The Humber Hawk is a Forgotten British Luxury Saloon
Today, I look at a 1966 Humber Hawk Series 4A. The Hawk and its 6-pot brother, the Super Snipe, were the last in a line of large Rootes Group saloons.
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This is a 1966 Humber Hawk. In particular, this is a Series 4A Humber Hawk, but I’m sure to many of you, Humber, as a marque, doesn’t mean an awful lot. Not in 2021, anyway. So today we’re going to explore what Humber was, then dive into the style of this American influenced British car, and finally have a look at the history and engineering of the Hawk in particular.
Humber was founded in 1887 as a bicycle manufacturer. They produced their first four-wheeled car in 1901, then switched entirely to car production in the 1920s, so this early period bore much similarity to other British companies such as Rover and Triumph.
Unlike Rover and Triumph, however, Humber had its independence snatched away much quicker. In 1930, the Rootes brothers took a controlling share in the company, forming the heart of what became the Rootes Group, with stablemates such as Hillman and Commer, with their headquarters at Ryton-on-Dunsmore in Warwickshire.
In order to avoid significant overlap between the Rootes marques, Humber was positioned towards the top end of the motor industry. Hillmans were the bread and butter of the car range, and many Humbers were derived from Hillmans but were larger and grander. Humbers were the preserve of the police, bank managers, and government ministers. This was the era of the Humber Hawk and its posher brother the Humber Super Snipe, both of which were produced at Ryton.
But this era didn’t last long, as Rootes was bought out by Chrysler in 1967, who dropped the Hillman and Humber marques before retreating from Europe in 1978, the group being taken over by Peugeot. What was once Rootes did survive, with what would have been the Talbot Arizona being rebadged as the Peugeot 309. Ryton became Peugeot’s UK home, producing various models until it was closed in 2006.
But before Chrysler and Peugeot, Humbers were big and dignified. And while their owners of the time may have been staid, there’s a heck of a lot of style going on here, especially for a British car. So, into the Hawk.
Here’s the background, and it’s slightly confusing. There were two Humber Hawks before this one, starting in 1945. These were known by their small revisions, the first generation as Mk1 and 2, then the second as the Mk3 through 6. This third-generation Hawk was introduced in May 1957 and became known as the Series 1, just to annoy us, and this one is a late car, a 1966 Humber Hawk Series 4A, before Chrysler stopped production of the big Humbers in March 1967.
The third-generation Hawk was clearly influenced by American design, and that’s not what you might’ve expected from Humber, but it’s a brilliant way to look at the late 1950s in Britain. Through this decade there was a rush of transatlantic styling influence into the British motor industry, possibly starting with something designed to be radical in the first place, like the Morris Minor. But the mature Humber owner would take a few more years to be persuaded into this kind of style.
There’s one car in particular that the Hawk imitated, the 1955 Chevy 150. The main styling que that relates them is this kink in the rear door, breaking up the 15 odd feet of body work.
Fitting this style to a British car required a heavy dose of respectability with the expressive curves of the Americans. The front end and side profile are the best places to see this. The front is stately and imposing with its large grille and peaked headlamps, and the front wheel arch is high, stating its supremacy, but as we move backwards the sloping roofline lends itself to a much lower rear wheel arch.
The four different Series of Hawk aren’t worth going into as they’re all relatively minor revisions, but this Series 4 is known as a ‘flat-roof’, having been redesigned in 1964. Before this, the roofline was much more sloping with a curvy wraparound rear screen. That was my favourite styling touch of the Hawk Series, and I think it’s a shame they got rid of it. That being said, it does look more stately without all the curves.
The best touches are the ones that aren’t obvious though, and the best example of that is the fuel filler cap, hidden under the reflector.
The only thing that could make this look more American would be white-wall tyres, and you know what? I think they’d look brilliant.
As I alluded to earlier, Humbers were the preserve of officialdom, but not the upper classes. A Humber was driven by the middle-class, the well-off that knew it would make them look so, but a Humber was decent value as well. The Hawk and Super Snipe are the closest you’ll get to British equivalents of land yachts. They’re nowhere near as big as anything American, of course, but these were solid, stately hunks of car.
The Series Hawk was available in three body styles. The four-door saloon we see here, a four-door limousine with a longer wheelbase and a divider between chauffeur and passengers, and finally, the best Hawk, the five-door estate. Because estate cars are the best cars. In the estate, I can see quite a lot of the Citroen DS Break with the wraparound rear window and rear lamps. Not sure whether this is a good thing or not, as though both these cars look great, the Citroen was lightyears ahead in technology. But then again, the Goddess was lightyears ahead of everything.
The Series Humber Hawk’s main distinction from its predecessor though was the construction, because this body is a monocoque, meaning there’s no separate chassis underneath. In 1957, the Hawk Estate’s monocoque was the largest shell of any British car ever made.
Inside that monocoque shell is a proper old fashioned British interior. It stinks of leather and the wood is of brilliant quality.
The tops of the doors are wood capped with chrome furniture and what is clearly designed to be storage for a bottle of wine. Or champagne. Humber driver.
This being a 1966 it does have seatbelts, though earlier cars wouldn’t have done. We’re also at the end of the era of bench seating, meaning that realistically you could quite comfortably have six people in here. Though you would all be rolling about into each other through the corners. One way to stop that somewhat is to evict the centre passenger and pull down the armrest.
At least three trees have been felled to create this hunk of dashboard, which is very well laid out for a 50s car. Obviously, there isn’t much here, but the heater controls are integrated nicely and I like the twin peaks design for the gauges and glove box.
Speaking of the gauges, they’re all obscured by the horn ring on the steering wheel. After the dash seemingly being quite well designed, this is an oversight and a half. The wheel itself is huge and very thin rimmed. This car does have power steering, and it's connected to a recirculating ball steering box.
With this wraparound windscreen, the pillar does seem quite close to you, and the door opening is quite small because of it, but the Hawk has the best thing about this era of cars, opening quarter lights.
Yes, the boot is pretty big, but half of it seems to have been taken up by a spare wheel. So rather restricted when it comes to loading up the bodies. Then again, Humbers were generally respectable cars. The murderers all drove Jags.
Apart from the posher trimmings, the Hawk and Super Snipe were separated by what was placed under the bonnet. The Super Snipe got a straight-six, but the Hawk got a more frugal 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine, carried over from the old Hawk. It has overhead valves and produces 78 bhp @ 4400 rpm and 120 lb-ft of torque @ 2300 rpm. Behind it is a 3-speed Borg Warner 35 automatic transmission, though a 4-speed manual also available, with overdrive if you so wished.
The Hawk is not a quick car. A manual one takes 20 seconds to get to 60 mph and will go on to a top speed of 83. Then again, that is a relatively small and underpowered engine in a rather heavy car, and completely average for the era. As you’d expect, the Hawk is rear-wheel drive, and down the 110-inch wheelbase is a live axle on leaf springs, again, as you’d expect, with an anti-roll bar, fitted for the Series 4 in 1964. The front end though, is independent, coil springs resting on wishbones with an anti-roll bar. Braking was drums all-round on the Series 1, though from the 1960 Series 2 Hawk, servo-assistance and front discs were standard. That’s a good thing. Not only as the Hawk weighs 1400 kg, but it’s over 15 ft long and nearly 6 ft wide.
This Humber Hawk is wonderfully designed. It’s style, build, and trim are testament to all that was good about the best British cars of this era. However, its engineering and image were testament to everything that was starting to go wrong. 1950s Britain was class dominated. It’s telling that I’ve already mentioned it once in this video, but as the world changed, Humber and Rootes didn’t. Despite its style and comfort, Humber drivers were maturing in the wrong direction, and there was no replacement in line.
Rootes as a whole had a bit of a disaster with the launch of the Hillman Imp, and this line of old-fashioned big saloons was out of its depth compared to what else came along. In September 1964, a Hawk would set you back £1059, and for context that’s £61 dearer than the more spartan but similarly sized Austin Westminster and £115 dearer than the 2.7 litre six-cylinder Vauxhall Cresta. The Citroen DS I mentioned before, though much more expensive, was the shape of things to come, and in the UK, Jaguars had performance, racing pedigree, and great dynamics to entice buyers that were better off. The greatest blow though, was what Rover came up with. When the P6 was launched as the Rover 2000 in 1963, it revolutionised the Hawk’s class. Although it was £206 more expensive, it was much more desirable, much quicker, and more refined. Similarly, the Triumph 2000 provided a more modern and more refined package with its small displacement straight-six, and this was only £36 dearer. Suddenly, the Humber Hawk was of a bygone age, and with a manufacturer caught on the back foot with no money, there was only one direction for Humber and Rootes.
That’s unfortunately the story of most of the British motor industry. For all its brilliance, there were always problems on the horizon.
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