CC has recorded previously my nomination for the most significant cars of the 1960s, the 1970s and 1980s. You can probably guess my nominee for the most significant car of the 1950s and for the 1990s – well, you’ll have to wait but you might (or might not) be surprised. And the 1940s? Undoubtedly the Morris Minor from 1948, designed by Sir Alec Issigonis, and a car that bears the stamp of one man more than practically any other.
In 1936, Alec Issigonis joined Morris, from Humber (part of Rootes) as a suspension engineer, with a brief to design an independent suspension system and rack and pinion steering for future Morris cars. His first design, for the 1938 Morris Ten, was not actually used as intended but appeared on the post war MG Y type. The war intervened with passenger car production and design, although Morris (and others I’m sure) conducted some work under the radar of the government. Issigonis was involved in some war equipment work, but from 1941 was doing an increasing amount of work on what became known as the Mosquito project.
Issigonis was not (and never was) the design or engineering head of Morris Motors but was working for Morris’s Chief Engineer, Vic Oak and had a good relationship with Managing Director Miles Thomas. Company Chairman Lord Nuffield (formerly Sir William Morris, of course) was by then focussing more of his personal energies on his philanthropy (he is undoubtedly Britain’s, probably Europe’s, greatest industrial philanthropist) leaving Thomas to manage the business, aside from some periodic interventions.
The Mosquito project was started by Thomas in May 1940, in a far sighted decision based on the fact after the war, there would be large pent up demand for affordable family transportation, and, that, as before the war, a compact family car from Morris should be a strong competitor, and that the pre-war Morris Eight (above) would no longer be a credible competitor. Thomas was also aware that engineering standards and public expectations were rising, and keeping up is not always enough.
Some accounts recall that Vic Oak engineered opportunities for Issigonis to meet Thomas. In the early years of the war, many large sites from schools and hospitals to industrial premises around the UK arranged rosters of staff to watch for bombing raids and the subsequent fires (hence the system was known as fire watching), and it is rumoured that Oak arranged for Issigonis and himself to be rostered with Thomas, giving Issigonis the opportunity to present his ideas to Thomas, initially informally.
In a series of crucial discussions with Oak and Thomas, Issigonis argued successfully for a very rigid monocoque construction, with independent front suspension using torsion bars and the engine mounted low and as far forward as possible. The combination of independent front suspension, a stiff monocoque and low mounted engine allowed for the front suspension to be softer than the rear – previously, the rear suspension would have been softer as stiff front suspension was required to avoid pitching over rougher surfaces, whilst avoiding shimmy at the front from a beam axle arrangement. There is no doubt that independent suspension was the way to go, indeed Morris was arguably lagging behind some of its competitors such as Vauxhall, but Issigonis was among the first to take full advantage of it, and wanted to include independent rear suspension as well. This was deemed unaffordable, at an estimated £100.00 per car – say 15-20% of the retail price.
Arguably, the Minor was the first British car to be designed holistically – the engine position, the front suspension, the steering, the smaller than previous wheels (14in; the pre war Morris Eight had 17in wheels and Fiat Topolino 15in), the monocoque construction all fed off each other to achieve the full benefits, whereas previously a car was built as chassis frame, with an engine bolted in, some beam axles hung underneath, a gearbox and steering box connected up and a body built on top. But Thomas didn’t ask Issigonis to lead the design because he wanted a conventional car – he wanted a good car that would place Morris ahead of the market and stand the test of time. There was no point asking Issigonis for a conventional answer, even then.
Issigonis originally planned, consistent with his holistic attitude to the whole car, to use a flat four engine in the Minor. The concept he proposed allowed for different cylinder barrels to be fitted to the same crankcase, to offer varying capacities. This design was the centre of a lot of internal debate and anguish within Morris, between those who recognised potential benefits to the car and the options it offered, and those who would have to re-tool and re-train extensively to build it.
At the time, the British horsepower rating, and vehicle taxation, was determined by cylinder bore and this was inevitably a factor in the design of the flat-four engine, but in 1946 this was relaxed to a flat rate. This made the choice of the existing Morris Eight engine (four cylinder inline, 918cc, side valve) easier as well as quicker and cheaper, and this was used in place of the flat-four. One benefit was reliability, from the start. Incidentally, the change in tax assessment is judged to have had a significant effect on the export ability of the British industry in subsequent years, and Thomas and Issigonis are often credited with persuading the politicians on this.
In early 1943, work formally started and by late 1943, Issigonis had a working prototype running. Again, Issigonis’s holistic attitude showed through – his early preferred style made it through to production almost unchanged, in the same way as it did for the Mini. The main characteristics of Issigonis’s initial drawings, such as complementary and well-proportioned curves of the bonnet in to the wings, the wings into the doors, the roofline down the back window and over the boot and the small wheels are all clearly visible in the original sketches, and the good-from-any-angle appeal of the car is possibly unmatched by any one else until another car shaped by engineers and only tidied by stylists – the original Range Rover.
By the end of 1946, all the key features were set, after final development work and factory configuration, a launch at the 1948 London Motor Show was set. Progressively, the Nuffield Organization began to build detail parts for the new cars, alongside the simultaneous resumption of civilian car production. In the summer of 1947, Issigonis took a fateful decision – he chose to widen the car by four inches, primarily to increase interior space and also partly to improve the proportions visually.
A car was literally cut in half and the two halves moved out, back in, out again until Issigonis judged it correct, at four inches. Of, course, many body drawings and tools had to be adjusted, and wherever possible this was done in the centre of the car. Consequently, the bonnet has a raised centre moulding, the roof has a neutral area in the centre and the boot lid was widened. The floor pan had two inch strips added either side of the transmission tunnel. One side effect of this change was increased cornering stability; another was that enough front and rear bumpers had been pressed and plated for the first two years production, so early cars had a joint plate in the centre to compensate.
There was now one hurdle to overcome to get the Minor into production – Lord Nuffield. Nuffield, by now 70 years old and seen above with a pre-war Morris Minor, strongly opposed the new car, believing that the pre-war Morris 8, possibly with the Minor’s front suspension, would be a good enough car to compete with the new Austins and Fords expected in 1948. Thomas had to work hard to get Board approval for the new car, proposing alternatives such as an MG1100 – a Mosquito with a pre-war Wolseley OHC engine, alongside a revised Morris Eight. It was not until November 1947 that the Nuffield Organization board finally accepted the car into the formal product plan, for an October 1948 launch, to replace the Morris Eight.
The day after this agreement, Thomas resigned. He was replaced by another Mosquito supporter, Reginald Hanks, who formally confirmed the name Minor on the car. Nuffield himself had a form of revenge, by refusing to pose with or drive the car for photographers, a position he held until the car achieved its resounding success.
The engine, the 918cc side valve four cylinder carried over from the Morris Eight and many other pre-war cars, offered 28bhp, a 64 mph top speed, and 0-60 in something over 50 seconds; the brakes were drums all round with no servo; the rear suspension was semi-elliptic; the gear box four speed with syncromesh on the top three, without an overdrive option. Though this sounds a very modest specification, it was typical of the class at the time.
Dimensionally, it was 148in long, a wheelbase of 86in, and width and height of 60in. For comparison, a current Ford Fiesta hatchback is L x W x H 156in x 68in x 66in on a 98in wheelbase. Weight was 1700lb for a four door (the Fiesta is 2300lb). Key competition in the home market came from the Ford Prefect and Anglia and the Austin A40.
The Minor was launched at the London Motor Show in October 1948, perhaps the most famous and certainly the most defining British motor show ever held. Whilst the Jaguar XK120 might have the title of star of the show, for its glamorous example of value for money, for many people the Minor was the true highlight. Here was a car that was accessible, affordable, capable, stylish, all round more than competent and ahead of its class competitors, from Britain and elsewhere in Europe, in ways that can only be described as a step change.
The Minor was, for its time, as innovative and capable, and as class leading, as the ADO16 fourteen years later, or the Golf in 1974. It created Issigonis’s reputation; it continued the Morris line with perhaps the best car (as opposed to purely the best value and best selling) car ever to carry that badge; it was perhaps the first thoroughly compact modern car.
Issigonis kept a tight grip on the minor (sorry, I had to) design details of the car, as well as the interior. Features such as the door handle blending with the rubbing strip and the headlights in the grille (early prototypes had them behind a full width grille as well) were almost certainly Issigonis dictated. The interior is very clearly the first of a series to bear Issigonis’s stamp, showing hallmark features such as the symmetrical location of the instrument cluster and the clock or alternative decorative feature, and the full width under-dash parcel shelf. Also, the leather door pulls and very simple door furniture, saving space as well of course, are typical Issigonis features.
Production was planned initially for 400 a week; this was quickly raised to 600 a week. In the first full year, 1949, 28500 were built arising to 53100 by 1953. Exports were inevitably high, rising from 75% of total production in 1949 to 80% in 1950 and 90% in 1951, before home sales were allowed to increase. Key export markets were, in descending order, Australia, North America, South Africa and New Zealand, ahead of any other European markets. The initial cars were two door saloons or two door convertibles, which was not a sports version but more a reversion to the pre-war tradition of a Tourer version of a regular saloon.
One question that cannot be ignored is why the Beetle succeeded and the Minor didn’t. I propose there are basically three factors – solidity and durability, the after sales network and support, and circumstance. I am not a great Beetle fan, as I consider the car to have too many compromises and solutions that were proved to be less preferred, such as air cooling, swing axles and the rear engine, but you have to respect VW’s achievement in building so many, for so long, so successfully. In terms of size and market position, the two cars were very similar. The Beetle was ten inches longer in length and wheelbase, the boot space significantly less (albeit with additional space in the rear of the Beetle) and performance not dissimilar. Morris offered four door and estate versions as well, of course.
The Minor was first sold in North America in 1949, with the headlights being moved to the now familiar position in the raised pod on the front wings, to meet Californian regulations, a position that within two years became standard for all cars. Sales were slow, with only 8700 cars sold in the USA by 1956. Later years saw increased sales, peaking at almost 15,000 in 1959. In total around 50,000 Minors were sold in North America in 20 years.
In many ways, this story parallels that of the compact Renault 4CV and Dauphine in North America. The Minor never achieved the heights the Beetle did in north America, which was better suited to American conditions and requirements, such as sustained high speed use, an adaptability to climatic extremes not seen in the UK, and backed up by a very efficient dealer network.
The competing brands inevitably moved to challenge the Minor. Ford offered a new range of Prefect and Anglia saloons in 1954, which while looking very different from the Minor, and rather more modern, took significant steps to catch up with it, with independent suspension, monocoque construction and a fully contemporary (if not timeless) style. Fords did half a million of all types in the 1950s.
Austin’s offer was the A30 saloon – this was slightly smaller than the Minor, narrower and 10 in shorter in the wheelbase, but also had a monocoque construction. It was the first outing of the 803cc version of the Austin A series engine, something that soon featured in the Minor story.
In 1952, Morris and Austin merged, to create BMC, led by Leonard Lord, Austin’s strong willed managing director. Lord Nuffield became Chairman of BMC. The Minor received some development almost immediately, the 803cc A series OHV engine was transplanted into the car, starting with the newer four door version (introduced in October 1950), from the summer of 1952 and known as the Series II. How much this improved the car and how much it improved BMC’s manufacturing economies is a moot point, but power was up, to 30 bhp and acceleration improved, partly through a lower final drive ratio. The featured black car (UK reg MSJ 151) is an a series II Minor, with this 803cc engine, and still in daily use in Dunfries, Scotland.
The estate, formally known as the Traveller, came in late 1953, and had a definite American inspiration to its styling with its timber framed rear, and matched the style of the larger Morris Oxford Traveller. The construction was based on the same monocoque as the saloon, with a shorter roof pressing matching up to an aluminium rear roof panel supported by a seasoned ash framework, comprising of some 50 detail parts. This is perhaps the most distinctive of the Minors we still see around today.
The big change for the Minor, and the one that perhaps defined the definitive Minor, was the installation of the larger 948cc A series engine in 1956, along with larger windows including a one piece curved windscreen and a new interior (still very much of an Issigonis flavour, although he had had no involvement in the change, as he had left BMC in 1953) to create the Minor 1000. Power was up to 37bhp, and with a new gearbox and revised gearing, 70mph was possible on the flat. Again, two door, four door, Tourers and Travellers were offered, along with a pickup and a small van, which was a favourite of the Royal Mail and Post Office Telephones into the 1970s. This was also sold as an Austin, such as this example, even if it has been re-badged to a Morris.
By now, the instrument cluster had migrated to the centre of the dash, where it would also be found in the Mini.
There are two other Minor developments that should be noted. In 1957, BMC released the Riley 1.5 (above) and Wolseley 1500 twins. These were small sporting saloons – you could consider them as the 1950s take on the Triumph Dolomite if you wish. They were based closely on the Minor, with a new body on the existing floorpan and running gear along with the larger 1.5 litre B series BMC engine. Much debate has been expended on whether BMC had actually intended this to be a replacement for the Minor. Certainly, it or one of its derivatives replaced the Minor in some overseas markets with assembly facilities.
The other development to note is that before he left BMC in 1953, Issigonis had built a transverse engined Minor, purely as a development vehicle. I have no photo or documentary evidence but the available accounts are strong enough to be believable.
In 1962, BMC gave us the follow up to the Mini, the larger ADO16 range of saloons and later estates, with front wheel drive and hydrolastic suspension (CC here). This car was designed by Alec Issigonis, and could, perhaps should, be seen as his answer to the same question as that he had answered with the Minor 14 years earlier, and a natural successor to the Minor. BMC, being BMC, not only offered the ADO16 initially under just one of the main market brands, as the Morris 1100, but at the same time updated the Minor with the same 1100cc A series engine and flashing indicators. Sometimes, when looking back at BMC and BLMC, you feel you couldn’t make it up.
The Minor continued to sell, largely just in the UK, until 1969. Peak production had been 115,000 in 1958 but by the late 1960s it was down to around 20,000.
The Tourer was retired in 1969, the saloon in November 1970 and the Traveller and light commercials in 1971. It was the first British car to sell a million, something that was commemorated with a special series of Minor 1000000 in 1960, and is a car that features somewhere in almost every British family history for the 1950s and 1960s.
Ours was a 1959 or 60 (or was it a 1958 – no one knows now!) Minor 1000 Tourer in pale blue that was apparently ideal for carrying three very young children in, one sitting on the front passenger seat, and two twins in carry cots on the folded down rear seat in a car with no seat belts. No wonder UK road deaths have dropped by 75% since 1960.
But what made the Minor so special? It has to be more than longevity, and it certainly wasn’t speed. It wasn’t that the Minor was continually developed and improved in the way the VW Beetle was, with a continuous sequence of significant change, not to mention the Super Beetle or the Type 3 and 4. The Minor got an Austin engine, a new dash and a bigger windscreen.
Nor can it be solely because of the visual appeal of the Minor, pleasing though it was. Yes, the headlights gave the car a friendly face and the lack of performance gave it a non-threatening reputation, but there has to be more than just that, otherwise we’d be all over the Hillman Imp in the same way.
My personal hunch is that the holistic approach to the design and its ownership by one person shines through to the finished car. Other cars that had (and still have) the enduring appeal of the Minor, such as the Beetle, the Citroen 2CV, the Fiat Nuova 500, Issigonis’s Mini, the original Land-Rovers or more recently the Mazda MX-5 Miata (to name but a few) all show evidence of a single personality driven holistic design, and when matched to the ease of driving, ease of ownership and passenger comfort of the Minor, timelessness starts to come.
There are still something like 15,000 Minors registered in Britain, and I’d guess maybe the same number, maybe more, in barns, garages and elsewhere in the world. The Austin A30, and later A35, total perhaps 2000, the Ford Prefect and Anglia in the hundreds. There are fewer Ford Sierras, and fewer than 1000 Austin Maestros. There are 717 Morris Marinas, a smaller number than the quantity of the suggestions you get from Amazon when searching for “book” and “Morris Minor”.
That last figure tells you all you need to know about the popularity of the Minor, and the affection in which it is held by the people of the United Kingdom. And it was earned, fair and square. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury had one. In fact, three Archbishops. Might as well call it St. Minor.