(first posted 10/24/2016) Alec Issigonis, along with Sir Henry Royce and perhaps Colin Chapman, has the greatest name recognition in the UK for any British car designer or engineer. At the peak if his career he was by far the most well-known personality in the British motor industry, one of the most well-known names in the European motor industry, and was the first and perhaps the only car British designer who could claim celebrity status.
His name will always be associated with the Morris Minor and the Mini, but he was a complex man with a complex background, family, story and career. There is a truck factory in the city of Izmir, on the western Mediterranean coast of Turkey, built by the British Motor Corporation (BMC) in 1967, and which still builds vehicles under the BMC brand. At the opening of the factory BMC was represented by Sir Alec Issigonis. There was a good reason for BMC selecting him for this task, for Issigonis was born in Izmir.
Alec Issigonis, or more formally Sir Alexander Arnold Constantine Issigonis CBE FRS RDI* (1906 – 1988), is best known as the creator of the Mini, but he also designed two other cars that have featured on CC and that are amongst the best-selling cars in British motoring history – the Morris Minor and the Austin-Morris 1100 (ADO16). His fingerprints are all over other cars, too, the Austin 1800 Land Crab and the Austin Maxi for example, but not always as successfully, as we shall see.
Issigonis was an engineer, first and foremost, but I have used the terms “design/designer” in this piece, in the way that was contemporaneous to Issigonis and as he would have understood it, although we would now use use “engineering”.
Issigonis’ name will always be associated with the Morris Minor, built for over 20 years, and with the Mini, a car he designed very quickly in the late 1950s and which was built for over 40 years, throughout the tumultuous history of BMC and BLMC, ending only after the BMW led break up of the Rover Group in 2000. He was a complex man, with a complex background, family story and career.
Issigonis’ grandfather, Demosthenis Issigonis, had emigrated from Paros in Greece to Smyrna (as Izmir was then known) in the mid 19th century where his engineering company helped the British built the Smyrna-Aydın Railway, and through this acquired British citizenship. Alec’s father, Constantine Issigonis, who was born in Smyrna in 1872, studied in England, and subsequently returned to Smyrna, keeping the engineering business going through the First World War and maintaining his British citizenship. Issigonis’s mother, Hulda Prokopp, was descended from a Bavarian brewing family who had settled in Smyrna, and established a brewery.
Young Alec grew up in a very affluent environment, with influences from Germany and Greece (he grew up speaking German and Greek), rather than Turkey and Britain. Issigonis showed little interest in things mechanical until he was well into his teens, not riding in a car until he was 14 years old, and was seemingly more interested in art, under the strong influence of his mother.
At the end of the Greek-Turkish war in 1922, British subjects in Smyrna were evacuated by the Royal Navy, ahead of the Turkish re-possession of the area from Greece, with many initially travelling to Malta. Tragically, Constantine Issigonis contracted a serious illness, and died in Malta in June 1923. Prior to his death, Alec and his mother travelled overland to London. Hulda Issigonis then returned to Malta, leaving sixteen year old Alec alone in London, returning only after Constantine had died.
Alec completed his education at an English boarding school, and in 1925, took a two month tour, by car, of Europe with his mother before returning to take a place at Battersea Polytechnic in south London, to study mechanical engineering. He failed his degree course but gained a diploma in Mechanical Engineering, at the third attempt, in 1928.
Given his disrupted education, unusual background and the tough economic times that were the late 1920s, finding a job was not easy, but in 1928, and by now a British citizen in his own right, Issigonis took his first job in the motor industry, for Edward Gillett in London, through a networking contact he had made at Battersea. Gillett was developing a freewheel device for use on cars, partly as a refinement and fuel economy device, and partly to reduce the need for double declutching gearchanges in the pre-synchromesh era.
Issigonis worked as a draughtsman and design engineer, and also in a sales and project engineer role, succeeding in securing Rover as a customer use the freewheel device on the new for 1933 Rover Ten (P1 series, above). Issigonis’ customer in this case was Maurice Wilks, later the man behind the Land Rover. Rover used the freewheel extensively, on cars and Land Rovers, into the 1960s. Chrysler also took a licence to manufacture the device, which was an integral part of their pioneering overdrive in 1934.
Humber were more interested in the sales engineer than his product, and Issigonis moved to Humber in 1933. Humber was the upscale brand of the Rootes Group, but also the name of the main car building company in the Group. Issigonis‘s first project was to design an independent suspension for Rootes’ highest volume car, the Hillman Minx. Later, he was working on an independent suspension for the larger Humber Hawk, with another rising star in the industry, Bill Heynes. Heynes later became Technical Director at Jaguar and was a personal friend of Issigonis for many years.
In 1936, Issigonis moved again, to the Morris Motor Company, as a project engineer on an independent front suspension system for the Morris 10, where his experience at Rootes would start to bear fruit. At this time, he was working for Maurice Olley.
Meanwhile from 1930, he raced a supercharged “Ulster” Austin Seven, and fitted it with an independent front suspension of his own design. Issigonis had some success at club racing level and in 1935 travelled with his lifelong friend George Dowson to the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring.
There he witnessed the awe inspiring (and Nazi funded) Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix cars, as well as the Alfa Romeo P3 of Nuvolari, which won the race, much to the Nazis’ discomfort. Issigonis and Dowson then travelled into Austria to the mountain climb competition at the then new Grossglockner Hochalpen Pass. Again, Issigonis was able to get close to some of the most impressive cars of the era, and take ideas and influences home.
By 1939, Issigonis had replaced his modified Austin Seven with a more radical car of his own design, constructed of plywood laminated in aluminium sheeting, in what we would now call a composite construction. The suspension was trailing arms at the front, attached to a steel cross-member, and a swing axle rear, all with rubber springs made of catapult elastic. This car was remarkably light, weighing less than 600lb. By the time the chassis had been completed, Issigonis had somehow got hold of an Austin supplied works specification supercharged side-valve engine as well. Most events he entered were sprints and hillclimbs, but he also competed in some circuit races.
Meanwhile, back at the office, Issigonis had devised an independent coil spring system for the first unitary construction Morris, the 1938 Ten, but which did not go into production as Morris, conservative as ever, chose a more conventional and cheaper beam axle solution. It was, though, used on the postwar MG Y Type saloons. By 1938, Issigonis was lead engineer for steering and suspension for all the Morris car range.
It was apparent to Morris’s senior managers that Issigonis was cut from a different cloth compared to his contemporaries. Morris’s chief engineer, A V (Vic) Oak, recognised that Issigonis’s greatest asset was his imagination but also noted that it needed to be guided firmly but carefully to bring out the best of it. Oak placed another engineer, Jack Daniels, alongside him to keep his feet on the ground. The relationship got to the point where Issigonis had the ideas, did the sketches and Daniels did the formal drawings.
During the war, Morris Motors undertook military work, notably the development of the Morris lightweight reconnaissance vehicle for the War Department. Issigonis was excused service in the armed forces and remained at Cowley working on military vehicles of various types, including a very basic compact load carrier often described as a motorised wheelbarrow intended for use in jungle conditions together with an amphibious version designed for use by the Royal Navy.
By 1941, Issigonis had started work on an advanced post war car, then codenamed Mosquito, which became the Morris Minor. The key point to the genesis of the Minor is that Issigonis owned the whole design, including the exterior style, the interior, which had some of the starkness and simple functionality familiar from Issigonis’s later designs. He also had plans for a flat four cylinder engine, and at frequently challenged convention and Morris Motors’ conservatism.
In 1942, the first scale model was produced and the following year work began on a hand-formed steel prototype. By 1945, a full scale static prototype close to the familiar production form was completed. The car was launched at the 1948 London Motor Show, alongside the Land Rover and Jaguar XK120, and the rest is pure CC history. I have labelled it the “Most Significant Car of the 1940s”; it is probably the most recognised British car, apart from the Mini, and the most fondly remembered car by many British families and motorists.
William Morris (Lord Nuffield) didn’t like it, naming it “the poached egg” and expressed no appreciation of it to Issigonis, until 1951 when 100,000 cars had been built. Vic Oak and Reginald Hanks, Morris’s Managing Director did though, arranging a 50% salary increase for Issigonis in April 1948, to £1500 per year. Issigonis had also been involved in the larger Oxford, Isis and Wolseley ranges.
The Minor was, of course, a huge success, for Nuffield and for Issigonis. The ease of driving it, attributable to Issigonis’s careful and thoughtful suspension and steering design, as well as the comparatively low weight of the car, were factors in that as well as the comfort and space it provided. It was as modern and progressive in 1948 as the ADO16 Morris 1100 was in 1962, and let down only by the relatively weak and old side valve engine.
Encouraged by the success of the Morris Minor, Issigonis continued his design work at Morris (including work on a replacement for the Minor with a transverse 4 cylinder engine with an end–on gearbox) until the merger with the Austin in 1952 to form BMC.
His last Morris projects were the 1953 Morris Oxford and Isis saloons, launched after the BMC merger, and which used the BMC B series engine. But fearful that his freedom would be curbed in such a large company, Issigonis resigned from BMC and went to work for the much smaller Alvis company. He title at Alvis was “Engineer in charge of passenger car design”
Alvis had a strong military business building armoured cars and personnel carriers, and this part of the business is still going strong as part of BAE Systems. It was also a specialist low volume producer of expensive, exclusive sports saloons – cars not now associated with Issigonis – and was at the same crossroads that so many smaller, upscale producers had been. Did they aim to build in greater volume, to compete with emerging brands such as Jaguar, or did they retreat further upmarket or even entirely into other activities?
At Alvis, Issigonis’s main task was to lead the development of a more affordable, higher volume luxury car. This was to be an advanced saloon with all aluminium V-8 engine, and the original plan was for Alvis to produce 5,000 cars a year, or ten times Alvis’s current production rate, to compete with Riley (not then a badge engineered BMC product), Rover, Sunbeam-Talbot and Jaguar. It was a very ambitious intention, which Alvis were not capable of delivering on without importing a lot of engineering talent.
It was at Alvis that Issigonis first worked with another of the influential characters of his career. Professor Alex Moulton. Moulton was a scion of the family behind the Avon tyres company and a respected suspension system engineer in his own right who had worked extensively on the concept of rubber as a suspension medium, before working on the hydrolastic and later still the hydragas systems.
Issigonis was to use Moulton’s suspension ideas on all his future cars, with Moulton working in a consultancy capacity to BMC. Moulton also designed folding, rubber suspended small-wheeled bicycles.
Issigonis designed a unitary construction saloon and the V8 engine, and utilised Moulton’s latest interconnected rubber suspension. The car, as developed in a prototype form, showed potential as well as technical ambition – the car’s unitary construction made it relatively light and strong, it offered 6 seats, had a rear mounted transaxle, including the clutch, inboard rear brakes, long wheelbase configuration so typical of Issigonis and a modern, sophisticated 3.5 litre V8 engine. It was more like a Lancia or a rear drive Citroen than a Rover or a Sunbeam-Talbot. Probably the closest British comparison is the Jaguar Mk 1 which came out in 1955 and was produced at a rate of around 10-15,000 for thirteen years.
Intriguingly, it seems that the car was possibly designed to be suitable for a front wheel drive layout, with a flat floor and compact Moulton rubber cone suspension, leaving a large and spacious engine bay. Issigonis planned two versions, known as the TA/350 with a 3.5 litre V8 and TA/175 with a 1750cc, V4 engine.
Style wise, the car has been identified as having a visual similarity to Lancia Aurelia the 1950-58 Lancia Aurelia saloon, with some Morris Oxford overtones and a traditional Alvis style grille added.
This undated sketch by Issigonis shows some of this.
Ultimately, Alvis had to cancel the project, after the first prototype had been built but before the company had committed to the expenditure of production tooling. This was partly because of the cost but also because in 1953 Ford bought Briggs’ UK operations and 1954 BMC bought Fisher & Ludlow. Alvis’s options for body shell production were being reduced, at the same as the estimated costs of the body manufacture doubled.
When Alvis cancelled the project, Issigonis was invited by BMC Chairman Sir Leonard Lord to return to BMC at Longbridge, as Chief Body and Chassis engineer, and reporting to BMC Technical Director Sydney Smith. Issigonis quickly arranged for Jack Daniels to move up from Cowley to Longbridge to rebuild their close rapport. Daniels effectively resumed his position as Issigonis’s right hand man for the next ten years or more, guiding the interpretation of Issigonis’s requests to the workshops, draughtsmen, production engineers and accountants.
Issgonis preferred to work by sketching his ideas onto Arclight pads, each numbered in sequence and retained, and then having Daniels, looking after chassis elements, or another close confidant John Sheppard, looking after the body shell itself, work to turn these in physical reality. LJK Setright, in his book The Designers describes Issigonis as “working as a sculptor works, moving masses into different juxtapositions until his trained eye told him they were right”. Looking at the Minor or the Mini, I can believe that.
Daniels (right) and Sheppard (left), no doubt, had to smooth a few ruffled feathers on the way. Issigonis had a reputation, deserved by all accounts, for arrogance and irascibility, an inability to suffer fools at all, and restricted his contact to as a small as a group as he could. For many years he was known informally as Arragonis, and was either sufficiently confident in himself or sufficiently lacking in understanding to use that name himself on occasions. He was also referred to as the Greek God, perhaps more openly. But beneath this surface, he was a sensitive and more vulnerable person, and was almost certainly (and inexcusably) the subject of some intolerance and prejudice from the UK born staff.
Lord (later Lord Lambury, above) had big ambitions for BMC and initially tasked Issigonis with developing the basis for a range of modern family cars to replace the existing collection of BMC products. Lord was looking for modernity, but he was also looking for commonality of engines, good quality design and cars good enough to be amongst the best in their class and internationally competitive.
”One thing that I learnt the hard way – well not the hard way, the easy way – when you’re designing a new car for production, never, never copy the opposition,” declared Issigonis, when asked to summarise his approach to car design. By the mid 1950s, as Europe got back on its feet after the war, there had been many attempts to define the modern car, but none was proving to be dominantly successful.
BMC had internally identified the need to move on from the concepts behind the Minor and A30, leaving behind the classic front engine, semi-elliptic spring concept but there was little clarity on which direction was perceived to be the way to go. Was it to be front or rear engined? If it was front engined, was it to be rear wheel or front wheel drive? Where was the gearbox to be fitted on a front wheel drive car? Was it to be water or air cooled? BMC had already developed, and asked outside consultants to develop, several concepts on various themes, none of which met the targets Lord had set, who was also determined to establish an internal capability to think, as we would now say, “outside the box”. This is the main reason Lord re-hired Issigonis. He did not want more conventional answers, without at least exploring some technical advances.
The original plan called for a large family car by 1960, to be followed by a smaller car and then a city car. Issigonis’ first concepts were rear wheel drive, with a conventional drive train, fully independent suspension set on a long wheelbase with short overhangs and very rudimentary styling. In many ways, this car was a clear, but simpler, derivative of the work Issigonis had been doing at Alvis, and Issigonis recruited some former colleagues from Alvis to BMC to develop V6 and V4 engines for the projected BMC cars, possibly using the aborted work at Alvis as a basis.
In conjunction with Issigonis’ work, Lord contracted Pininfarina to lead the styling of BMC’s new cars, starting with the conventionally engineered Austin A40 Farina in 1958. Issigonis (just in view at the far right) was not involved in the engineering of this car, but was able to start a long term friendship with Battista and Sergio Pininfarina, seen standing next the car with Leonard Lord and George Harriman.
But, as ever, events intervened – in this case the Suez Crisis of 1956, complete with petrol rationing. BMC made cuts of 6,000 in the labour force almost overnight and without consultation, whilst Lord noted the sales of the imported European bubble cars. In March 1957 Lord asked (more likely told, as Lord did not do “asking”) Issigonis to come up with something to compete with them.
Lord’s instruction was the one Issigonis had been waiting for, and he quickly developed the first Mini prototype. By placing an A series four cylinder engine transversely with the gearbox underneath in the sump and sharing the oil, and moving the wheels to the corners, he saved so much space that it was possible to accommodate a four seat car within a length of 10 feet.
Striving to ensure that as much space as possible was allocated to the passengers, Issigonis used Moulton’s compact rubber suspension and had Dunlop build 10 inch wheels and tyres just for the Mini purely for reasons of space efficiency.
By October 1957, Issigonis had shown Lord a working prototype and the decision had been made to manufacture the car, using the existing BMC A series engine.
By October 1959, the Mini was on sale and when the press first got their hands on BMC’s new car, they were not shy to praise it; the Mini’s unique personality, exceptional space efficiency, lively performance and tenacious front-wheel-drive handling meant that it was a sure fire hit with the critics. It confronted the conservative image of BMC head on, even if the rest of BMC range didn’t. Even more significantly, it effectively defined the configuration of the small and medium car for the next 50 years. It was still in production when BMW, led by Bernd Pischetsreider, bought Rover in 1994. Production only finished after BMW had bailed out of Rover in 2000.
The first car to repeat the concept of the Mini was the ADO16, which is often considered to be Issigonis’s finest hour. When he turned his attention to the ADO16, Issigonis continued his obsession with the maximisation of passenger space combined with the best possible road holding. This car basically took the Mini concept and enlarged it by 20%, adding some experience, and ambition, at the same time.
It did not have everything Issigonis wanted, as he originally planned this car to have a V4 engine rather than the BMC A series. Styled by Pininfarina, it was launched as the Morris 1100 in 1962, and a year later as the Austin 1100, and the clean, classical lines of the car served BMC well. The 1100 and later 1300 outsold the Mini by a considerable margin and remained Britain’s best-selling car right through the 1960s.
By 1964, BMC had built over one million front wheel drive vehicles, including over 800,000 Minis and over 200,000 ADO16s, and over a third were exported. BMC was producing over 11,000 Issigonis-designed front-wheel-drive models a week, with demand still exceeding production, which was continually increased.
In August 1971, Issigonis drove the 2 millionth ADO16 off the line, as the same time as a Mini Clubman, which was the 5 millionth front wheel drive BMC car, came off the line in the next building.
The third front wheel drive car from BMC was the 1964 ADO17 Austin 1800 (or Landcrab), a car which Issigonis has been quoted as identifying as the design he was most proud of, and then the Austin Maxi in 1969 with less successful results. There were, as CC has seen, many and varied reasons for the failure of the Landcrab and Maxi: the control (or rather the lack of it) exercised by Lord and Harriman over Issigonis; the inherited components; and marketing and production issues.
But this also reflects Issigonis’s personal characteristics – he was a strong minded, stubborn and arrogant man who did did not always have a lot of respect for others’ opinions and suggestions. Issigonis was dismissive of market research, –“The public don’t know what they want; it’s my job to tell them” – and even mathematics, derided as “the enemy of every truly creative man”.
This strong streak of fierce independence and lack of compromise hid his lateral approach to the design and engineering of cars. His iconoclasm ensured that, despite the constraints of working in an industry where the size and complexity of the process meant that even the most forceful of designers was only one member of a large team, Issigonis’ cars bore his own stamp – from the 1948 Morris Minor to the 1969 Maxi. Issigonis did observe and try to improve on what he saw, but always challenged himself to be original and better. He would attend the usual motor shows, but often would refuse to look in detail at the competition, so he did not “become confused”. He was flattered to be copied, though.
The Mini, and the other Issigonis BMC front wheel drive cars, benefited from Issigonis’ continuing collaboration with Alex Moulton and his suspension system developments. The car’s design with its front wheel drive and independent suspension provided good road handling, but Issigonis had scant regard for passenger comfort. He despised such “luxuries” as radios and comfortable seats, once stating “I would like people to sit on nails – to be extremely uncomfortable all the time.” and declaring that “an uncomfortable driver is an alert driver”. He was reluctant to consider features such as large boots or hatchbacks, or engine access, as important. Engine access on the Mini was very awkward, and this was only improved on the ADO16 because Jack Daniels was able to keep Issigonis away from the detail work, which was largely done at Cowley in Oxford rather than Longbridge.
Issigonis continued to work as Engineering Director at the Austin-Morris Division of BMC, and as Technical Director of BMC in 1965. He was appointed to this post by Lord’s successor, Sir George Harriman, who was even more in awe of him than Lord was, but also was even more unable to control and guide Issigonis. .
It is arguably doubtful that Lord, knowing Issigonis better, would have seen him as the ideal candidate for the overall technical leadership of BMC. Certainly, it was not the right job for him, taking him too far away from the sketching and ideas, and into meetings about pay scale reviews and marketing policies. He often had to be discreetly talked through financial documents when he was in the board meetings.
In 1968, he was appointed as Director of Advanced Research of the newly formed British Leyland, and Harry Webster from Triumph became BLMC’s Engineering Director. Issigonis was probably privately satisfied with that arrangement, as it took him away from the daily grind of corporate management and designing production ready cars and back into the more conceptual field where he had the opportunity to use his innovative skills – the kind of role Leonard Lord had originally given him twelve years earlier and which led to the Mini and the ADO16. The change was not handled well though, with credible accounts of a literally tearful Issigonis wandering around Longbridge trying to find a new office after returning from abroad to find Webster occupying his office.
In November 1971, Issigonis officially retired from BLMC, with a major ceremony at Longbridge, for which BL marshalled an example of every car for which he had led the design, of which only the Minor was no longer in production. His retirement gift from the company was the largest available Meccano set, complete with a steam engine. Issigonis made a grandfather clock from it, which kept good time.
When he officially retired from BLMC in November 1971, Issigonis was retained by BLMC on an exclusive consultancy agreement, signed off by and reporting to the Chairman, Donald Stokes. His efforts were concentrated on two things – continuing to promote the 1968 9X concept to BLMC, and working on the concept of a gearless version of the Mini, using a torque converter, that was not a technical success.
The concept of the transverse engine and gearbox combined with FWD, which had previously been used only with two-cylinder two-stroke engines by DKW (since the 1920s), Lloyd and Saab, was adapted by Issigonis for the four cylinder A-block engine for the Mini. It has since proved to be the template for the small car for nearly 60 years – it has still not been bettered and was followed as early as 1963 by the Autobianchi Primula, which had the first end on gearbox on its transverse engine, by the 1965 Peugeot 204 with a configuration closer to the ADO16 but larger, and 1967 by the Simca 1100, the first to combine an end on gearbox and a hatchback. Arguably, Issigonis and BL were in danger of being left behind. The first front wheel drive car from BL after Issigonis’s retirement was the Austin Allegro, still with the gearbox in the sump and without the obvious hatchback.
By 1969 Fiat had also followed with the 128, and by 1974 Peugeot, VW and Renault had transverse engine hatchbacks as well. From then onwards, any car in the small or medium market without a transverse engine was considered unusual, and conservative. No wonder Issigonis felt flattered – “I feel very, very proud that so many people have copied me.”
Beyond the Maxi, launched on 1969, Issigonis had left little visible influence on the new cars coming from British Leyland, and indeed, the company made definite moves that would have been unthinkable to him, such as the bold, deliberately contemporary styling of the Austin-Morris 18-22 (Princess range) or the Allegro, or the conservative engineering of the Morris Marina. Issigonis had no input to the Marina (other than it using substantial elements from the Morris Minor of course) or the Allegro, as BMC had passed a thin very development programme to Leyland in 1968, largely due to financial pressures. Issigonis never had any input into MG sports cars or the large, rear drive saloons BMC were still building the late 1960s, and the Austin 3 Litre, based on Issigonis’s Austin 1800 was driven by George Harriman. You could, however, discern Issigonis’s influence on some of BMC’s light commercials, especially the underfloor engined JU and walk through EA vans of the late 1960s.
By the mid 1970s, Issigonis was beginning suffer from Meniere’s disease, and the consequent loss of full control of his balance let him to retreat from prominence. He still worked to his consultancy agreement but did so almost exclusively from home, briefing and debriefing nominated BL engineers each morning. He was involved in engine design as well, requesting unsuccessfully that BL build 4 and 6 cylinder engines for Mini variants. But his true interest was in the 9X and its power unit, and getting a version of it accepted by BL. He persisted in this into the 1980s, competing in vain against the Austin Metro, an improved version of the BMC A series engine and seemingly oblivious to the Company’s financial state.
The end of the agreement came in 1986, when Issigonis wrote directly to Graham Day, BL’s then new Chairman. He pressed the case, again, for the gearless 9X, complained about electronics in cars, designers using CAD systems and not slide rules, and changes in the model designations of the existing Mini. Day terminated the consultancy agreement, without any more consultation. More importantly, the end of the agreement also marked the end of goodwill payments from the Company that covered his nursing care, and he was forced to move from his home to a smaller flat. He died in October 1988, aged 82.
Issigonis’s legacy is undoubtedly best seen through his cars, from the Minor to the Maxi, which challenged conventions through engineering ingenuity. He showed that cars could be practical and pleasant to ride in and drive, and that size was not everything; he defined the template for the small petrol engined car for 50 years, maybe longer, and showed how modest cars could become “wish list” items, attracting customer such as Enzo Ferrari.
The image his cars achieved for BMC was arguably a factor in the survival of the company in the market place, and BMC used his personality extensively in advertising which you can imagine Issigonis publicly hating but privately loving.
The inability of these cars to withstand business case scrutiny crucial in the company’s decline, and others must also stand up for that -Issigonis didn’t claim to be a product planner in the sense Ford would recognise but saw all his cars as separate entities. His inability to accept guidance (stubbornness may be a better term) also led to some misjudged products – the Maxi comes to mind – but perhaps the purity of his predominantly engineering solution with poor execution in the areas Issigonis didn’t or wouldn’t appreciate (looks, practicality, ergonomics, product revisions, marketing) was also overlooked by too many within BMC.
Issigonis never married; most accounts suggest that he was probably gay but he was obviously unable to express himself without huge risk to his professional status and even the risk of prosecution.
He lived with his mother to whom he was devoted, until her death in 1972, latterly in Edgbaston in Birmingham, in a large bungalow, divided into two wings. On his side, Issigonis built a large model railway in the double garage that ran out through the walls and around the garden.
He was able to share his engineering and automotive interests, through frequent tours of Longbridge in the 1960s, with a first cousin once removed on his mother’s side of his family, who later completed a mechanical engineering degree and followed a career in the motor industry.
His name? Dr.Ing. Bernd Peter Pischetsrieder.
* Commander of the British Empire (1964), Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (1967), Royal Designer for Industry (1964). Issigonis was knighted in 1968
Issigonis’ cars at CC by Roger Carr:
1955 Morris Minor: Britain’s Favorite Car Bar None, And Rightly So
Austin Seven (Mini): The Future Started Here
MG 1100 (BMC ADO16): BMC’s Greatest Hit
Austin 1800 (ADO18 “Landcrab”): Best In Class Or Just Plain Ugly?
What a great write up Roger. A truly fascinating man he was. When I was in grade school in the mid-70s, the next door neighbor of my best friend had 6 Mini’s. I have liked them ever since. And I myself have engineered a few things with the help of Jack Daniels 🙂
Thank you very much for a wonderful biography. Sir Alec was a combination of everything that was right AND wrong about the British car industry in his day. An amazing man, and someone who would probably never rise to prominence in today’s auto industry. Unless it was at some very small, unique company; something like TVR comes to mind.
In 1961, a shipload of Mini’s suffered mild water damage on their journey to the east coast of US. It amounted to no more than surface rust on the chassis.
I was eight when my dad bought one of those brand new cars at a reduced price from the NYC dealer — $850 for an Austin 850 ($6,800 in 2016 money) —
‘Cylcops’ center guage; ‘magic wand’ shift-lever; and bus-sized steering wheel.
It had one option — an AM radio, hung below the dash.
Although primarily a ‘station car,’ my parents also took it on a vacation through New England. I’ve often wondered how its 35 horses managed the Berkshires ……
They kept it several years until they decided they needed their 1st air-conditioned car … a ’66 LeMans.
Been a fan of Alec Issigonis since I was 8 years old.
Great summary of a giant of industrial design. I am well acquainted with the brilliant/stubborn/arrogant type of engineer, I have occasionally served as a Daniels, and my own brilliant/stubborn/arrogant Grandfather could have probably used one too.
Unfortunately I didn’t turn out quite as brilliant, but I like to think I missed out some of the stubbornness/arrogance as well. Subsequently my main triumph of design is a carbon block conveyor that fit into an oddly shaped spot while using less pieces of steel than its predecessor. Probably 30 of these made over the past dozen years, not quite Mini production numbers..
Another excellent piece Roger, and thank you for bringing it to us. Issigonis was a remarkable engineer and obviously made his mark. The first car I could identify was apparently a Mini and my mother still tells the story of an early trip to England where I wouldn’t be quiet “Ein Mini! Noch ein Mini! Noch ein Mini! Noch ein Mini” (A Mini! Another Mini! Another Mini! Another Mini!). This would have been in the early ’70’s when they were literally everywhere.
We now call them ‘Real Minis’, to distinguish them from the post 2001 imitations. Brilliant cars!
Thanks for this terrific bio on one of the all-time greats in the field. BMC’s “Great Leap Forward” was a bold move, unfortunately marred by the inability to check Issigonis’ tendencies that often put the buyer last instead of first. But it was an exciting period, and you’ve captured his personality and lasting impact well.
I fist saw a Mini on my way to middle school in 1965. It was one of the first days of the new school year early September and I was walking up the sidewalk and turning the corner to head for the campus. There was a long drive way that ran along the school cafeteria that parents used to drop off students in the morning. I saw this tiny car among the Buicks Oldsmobiles Mercury’s and Chevrolet Impalas that were the usual fare. I was mesmerized and I saw my schoolmate being dropped off by his older brother who was on his way to high school. I caught up to my mate and I said “that’s a really cool car, what is it?” That’s my Brother’s”Mini Cooper”. That name was now engraved in my mind and as I got older I was drawn to LBCs (Little British Cars.) I do not know how many I have owned Morrises, Austins and MGs. Morris Minor 1000s , Dropheads, Travelers , Panel Van, and Pick up trucks. Austin Healey Sprites , 3000s Austin Americas, MG Midget, MGAs MGBs Mg 1100s I had many of each model. So Sir Alec Issigonis had an impact on my life. I hope he knew that he changed the Automobile World for the better.
…. meantime, John preferred his psychedelic Rolls …..
Roger, hats off for this excellent treatment of an engineering legend. It is really amazing, when you think of it, that some 60 years later his basic vision rolls off of assembly lines all over the world. A testament to brilliant design or to the modern industry’s tendencies towards aversion of risk, I won’t say – surely some of both.
What a great, nicely balanced piece about the ever-controversial Sir Alec, and his equally controversial designs. A flawed genius, yes, and BMC’s failure to manage him is clear.
But back in the day, young UK petrolheads had the time of our lives with Minis, modified in countless ways, rocketing around on twisty English roads, and in weekend motorsports. Despite its stated mission being to provide basic transport, this level of driving enjoyment, and capability, was like a non stop Christmas present. It didn’t just raise the bar – it kicked it into next week !
The ways in which things went sour for BMC , and for Alec himself, are all too well known: but with this little car, they surely both earned a big place in history.
Are you sure Renault had transverse-engine hatchbacks by 1974? I’m sure the Renault 4, 5, 6, and 16 had longitudinal engines.
He didn’t say “by 1974” in regard to VW and Renault.
To clarify, the Renault 4, 5 (first generation, Le Car), 6 and 16 all had longitudinally mounted engines.
The Renault 14 was transversely engined, from 1976.
Great article – there should be a movie about Issigonis!
Fascinating piece and what a character! While much derided for it’s lack of style, I do love the huge smile he put on the front of the original 1800 Landcrab.
Never thought of it as a smile! 🙂
The Minor, Mini, ADO16 and Landcrab all had character, and were all “friendly” cars. I’m sure this was never part of Issigonis’s plan, as he was anti-style, but only the 1100 benefited from external help. (The Maxi, by comparison, was a bland lump.)
“Friendly” was ideal for owner-buyers, a large part of the British car buying public, but never appealed to thrusting young execs and salesmen, which is why BLMC was so desperate for the Marina to crack the fleet market.
I thought I knew everything about Issigonis already, but there were some fascinating insights here. Not sure how true it is, but I read somewhere that he even designed the ashtrays for the Minor.
I hardly ever drove a Mini or an 1100, but many miles of driving a Landcrab made me understand why it was so very good, in spite of some engineering shortcuts. The problem was that I would never have initially chosen to drive one. On the surface it didn’t appear very desirable to Me, or to prospective new-car buyers. Issigonis was giving punters what they needed, rather than what they wanted.
Excellent Roger, just excellent.
Fantastic work, Roger!
Excellent article. I have heard some slander about his idea of putting the gearbox in the engine sump, but otherwise, he changed transportation for the masses on a scale not seen since Henry Ford. The irony being, of all the cars built in the world that follow his layout, none carry an Austin or Morris badge.
While the intention was for the space efficient FWD cars to replace much of the existing overlapping BMC range (that all should have been hatchbacks in retrospect), it would have been interesting to see a rear-wheel drive Cortina rival with fully-independent suspension derived from Issigonis’s work at Alvis to slot between the 1100/1300 and 1800/2200.
Absolutely brilliant article about an engineering genius.
Nice to see that blue Morris Oxford – just the same as our first car that I remember. I don’t remember Dad as being what you’d call a sporting driver, but he never considered the later Austin-based Oxfords. Maybe because they’d lost the Issigonis chassis manners?
I don’t have any great memories of the Mini to share, though you saw them everywhere. Here in Australia they didn’t seem particularly small, but they were certainly a lot more roomy than the competition.
My appreciation of Issigonis’ designs really came when Auntie Merle traded her Austin A30 (horrible car) for a Morris 1100. I was amazed at the amount of space in that car – you could even hide things in the cubbyhole under the rear seat. It really showed up typical RWD cars of the time as being great space-wasters. If only it had had more power and better gearing. And the 1800 – the rear seat really seemed limousine-like for the size of the car.
Your article sure did him justice; thank you, Roger.
Morris 1100. I was amazed at the amount of space in that car – you could even hide things in the cubbyhole under the rear seat. It really showed up typical RWD cars of the time as being great space-wasters. If only it had had more power and better gearing.
I saw one, in 79 or 80, sold here as the MG “Sports Sedan”. I remember being quite put off by the sound of the engine seemingly racing to maintain 45mph. Sticks in my mind I read a road test that put engine speed at 60 around 4,000rpm
Found an ad for the US market 1100. Nearly $1900 was pretty stiff pricing for a car that size in the mid 60s, $150 more than a Bug.
Matchbox featured an MG 1100 in its 1-75 line-up for many years. That is how many of us know about these cars – or about many 1960s British cars, in general.
Sounds like his stubbornness had a lot in common with Henry Ford and his reluctance to move on from the Model T.
Imagine trying to take him seriously when he declared “an uncomfortable driver is an alert driver”. How about “an uncomfortable driver is a distracted driver”?
I wonder if he was to blame for the Mini never having a hatchback, or a more softly suspended version?
It did get Hydrolastic eventually, then lose it again.
Sounds like his stubbornness had a lot in common with Henry Ford and his reluctance to move on from the Model T.
His stubbornness, I would say, had more in common with Ford starting production of the T, when everyone was telling him to make expensive cars because they were more profitable. Ford clinging to the T too long was the same sort of corporate inertia that had VW clinging to the Bug too long. Apparently Walter Chrysler could also be difficult to work with. Maybe it takes that sort of single-mindedness, bordering on obsession, to create something different, get it into production in spite of obstacles and naysayers, and make it a success.
I wonder if he was to blame for the Mini never having a hatchback, or a more softly suspended version?
At the time of his retirement, 71, hatchbacks were not the thing they were 4 years later. I remember seeing early Civics with trunks and the early VW Dasher had a trunk, in spite of it’s fastback bodywork. Giving the Mini, ADO16 and ADO17 were all designed well before hatchbacks were popular, the beancounters no doubt would be up in arms at the thought of spending more money on tooling for an already old design.
Harris Mann, having a clean sheet, not giving the Allegro or Princess a hatch in the mid 70s is another matter.
Unfortunately the ADO16 did not do well in the U.S. as the Austin America, which was imported here in an attempt to eat some of VW’s lunch in the late 1960s.
An advanced 4-speed fully automatic transmission was offered in these that lived in the sump and shared the engine oil, just like the manual gearbox. The typical American indifference to regular maintenance did not play well with this setup. Many did not even make it through the warranty period without the transmission self-destructing. The cars quickly found their way to the scrapheap since the cost of repairing the automatic transmission typically was more than the car was worth. (I can remember seeing Austin Americas just a few years old being offered up for $50.) Then of course there was severe corrosion in the face of road salt.
So in here in the U.S. the ADO16 went down in obscurity, while its far less sophisticated but more reliable competition built by the Axis powers took over the small car market.
The “Axis Powers”? This isn’t 1942.
On a cheerier note, I’d love to see that Alvin on the flesh.
People over the road from us had a Wolseley Six (top of the range Landcrab) when we were kids. Plenty of space and comfort in the back, as I recall, but my father’s Rover P6 was much more stylish.
“This isn’t 1942.”
I love the comment made by ‘Red’ Foreman on ‘That 70s Show’ when asked about the Toyota Corolla he had recently purchased due to the gas crisis:
Bob: “Red, a Toyota?”
Red: “Yeah, it’s mine. I tell you the last time I was that close to a Japanese machine, it was shooting at me.”
Unfortunately the ADO16 did not do well in the U.S. as the Austin America, which was imported here in an attempt to eat some of VW’s lunch in the late 1960s.
I saw about 3 Americas in the wild that I can remember, and 1 example of the earlier MG 1100 “Sport Sedan”. The last sighting was of a 71 America, in 81, and looking very well cared for. I saw that same car several times, so, at least in nice weather, it apparently was a daily driver.
Road & Track‘s test of the Austin America included the line, “Superb four-speed fully automatic transmission makes more difference than you’d believe possible.” But they also noted that with just a few thousand miles on their test car, there was some issue (I forget what) with the trunk lock, and the outside of the engine was covered with oily black grime.
At some point in the mid-60s they ran an “After the New Wears Off” feature by an MG 1100 owner in Los Angeles. He said the engine was turning 4500 rpm at 68 mph and commented, “This seems fast enough for an obsolete three-bearing long-stroke engine.”
Digging up the articles is left as an exercise for the student. 🙂
You’re right about maintenance. The gearbox sharing the sump oil worked ok, but the transmission absolutely pulverised the lubricating qualities out of the oil, and it really required changing every 3000 miles if you wanted the thing to last. Manual transmissions seemed to hold up ok,lasting at least as long as the engine.
Riveting stuff, Roger!
That Alvis is one of those missed opportunities that ultimately doomed the company. Getting a guy like Issigonis to design a V8 saloon and just chucking it in the bin…
I’ve never been inside a Landcrab or a Maxi, but I understand that while they are very spacious, the ergonomics are pretty poor. Another thing Sir Alec did not think was important perhaps?
Having been a passenger in an early Austin Landcrab on several occasions I can confirm they are amazingly spacious inside, front and rear. The floor is flat and low to the ground and windows all round make it seem very airy. The big steering wheel’s angle was a bit bus-like though.
Great article, thanx .
As a Morris Minor owner I appreciated it .
I remember the Austin America when new, not an impressive car to me in any way .
Great write about a very clever guy, but he was wrong an uncomfortable driver is an irritable driver who fatigues rather more quickly, The Landcrab while being comfortable to ride in as a passenger is not so nice to drive nor are the smaller cars from BMC, there are many surviving ADO16s here and NZ is still the Morris Minor capital of the world they will never become rare here and for that matter neither will real Minis but 1800s and Maxis are quite thin on the ground already yet were popular new they werent very durable though, and the last Princess Ive seen is a rusty example outside the British car museum at Te Awanga, Personally having driven all his ideas the Morris Minor was his best one that saw production, I got my first car licence in a Morry Thou.
As a matter of interest, go to this site:
and click on the “Letter From Dr. Alex Moulton” link.
A very enjoyable read on a man whose name I knew in conjunction with so many brilliant designs, but who I previously knew little about. Thanks for a wonderfully researched article!
Comments about the bus-like steering wheel angle remind me of what I learned about that subject from my Italian cars (Fiats): the relatively horizontal wheel requires/enables the driver to push forward, rather than up, to make a turn — a difference that makes better use of the arm, translating to easier and less tiring driving. Not something one would anticipate until it is experienced. In a front-wheel-drive car, with more understeer and/or a bit more resistance at the wheel, this effect might be enhanced ?
Speaking of steering, one of the earlier reviews of the Mini contained the sentence, “This is the first car I’ve driven that caused me to laugh out loud just going around a corner !” Or words to that effect . . .
Thanks for the great article. I had a book about Issigonis, but it’s lost. One tidbit I recall: when the Morris Minor design was almost finished — the book showed the designer holding a brass model of the car — it was decided to add a few inches of width at the centerline. I think you can see a narrower car in one of the pre-production photos, above.
What a great. Comprehensive article.
It interested me as I had the honour of working with sir Alec for around 3 months.
It was the highlight of my career and came early as I was just 18 years old and just an apprentice engineer for a tractor company.
They paid him to design a tractor safety cab after their own designers had 3 attempts and we built 3 failures.
Sir Alecs design which we built won the design centre award.
I got to drive his Red mini when I went for fish and chips on a Friday. There was no radio fitted as he thought it would distract the driver.
He also took his lunch with the workers in the local pub and travelled to this in our Bedford crew bus with wooden bench seats. Shunning all offers of silver service with the management.
A truly great man and an honour for me
Issigonis was a good packaging designer. He took advantage of other peoples’ suspension designs, Moulton’s rubber cones and the isolastic, as they freed up more space. The gearbox in sump was a dead end in terms of automotive design. He didn’t give a damn about the poor sods who had to work on his cars. When we stopped sending children up chimneys we reemployed them to work or minis.
His little cars were a success despite him. The original Minor design was so narrow they had to chop it lengthways and widen it. The mini leaked like a sieve because of the way he’d designed the sills and had to be redesigned. The 1100 benefited from someone else’s external design. The Landcrab and Maxi were so butt ugly that no self respecting petrolhead would be seen it one. BL were in thrall of the myth they’d created, but the buying public had much more sense.
This was the man who persisted in pursuing a gearless car using only a torque converter, who rubbished CAD in favour of slide rules, who did most of his designs in rough and passed them to his acolytes to make real. He was impossible to work with, had Henry Ford’s arrogance and nearly bankrupted the company like Ford, by refusing to listen to anyone. A deeply flawed genius at best.
It’s entirely believable that Issigonis would have been prosecuted if he’d had gay sex. Look what happened to Alan Turing.
Indeed – gay sex was illegal in the UK until 1968 and for many years after prejudice was rife.
If (and I have no evidence and make no suggestions) a young Issigonis had been “outed” in, say, the early 1950s, his career progression would likely have been ended even, without any prosecution.
Roger, are you saying that Graham Day ended the consultancy and goodwill payments because he was offended by Issigonis’s letter? If so, that would seem vindictive on Day’s part.
I wouldn’t say Day was offended but took it as evidence that Issigonis’s time has passed and that the value Rover were getting from the consultancy was minimal, and it was effectively indulging Issigonis, something Turnbull and Donald Stokes could afford t0 do (and knew looked rational) in 1970.
But accounts do suggest it done in a pretty crass way.
As a person who’s worked as a CAD drafter for 24 years, I wonder what his objection to CAD was.
Back in 1980 a friend’s father of mine who was a MP sergeant owned a then new Mini Cooper 1275 cc. Yes, it ran like hell – when operable – as the owner treated it like an Army Jeep. I witnessed blowing head gaskets, torn manifold studs and much more and found out that taking the engine out first was the quickest access for any of these repairs!
A colleague of his had a VW Polo then and kept shaking his head: Well, yes, if there were no other compact cars in the world …
Mr. Roger Carr, Thank you.
My sister had an MG 1100 which blew me away in 1970…. as an American familiar only with U.S. cars. I wanted to know the genesis.
This post and its visuals and videos explains this pivotal vector of the international industry with such clarity and depth. You serve us all wonderfully. I appreciate the research the depth and the smooth writing style to present it all in a gripping way.