One of the most original car designers of the modern era, ALEC ISSIGONIS (1906-1988) is best known as the creator of the Mini, but also designed two more of the five best-selling cars in British motoring history – the Morris Minor and the Austin 1100.
”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,” opined Alec Issigonis, when asked to summarise his approach to car design. An eccentric and often outspoken character, Issigonis was equally dismissive of market research, which he described as “bunk” and even mathematics, derided as “the enemy of every truly creative man”.
Fiercely independent and proudly uncompromising, Issigonis adopted a lateral approach to the design and engineering of cars. His iconoclasm ensured that, despite the constraints of working in a highly capital intensive industry where the sheer cost and complexity of the production process meant that even the most forceful of designers was only one member of a large development team, Issigonis’ cars bore his own stamp and – from the 1948 Morris Minor to the 1959 Morris Mini-Minor – were entirely distinctive.
Born Alexander Arnold Constantine Issigonis to British parents in Smyrna, then a Turkish port, but now the Turkish city of Izmir, he showed no interest in motor cars as an infant and was twelve years old before he even went in one. Issigonis’ grandfather and father were both engineers, but as his father died when Alec was a teenager his mother, Hulda, the daughter of a Bavarian brewer became the pivotal figure in his life.
After World War I Hulda and Alec left Greece for England where he resisted his mother’s wish that he should study art and, in 1925, enrolled on a three year engineering course at Battersea Polytechnic. Issigonis failed the maths exam three times but excelled at drawing. When he graduated his diploma his mother brought him a car to go on a tour of Europe before starting work. The car like most at the time was unreliable. It once had two punctures in a single day, and the experience motivated Issigonis to try to improve the experience of driving for everyone.
“The fun is over, get a job,” instructed his mother after two months of touring. Issignonis’ first job was working as a draughtsman and salesman for an engineering consultant who was developing a type of semi-automatic transmission. In his free time, from 1933 until 1938, Issigonis worked with his friend, George Dowson, on a private project to construct a hand-built racing car – the Lightweight Special. Built without the aid of power tools, the car employed an efficient ‘stressed skin’ structure devised by Issigonis and plywood body sides covered in aluminium sheeting. Issigonis successfully raced the car himself, until the demands of his job forced him to stop in 1948. He later described the Lightweight as: “A frivolity in my life. It was not so much a design exercise as a means of teaching me to use my hands.”
In 1936 Issigonis was offered the post of steering and suspension engineer at Morris Motors, a company founded in Oxford 1912 by William Morris, who was committed to high-volume, low-price production. Issigonis developed his knowledge of independent suspension systems at Morris Motors and devised an independent coil spring system for the 1938 Morris Ten only for the company to adopt a more conventional and cheaper beam axle solution.
During World War II, Morris Motors undertook military work, notably the development of the Morris lightweight reconnaissance vehicle for the war department. As a member of a reserved occupation Issigonis was excused service in the armed forces and remained at the company’s Cowley plant near Oxford. There he worked on military vehicles of various types, including a motorised wheelbarrow intended for use by the air force in jungle conditions together with an amphibious version designed for use by the Royal Navy.
Despite Morris Motors’ commitment to the war effort, like its European competitors, the company remained committed to the development of a popular, compact production car. Time, labour and resources were devoted to the prototyping of a small two-seater car. The project, initially named Mosquito by managing director Miles Thomas for its associations with the De Havilland fighter-bomber, would eventually deliver the Morris Minor.
Working under the company’s chief engineer, A. V. Oak, Issigonis originated almost the entire design and specification for Morris Minor, an extraordinary achievement in the mass production vehicle industry of the time. Oak supported the single-minded vision of his junior and gave Issigonis the freedom to control every aspect of the design, rather than deploying the conventional, more economical procedure of creating a new body shape from existing chassis components. 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 model close to the conventional production form was unveiled.
William Morris, by then Lord Nuffield, was furious when he saw the final model and nicknamed it “the poached egg”. Many motoring commentators agreed when the car went on sale in 1948, but it gradually won over British motorists – not least because Issigonis’ steering and suspension made it so easy to drive, compared to other cars of the time. Issigonis’ economical car remained in production until 1971.
Encouraged by the success of the Morris Minor, Issigonis continued his design experiments at Morris Motors, but when it merged with the Austin Motor Company in 1952 to form the British Motor Corporation (BMC), he resigned to work for Alvis fearful that his freedom would be curbed in a large company. There he worked with his friend Alex Moulton, the suspension system specialist who invented the concept of fluid interconnection and later became famous for compact Moulton Bicycle on the development of a luxury car. When Alvis cancelled the project Issigonis was invited by Sir Leonard Lord to return to BMC where he was to forge a close rapport with the draughtsman, Jack Daniels, who transferred his concept sketches into technical drawings and working prototypes.
The mission given to Issigonis and his team at BMC was to combat the increasing imports of inexpensive bubble cars from Germany and Italy. His department was charged with the design of a fuel-efficient, inexpensive four-seater vehicle using an existing engine to regain market share for BMC. Issigonis is reputed to have sketched some of the inspirational ideas for the top-secret project – initially called Austin Design Office Project 15 (ADO 15) – on a tablecloth. The developed design was revolutionary and went on to become the best-selling car in Europe – the Mini.
Issigonis may not have invented the formula of the mini-car, but he became the creator of by far the most famous example of the type. By changing the normal front-to-back location of the engine to side-to-side, he saved so much space that it was possible to accommodate a four-seater car on a small, easily parkable platform. Striving to ensure that as much space as possible was allocated to the passengers, Issigonis squeezed the transverse east/west engine location into so little space that 80% of the three-meter long car was free for the driver and passengers.
After driving a prototype, Sir Leonard Lord ordered Issignois to have the production model ready within a year. The design was so radical that BMC was concerned about the high cost of tooling. Undaunted, Issignois designed the tools himself. But the rush to get the cars on the road caused problems for the early models of the Mini, particularly with the engine mountings and floor panel overlaps. Issigonis later admitted that the floor panels leaked because he had designed them the wrong way round.
The Mini 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 that: “I would like people to sit on nails – to be extremely uncomfortable all the time.”
Launched in 1959, the Mini soon became the best-selling car in Europe and was swiftly hailed as an icon of the optimistic early 1960s. Among the five million Minis manufactured by BMC, many were bought by celebrity owners, including the Beatles and the actors Peter Sellers, Dudley Moore and Steve McQueen. The little car’s most celebrated media moment was its multiple use as a getaway vehicle in the 1969 film, The Italian Job, starring Michael Caine.
Ambitious as ever, Issigonis developed numerous variations on the original Mini including van and pick-up versions, the utilitarian Mini-Moke, the Morris Mini Traveller and variations used by the Fire Service and the Royal Mail. One application which did not interest him was to design a racing or rally car, yet the combination of the Mini’s design features and its safe handling suited the vehicle to competitive events. This was noted early on by the racing car builder John Cooper who transformed a car “designed for the district nurse” into high performance competition-winning Mini-Cooper. James Hunt, Jackie Stewart and Niki Lauda all started their racing careers in Mini-Coopers.
Turning his attention to the medium-sized passenger vehicle, Issigonis continued his obsession with the maximisation of passenger space combined with the best possible road holding. He provided BMC with the 1100 model, working in collaboration with the Pininfarina studio in Italy, where Sergio Pininfarina designed the external body shape. Launched as the Morris 1100 in 1962, and a year later as the Austin 1100, the clean, classical lines of the car served BMC well. The Austin 1100 outsold the Mini by a considerable margin and remained Britain’s best-selling car for many years.
Issigonis continued to work as engineering director at Austin Morris Division until 1971 when he retired. An uncompromising individualist, Issigonis is credited with having said: “a camel is a horse designed by committee.” He was an independent thinker, who despised convention, and would not take advice gladly believing that what he designed was good enough for everybody.
Design Museum + British Council
1906 Born Alexander Arnold Constantine Issigonis in Smyrna, then in Greece, now in Turkey.
1920 First drive in a motor car, a Cadillac.
1922 After the death of his father, Issigonis moves to England with his mother. The family is almost penniless.
1925 Enrols on a three year engineering course at Battersea Polytechnic.
1928 First job in the motor industry working as a draughtsman and salesman in London.
1933 Begins a five year project to design and build a car, the Lightweight Special, in his spare time with a friend, George Dowson.
1936 Offered a job as a steering and suspension engineer at Morris Motors.
1943 As a project engineer for Morris Motors, he designs a two-seater car which will evolve into the Morris Minor.
1948 Launch of the Morris Minor, which will remain in production until 1971.
1952 When Morris Motors merges with the Austin Motor Company to form the British Motor Corporation (BMC), Issignois resigns to join a smaller company, Alvis, to design a V-8 sports sedan.
1955 When Alvis cancels his luxury car project, Issigonis rejoins BMC.
1957 Charged with the development of a small, fuel-efficient four-seater car.
1959 Launch of the Mini with an initial production run of 20,000 cars priced at ￡496 each.
1964 The Mini Moke goes on sale.
1969 The Austin and Morris prefixes are dropped as Mini becomes a marque in its own right.
1986 The five millionth Mini is driven off the production line at Longbridge by television presenter Noel Edmonds.
1988 Alec Issigonis dies.
Design Museum + British Council
Leonard Pomeroy, The Mini Story, Temple Press 1964
Chris Harvey, Mighty Minis, Oxford Illustrated Press, 1986
Paul Skilleter, Morris Minor (3rd edition) Osprey 1989
Rob Golding, Mini 35 Years On, Osprey 1994
Chris Rees, The Complete Mini 35 Years of Production History, Motor
Racing Publications 1994
Dictionary of National Biography 1986-1990 Supplement, Oxford University
L.J. K. Seright, Mini – The Design Icon of a Generation, Virgin Publishing, 1999
Andrew Nahum, Issigonis and the Mini (2nd edition), Icon Books 2004
Gillian Bardsley, Issigonis the Official Biography, Icon Books 2005
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain
Design Museum + British Council