We take transverse-engined/front-wheel-drive cars for granted these days. It’s easy to forget that design parameters were very different 50 years ago. Rear-engined offerings from Fiat, Renault and VW dominated the European market. In Britain, Alec Issigonis had already made waves with his 1948 Morris Minor, but even this imaginative and technologically advanced offering was in essence a conventional design, lacking independent suspension and reliant on rear wheel drive.
By the mid-Fifties, Issigonis had been prised away from Morris and was working for Leonard Lord’s Austin. Given a brief to fight back against the wave of bubble cars (Isetta and Messerschmitt) sweeping a fuel conscious, post-Suez Europe, his solution was a triumph of lateral thinking. Detesting rear-engined designs with their inherent impracticality, he sketched out what would become the revolutionary, technologically advanced, transverse-engined, front-wheel-drive and independently sprung Mini of 1959.
Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, Renault was working on one of the world’s first hatchback saloons, launched in Autumn 1961 as the R4. Another concept we take for granted these days when every manufacturer offers an example. Front-wheel drive, independent torsion bar suspension, one-piece lift up tailgate, compact exterior dimensions, big inside. There is no doubt that the launch of the R4 was a defining moment for Renault, signalling a move away from rear engine design towards a more practical front wheel drive model line up which by the mid-1970s would comprise; 4, 6, 7, 9, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 20 and 30.
Likewise, the Mini presaged the launch of the 1100/1300/Allegro, Maxi and 1800/2200/Princess. Issigonis was a Designer, not a Product Planner. However, because of his domineering personality, that’s just what he became. Convinced he was right about everything, this is the time when BMC/BL began their slow, but inexorable, slide towards oblivion. That’s not to say it was Issigonis’s fault – far from it, but he became the fall guy for all BMC/BL design, production and marketing shortcomings. Renault, by comparison, just went from strength to strength and now looks rock solid.
I wonder what would have happened if Issigonis had been approached by Renault when it was first considering the R4. Can you imagine just how revolutionary a transverse-engined, front-wheel drive, amazingly space efficient small hatchback would have been? Just like today’s offerings, but 45 years sooner.
A kind of 1961 Honda Jazz…