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