The last of the Humber’s great full size saloons can easily slip under the radar when sixties luxury cars are the topic but fans of the marque strive to ensure every car possible remains on the road.
Imposing, Impressive, Impassable - Imperial
Humber enjoyed a well-earned reputation for offering up market vehicles over many decades and as the choice of Government officials and the military’s ‘top brass’ the Rootes Group looked to their Imperial to take on the likes of Jaguar in the sales battle. Like so many of the marques Rootes absorbed, Thomas Humber enjoyed a thriving bicycle business in the 1870’s before joining the early motoring pioneers before WW1. Although Humber survived the great depression, the Rootes Brothers had bought up a majority share and the company fell under their umbrella in the early 1930’s. Post WW2 both the Hawk and the Super Snipe models were up dated and improved thus continuing to attract customers within the executive car market. The Imperial arrived in late 1964 (Humber now under Chrysler ownership) and this car had higher ambitions; it targeted the luxury buyers and came with the quality and features to back up its claim. Based around the Super Snipe it shared the straight six 2965cc OHV power plant that offered 135 BHP coupled to a Borg Warner DG (Detroit Gear) three speed auto. The Imperial enjoyed a sumptuous interior with walnut veneer finish to dash, door capping’s and rear passenger picnic trays; the reclining seats were all finished in the finest West of England cloth. Pile carpets and individual rear passenger heating with superb chrome fittings including reading lights made the Imperial a car you ‘arrived in’ and everyone noticed. Electrically adjustable rear suspension and ‘Hydrosteer’ powered steering combined to make a package that drove as smooth as a 60’s ‘Crooner’, according to one journalist.
Saved from the Scrap Yard
Whilst the car behind the doors of a tumbled down garage in Cambridge may not have fallen victim to banger racing, rust would have certainly taken its toll. With this thought forefront in his mind Chas Thompson had made the journey after a chance conversation ended with phone numbers exchanged and the story of a 1965 Humber Imperial that hadn’t moved for 35 years. The tax disc on the screen confirmed the car last saw the public highway in 1975. A conversation with the owner’s son revealed that after engine issues a tractor was utilised to push the Imperial inside in 1977 and once the doors were closed the car wouldn’t see daylight for decades. A tree had grown up blocking the exit for the Humber but that would be a minor worry for Chas as the original crossply tyres no longer held air and the car had sunk into the soft soil over the years. Checking the car over offered both good and bad news, the previous owner had the foresight to place a box of mothballs inside the cabin and the excellent interior was largely unscathed; in fact it remained in excellent condition. The Imperial was wedged against the edge of the garage wall but a visual inspection was all that was needed to see both sills had suffered along with at least one wheel arch. Using a starting handle located in the boot also confirmed the engine was seized, so with photos taken Chas enjoyed a ‘should I’ or ‘shouldn’t I’ debate in his head on the drive home. This discussion would continue in the Thompson household, somewhere Humber’s had sought refuge and salvation before, as Chas was already the owner of a splendid Hawk. As Chairman and parts advisor for the Post Vintage Humber Car Club and with partner Sandra contributing six years as the club secretary much of the couple’s life revolved around the marque. The Imperial would become Sandra’s pride and joy, so after much debate and long discussions with specialist Glen Bunting at Norfolk Humber’s, the couple returned to remove the car from its tomb. The original owner’s son was happy to see the car leave on the condition restoration would be the new owner’s prime objective and not to be patched up for one last hurrah around Wimbledon Stadium in a destruction derby. Armed with spare wheels and trolley jacks Chas and Sandra attempted to extract the Imperial and after some considerable effort the car stood on inflated rubber. Chas remembers a cold December day when he met Glen from Norfolk Humber’s, trailer in tow, for the Imperial’s final bid for freedom with assistance from his Vauxhall estate; all 15ft 6inches and 1.8 tons was on its way to his workshop.
Restoration Time and Evicting the Wildlife
Once the Humber was safely re homed at Norfolk Humber’s, a series of methods to get the engine to turn over failed, so Glen extracted the straight six along with the gearbox and front suspension. Once stripped the truth was plain to see, confirmation of head gasket failure that had allowed water into two cylinders; over the years the pistons had seized solid and both would need replacing as they contained cracks. The bores had survived very well and with a re-hone would be good to go. Chas was able to purchase a set of standard pistons and plan another trip to Norfolk and a chance to get his hands dirty. ‘And did I get dirty’! Chas told me. He was given the job of removing the rat’s nest that had been made on the sound deadening material that filled the area behind the n/s front wheel arch. The description of the smell maybe far too graphic for the pages of this publication, best to say rats have no issues with messing on their own doorstep, whilst the urine can rot through steel with ease and had. Meanwhile the cylinders enjoyed a hone and re assembly of the engine went well, so it was agreed Glen would continue a-pace with the body work; new sills being the first of many jobs. With the front wings removed the real damage a family of small hairy rodents can cause was plain to see; inner wing now crumbled but worse still a large area of bulkhead would need replacing. Images flashed back and forth on the web and by utilising a donor vehicle Glen carried out a fantastic repair, saving the day and Sandra’s Humber. No doubt the welding talents of Norfolk Humber’s finest were called into action over several weeks but eventually an image of a solid Imperial dressed in primer reached Chas Thompson’s desktop. Sourcing the original Royal Blue metallic finish was the next challenge facing Chas and with five litres required along with undercoat, thinners etc his flexible friend got a work out to remember, again. Sandra recounted the opportunity for the couple to spend a long weekend with Glen in Norfolk working on the car and on arrival the sight of the Imperial with the front end in colour was a real boost, spurring them on for a couple of days of real graft. Sandra cleaned the front suspension and got active with the sand blaster whilst Chas renovated the brake calipers. The motor received a new water pump and the radiator was back flushed after several cans of cola had removed everything bar the metal core. Seeing a light at the end of the tunnel Chas considered it time to contact the DVLA and source some documentation the Imperial was minus. In fact the car came with two significant items, the tax disc confirming the registration number and a key that failed to fit any of the locks. The DVLA had no trace of the Humber but agreed it could keep its number plate because the tax disc proved its existence but with no proof of registration date available the document states 2013 and Chas being the first owner. The weeks went by and Chas was able to travel east again and this time he arrived to see the re painted engine (courtesy of Sandra) was back where it belonged. A day cleaning, painting and refitting all of the ancillary parts meant a test firing of the Imperial could be attempted before the end of the day; she ran for the first time in nearly 40 years. Glen continued with the painting, then on to a flat and polish, so by the time of Chas’s next visit the delicate task of refitting the chrome work was underway. MOT passed, everything was looking good for a train ticket purchase and the excitement of taking the now stunning Imperial home. The Imperial though had other ideas and whilst on road test at 65mph dropped into second without being asked, exit stage left one gearbox, differential and torque convertor. Glen worked through the parts and was able to pinpoint the fault to a torque convertor with an excess of metal in the oil. Once replaced the Imperial behaved faultlessly on the drive home and again five days later when it journeyed to Chelmsford for the Humber International Rally where it took the trophy for Best Super Snipe/Imperial.
Wafted Along in the Imperial
This is really ‘comfy’, my first thought in the passenger seat as Sandra turned over the straight six, which fired up with little fuss and quietly settled. This is a big car and certainly not ideal for racing around small country lanes, much happier on 1960s A roads crossing the country with ease. The power assistance on the ‘hydrosteer’ makes light work of the most awkward of tight spaces and once away the Imperial just wafts along. Whilst some of the narrowest of tracks would normally give the pilot of such a large car a real workout Sandra was quite happy to push a 5ft 8in wide car confidently into a six foot gap. ‘Oh yes, it’s very easy to drive but is certainly much more at home on a dual carriageway’ she told me and proved her point once the Imperial cruised nicely at 60mph on the A27. The DG gearbox is rarely noticed, the revs build quietly and as nearly two tons of comfort smoothly propels you down the road, it becomes apparent that this car is a ‘60s mile muncher’. One the last projects taken on by coachbuilders Thrupp and Maberly at their Cricklewood factory there is much to admire looking over the Imperial but for me the interior steals the show and the old Humber sales slogan ‘Craftsman Built’ seems very apt. My thanks to Sandra and Chas for their time and for putting their lives on hold and their bank balance in jeopardy, ensuring another Imperial is back on the road.
1965 Humber Imperial Saloon Specification
Engine: 2965cc straight six OHV 135bhp RWD
Carbs: Twin Stromberg CD175
Gearbox: Three speed Borg Warner (DG)
Performance 0-60mph 11.8 secs 100mph top speed
Length: 15ft 6in Width: 5ft 8in
Curb weight: 3505lbs
Lifelong Travel Companion – Humber Super Snipe
Humber Historian Steve Lewis informed me of a Super Snipe Mark 3 and the Humber’s partnership with his father-in-law John Easton who purchased his vehicle of choice in 1956, then cherished it for an amazing 60 years. John passed away following a stroke earlier this year (aged 84) and the Humber was now in Steve’s care and so the time was right to document a lifetime of ownership that covered 180,000 miles. Steve explained his relationship with car and owner "I first met John in 1982 attending the Kew Engines Museum gathering for Humber’s. John's car stood out as being a well looked after example and he was always willing to talk. A lovely car and man but never thought any more of it! More events over a couple of years and I met his daughter, Andrea. One thing led to another and we were married in 1986; the Humber was one of our wedding cars’’. Long term classic custodians are not unique but I suggest there are few classics with 60 years of single ownership left on UK roads. More surprising, this Humber was not tucked away for years, preserved; on the contrary, enjoying a life on the move with its owner in his favourite seat, behind the wheel. During his national service John was sent to post-war Germany and trained as a projectionist, showing films to ‘squaddies’ stationed far from home. ‘Demobbed’ he was the man behind the reels at Hastings ABC Cinema and during down time would often enjoy ‘window shopping’ at Langney Motors, the local Rootes dealer which was located on ground level at Marine Court in St Leonards-on –Sea; a stunning building that harks back to the days of the White Star Line, particularly the Queen Mary and resembles a transatlantic cruise liner tied up on the sea front. John in his early twenties yearned for something special he could cruise along the south coast, a Cresta or the Sunbeam-Talbot Alpine maybe? Unbeknown to John, his future wife Jean worked in Marine Court, she too would often admire a red sports model on display in the dealership window. In 2015 Stephen commissioned a painting by one time Rootes stylist Eric C Ball, recounting the scene from this era. The Super Snipe appeared in the showroom in 1956, it was four years old and available at £650.00; previously the steed of Hastings Mayor and thus immaculate, the sight of nearly 16ft of black and chrome Humber was enough to force the decision.
The Last of the Runningboards
The Snipe name first appeared with the Rootes Group takeover of Humber’s Coventry factory and the models good name for durability is well documented, especially during WW2. Stories of Monty’s Snipe staff cars ‘Old Faithful’ and ‘Victory Car’ traversing vast distances under battle conditions are appreciated more when you get up close to one, delicate and cute they are not. Impressive, the best way to describe any of the Super Snipe range from the immediately post-war Mark 1 to the Mark 3, I expected to see a ‘Four Star’ General step from the rear seat; from this model forward though the six-cylinder side valve would be replaced whilst the running boards would go altogether. The Mark 3 arrived in 1950 with spats covering the upper rear wheels and softened rear suspension, its pre-war look was updated back in 1948. Super Snipe luxury of the early 50s came at a price with The Motor magazine of 1951 quoting an on the road figure of £1471, at a time when a Morris Minor was only £520. Fuel at 3s and 6d per gallon was also a consideration, especially when the most frugal drivers would usually achieve 15mpg with a fully laden Mark 3 weighing in at over 2 tons. These stats didn’t concern owners then and once sampled it becomes irrelevant to anyone now travelling in one of Rootes Groups finest offerings. John and the Easton family would enjoy many journeys over the decades, often towing a caravan towards the coastal resorts around the UK. Maintenance was regular and meticulous along with some clever additions under the hood including lighting, power point and relays for the caravan’s electricity.
Provenance by the Pallet Load
June 17th 1952, Alderman J D Cooper, Mayor of Hastings took delivery of his Super Snipe Mark 3 finished in black with a fawn leather interior. This Humber stood in Langney Motors showroom four years later and was immaculate after mainly enjoying light ceremonial use. The perfect first car for 23-year-old John Easton, an acknowledged perfectionist who no doubt inspected the Humber from bow to stern before taking the wheel on the 4th April 1956. The Humber would soon clock up many miles as John took a projectionist job in Maidenhead and then the ABC in Fulham. This Humber played a massive part in John Easton’s life over the decades, its classic car status grew, often on show it became well known especially to Rootes Group enthusiasts. Included within the wealth of paperwork are images from the 50s of a young family enjoying life with a large black Super Snipe watching over them, also the Humber’s 1st MOT test certificate, issued in 1962. Up until December 1961 cars required test after a decade but the law changed to seven years thus John needed to be tested 3 months early in January. Every pass certificate with tax discs have been diligently kept, giving a complete and comprehensive history. A wider audience would also admire the Super Snipe as it appeared on several TV period dramas; also the 1985 Meryl Streep film ‘Plenty’. Its real claim to fame can still be enjoyed via you tube with Channel 4’s documentary Classic British Cars broadcast in 1999. The reassuring voice of John Peel narrating, brings the audience a pair of long term owners with their steeds. The first a Jowett Javelin, also a 1952 registered and purchased by the owner in 1956 the same timeline as John who follows and offers some unique maintenance tips;
A Waltz Within the Snipe
Releasing the heavy suicide door it is immediately apparent that space will not be in short supply on this trip. Sliding across the bench seat you can imagine a young family ‘up front’ together in the days before seat belts; John had confessed to carrying 8 or 9 on the odd family outing. Dark wood, enamel and chrome trimming, Bakelite and leather, all with a distinctive American influence plus elegance. The original roof lining is perfect and the seats although worn have a gentlemen’s club feel to them whilst the creamed face Jaeger dials are perfectly at home in their environment. Steve Lewis gives the ‘start’ button a press and the straight six jumps into life then immediately settles, so much so that I thought it had stalled. On tick-over it is virtually silent and the 4 litre is smooth enough for the 50p test with little vibration through the car. Column change accepts second (normal take off gear) and the scenery changes over the long bonnet; no power steering I noticed. ‘Is it heavy’? knowing at a standstill it certainly is, ‘not once you are moving’ comes the logical answer. Once underway the Super Snipe just floats along, fast enough to flow with the modern road users. Four speeds with full synchromesh, impressive for 1952 and the Lockheed drum brakes also surprise as they can bring all this car to a halt with less effort than you may expect. No doubt the owners ‘perfectionist’ habits extended to the upkeep of the Humber’s mechanicals, as this 180k mile Snipe behaves much as it did half a century ago. We travelled sweeping country lanes and along fast dual carriageways all with ease, confirming most of the original 100bhp remains. Conclusion, a pre-war design with added 50s technology that out performs many 60s offerings; this Super Snipe is still a luxury cruise.
A Future on Route
This Super Snipe enjoys the security of a future in the knowledgeable hands of Steve Lewis; its next milestone, the longest family-owned classic in the country? As before it won’t be hidden from view, travelling to shows and events as it has always done; being concealed in a museum or moist-free plastic tomb just wouldn’t be correct. At future annual gatherings, the Post-Vintage Humber Car Club will present the John Easton Trophy to the longest owner-vehicle partnership; a memorial to John and recognition of achievement to those individual enthusiasts’ whose passion and dedication for preserving a piece of British motoring history is commen
John’s daughter Andrea explains her families ties to the Humber
Dad’s car has always been a big part of my life and will continue to be. He already had the car when I was born and I remember large family outings with it, going on picnics, especially one in the New Forest where we all had a make a run to the safety of the car from the ponies who liked the look of our spread! We were always late leaving as the car had to be washed and checked over first before we could go. On one of these trips, we even slept in the Humber in a car park in Bournemouth! We did numerous caravan holidays with the car, attracting a lot of attention. It looked a bit silly towing a small Sprite 400 but we ended up towing a Royale Touranger; much more in keeping! Dad was always happy to talk to anyone about his beloved Humber or the caravan. It was an event when the car reached 100,000 miles on a day out in Kent. I would never have met my husband, Stephen had it not been for ‘FDY281’ and it has brought Dad, Stephen and I many happy memories of rallies and trips out. We shall continue this voyage in his memory.