News : Issigonis honoured in Cowley

Photography: Martin Bell

One of the design team who worked on the original Mini has revealed how the revolutionary small car came about. John Sheppard spent 20 years working with Sir Alec Issigonis, the engineering genius who created the Mini, having originally met him at Alvis and then followed him back to Austin in 1956.

The 90-year-old recalled: ‘The chairman, Sir Leonard Lord, was fed up with seeing bubble cars everywhere and told us to make a small car. ‘We had to replace the A30 anyway and an entirely new department was set up to produce the Mini.’

Mr Sheppard was speaking as a road sign, designed to be a lasting tribute to Sir Alec, was unveiled close to the spot where the Mini was manufactured at Cowley. He went on to reveal how Sir Alec could be an awkward person to work with because he always knew what he wanted.

‘Fortunately, we hit it off and got on like a house on fire,’ he said. ‘He did not draw like we had to do – he sketched designs on pieces of A4 paper like Rolf Harris. He was looked upon as the conductor and we were members of the orchestra. He conducted us to put his sketches into proper drawings.’

Mr Sheppard, who went on to help design the Mini Metro and Montego before retiring in 1982, said: ‘We did not expect any of the success it had. It was a big surprise to us. ‘But I know that he, like me, would be overwhelmed by the level of respect and appreciation that people continue to have for his designs and the work that we did. The fact that the old and new Mini can stand side by side and are still loved is a testament to the original design and its practicality.’

While Alec Issigonis Way has been on maps since the Oxford Business Park was developed on the site of the old Cowley plant’s North Works in 1993, there had been no road sign to mark the tribute. Now, thanks to a group of enthusiasts at the Mini Forum, the name is prominently displayed in memory of Sir Alec who also created the iconic Morris Minor more than a decade before the Mini was launched in 1959.

Mini Forum member Tanya Field from Headington said: ‘Alec Issigonis Way has been there since the redevelopment of the old North Works site. ‘Someone at the Forum said they could not find a sign on Google Maps and when I went to look, sure enough there wasn’t one there.’

Ms Field contacted Park developers Goodman and bosses agreed to rectify the oversight and put up a sign. To mark the occasion, the Forum invited Mr Sheppard as guest of honour along with representatives from the Mini factory and Oxford East MP Andrew Smith. Also at the unveiling were an original 1959 Cowley-built Mini, a 1950 Morris Minor and a new Mini Roadster.

Mini spokesman Wayne Morse said: ‘This is a tribute to the legacy of Alec Issigonis and the iconic car he designed. Everyone at the plant is proud to be part of both the heritage and future of Mini.’

Goodman development director James Raven added: ‘The sign will add to the unique identity of the park.’

[Source: Oxford Mail]

Keith Adams


  1. Yeah,why not alex moulton as well,a brilliant engineer,whom it should be noted said the original metro should have had the interconnection of hydragas as per the later rover metro from the outset thus negating the need for 4 pot calipers up front,and yes isnt the new mini a fatboy?no purity of original.

  2. Agree with the above- would be nice to celebrate Alex Moulton’s contribution whilst he’s still alive.

    I think Issigonis’s legacy was a mixed one- on the one hand the wonderful Mini and the Minor (and the ADO16), on the other hand some of his designs, like the Maxi and the 1800 were poorly thought through, with Issigonis seeming to think that people should accept what he bloody well told them to accept, ie no radio, sparse instrumentation, ‘sit up and beg’ driving position, and plain looks. Most buyers disagreed, and that cost BMC hugely, and contributed to the mess that our nationalised car industry was in in the 1970s.

    Moulton’s legacy will be a much happier one- he can’t be blamed for the state of the industry.

    I certainly don’t think that we shouldn’t recognise Issigonis- he was clearly a brilliant engineer, and certainly the downfall of BMC was not all his fault- he should have been managed better by his superiors. Somewhere in the archives of this site is a letter he penned to the newly installed Graham Day he finished with a ps saying that in his view cars should not be designed using computers, but rather slide rules, and no electronics should be employed in cars. Day must have thought there was a lunatic in the attic! In any case Mr Issigonis’s services as a ‘consultant’ were dispensed with. A shame, because the 9x looked promising.

    Still, it is probably better to remember a great engineer for the many positive things that he brought to the table. And we can all be thankful for the Mini, the Minor, and the 1100 as real gems.

  3. If BMW are to make a statue to anyone then John Cooper as he was the mentor behind the Mini’s heritage (rally winning 60’s fashion icon)that underpins the current Mini brand.

    Agree that Alex Moulton’s legacy should be remembered for his contribution to British transport etc (let’s not forget the bikes, and I think he had some input into Challenger tanks suspension amongst other things)

    Issigonis was a genius, but like so many a genius, deeply flawed and when you add it up his contribution to BMC was more to the negative than positive.

  4. If only BMC could have priced the Mini right….Issigonis would have been a bigger hero, and BMC might still be making Mini’s at Cowley!

  5. @7, Jason1.8TC,

    I don’t think the pricing of the Mini was Issigonis’ fault. As for still making Minis at Cowley, Issigonis himself was very keen to see that model replaced way back in the 1970’s.

  6. Alec did not design bad cars they were all brilliant and fantastic to drive (i have driven them all)But they were expensive to make .With the acception of the minor they had moulton’s profit killing suspension.Just think what cars alec could have produced if he had gone in a different direction.The theory behind the citroen interconnection is sound and when combined with moulton’s clever displacers produces a level ride but at what expense. How much were alec’s cars influenced by the people around him.

  7. I agree, one needs to see the old and new Mini’s side by side to realise just how big the new one is. Totally different and higher tech car obviously, but I’m showing my age when I say, I still prefer the original Mini…

    Good to see a street sign with Alec Issigonis’s name honoured.

  8. I think it’s a little unfair to say that Alex Moulton’s suspension systems hampered Issigonis’ designs by making them too expensive to make – BMC obviously underestimated the costs in installing Hydrolastic suspension – otherwise they would have fitted springs and McPherson struts like everyone else – BMC/BL took a risk on the Issigonis/Moulton technology, and in the long run it didn’t pay off. However, having experienced the excellent Hydragas suspension system (too young to remember Hydrolastic!) I can say that it offered the average motorist Jaguar/Citroen levels of comfort and ride quality for little cost – surely something to be applauded and recognised.

  9. Why is the Sir missing from the sign? Typical Britain can’t get that right.

    If you think about it it was Issugonis design of the Mini which revolutionised small cars.iAlthough FIAT were producing similar sized motors, they were rear engined. This was the car that set the trend and for that Issigonis should be remembered by something better than a road!

  10. Bit of an insult putting that BMW thing at the unveiling. I imagine Issigonis would have loathed it in as much as he loathed the Germans (according to Moulton).

  11. Blimey- according to the main photo, you could almost park the Mini in the Bini engine bay…..

  12. I see the opportunity to have a go at the “BINI” again is not being missed.

    If it wasn’t for the “BINI”, there wouldn’t be any manufacturing left at Cowley and the whole site would be office space and retail, rather than just 3/4’s of it.

    Personally, I find it rather sad that his name should be attached to road in the area where the factory has been completely erased; it would have been much more appropriate if his name been used somewhere in the remaining Cowley plant.

  13. I, for one, am not ‘having a go’ at the MINI, I just know Issigonis’s view on size and while he might be flattered that the shape harks back to his design he really would be aghast at any closer association.
    Aghast – what a lovely word.

  14. @15
    Alec Issigonis was born in Smyrna (now Izmir) in 1906 as a British subject, with a German mother! Alec’s mother, Hulda Prokopp, could trace her origins back to Württemberg (now part of Germany). It was through his mother’s kinships that Issigonis was a first cousin once removed to BMW (and more briefly Volkswagen) chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder who masterminded BMW’s aqquisition of Rover (and who especially wanted the Mini).

    Pischetsrieder was once asked what he remembered of his cousin (his grandmother and Sir Alec’s mother were sisters).

    “I remember he took me through a disgustingly dirty British car factory,” he told me. “I vowed at the time that I didn’t want to work in the car business.”

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