ON a snowy day in 1963, a group of Scottish motoring correspondents were in the Highlands, each impatient to take the much-touted new car, the Hillman Imp, out on a long test run.

The pathfinder vehicle that day was a big Humber Super Snipe, whose driver, after a reconnaissance of Amulree,in Perthshire, regretfully informed the journalists that the famous hill was impassably snowbound. Several pressmen still wanted to have a go, however, to the point where they had to be restrained. Politely restrained, of course.

“The first private car to be built in Scotland for about three decades is, in fact, that kind of car,” enthused this paper’s motoring correspondent. “It inspires early confidence. The quite small, water-cooled engine ... tackles hard work with a willingness that is wholly admirable.”

More than half-a-century on, the Imp is a cult icon and as recently as last month, its merits and demerits were being hotly debated in the Herald letters page.

The car was made at the £23m Rootes factory at Linwood, near Paisley, which itself was opened by the Duke of Edinburgh on May 2, 1963. “This whole enterprise,” the Duke declared, “can only succeed, and it can only be justified, if the end product, the Hillman Imp, is well designed, and well-built, and competitive for world markets.”

In the factory, upon a polished dais, he admired a shining bright red Hillman with chromium wheels and the number plate IMP 1. He had, in fact, already driven an Imp that morning, taking one the 20 miles from Glenalmond House, where he had stayed overnight, to Scone Aerodrome, where he caught a flight to Renfrew Airport.

And the first Imp to be bought? That went to Lord Polwarth, chairman of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry; he received the keys to the car – scarlet finish, beige upholstery – from his old friend, Lord Rootes, and drove from the factory to his home in Edinburgh.

There was no doubting the status of the new factory, which had taken just two years to build, or the new car, which was intended as a rival to the British Motor Corporation’s bestselling Mini, and was part of a drive by manufacturers to produce small cars with excellent fuel economy, in the wake of the oil problems caused by the Suez crisis of 1956.

In cost and employment terms, the Glasgow Herald wrote, the development was among the largest in Britain in the last 15 years. “In terms of the Scottish economy it is the largest single light-manufacturing industry to come north of the Border since 1945 to balance the decline of the traditional heavy industries.”

The Imp, remarked our sister paper, the Evening Times, “is the type of car which is much in demand on our increasingly busy roads. It is handy, nippy, and economical, and there may be new worlds for it to conquer as the two-car society approaches. Scotland is right in there with a chance in one of the most popular markets of all”.

Initially, there were two Imp models, the standard and de luxe – priced at, respectively, £508 1s 3d and £532 4s 7d (further models were subsequently added). Cars on general sale at that time ranged from the Austin Mini Traveller and Morris Oxford Saloon to the Triumph Herald and Vauxhall de luxe saloon.

The Imp certainly caught the popular imagination, and it also began to make its name as a racing and rally car of some distinction.

It enjoyed valuable exposure in 1963 when Norman Wisdom crashed one of the cars in his film, A Stitch in Time. Because Wisdom’s films were more popular than James Bond movies in many export markets, the Daily Telegraph’s Andrew Roberts wrote in 2013 that “this was invaluable product placement”.

Hearts football star Dave Mackay was one of many sportsmen who drove an Imp, though he traded his in for a Jag after he secured a big-money transfer to Spurs, in London.

Winnie Ewing, the new SNP MP for Hamilton, was photographed sitting on the roof of an Imp at the Scottish Motor Show in November 1967, the month of her historic by-election victory.

On November 16, she went to London by train, arriving at the House of Commons in an Imp, greeted by some 400 cheering Scottish and Welsh nationalists.

That was the same year in which Evening Times sportswriter John Quinn famously made the 1,750-mile journey to Lisbon in May to cover Celtic’s win over Inter Milan in the final of the European Cup; his Imp, loaned by the factory, was green with white stripes, and he arrived in the Portuguese capital at the head of a long “Celticade” convoy.

There has been no shortage of tributes to the Imp’s tenacity and durability. In April 1971 one man drove an Imp, complete with co-driver and tent, all the way through France and Spain en route to a ski resort in Morocco’s Atlas mountains, via Casablanca and Marrakesh.

Another owner, who had an Imp while serving in Pakistan and Belgium, once recalled “driving from Islamabad through the Khyber Pass and the much more challenging Kabul Gorge to Kabul and back in 1969”.

Menswear designer Paul Smith’s first car was an Imp, bought secondhand in the mid-1960s. In it, he would regularly drive from his Nottingham home to London in order to buy stocks of clothes.

Sadly, the Imp’s good times couldn’t last forever. Writing in the motoring culture online magazine Influx, Nick Curtis observes that the Imp’s arrival “was warmly welcomed by workers and consumers in equal measure. Despite turbulent times with industrial strikes and political uncertainty over 9,000 people were employed at its height of popularity.

However, that didn’t stop the car from having a whole host of issues and design flaws, which soon led to a bad reputation for reliability. But since when has that stopped car enthusiasts from falling in love with a motor?”

Responding to Curtis’s article, Malcolm Turner writes pithily: “Quirky car. Famous for its refusal to start, particularly on holiday. Breakdown firms knew it well. Nasty habit of the engine cutting out when going round a bend.

“Hated by garages who had to take the (rear) engine out to service it. The first car for my wife, it scared her and was quickly traded in.” Another reader remembers leaning over the back seat “spraying easy start into the carburettor to keep the poor dying thing going”.

Andrew Roberts, in the Telegraph, writes that within a few years of its launch, “the Imp name had become synonymous with malfunctioning chokes and throttle problems, issues that might have never arisen had it not been rushed into production at a new factory.

“By the late 1960s, many of these concerns had been resolved but despite the victory of Rosemary Smith in the 1965 Tulip Rally [in Holland], and a starring role in the wonderful [TV] series Man In A Suitcase, the Imp would never shake off its early image.”

Repeated bouts of industrial trouble at the factory didn’t help. In January 1967, America’s car giant, the Chrysler Corporation, took over Rootes.

Numerous variants of the Imps were produced under Chrysler, but serious development on the car ground to a halt, even though many of its faults were starting to be ironed out, notes the Imp’s entry in the Cult Classics section of the website adrianflux.co.uk. The Imp ceased production in 1976.

Two years after that, the Linwood factory was bought by Peugeot-Citroen, but it controversially shut in 1981. Linwood, the town, was devastated. “Linwood No More,” the Proclaimers would lament in 1987, as they chronicled a trail of industrial devastation in Scotland.

The same certainly cannot be said of the Hillman Imp and its many variants. Fifty-seven years after the first Imp rolled off the production line, the car continues to flourish in all sorts of ways, and it retains a distinct cult status.

There are several active groups on Facebook: the Hillman Imp Group, the Hillman Imp Owners’ Club (with nearly 1,000 members) and the Hillman Imp Appreciation Society.

The website www.imps4ever.info, meanwhile, makes a fine job of lauding the Imp “and its badge-engineered cousins”. Another website, www.imps.me.uk, has pictures of more than 700 Imps and Imp-engined vehicles. The Imp Club, meanwhile, is intent on “keeping the Imp alive!”

Last month, Herald correspondents shared memories of the car’s quirks and charms. One told of transporting seven passengers on a family holiday; another managed to fit a single bed into the compact but adaptable interior.

Many collectors buy Imp models that are in a sorry state, and spend time and money on doing them up again. Graham Gillings owns a 1971 Sunbeam Stiletto – which imps4ever described as “the most desirable, certainly the most sought after, Imp model” by imps4ever.

Gillings, who lives in Wiltshire, and who created the Owners’ Club on Facebook in 2013, has put a lot of work into his particular car. As he explains via Facebook Messenger, he has owned it twice in the space of 30 years. He originally bought it from a friend so that he and his girlfriend could race it, but he sold it in 1989.

“After a chance conversation at a classic car show, and a picture I posted online,” he writes, “I found it again about 10 years ago, rotting away in a Welsh barn, so I bought it again.” The Stiletto has been much modified, to the point where little remains of the original car.

“The shell was so rusty, [there were] holes in the roof, [the] floor [was] gone, [there was] no engine or gearbox. I decided to have some fun with it. It’s now got one lightweight seat and a Kawasaki bike engine where the back seat was. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. Quick enough to out-accelerate a Nissan Skyline!”

Many celebrities have their own memories of the Imp. Chef Ainsley Harriott has said the first time he ever had sex in a car was probably in a Hillman Imp, “when I was 19. That was fun”.

Broadcaster Kate Adie has described her days as a junior at BBC Radio Durham, when she would rise at 4.15am and drive “my little Hillman Imp 17 miles from Sunderland to Durham” to open up the station. (Mechanic and rally driver Fred Henderson told the Northern Echo in 2014 that Adie’s Imp frequently broke down and that “she would often call at the workshop to ask if her vehicle was safe for a particular journey, which was probably less than 10 miles”.)

Magazine editor Kath Brown once told The Independent of a Hillman Imp she and a flat-mate bought for £100. It broke down “all the time”.

The worst journey, she said, was to Portsmouth: “Three times it broke down by the side of the road and getting to the coast took the whole day. By the time we arrived, I think we had forgotten why we had bothered to go there. I suppose we were still quite fond of the Imp in a way, despite the fact that it was so cramped in the back, painted a dirty white and covered in rust.”

In 2009 two friends sought to drive from Essex to Mongolia in a 1972 Hillman Imp to raise money for charities.

The car packed up in north-east Kazakhstan. but at least, as one of the duo said: “It took us through France, Germany, Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine and Russia relatively trouble free and it’s safe to say that it exceeded most people’s expectations well before we got into the vast expanse of Kazakhstan.”

Alex Knox, 65, has no fewer than four Imps. One of them has been professionally restored; he also owns a Singer Chamois Sport, and in his shed he has a historic Imp rally car and a standard Imp. He even worked in the main office block at Linwood when it was occupied, after the closure of the car factory, by Britoil, the state oil concern.

“The Imp was a very good wee car,” he says. “It was way ahead of its time but unfortunately Rootes released it to the public too early and a lot of the garages who supplied Imps weren’t trained sufficiently to maintain them. So they got a lot of bad press in the first couple of years which is a pity, because it is a good wee car, way better than a Mini.

“You do get a lot of people waving to you whenever you’re out in the car, they’ll flash their lights or toot their horn at you. Every time you stop, people will come up and say things like, ‘I had one of them’ or ‘I went my holidays in one’.

“There’s a lot more people starting to restore Imps nowadays to a really high standard, because they’re starting to appreciate in price. I can’t tell you how much I paid for mine,” he adds with a quick smile, “because it’s a stupid amount of money, but I always wanted a Caledonian Imp when I was an apprentice draughtsman in Paisley, but I couldn’t afford it at the time.

“Restorations are getting better, and people are spending more money on them. A lot of younger kids are getting into Imp restorations as well. I’d like to restore my historic rally car because it competed in a lot of British and European events a long time ago,” he says. “It’s now just sitting in the shed. Money’s the problem, though.”

The Imp’s body-panels are “very expensive” while some engine parts are proving scarce. The Imp Club “makes some of the parts, but there’s always someone who has got something stored away somewhere.”

This cult car also makes numerous appearances at car shows. There were no fewer than 21 Imps or derivatives at a recent show in Stirling.

There’s a lot of pride in the Imp partly because it was a Scottish-built car, but they were sold all over the world, and even now they continue to turn up in exotic locations, continuing to inspire affection, continuing to make collectors’ hearts beat just that little bit faster. “They’re still finding them in Australia,” says Mr Knox. “There were a couple of Imps in Iran – and there’s quite a few in South Africa, too.”

The nippy little Imp has had quite a journey.