.
In 1950, a Super Snipe driven by Maurice Gatsonides (of GATSO camera fame) and the Baron van Zuylen de Nyvelt took second place in the Monte Carlo Rally, even though "Gatso" had chosen the least sporting car he could think of. In 1952, a Snipe was driven from London to Cape Town in a record 13 days and 9 hours.
Following the Chrysler acquisition of Rootes in 1964, the Humber range was expanded to include the SuperMinx-based Audax Sceptre. According to Gary Martin, Humber put the company’s 318 V8 into Super Snipe and Imperial models. Lord Rootes and the president of Chrysler both had vehicles fitted this way, according to Gary.
While the Chrysler 180 / 2L was planned to be sold as a Humber in 1967, this did not happen. In 1966, the Arrow-based Sceptre model was launched, and this remained in production until 1976, when it fell victim to Chrysler’s consolidation of Rootes’ many brands, an attempt to turn losses into profits. With the loss of the Sceptre came the death of the Humber marque.
Humbers of North America
Humbers were sold, in small numbers, in the United States, from 1946 to 1967. A 1961 brochure noted over 900 dealerships in North America, with corporate locations in New York, California, Québec, Toronto, and Vancouver. Sales began in 1946 with the Humber Hawk, a renamed Hillman Fourteen from before the war, powered by a 56-horsepower 2-liter four-cylinder; the Snipe, a 65-hp six-cylinder version of the Hawk; and the Super Snipe, a 100-hp six-cylinder version of the Hawk. A long-wheelbase limousine version of the Super Snipe was sold as the Pullman. The series was updated in 1949, with a wider body, new coil spring front suspension, and major cosmetic upgrades; the engines remained, but a four speed manual transmission was used. During these years, sales were in the mere hundreds (at best). Prices were fairly high, running from around $1,950 up.
For 1955, Humber Hawk gained an overhead valve four, with 70 horsepower, and an overdrive was made available. The Pullman (at one point accompanied by an Imperial model) was now gone. Snipe and Super Snipe disappeared at the end of 1956. A major restyling took place for 1958. 1959 saw the re-appearance of Super Snipe, using the same body as Hawk once more, with a 162 cid overhead valve engine. Sales appear to have remained in the hundreds for this very expensive car, whose main selling points were its interior and ride; indeed, as far as we can tell from fagmentary records, American sales never hit the thousands.
For 1961, Hawk gained numerous standard features that were already included in many less expensive cars — oil pressure gauge, ammeter, heater, and windshield washers. Super Snipe gained quad headlights — the first British car to get them — and optional air conditioning; the engine underwent internal changes for durability but retained the same output. Super Snipe started at $4,000 — a high price for 1960, but then, it was a very well appointed car.
From then until the end, the main change, other than frequent restylings, was the revival of the Imperial, a name that had been used by Chrysler for decades; the Humber Imperial was a top end car, custom made, with a Super Snipe basic body. Primary features included Connolly leather, Wilton carpeting, upgraded rear shocks, rear audio and lighting, and separate heater/defroster for the rear. Imperial started at $5,300 (less than the Super Snipe wagon but $500 more than Super Snipe) and weighed 3,571 lb. Overall, Humber built around 2,300 Imperials from 1965 to 1967; most likely, only a few ended up in North America.
|1961 Humber Super Snipe (sedan)||1961 Plymouth Valiant (sedan)|
|Wheelbase and Length||110 and 188||106.5 and 184|
|Width and height||69.5 (width) and 61 (height)||70.4 (width) and 53.4 (height)|
|Headroom F/R||40 / 36||37.9 / 37.4|
|Luggage capacity||19.5 cu. ft.||24.9 cubic feet|
|Engine||I-6, 181 cid, 130 hp||I-6, 170 cid, 101 hp or I-6, 225 cid, 145 hp|
|Transmission||Borg-Warner automatic||3-speed manual or four-speed automatic|
|Rear axle||Hypoid; 4.55:1||Hypoid, 3.55:1|
|Suspension||Independent coil spring front; leaf springs rear||Torsion bar front; leaf springs rear|
|Wheels||6.7 x 15||6.50 x 13 (base)|
|Brakes||11 3/8 in front disc; 11 in rear drum||Drum: 9 x 2.5 front, 9 x 2 rear|
|Front seats||Bench or optional separate reclining||Bench|
|Steering||Manual; power optional||Manual; power optional|
|Weight||3,358 lb||2,565 - 2,605|
|Price||$3,995 and up||$1,953 and up|
Humber post-war carlines
- Snipe and Super Snipe (based on Hawk body, with six cylinder engines)
- Snipe / Super Snipe I 1945-1948, revisions of pre-war Humbers with an elegant appearance.
- Super Snipe II/III (1948-52), restyled, bigger, heavier, and more impressive, using a bigger six
- Super Snipe IV (1952-57), Ray Loewy styling; long wheelbase version of 1948 Hawk.
- Super Snipe Series I-V, Imperial (1957-67), six-cylinder versions of the Hawk.
- Hawk I/II (1945-48), based heavily on a prewar Hillman; quite an elegant looker.
- Hawk III-VI (1948-57), with Ray Loewy styling; VI had an overhead valve engine.
- Hawk Series I-IV (1957-67), an all new car with unit-body construction; IV was a facelift witih a six-light glasshouse.
- Pullman and Scepter
- Pullman I (1945-48), a limousine-type long-wheelbase Super Snipe with restyling.
- Pullman II, III, IV (1948-54), similar to the Pullman I but restyled; version IV had an overhead valve engine and synchronized gearbox, while an Imperial version had seven seats.
- Sceptre I and II (1963-67; pictured), a badge-engineered Audax originally to be sold as a Sunbeam
- Scepter III (1968-76), the final car to wear the Humber badge, but essentially just a Hillman Arrow with a sumptuous interior filled with real wood, leather, and goodies.