Blog : Sir Alec Issigonis, 40 years on

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Richard Aucock

40 years ago this month, Sir Alec Issigonis, creator of Britain’s best-selling motoring icons, retired

Sir Alec Issigonis witgh his remarkable range of FWD saloons
Sir Alec Issigonis witgh his remarkable range of FWD saloons

The creator of the original Mini, the Morris Minor, the Austin Maxi and Landcrab 1800 had reached the official BL retirement age of 65. And so, left full-time employment. He was to remain on as a design consultant – indeed, reveals AROnline, at his retirement party, deputy MD George Turnbull joked: ‘Sir Alec would be doing exactly what he had been doing for the past three years. “But, I hope perhaps working slightly shorter hours “.’

This itself was a bending of official company rules, continues AROnline: semi-retirement status was not an official category on the company books. “We have had to bend the rules because we do not believe that Sir Alec’s extraordinary talents have suddenly waned or dried up”.

Even so, it marked the end of a glittering career within the British motoring giant that was so large as a direct result of his talents (and arguably was not larger due to the lack of managerial control and focus of them).

It was also no way to treat a great man.

Issigonis as technical director

Issigonis had been made technical director in 1961 after winning worldwide plaudits for creating the Mini. However, in 1968, he asked to be relieved of day-to-day engineering duties. Charles Griffin took over development of the mainstream cars with Issigonis working in a forward-looking research capacity.

Why? Because Issigonis was becoming sidelined: design by committee was the new rule as BMC headed towards its merger with (takeover by?) Leyland, leaving him isolated and preferring to concentrate on his own special projects. He was also politically weakened, through two great ideas that were flawed because of his stubbornness and thus failed in the marketplace. The 1800 and, in particular, the Maxi were good concepts hurt by a lack of focus on what customers wanted. They were too idealistic.

This worked for the Mini but, don’t forget, even Issigonis’ brilliant 1100/1300 was styled by a designer rather than simply designed by an engineer. How could BMC subsequently forget?

Hence the request to be relieved of his mainstream car duties. He wanted instead to work on his brilliant, uncompromised, far-sighted concept for a Mini replacement, the ingenious 9X. In his mind, this was the new Mini: bigger, better, smarter, cheaper, more profitable. A decade on, it was the car to revive the industry once again.

BL, as history tells us, singularly failed to spot the potential of this. Issigonis worked on it until his retirement, yet even a knighthood in 1969 couldn’t regain power at BL.

Indeed, many of BL head Lord Stokes’ team apparently blamed Issigninis for the decline of BL. As AROnline reports, the five millionth FWD BMC car was built in May 1971: a Mini Clubman. This was a notable achievement but one that also riled those within Lord Stokes’ team: 4.3 million of that 5 million total were Mini and ADO16 1100/1300 models.

Customers were simply not buying the more expensive (more profitable) Maxi and 1800 Landcrab FWD cars. Indeed this lack of profit for BMC was part of the reason it needed to be rescued by Leyland.

Issigonis leaves Britain’s biggest car company

Sir Alec in happier times during the launch of the Mini in 1959
Sir Alec in happier times during the launch of the Mini in 1959

A great career at Britain’s largest car company thus fizzled out as the new guard took over. Even Issigonis’ leaving gift seems rather mealy-mouthed: a no. 10 Meccano set. Fitting for a great man, sure, but shouldn’t such a key figure have been given something more significant, more substantial, besides?

40 years ago, Mr Mini retired. One of Britain’s finest inventors was no longer able to influence British cars, despite his genius remaining bright.

It is to the eternal shame of BL that his power, expertise and impact effectively ceased in 1968 and ended for good in 1971. Mini 9X is the glittering example of what could have been…

  • Would 9X have worked?
  • Was weak management behind Issigonis’ mistakes?
  • Does Issigonis deserve his reputation as an inventive engineering genius?

[Source: www.richardaucock.com]

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

19 Comments

  1. Flawed genius perhaps sums him up. Theres no denying that the 1800 and Maxi failed miserably and contributed to the collapse of BMC. Management where perhaps weak, but by all accounts Issigonis was a very difficult person to manage or indeed interact with on any level!

  2. I read once when he lost a decision over a mechanical design issue on one of his cars, he never spoke to the guy who won the argument ever again.

    It was his way or no-one else’s. Certainly an attitude that ensure the Morris Minor and Mini were a success, but not one for living a long and happy retirement. Resentment and ill-feeling can eat away at you.

  3. indeed, one could argue this was when the rot had set in because car companies in general started to become focused on customer wants as well as customer needs. Design by commitee is always a bad thing but designing without asking what your customers require from the cars always a bad thing… And let’s face it Alec was never really a car stylist, was he? Those cars, despite being well engineered could never compete against the likes of the Cortina and the Viva/Victor…

  4. I would argue that he was the Steve Jobs of his era.

    He knew what he wanted, as Paul T pointed out, didn’t like things not going his way. He was also a brilliant designer that moved the goalposts of what was mainstream, whether you liked the products or not.

    9X would have delayed the need for the Metro, especially with the 70s era “dogbone” light/grille treatment. I reckon they should’ve done a deal on the Bertone Innocenti Mini.

  5. Dante Giacosa records his retirement as follows in his autobiography:

    “On 3 January 1970 the chequered flag signalled my arrival at the finish of my career. I had turned sixty-five so the time had come to hand in my resignation, in compliance with the sensible ruling that had been in force for some time by then, and I broke the tie that for over forty-one years had bound me to Fiat.”

    Unlike Issigonis, he could look back on a solid body of continuous achievement, and even more importantly having talented and already highly regarded successors such as Lampredi, Cordiano, Montabone to carry forward his ideas, which included defining the configuration of the modern automobile.

    With Issigonis there’s a feeling of unfinished business. Fiat had the highest R&D expenditure relative to turnover in the industry, the latter part of the disastrous Harriman era at BMC was a time of undercapitalisation (partly down to the meagre profitability of the Mini and ADO16), and indecisiveness. Issigonis must have known that the cars that made him a public figure could not go on for ever, but the way the 9X project was resourced by management suggests a patronising job creation exercise, rather than a committed effort to engineer BMC’s salvation. The quiet men who had kept Issigonis on the straight and narrow – Daniels, Kingham, Sheppard, and many others – were doomed to the status of backroom boys, and overlooked as the Triumph, Rover, and, even worse, Ford people moved in.

    Alec Issigonis was probably better known to the mass of the British people than Dante Giacosa was to the Italians, but the BMC designer’s career after 1965 borders on tragedy. Talent has to be managed, it didn’t happen, and good ideas went completely to waste.

  6. Issigonis was a great engineer.

    A devil’s advocate, however, could point to the losses made on the Mini, and the poor sales of the Maxi and 1800. I wonder if ADO16 made a worthwhile profit? As others have said, Issigonis needed managing by people interested in making a profit. Lord and Harriman appear not to have done this effectively, and allowed the company to fall to its knees whilst also selling cars in big numbers – a fair achievement, but not one to be proud of. The Leyland takeover, if it aimed to do anything, was surely intended to restore profitability to an ailing BMC. I wonder if they costed 9x and decided it wouldn’t make a profit either? If so, it had to go, or at least be ‘de-contented’. Given Issi’s age, the poor track record of his mid-60s designs, and the fact that Leyland were now in charge (and had their own engineers and their own philosophy), letting him go was perhaps the right decision however painful. Giving him a consultant role was probably meant to be a kindness, and a recognition that for all his faults he did have a hell of a lot to offer. But it also meant that there was a commercially-based mechanism for managing him.

  7. But talking of the relative failure of ADO17, would it have been any more successful if the Farina saloons had been removed as soon as the new cars came in? The same goes for the Minor and A35 when cars like the Mini and ADO16 were released? The cars were at least making profit, unlike the older counterparts.
    I also think that 9X should have been taken by BL and kept hidden until it could be released. If it had come in at any time before, say, ’76 or ’77, I reckon it would have been a world beater, regardless of the corporate situation.

  8. What wonderfully insightful comments: thanks for engaging, all. The readership of AROnline really is top notch – I look forward to learning more from you.

    For me, it’s a tragic lack of management nous. Issigonis’ track record speaks for itself, and all the evidence shows he’d lost none of his creative ingenuity in the 60s. Yet, he was allowed to either get his own way no matter how uncommercial (there MUST have been seniors within BMC that knew ADO14 sorely lacked pizzaz), or was ignored and left to wither within the firm.

    By their nature, genius are hard to manage. BMC had the asset within, yet pitifully failed to capitalise on it. Issigonis was undoubtedly hard work but he could also given it the product to put up a better fight than it did.

    It’s not as if he was blind to the failings of his existing cars – witness 9X addressing the Mini’s production costs and service failings, for example. A cohesive, well-led team would taken his brilliance but also made it saleable – indeed, a well-led firm would have proven to him the power of design by committee.

    Tall order, yes… but it was a global giant so should have attracted the management with the ability to do this. Perhaps the fact it did not was part of the problem with Issigonis. After all, if you don’t respect your leaders, you’re unlikely to listen to them…

  9. The underpricing of the Mini was not the fault of Alec Issigonis. George Harriman decided on the price and Leonard Lord must have agreed with the decision to undercut the Ford Popular.
    The Mini and ADO16 were dependent on high volume to make a profit which was problematic with BMC. Between 1946 and 1964, 44% of all strikes in the motor industry were in BMC plants compared with a mere 11% at Ford. In 1967 Joe Edwards set BMC some production targets which it failed to reach.
    The pundits argued that if BMC made more conventional RWD cars they would make more money. What this arguement fails to take into account is the fact that people bought 12000 Mini’s and ADO16’s a week because they were not conventional RWD cars AKA grey porridge.
    Total BMC production to the year ending July 1959 was 431,247. By 1964 this had peaked at 730,862. Even production during the bad year of 1966/67 was 556,762.
    The Leyland men thought they could do better by abolishing piecework and replacing it with measured day work and developing a rep-mobile which became the Morris Marina. In this they were backed by the Wilson government as part of its planned economy.
    What actually happened was that in May 1968 the British Leyland Shop Stewards Committee was formed by Dick Etheridge from Longbridge and Eddie McGarry from Canley. This unnofficial body succeeded in galvanising resistance to the introduction of a new pay system. Cowley didn’t succumb until 1971 and Longbridge didn’t surrender until late 1972, a full four years after the merger. Lord Stokes may have been a brilliant salesman but he completely failed to sell measured day work to the shop steward.
    The successful delaying action by the BL Shop Stewards Committee represented the first defeat for the men from Leyland, who prior to this had always got their way.
    And Triumph went from being the jewel in Leylands crown, where the truck men had revitalised an ailing car maker with their business know how, to a firm badly infected by the the shop floor militancy permeating Longbridge and Cowley.
    With Alec Issigonis sidelined, Austin Morris reverted back to grey porridge epitomised by the Austin Allegro. What the Leyland men didn’t realise was that the ADO16 had its own brand values probably as great as the Mini. Production of the ADO16 was 6500 a week in 1969. Allegro production peaked at 2500 in 1973, the first year it was on sale. The consumers just didn’t want it. Writers may rave about what a great engineer and nice guy Harry Webster was, but the brutal truth is at Longbridge he blew it big time. All the new methods imported from Leyland and Ford produced a car the public didn’t want to buy.
    The 18-22/Princess was actually the exception to this but it was hamstrung by being built at Cowley by a workforce that seemed more interested in political activism than making cars.
    The Maestro and Montego were also grey porridge, suggesting that with Issigonis at the helm, BMC punched above its weight. When he departed the scene they floundered.

  10. The title picture emphasizes the massive gap in size between the 1100 and 1800- the gap which rivals exploited to BMC’s expense in that crucial 64-67 period.

  11. Genius for sure, badly managed for sure. Good mangement is the art of maximising resources, and harnessing genius. How many of the anectdotal tales of Issigonis were related to the poor management decisions he saw going on around him. Sure he got a lot wrong but I wonder why?

  12. Will’s comparison between AI and Steve Jobs is quite wrong I think. Jobs’ technical and marketing genius was accompanied by a refined aesthetic sense. On the other hand, Issigonis despised any attempt to market his products and everything designed after the Minor was aggressively hideous.
    The real cause of BMC’s downfall was that product development was in the hands of a crank. How else to describe someone who didn’t “want bloody women” driving his cars, designed dashboards without radio fitments because he didn’t believe in ICE; delighted in deliberately uncomfortable cabin layouts to keep drivers awake.

  13. Fair points, Alistair, but thankfully (in the case of the Mini at least) others won the day.

    In his latter years, I believe he was allowed to work away unhindered and to present new ideas which the BMC management were never going to implement but still gave him the time of day out of some sort of respect for what he had done in the past. To some this might sound a bit cruel, and was also conveniently avoiding the issue of his intransigence (i.e. “anything for an easy life”)but was probably the lesser of any evils when it came to winding down the clock. At least he retied rather than departed the scene amidst much acrimony.

  14. some how though, I get the feeling that if you had put Spen King at his peak and Issigonis at his peak locked in the same room together, you’d get an explosion of creative genius or an explosion of total destruction. Always wondered what’d happened if you got those two on a project together.

  15. @Ross A

    Spen and Issi’s journey as designers followed a closer pattern than might first be imagined.

    Both had their “Icarus” phase – flying too close to the sun. For Issigonis it was the Mini and ADO16, for CSK the P6.

    As they matured they spent far more time looking around at what others were doing, and realised ‘value management’ could be a rewarding part of the creative process.

    For Issigonis the outcome was 9X, for CSK the SD1. There are other curious parallels along the way – Spen’s Maxi was the LC10, the ECV3 was his 9X.

  16. An ex-colleague of mine worked at Longbridge, and explained the situation thus;
    “The concepts were brilliant, the detailing was poor, but because Issigonis was also in charge of development, the shortcomings were not identified in testing, because it’s not human nature to want to find faults in your own design.”

    “Issigonis was Judge, Jury & Executioner, and that just doesn’t work.”

  17. Have read that elements of the all-ally OHC 9X engine (along with the K-Series) were influenced by the Austin 7’s engine, given the time period the 9X project began it makes me wonder whether Issigonis was inspired by Reliant’s 1963 introduction of the 598cc all-alloy OHV engine in the Reliant Regal / Rebel in 1964 that also shared some distant relation with the Austin 7 unit.

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