Alec Issisonis: The Man Who Invented The Mini
The days are now gone when the inspiration, let alone the design effort behind an individual car can be ascribed to one man. The Chapmans, Herbert Austins, W.O. Bentleys and the Healeys of today are now cut down to anonymity in the motor car world where the financial safety of the manufacturer must be the prime consideration. Alec Issigonis must rank among the greatest of all innovators being responsible for not one but two ‘landmark’ motor cars and with ideas enough for more.
Alec Issigonis was born in Smyrna (now Izmir) in 1906 as a British subject, with a German mother and in line to inherit the family business. When Germany occupied his homeland during the First World War, young Alec lived under house arrest while the Germans commissioned his grandfather’s factory. After the war, his family was forced to flee and abandon all they had as Greece and Turkey fought one of their periodic wars over possession of disputed territory. At 15, Issigonis arrived in England and attended Battersea Technical College where he gained a grounding in basic engineering in spite of a glaring and self-confessed weakness in maths.
In 1928, he began work in a London drawing office draughting a design for an automatic clutch. Humber showed an interest in the clutch but in the end rejected it and ‘head hunted’ Issigonis instead. In 1936, Issigonis made the significant move to Morris at Cowley, his pre-Second World War work there culminating in his design for the MG YA front suspension which was not actually put into use until after the cessation of hostilities but which was good enough to find favour with a line of cars including the MGA and then, in refined form, the MGB.
After spending the war years allowing his fertile mind to range over a wide variety of military vehicle applications, Issigonis’ first moments of wide acclaim came with his design for the new small Morris, the post-war Morris Minor. In its way, the Minor was a revolutionary car: it was the first small British car to be equipped with independent torsion-bar front suspension, it was fitted with wheels that were considered daringly small for the time and its cornering was nothing short of sensational when compared with that of its contemporaries. Unfortunately, the Minor’s engine and gearbox failed to match the performance potential of the rest of the car until the Austin Morris merger into the British Motor Corporation in November 1951 made the cross-fertilisation of an Austin engine into the Morris Minor a possibility. (Although most would agree that the A-series engine still left the Minor underpowered, until it was enlarged to 948cc in 1956.) Issigonis had fitted the side-valve pre-war Morris 8 engine from Hobson’s choice, although he had produced exciting plans for an all-new flat four engine for the Minor that Morris simply couldn’t afford to develop.
However, during 1951/52, Issigonis produced an experimental front-wheel-drive Minor with engine, clutch and gearbox transversely all in a line and a final drive beneath. Issigonis never drove the prototype but it was completed and used as an everyday car by Jack Daniels, one of the Minor development team. Daniels was later to claim that this prototype Minor played a key role in the conception of the Mini because not only was its handling outstandingly good but also, so the story goes, it was parked outside Leonard Lord’s office window every day!
Shortly after the BMC merger, Issigonis moved temporarily away from BMC and joined Alvis where he designed a sports saloon with almost frightening specification. It was to be capable of over 110mph and boasted a 3.5-litre V8 engine, a two-speed gearbox with overdrive on each gear and — significantly — hydrolastic-type suspension.
In November 1955 Lord lured Issigonis back into the BMC fold with the promise that he could start again where he left off with the Minor and have a free hand in designing an all-new small car which would rejuvenate BMC’s ageing model line-up. Issigonis gathered around himself a small team including, once again, Jack Daniels. Issigonis already had a number of established concepts about what a small car should have as its major attributes, such as front wheel drive (he had a long-standing regard for the Citroen Traction Avant), small, space-saving wheels and wheelarches, rack and pinion steering, front-heaviness and a general high regard for function rather than fashion. With that much established, Issigonis began, unconventionally but typically, by considering the ergonomic requirements of four passengers, finding the space needed by them and designing a bodyshell to fit.
In the Ancient Greek, there are no words to differentiate between ‘Art’ and ‘Craft’; they were considered to be one and the same thing. Issigonis, the modern Greek, was a man capable of drawings of great artistic merit which although far removed in appearance were every bit as effective as ‘technical’ drawings. The fact that Issigonis was capable of truly creative thought and yet was an engineer with the technical insight and determination to make things work in a highly successful manner, went some way towards proving the ancients right. Being right and looking right were, to Issigonis, one and the same thing: a rare view in our modern, dualistic society.