Guilty pleasures: Humber Super Snipe MkIV

| 6 Mar 2023
Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Humber Super Snipe MkIV

Humber had degenerated into jumped-up Hillman Hunters by the time the name was discarded in the mid-’70s.

Yet it was a high-profile marque in its post-war heyday, Rootes’ top offering with a distinct identity of its own.

The big sidevalve Pullmans, invariably painted black, were heavily used as official government cars, the ‘series’ unit body Super Snipes as (unlikely) police cars in the ’60s, particularly the estates for motorway patrols.

In between came the MkIV, the last body-on-frame Humbers and the first Snipes to have an overhead-valve engine, in this instance a 113bhp 4.1-litre ‘Blue Ribband’ straight-six from a Commer truck, rated at 30 RAC horsepower.

Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Humber Super Snipe MkIV

A wood and leather cockpit for this upmarket classic Humber

These cars were modern symbols of Britain’s new Elizabethan age in 1953, mixing full-width, mid-Atlantic styling and three-abreast bench seating with a column gearchange, huge torque and light controls, the implication from contemporary advertising being that the Super Snipe was a car for women as well as men.

It was a full six-seater ‘top gear’ car that took hilly terrain in its stride, had a huge boot and a full synchromesh gearbox, still a rarity in the early ’50s.

As well saloon, touring limousine and station wagon versions, the Kilburn coachbuilder Jones Brothers (best known for its hearses) built four special open-topped Super Snipe MkIVs for Queen Elizabeth II’s 1953/’54 Royal Commonwealth Tour, a six-month, post-coronation jaunt around the British Empire, adding further burnish to the marque’s posh reputation.

Styling was a long nose/long tail adaptation of the Hawk body (the four-pot version famously used to transport the traitor spy George Blake away from Wormwood Scrubs prison in London after he escaped in 1965), with an extended version of its cruciform chassis.

The Super Snipe was a bigger car than it looked at first glance and was certainly impressive. Weighing 4500lb and costing £1400 it was more expensive than the much nimbler Jaguar MkVII, but good value for those buyers who regarded the flagship Rootesmobile as a poor man’s Bentley.

Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Humber Super Snipe MkIV

The big ‘six’ affords the Humber near-100mph performance

The trouble was, most UK customers were probably put off by their size and the 14mpg thirst – consumption could drop into single figures in town – which is probably why only 5286 could be persuaded to buy a MkIV, despite its 95-100mph potential and the option, on the last 122bhp versions, of a fully automatic transmission.

The Autocar gave an enthusiastic verdict in period: ‘general stability and roadholding enable the car to be cornered very quickly … slight understeer … the steering is light’.

Of course, these bear no relationship to the experience in 2023. These ’50s Humbers are almost the definition of ponderous. All manoeuvres need to be anticipated well in advance, such is its state of total understeer when asked to negotiate the most modest of curves.

As you wind on great armfuls of imprecise lock you fumble with the column shift, but soon realise that gearchanges are optional and which ratio you find is fairly irrelevant, because the smoothly unobtrusive engine with its tiny Stromberg carburettor is hugely flexible – the 206Ib ft torque peaks at only 1400rpm.

Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Humber Super Snipe MkIV

With stately lines, the Humber Super Snipe MkIV was certainly a cut above

On a straight road, these Humbers will bowl along quietly and rather magnificently.

You can see how the cars were suited to Stirling Moss’ record-breaking exploits in Europe, Africa and Australia in a works example – 15 countries in 90 hours was a considerable feat in 1952, as well as a fine advert for the sort of rugged cars the UK could export to those territories.

With wide expanses of leather and a lavish interior that mixed British veneer and American styling cues, these Humbers felt nicely made in the way all Rootes products of the ’50s and ’60s tended to be, certainly a cut above the Ford Pilots and Wolseley 6/80s of its day.

The shape, seductive in the glorious colour artwork of the period Rootes advertisements, seems merely pompous in the metal today, the perfect car for the stuffy Homburg-hat-wearing bank manager type familiar from Norman Wisdom comedy films of the early ’50s.

The trouble, is I have a weakness for pompous saloons and something about the MkIV Snipe encapsulates the era more perfectly, somehow, than any Jaguar or Rover, even if the car itself is not as accomplished. Sometimes, that doesn’t matter.

Images: Tony Baker

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