Sir Alec Issigonis (1906 - 1988)

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Sir Alec Issigonis

Sir Alec Issigonis
SIR ALEXANDER ARNOLD CONSTANTINE ISSIGONIS, KBE, will be marked in the history books as the man who added a new word to the English language: Mini. The readily smiling, impish man managed many engineering achievements in his lifetime as a designer, but none made such an impact on the world as the small car which started life as a scribble on the back of an envelope and was translated into a running vehicle in only nine months.

Issigonis's father was a marine engineer and constructor, a Greek with British nationality. Alec's mother was a Bavarian, born in the days when Bavaria was an independent kingdom associated with Germany. He was born in 1906 in Smyrna, then the second city of the Ottoman Empire, which had a population of one million in and around it, more than half of them Greek.

As a youngster Issigonis travelled widely in Europe with his parents, who were comfortably off and had many English friends. When Smyrna was overrun by the Turks in 1922, Alec and his parents were evacuated, with other British subjects, by the Royal Navy, but his father died in Malta on the way to England.

Working for Edward Gillett

Alec, then sixteen, was sent to Battersea Polytechnic, where he completed the course but failed to win the required qualification to go on to university and study for an engineering degree. He continued his studies, then travelled in Europe, and finally took his first job at 22 with a man called Edward Gillett, who was trying to produce a forerunner of automatic transmission by making the clutch work automatically as the throttle was opened and closed.

Joining Humber, then Morris

Two British companies, Rover and Humber, were interested in this device, which led to Issigonis leaving Edward Gillett in 1934 and joining the design staff of Humber. At Humber he was concerned with front-suspension design at a time when independent front suspension was in its infancy with some attempts at design which are perhaps better forgotten.

From Humber, he moved to Morris Motors, a company which also made MGs and Wolseleys. It was at Morris, in 1936 at the age of thirty, that he became a specialist in suspension design and experimented with some of the earliest attempts at all-round independent suspension for mass-production cars. The war put a stop to this, but one of his designs was eventually adopted on the 1½-litre MG Y series of heavy-weight saloons with tiny engines. This can be seen as the parent of the independent front end that remained in use on the MGB until the mid 1970's.

The 750 cc Lightweight Special

Parallel with his official work, Issigonis was playing with sports cars and sports-car design and produced the = well known 750 cc Lightweight Special, which has really only achieved fame due to the recognition, so many years later, of its designer/driver. The crux of the layout of the Lightweight Special was that all four wheels were independently suspended by spring/damper units, using rubber rings for both springing and damping. The camber of both front and rear wheels could be changed quickly, and by ringing the changes on rear-wheel camber Issigonis learned that this can be the key to getting the power of an engine down on the road.

A series of early Issigonis sketches for the Morris Minor introduced in 1948
A series of early sketches for the Morris Minor introduced in 1948; in its original form, the Minor was 4 inches narrower than the production car.

Issigonis's collaborator, George Dowson, with the Lightweight at Prescott in 1939
Issigonis's collaborator, George Dowson, with the Lightweight at Prescott in 1939.

George Dowson with the lightweight, we believe sometime in the early 1960's
George Dowson with the lightweight, we believe sometime in the early 1960's.

Issigonis sketches for the planned 1933 Lightweight Special
Issigonis sketches for the planned 1933 Lightweight Special.

Issigonis sketches for the planned 1933 Lightweight Special
Issigonis sketches for the planned 1933 Lightweight Special.

Issigonis with Mini number #1
Issigonis's Baby just kept selling. And with good reason, it was brilliant.

Designed For The Masses - The Morris Minor

Issigonis made his mark, however, as a designer of mass-production cars made at a low price for the man in the street, and this foray into sports/racing cars was not repeated once the burdens of office were laid upon him. He was over forty years of age by the time his first design was on the market, this being the Morris Minor. Looking back from this distance we can perceive that the Morris Minor was relatively as big a trendsetter and market leader as the Mini was to be later. It was in production in various forms from October 1948 to July 1971 and was a pioneer of the modern small car with good handling and reasonable comfort for four people allied to low running costs and adequate performance.

In all, 1.6 million Morris Minors were made during the car's twenty-three-year life. The Minor had the Issigonis stamp, yet was a very different car when it reached the market place from the idea first envisaged by its individualistic designer when he put pencil to paper. He started planning it during the war when he was project engineer for Morris. One of the car's novelties was the use of torsion-bar suspension at the front, with the bars running lengthwise down the car. It would become commonplace on other vehicles, but at that time it was something new and untried.

The Use Of Smaller Wheels

Another hallmark was the use of 14-inch-diameter wheels when everyone else was on 16-inch or at the smallest 15-inch. Legend has it that the final prototype was thought to be too tall and narrow, until Alec had the brain-wave of cutting it down the middle and inserting a 'gusset' ten inches wide to produce much better proportions and the classic beetle-like shape which became familiar to millions on the roads of the world,

Some of the other ideas, like the flat-four air-cooled engine, were also lost along the way, but the ultimate result was a design which was, in its day, head and shoulders ahead of the opposition in terms of value for money, ride comfort, handling and serviceability. When Austin and Morris joined in 1952 to become the British Motor Corporation, it was a logical step to put the 863 cc ohv pushrod Austin engine into the Minor, in place of the earlier 918 cc side-valve unit inherited from the pre-war Morris 8 Series E. This improved performance and there was no need for other major changes, as the model continued to sell well right up to its dis-continuation, although the engine size was increased on two occasions.

Meanwhile, Issigonis was not happy with things moving along quietly without innovation and experiment, and by 1951 he was playing with a front wheel drive version of the Minor, which had its influence eventually on the Mini, but never saw the light of day in its original form because the two partners in the new giant combine were more interested in consolidating than in investing in any way-out schemes for peculiar cars which might not sell.

Experimenting With Front-Wheel-Drive

The Morris Minor has been so much over-shadowed now by its 'son', the Mini, that it is easy for us to forget what an impact it made in its day, but by the time the Minor appeared Issigonis was already thinking far ahead, towards a newer concept which eventually made his name as familiar a household word as Ford or Rolls-Royce. In fact no motor-car designer in the history of the art has become as well known to the general public, although it is Sir Alec's second brain-child, the Mini, which led to this universal acclaim and recognition and eventually to his knighthood.

In between designing the Morris Minor, which was such a hit with the man in the street, and the later Mini, which swept the world, Alec Issigonis left the British Motor Corporation and went off to produce an entirely new motor car, a project which was much more exciting to him than being king of a production empire and turning out the same item day after day. So in 1952, not long after the big merger of the two major British factories, he took his leave of Cowley and moved over to Alvis at Coventry, then producers of a luxury sporting car with a reputation for quality and a long-honoured name in the history of the British motor industry.

Designing The Luxury Alvis

His brief was to produce an all-new car in the luxury-performance bracket, to succeed the current Alvis offering. He produced a V8 engine with overhead camshafts, giving 130 horsepower from 3.5 litres. He mounted this in a monocoque structure and used a novel type of transmission, Issigonis had, as we have seen, been involved in an attempt at a two-pedal transmission back in his twenties, and he now produced a two-speed box allied to an orthodox mechanical overdrive unit working on both ratios to give a spread of four gears. The theory was that the third-top change would be on the electrically controlled overdrive switch, so eliminating the clutch-and-lever change once the car was rolling on the open road.

The transmission unit could also be moved farther back away from the engine to reduce the gearbox tunnel in the front of the car. Just as the earlier experience of Issigonis in transmissions was used in the Alvis design, so he began using there techniques in suspension which ultimately were a cornerstone in the success of the still-to-come Mini. His friend Alex Moulton, who designed the Hydrolastic suspension which came later on the Mini and other BMC cars like the 1100 and 1800, produced a design for the Alvis company, linking the front and rear suspension systems hydraulically to a common spring.

Alec Issigonis was pleased with his Alvis design, but the company were dubious about tooling up for such an unorthodox vehicle, which would have involved them in raising extra capital. Cars were a small part of their business, which was also concerned with the production of armoured cars and aircraft engines, and eventually the Alvis car was allowed to die. After long consideration and some expenditure on the Issigonis dream-car project, they decided not to produce it and, after four years wasted effort.

Working At The Kremlin

When Issigonis returned to his old masters, he took with him designers from both Alvis and his old days at Cowley. This time his headquarters were on Austin territory at Longbridge, in the building known jokingly as The Kremlin. He reported directly to the late Sir Leonard Lord, then in charge of the combined operation. Sir Leonard wanted a forward-looking design which would sell. The Issigonis brief was rather different from the one he had had at Alvis, although similar in that he was to produce a new car from the ground up. In this case, though, it had to. be practicable, cheap to make and a best-seller.

He brought with him from Alvis the Moulton suspension idea and that of divorcing the gearbox from the engine, and also chose what might have been half of his old 90-degree Alvis V-engine, a 1500 cc all-alloy ohc power plant. However, the Suez crisis, which brought petrol-rationing to Britain, put paid to this somewhat esoteric design, and the new brief in 1957 was for an economy car, in tune with the times, which must be on the market quickly.

Sir Leonard Lord, a man not given to mincing his words, told Issigonis he could use any engine he wanted so long as it was in current production in the BMC range. The rest is history. Issigonis went slightly outside his orders by chopping an 1100 cc engine in half and trying to run with two cylinders, but it was a rough and nasty result. His problem was space. He wanted a tiny car - what was to be the Mini - and there was not much room for the power unit.

Eventually he hit on the obvious solution, so obvious that no-one in seventy years of motor cars had thought of it, of putting the gearbox underneath the engine and saving space that way. So the Mini was born. It was the BMC A-series engine from the old Minor which was finally chosen ; Moulton provided the simple suspension, and eventually a drive-shaft steering problem was solved. Before that, Issigonis had to sell his ten-inch wheels (no-one had gone that small before) to the management, and the engine had to be turned round east-west instead of north-south across the car.

The radiator went to the side with the air pushed out through it instead of sucked in, and the car was ready, at a cost of £100,000, for mass production. Problems came later: the ignition flooding with the exposed distributor, the water inside the floor of the car and so on. These were readily solved, however, once the reasons had been discovered.

Over-Powered - Then Under-Powered

The original engine came down from 948cc to 848cc because the tiny car was considered too fast, then later it went up again in the Cooper and Cooper S versions, finally reaching 1275 cc, Then came vans and station wagons and Mokes and beach cars. A new car was born, which won all the races and rallies, and a new word was added to the English language-and many other languages too. The Mini, however, was just the foundation stone for a succession of other vehicles, further up the size and price scale, but all having basic east-west engine and front-wheel drive.

The four-door 1100 arrived in 1962, with a 1098cc version of the A-series power unit. Again, like the Mini, the 1100 possessed remarkable road-holding and handling qualities that many advanced, conventional-drive vehicles have been unable to match. The 1100 then received the 1275 cc engine as an option; being named the 1300. Also, a GT version followed in 1970, with even more power that the chassis was still well able to cope with.

The BLMC organisation certainly got their fair share of success from Issigonis's basic design, not least from the Hydrolastic suspension system that was first employed on the 1100, and later tried on the Mini. At the same time, Riley, MG and Wolseley, as well as Austin and Morris, also captured buyers in their own sectors of the market which was all icing on the BMC Mini cake.

The 1800, equipped with the BMC B-series engine came along in 1965, looking like a stretched version of the 11OO and being slightly ungainly. Next was the five-door Maxi, with an overhead-camshaft 1500cc engine; this power unit was later stretched to 1748 cc. Fiat and Renault, two other advanced car manufacturers, were not too proud to copy the Mini concept and find their own transverse niche in the market, albeit some years after.

Sir Alec was not content to rest on his many laurels, though, and continued to experiment in his own design shop at the Longbridge works. One of his experiments was with a steam-engine design that was meant to fit into a Mini body. Issigonis was told by many noteworthy sources that it was impossible to make such an engine efficient enough. He said himself: 'I don't see much hope for it'. However, he carried on with the project and expressed disappointment when it failed to turn out as planned; he expected the impossible to be made possible. Many people who knew Issigonis were surprised that this did not succeed - despite the difficulty in any such design.

After retirement he became a model-steam-locomotive enthusiast, and spent his holidays in Monte Carlo drinking dry Martinis, swimming, and sunbathing. Although successful as an engineering designer, he never held a degree, but had an engineering diploma from Battersea Polytechnic and honours from the Royal Society of Arts, the University of Surrey and the University of East Anglia, as well as holding the Leverhulme Medal of the Royal Society, of which he is a Fellow. He received the CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in 1964 and was knighted in 1969, when he was made KBE (Knight Commander of the British Empire).

He died in 1988 at his house in Edgbaston, Birmingham, and was cremated at the Lodge Hill Crematorium in nearby Selly Oak. On 15 October 2006 a rally was held at the Heritage Motor Centre in Gaydon, England, to celebrate the centenary of Sir Alec's birth. There is a road named "Alec Issigonis Way" in Oxford Business Park on the former site of the Morris Motors factory in Cowley, Oxford.

Also see:
Honour Roll - Founding Fathers Of The Automotive Industry | Morris Car Reviews
Sir Alec Issigonis with his most famous creation, the British Leyland Mini
Sir Alec Issigonis with his most famous creation, the British Leyland Mini.
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