History of Humber Cars

Like Hillman, Humber was formed at the very dawn of the UK motor industry...
...and like Hillman, Humber was taken over by The Rootes Group during the 1930s.

This photo, taken during the 1960s, shows the extent to which the combined Humber and Hillman factories has expanded into one another...

A potted History

Thomas Humber founded the Humber cycle company in Sheffield in 1868, but it was not until much later that the company would become involved with the production of motor vehicles. The Humber company expanded through the 1870s to the point where it was producing bicycles in Nottingham, Beeston and Wolverhampton. Factory number four was opened in Coventry in 1889, by which time Humber was seriously looking at motorized transport. There was a brief flirtation with such oddities as tricycles and quadricyles — one of which sported front wheel drive and rear wheel steering.

In 1899 the first Humber car, the 3 1/2 horsepower Phaeton, was built at Beeston, but the first Coatalen designed car, the Voiturette, did not appear until 1901. This was followed by the 1903 Humberette, which sported a tubular frame and 5hp single-cylinder engine. Larger cars came in the shape of the 1902 four-cylinder 12hp, which was soon followed up in 1903 by a three-cylinder 9hp and a four-cylinder 20hp model. By this time, Humber car production was concentrated at a new factory in Folly Lane, Coventry, which - coincidentally - was situated close to Hillman.

After 1905, the smaller engined models were dropped, allowing Humber to concentrate on the production of its staple 10/12hp model and the larger 16/20hp. In 1907, this range was supplemented by the arrival of the Humber 15hp.

Until 1908, Humber cars continued to be produced in Coventry and Beeston, but thanks to financial difficulties, the Beeston factory was closed (despite producing higher quality cars), allowing the company to concentrate on one factory. The event saw the defection of Coatalen to rival Hillman. These austere times also led to the re-introduction of the company's two-cylinder models.

In 1913, the Humberette model re-appeared in a new form: the car was powered by an air-cooled 8hp vee-twin engine... this was aimed at a decidedly different end of the market to the company's next endeavours. The company shelled out £15,000 on a three-car team to compete in the 1914 Tourist Trophy race. The cars were designed by FT Burgess, and were powered by double overhead camshaft 3.3-litre four-cylinder engines.

Sadly, the ambitious programme failed to deliver results, and Humber's involvement in the TT was something of an anti-climax. The World War I days were spent producing arms and aircraft engines, but by the 1920s, Humber had become 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, with an enlarged engine came a much heavier body, and as a result, the car's previous 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. Confidence was such, that Humber bought up the Luton-based commercial vehicle producer, Commer.

Mergermania! - Humber and Hillman join together and enter the Rootes Group

However, the late 1920s saw a rapid shift in the company's fortunes. Although, it was felt that Humber was comfortable enough to purchase an outside interest, the truth was that the car producer was neither big nor exclusive enough to tough out the recession. 1929 saw the joining of Hillman and Humber, as well as the close involvment of The Rootes Group. According to Graham Robson's excellent book, "Cars of The Rootes Group", this period in Humber/Hillman/Rootes history was a little blurred around the edges. What is clear is that Rootes purchased an interest in Humber and Hillman (although it is not clear which was first)...

In 1930, Humber was effectively swallowed-up by The Rootes Group, although it was not until 1932 that it became a fully-owned manufacturing subsidiary of Rootes. Either way, soon after the takeover, the model range changed. Two new sixes were launched; the 2.1-litre 16/50 and the 3.5-litre Humber Snipe. Rootes influence soon could be seen throughout the Humber range - in 1932, the overhead inlet/side exhaust engine was discontinued, and the following year, the company introduced a 1.7-litre four-cylinder 12hp.

By the outbreak of World War II, Humber were producing a range of cars powered solely by six-cylinder engines. Humbers were now positioned as the more expensive cars in the Rootes range, being positioned above Hillman as it was, and thanks to stylish bodies by Pressed Steel, the company's reputation was a good one. Production continued throughout the hostilities, when the 4.1-litre Super Snipe and its variants were built as staff cars... Monty had one called “Old faithful.”

Humer made military workhorses during World War II, including the Humber Command Car, the Humber Scout Car, and armoured cars. Mack’s Humber "Pig" Mk II started life as a Humber GS1611 series radio truck in 1953; in 1954, it was converted to an FV1611 type armoured personnel carrier FFW (Fitted For Wireless) and was used in Germany with the British Army until 1969. It went into storage until 1972, when it was used in Northern Ireland, where the Pigs worked well because of their five-speed transmission and normal steering wheel - a simple but heavy truck. It was up-armoured (taking it from 10,000 lbs to 14,000) and was one of 36 fitted with an anti-riot chemical discharger system. (Thanks, clanmackinnonstl)

After the war, production of the big sixes continued, although a Hillman-based 2-litre four-cylinder model was installed in the Humber Hawk model. In 1950, a Super Snipe driven by Maurice Gatsonides (he of GATSO camera fame) and the Baron van Zuylen de Nyvelt took second place in the Monte Carlo Rally, even though "Gatso" had - amusingly - 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.

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.

Following the Chrysler acquisition of the company in 1964, the Humber range was expanded to include the SuperMinx-based Audax Sceptre; and according to Gary Martin, Humber took advantage of Chrysler’s move by putting 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; it is unclear whether this was a limited production option or a prototype/special run.

In 1966, the Arrow based Sceptre model was launched, and this remained in production until 1976, a victim of Chrysler rationalization. With the discontinuation of the Sceptre came the death of the Humber marque name.

 

Snipe / Super Snipe I 1945-1948

The first post-War Snipe was a revision of its 1940 namesake; the Super Snipe was similarly based upon pre-War stock.

Hawk I/II 1945-1948

The Hawk was part of Rootes' post-War range, although it was based heavily upon a pre-War Hillman.

Pullman I 1945-1948

Humber Pullman was designed for limousine-type duties... based upon a wartime model, this long wheelbase (and restyled) Super Snipe was just the thing for weddings, funerals and Mayoral duties...

Super Snipe II/III 1948-1952

Restyled Super Snipe; bigger, heavier and more impressive than its predecessor...

Pullman II, III, IV 1948-1954

Similar running gear to the Pullman I; Mk IV version treated to overhead valve engine and synchronised gearbox. Imperial version also offered, which featured seven seats

Hawk III, IV, V, VI 1948-1957

All new chassis and Raymond Loewy styling marked out these Hawks. Styling differences marked the different editions, but the VI was the first Hawk to feature and overhead valve engine.

Super Snipe IV 1952-1957

Super Snipe finally features Raymond Loewy-like styling; effectively a long wheelbase version of the 1948 Hawk.

Hawk Series I, II, III, IV 1957-1967

All new Hawk featuring unit construction. Series IV version was an all-over facelift featuring handsome six-light glasshouse. The Hawk line was phased out with the end of the series IV, having been supplanted (but not directly replaced) by the Audax Sceptre (see below).

Super Snipe Series I, II, III, IV, V and Imperial 1957-1967

Handsome six-cylinder versions of the 1957-67 Hawk. The last of the large Humbers, although there were plans for the Chrysler 180/2L to be marketed as a Humber in the UK; they came to nought.

"Audax" Sceptre I, II 1963-1967

The first all-new Humber model line since 1945; effectively a badge engineered Audax, which was originally intended to be marketed as a Sunbeam.

"Arrow" Sceptre III 1968-1976

Arrow based Humber - the marque was now a single model line, and a badge-engineered one at that. The last Humber...

Enter the Arrow/Hunter

 

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