THE only surviving director of the motor company that designed the iconic Mini has claimed the concept was not the brainchild of Sir Alec Issigonis, its legendary designer, as most people think.
Westcountry resident William Davis, the British Motor Company (BMC) production boss who ensured the hugely popular car was manufactured, says few credit the company’s chairman, Sir Leonard Lord, for the creation of the vehicle. The Mini this month celebrates 50 years since the first car, a white Morris Mini-Minor, rolled of the production line at the Longbridge factory in Birmingham.
Mr Davis says it was Sir Leonard, a gruff Yorkshireman who became Lord Lambury, who came up with the specific brief. He insisted the car – which became a 1960s hit after The Beatles, model Twiggy and Lord Snowdon became celebrity fans – had to be small, with the capacity to seat four people and still have sufficient room in the boot, while being economic to run.
Sir Leonard was inspired by the 1950s Suez Canal crisis, which prompted an oil shortage in the UK and demand for smaller, fuel-efficient cars. Mr Davis, director and general manager of the Austin Motor Company in 1959 and production director of BMC when it was born a year later, was a “good friend” of Sir Alec, the maverick free-thinker seen as the da Vinci of the motor industry.
The 89-year-old, who lives near South Brent, South Devon, said: “The concept of the Mini wasn’t Issigonis’s idea. It was the idea of Sir Leonard Lord – this is concept, not design. “Sir Leonard Lord, who, incidentally, was a brilliant production engineer, decided that BMC needed a small vehicle capable of four people sitting in it comfortably, economic, but of completely different design.
“Alec Issigonis used to work for him at Morris as his chief engineer. So, in 1957, he persuaded Issigonis to come to Longbridge. He told Issigonis precisely what he wanted.” Mr Davis recalls how Sir Alec was sent to work with five specialist engineers and a workshop.
After a five-minute test drive of one of the prototypes, Sir Leonard famously barked to Sir Alec: “Build the bloody thing.” A captain of the motoring industry who was number three at British Leyland, the manufacturer that employed about 250,000 people in Longbridge alone, Mr Davis also revealed that the first custom-made Mini was made to teach Prince Charles how to drive.
The request came from Mini enthusiast Lord Snowdon, the photographer husband of Princess Margaret and friend of Sir Alec. Mr Davis said: “They wanted a vehicle that we didn’t produce – which was a black one with red leather trim.
“We didn’t produce black ones and none of our vehicles were in leather at the time. “So I produced the vehicle, sent it down to the Royal Mews. And Snowdon taught Prince Charles how to drive on it.”