Humber Super Snipe: Quintessential British luxury with a transatlantic flavour
The Humber Super Snipe is not only one of the longest-running of Super Models but must be judged one of the most significant British cars from the 1930s to the late 1960s. Not only was it prominent in peace, but also served with distinction during World War Two. Field Marshall Montgomery used an open Super Snipe known as Old Faithful in North Africa while Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson chose the flagship Imperial version of the Super Snipe as his official transport (along with a Ford Zodiac Mark III).
Thomas Humber opened a general workshop in Sheffield in 1868 and within a few years was making the new pedal bicycles. The first Humber car was built in 1899. By 1927-28, the firm was doing it tough, lacking the necessary funds to modernise its plant and equipment. In 1928 Rootes Securities, owned by brothers William (‘Billy’) and Reginald Rootes, acquired an interest in Humber Ltd, which then merged with Hillman.
Before the Super Snipe came the Snipe, which was shown in September 1929 and went on sale the following year. It showcased William (‘Billy’) Rootes’s flair for marketing. ‘Such Cars As Even Humber Never Built Before’, proclaimed the advertising banner.
Not only did the Rootes brothers plan to introduce a range of modern cars, they also intended to expand beyond ownership of Humber (which had acquired Commer in 1925) and Hillman. The Rootes Group was launched in London’s Albert Hall on 27 April, 1931 and its first product, the Hillman Wizard, followed weeks later. The brothers went on to acquire Karrier (commercial vehicles, 1934), Sunbeam and Talbot (1935), Light Steel Pressings (1937), Tilling Stevens (1951) and Singer (1955-56).
Billy was the visionary of the pair, while Reginald was an administrator. The former made several visits to the US and was impressed with Alfred P. Sloan Jr’s principle of creating brand tiers with the maxim a ‘car for every purse and purpose’. The brothers were determined to establish a group of vertically integrated companies with as much sharing of components as was consistent with maintaining the integrity of each brand; by 1932 this product planning was evident with the new Humber 12hp using a Wizard-type gearbox and rear axle.
Rootes Group products showed the influence of US styling trends by the mid-1930s. In the early postwar years, many if not most new British cars revealed the influence of American designers, notably Raymond Loewy, who was a consultant to Rover for the 1951 75 and later to the Rootes Group. Moving deeper into the 1950s, it was Rootes more than any other company whose cars earned the descriptor ‘Transatlantic’ and the Super Snipe was the leading exemplar.
The 1938 Humber Super Snipe was, in the words of motoring historian Graham Robson, ‘a real road-burner and gave Ford’s all-conquering V8 models a great deal of competition.’ Zero to 60 miles per hour (97km/h) required just 16.7 seconds and maximum speed was 82 miles per hour
This car was facelifted for 1940 and shown publicly in late 1939. But the new model soon found itself bound for war and few, if any, went into civilian ownership. When the postwar range was announced in 1945, the Super Snipe was essentially this 1940 edition.
Meanwhile, the Rootes Group, had been a major contributor to the British war effort. In the year 1940, it supplied an astonishing 30 per cent of all bombers and over the course of the war, the contribution was one in seven. Rootes also built 50,000 aero engines, including 10,000 sets of Merlin parts for Rolls-Royce to assemble. It made tens of thousands of Hillman Minxes and a large number of Snipes (and Super Snipes). The powerful Super Snipe was much favoured as a staff car. In all, Rootes produced a total of 11 per cent of the total UK output of wartime wheeled vehicles.
When the Super Snipe was reintroduced to the general public, plans were afoot to introduce a modern three-box successor. Petrol rationing continued to apply until 1950 and when it was abolished fuel taxes doubled and both factors must have encouraged many prospective customers to look elsewhere.
Rootes employed the Loewy studio to develop a front-end facelift. With a new bonnet and front guards, the Super Snipe looked very different but changes to the mechanicals and, indeed, the interior were minimal. Somewhat remarkably, running-boards which had disappeared on the 1940 model, were reinstated – doubtless to add grandeur. Then, in August 1950, came the Mark III with a Panhard rod for the rear suspension and detachable spats for the rear wheels, a-la Jaguar Mark V.
Because the Mark II and III were built on a longer wheelbase and were almost 200kg heavier than the 1940 model, they could not match its performance. Nevertheless, zero to 60 in 22.7 seconds and a neat 80 miles per hour maximum remained respectable, at least in 1950 before the Mark VII Jaguar changed perceptions of how a big luxury car should perform!
It was not until October 1952 that the eagerly-awaited Super Snipe Mark IV appeared. With an all-new Hawk launched in 1948, enthusiasts anticipated the imminent arrival of a Hawk-based Super Snipe. The wait was worth it, for the new car used a longer-wheelbase, longer-bonnet, extended-tail version of the Hawk’s body with a contemporary overhead-valve Blue Riband six-cylinder engine shared with some Commers.
These were lively performers – nought to 60 in 16 seconds and top speed of 90 for the Mark IV and rather better for its successors, each of which was tweaked for more power.
The Mark IV, IVA (1953) and IVB (1954) were manufactured from 1952 until 1957 and some 18,000 examples drove British and overseas (mainly British Empire) roads. The Mark IVB acquired a walnut dashboard. Borg-Warner automatic transmission was offered in 1956 as an alternative to the column shift all-synchromesh four-speed manual gearbox.
The next generation of Humbers would be the first of monocoque construction and the Super Snipe would also be offered in long-wheelbase and estate car guises. Naturally, the four-cylinder Hawk appeared first – in 1957. But prospective buyers had to wait for more than a year after the Super Snipe Mark IVB was withdrawn from sale for the confusingly named new Series I to appear in showrooms.
This car was the most Transatlantic British luxury sedan of the period, with some observers likening its design to the 1955 Chevrolet. Nineteen fifty-seven marked the high point of US styling themes in English vehicles – consider other Rootes efforts and also the PA Vauxhalls and the Victor. The new Super Snipe came in a range of vivid colour combinations; a wide contrasting band enclosed within stainless-steel strips ran the length of the sides.
Under the bonnet was a smaller capacity 2.6-litre engine with hemispherical combustion chambers manufactured for Rootes by Armstrong Siddeley (who would later build the Sunbeam Alpine for Rootes); in many respects this was a smaller-capacity version of the 3.4-litre Sapphire unit. Weirdly, the four-speed manual gearbox made way for a three-speeder. At least overdrive was available as an option, along with the Borg-Warner auto. This new Super Snipe could reach 92 miles per hour but it lost more than three seconds in acceleration to 60, meaning that it would not have been all that far ahead of an FC Holden in a traffic lights race. Peak power of just 105 (DIN) brake horsepower was probably marginal for this class of car in 1958.
Just a year later came the Series II with a 3.0-litre edition of the engine and useful increase in power to 121bhp. It also had front-wheel disc brakes and optional power steering. The zero to 60 time dropped to a respectable 14.3 seconds. And, for the first time, a Rootes Group product could attain the magic ‘ton’.
But by now, some concerns were being modestly expressed about the Super Snipe’s dynamics. In his landmark Cars of the Fifties and Sixties (companion volume to Cars of the Thirties and Forties), Michael Sedgwick says of the Mark V Humber Imperial:
You wouldn’t find power front disc brakes (except as an extra) on the Imperial’s American contemporaries, although Americans would have expected a V8 rather than an old-fashioned 3-litre in-line six to propel 3616lb (1640kg) of car. While 100 mph were there, the big Humber pitched alarmingly if pushed to the limit.
And ‘W.B.’ (William Boddy), the founding editor of Motor Sport, testing a Series II Super Snipe for the June 1960 edition, wrote:
In brief, this Humber is a sensibly and luxuriously-equipped 100-m.p.h. saloon. It will presumably be driven mostly by big-boned businessmen in bowler hats, who will appreciate its top-gear ability to reach 80 m.p.h. very quickly indeed but who, we must hope, will not be too critical of its steering and roadholding characteristics, or mind a steering-column gear-change which isn’t exactly finger-light or silky to operate – incidentally, it controls a three-speed gearbox but the overdrive multiplies this to five forward speeds, control here being by finger-tip stalk, as is direction-flashers operation.
The steering is relatively heavy, is too low-geared (4-1/2 turns, lock to-lock) and not nearly sensitive enough, so that the Humber has to be steered continually even along straight roads. Against this there is only the faintest kick-back action and no column vibration, but the castor return action, although vigorous, does not centre the steering sufficiently. These factors add up to unpleasant control characteristics in a car which rolls somewhat too much on corners, causing oversteer, particularly at moderate speeds. The Super Snipe is, no doubt, a better proposition in Borg Warner automatic transrnission/Hydrosteer power-steering form. The tyres protest mildly merely because a corner is sharp, not because it is being taken quickly. The car is certainly not under-tyred and this may have much to do with the unfortunate steering characteristics – it runs on 6.70 x 15 six-ply Dunlop ‘Gold Seal’ tubeless covers.
Boddy concludes on a fascinating note:
- H. White, one of my favourite authors, in England Have My Bones states frankly that his England ‘is not that of the Saturday Review, nor is it authoritative like that of the Field. It is not stately enough for Country Life, nor experienced enough to bear comparison with the works of A. G. Street or Adrian Bell. I hope it is not the kind of country that is inhabited by Mr. Beverley Nichols.’
I can say that my motoring does not call for a Facel Vega, nor is it skilful enough to justify a Ferrari. It is not staid enough for a Rolls-Royce, nor on a plane to call for a Porsche or Maserati. I find it does not regard the Humber Super Snipe as the most enjoyable form of expression.
That is not to say that many successful and talented people will not find this impressive and comfortable 3-litre Humber very close to the ideal. An excellent instruction book is issued with the car.
But the Super Snipe had another seven years to drive. It was facelifted with full-width grille and quad headlights to become the Series III in 1960 (shortly after Boddy’s story had appeared). Two years later, it received a new rear window and a small increase in power (Series IV). Then came the Series V and VA for the 1965 season. These last Super Snipes had a six-light glasshouse and revised interior. Power steering was standard.
By this time sales had slowed to a trickle, Rootes had been taken over by Chrysler, and there was no serious desire to produce another model: there were V8-powered Chryslers at hand.
Nevertheless, there had been some excitement in the Rootes Group. In 1964, while the (Ford V8-powered) Sunbeam Tiger was under development, Rootes test driver Michael Heath sampled a Super Snipe powered by a 318 cubic-inch Chrysler V8 with four-barrel Holley carburettor. His recollections were included in the April 1987 edition of Thoroughbred & Classic Cars. He had been advised not to exceed 6000rpm but decided to see how fast this Humber would go:
He got the car to just under this limit but the noise of the engine was deafening and the car was moving across all three lanes! On returning to the Stoke plant he told one of the engineers of his experience. It wasn’t surprising, he was told, as at that engine speed the car would have been travelling around 145 mph!
Fewer than 3000 Mark V and VAs found buyers, despite hefty discounting in the latter days. By contrast, 6072 Series Is, 7175 Series IIs and 13,752 Series III/IVs were produced.
In summary, the Humber Super Snipe was a quintessentially British lower-level luxury sedan with a Transatlantic flavour. It set a performance benchmark for the late 1930s. Postwar high points were the 1954 Mark IV and the 1959-60 Series II (although not to Bill Boddy’s taste!), which offered an excellent value for money and performance equation in their respective days. Perhaps the writing was already on the showroom walls by 1963 when the Triumph 2000 and Rover 2000 combined traditional British luxury with elegance, agility and compactness. Arguably, the Super Snipe’s closest rivals in the 1960s were the Vanden Plas R and Rover P5; the former was dropped in 1968 and the latter – though revivified by a V8 – didn’t survive beyond 1973.