I first saw Alec Issigonis in the mid-1960s, when I was assigned to South Experimental as an Apprentice in my final year.
However, I first became aware of the name Alec Issigonis when I was a keen car enthusiast and still at school in Yorkshire – our neighbour had just brought home a new Morris Minor and was the toast of the street… Firstly to be able to buy a new car in 1956 and secondly a futuristic nippy and sporty sounding one.
I was excited to look it over and be allowed to sit in it… compared with typical cars on the road at that time this car looked quite special.
A taste of the Morris Minor
After that, I read as much as I could about the Morris Minor, not a lot was available I remember but, as I had already started collecting car brochures, I pestered my father to take me in our family Ford 100E Anglia to the local BMC dealer where I nervously asked for a brochure. I learned that a man called Alec Issigonis was the Designer and he had made an impression on me.
In 1959, on a family holiday to Devon and Cornwall, I saw an advertising hoarding showing a revolutionary new car called the Austin Se7en which had been launched by BMC and discovered later the Designer was the same man – there was much more information available about this car and I began to realise engineering and automobiles were in my DNA.
It was no coincidence that a few years later I became an Austin Apprentice.
Meeting the great man at work
In South Experimental, I discovered Alec Issigonis was a frequent visitor, typically with a group of executives in tow who gathered around whatever vehicle was the topic of the day.
These groups frequently included Charles Griffin, then Chief Engineer BMC, Jack Daniels, Issy’s right-hand man, George Delasalle, chassis design, Eric Bareham, power unit design, Ron Nichols B or C cell, Gill Jones my senior manager and Bernard Johnson (no relation,) who was the manager of Experimental.
There were others who visited but these were typically the most frequent visitors when Issy came – I use this term for Alec Issigonis as it was coined by Jack Daniels and the name everyone seemed to use except when standing next to the big man… I observed.
My impressions at the time were that Issy was very much in charge, his voice was heard above the others, he typically talked over others and one characteristic was Issy’s habit of drawing things with his finger on anything to hand, dirty car roofs were popular, so were bonnets, boot lids, in fact anything relatively flat.
Where to find his sketches?
Afterwards panic frequently occurred as these mobile sketch pads were hunted down in order that the sketches could be transcribed onto something safer before vehicles disappeared or – the worst nightmare – the car had gone through the car wash, situated at the front of Experimental next to the very popular petrol pump.
The beauty of ‘dirty car roof sketching’ was that the image usually survived the car wash being ingrained in the paint… I’ve seen Draftsmen painstakingly attempting to retrieve these engineering masterpieces because Issy was last in the queue when patience was given out and if work which had he requested wasn’t done precisely according to his instructions – which invariably involved a sketch or sketches – he became extremely displeased.
That was embarrassing to witness.
A demonstrative genius
Issy was very demonstrative using his hands to accompany his words, his arms were quite long, and he had long fingers. ’So what?’ many might ask but when Issy drove cars, especially Minis, he was more crouched over the steering wheel and could easily work the toggle switches for the windscreen wipers and lights not forgetting the starter button on the floor. I should also include the heater fan switch hidden underneath the heater but then again Issy hated heaters.
These were, of course, features he refused to change, overcoats were heaters, he was a minimalist and admirer of Citroën-type basic features, and he loved the 2CV.
One of the first jobs I was given in South Experimental was to go up to the executive suite, where Issy’s office was and retrieve his Mini Cooper – 484 RFC – green with a white roof I remember.
In trouble with the mechanics
I picked up the key from his secretary who said the car was not drivable – only a slight challenge as with more hands we turned it around and pushed it to Experimental. Maybe only 300m but downhill once we had turned left at the CAB building past the fire and police stations and left into our department.
I thought it best to investigate the problem by starting the car in the safe environment of Experimental and this was the first surprise as this was a 1275S engine on top of an automatic transmission.
The noise was sufficient to turn it off immediately – I supervised the removal of the engine and transmission then carefully dismantled the gearbox checking every component until the entire transmission was laid out in pieces on a large table. It was my first in depth look inside this automatic transmission and first impressions were of the sheer number of quite small parts.
A rebuild is needed
There was metallic debris in the sump, it came from the forward clutch assembly. We couldn’t check any pressures in the transmission, but it was clear the engine would need checking and possibly rebuilding given the transmission oil was the engine oil and any debris would have gone through the engine.
I wrote a report using the trusty Polaroid camera to illustrate the failed components and was told by my manager to visit Issy to explain my findings to him in person.
I made an appointment and was shown in to Issy’s office at the appointed time to be greeted with a broad smile and a firm handshake, he was having his afternoon tea and offered me one too in what I learned was his customary Royal Albert china.
Curiosity – in a good way
He asked what I’d found and was most interested in a couple of small sketches I had included in the report – it seemed a straightforward failure of the friction plates one of which had disintegrated and clearly the source of the gravelly debris in the sump.
I had surmised that the failure might be too much power/torque for that forward assembly and suggested it perhaps needed to be re-engineered. I said we could rebuild his Cooper S engine while waiting for another automatic transmission which pleased him.
Issy smiled, thanked me then asked about me and if I did a lot of sketching as an Engineer which was true, I did. Issy told me he sketched as a way to explore ideas and to explain things to others, and we chatted about imagining mechanisms from the inside and drawing what was inside which I had practiced since I was quite young.
An Engineer from an early age
I recall dismantling my parents’ wedding present, a clockwork Westminster chiming clock, with my Meccano screwdriver and Hobby pliers. My elder brother assured me I would be in big trouble if I didn’t put it back together, but I got away with the ruse for ages seeing as the clock was in the front parlour, so I was able to move the hands around with the aid of Plasticine.
I did get into trouble, the clockmaker encouraged me to understand how it all worked which eventually led to drawing pieces and the rest was history. Issy enjoyed that story…
From that time whenever I saw Issy either in Experimental or the Design Office he always smiled and was friendly towards me.
Taking inspiration from Citroën
Sometime later, 1967 I think, he was in Experimental and saw me and my Senior Project Engineer mentor and asked us to do a project for him He wanted to make the headlights on an Austin 1800 move with the steering wheel as Citroën had done in their novel DS, and he wanted to try the idea out.
Issy’s idea was to make the headlight pivot then connect it to the steering arm all using springs. We weren’t convinced about this idea to start with but set about the task which required very special springs.
This exercise caused much hilarity in the spring manufacturers’ development lab in Redditch, Terry & Sons Limited, as the car made horrendous attention-grabbing twanging noises as the steering wheel was turned. It was usable for a trial but was never up for a design award.
Turning our attention to the ADO16
My mentor and I later became involved with Issy resulting from a development programme we did to investigate and develop a fix for clutch judder in BMC 1100/1300 vehicles (ADO16) – this was had been instigated by Charles Griffin.
We concluded eccentricity was the problem between the clutch cover, the pad held on with the wire clip and the relationship with the clutch throw-out bearing. We came up with an idea for a self-aligning throw-out bearing which Issy picked up on and proceeded to patent for BMC with our names nominated.
Meanwhile, we’d convinced Borg & Beck to grind the punched seats on the clutch cover and also grind the face of the pad contacting the throw-out bearing. This modification was rapidly put into production and, together with the field service fix, clutch judder ceased to be a major warranty issue.
Making the Mini quieter
On another occasion Issy asked me to do some work for him on a Mini – he wanted to progressively remove body panels to observe the effect on interior noise. Hmm.
He wanted me to start with the roof, so I cut the largest area out without destroying the monocoque strength, then the door panels and the rear quarter panel. Each time I had to cover the apertures with liner paper to make the vehicle ‘roadworthy’.
All this proved was that any panel drumming noise was changed to a loud flapping noise from the liner paper and masking tape.
Life after Leyland
In 1968 and prior to the Leyland takeover I asked Issy if I could talk to him sometime about the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and he told me to make an appointment with his secretary.
On the due date and at the appointed time Issy welcomed me into his office this time with tea and biscuits and another airing of the Royal Albert.
I was there to ask Issy if he would be kind enough to sponsor me in my application to join the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, Issy was immediately very jovial and explained carefully that he wasn’t a proper engineer just an honorary fellow so was not allowed to sponsor me.
Thoughts of the future
He was most apologetic, and we spent the remainder of the meeting chatting about car ideas. I shared my belief in aluminium alloys, cross flow heads and turbocharging in the future, I was there most of the afternoon.
In the immediacy of the Leyland takeover Issy was unceremoniously removed from his office, and over the ensuing months, he was seen around less and less.
Eventually, I learned that he was busy working on his BMC 9X project and other grand ideas such as his steam Mini… His workshop/cell was directly opposite Experimental and his experiments were often visible in clouds of steam as his Mini travelled back and forth, slowly.
Riding in the 9X
One day I was allowed a brief ride in his 9X. I’d seen it around before, but this was an exciting experience, the performance was surprising and it handled well, some clever engineering and novel ideas. The 9X wouldn’t have won a beauty competition but I thought it was a missed opportunity.
In summary, I enjoyed my times with Issy, I think he liked me as a young Engineer who was unafraid to talk to him about ideas and projects I didn’t think would work and who, like him, thought with sketches, drawings and a Pentel.
I saw and learned that most people even at senior levels were very reserved around him and reluctant to speak up and challenge both him and his ideas, another word might be frightened or fearful in his presence.
Much has been written about BMC, Harriman and Issy, and from what I saw and heard there was a lot of truth in these observations. Sadly, what Issy said and wanted was what he got – he should never have been put in the number two position in BMC and that was a serious, perhaps terminal mistake.
It is clear Issy was the sole architect of the E-Series engine, Eric Bareham was a quiet and thoughtful Engineer and pleasant to talk with but totally dominated by Issy so contesting the design criteria for the E-Series using outstretched arms over an ADO17 engine bay and wanting a six-cylinder engine in there as well found no willing challengers.
Such unbridled power started the decline in BMC, and the rest is history.
Behind every great person…
The many achievements attributed to Issy were without doubt the result of hard work and dedication of his hand-picked team, Jack Daniels being the constant driving force there, he frequently disagreed with Issy but with his quiet reserved demeanor was able to handle him without too much risk of his displeasure – making Issy’s ideas work was Jack’s job, filtering out the impossible was his big challenge.
Issy was certainly an unusual character, he looked and seemed like a loner and never a team player – he had many mad ideas and concepts and, on the basis of what I saw, I can’t subscribe to the genius description, he was an ideas man needing close management and control.
A student of automobile technology could easily see where Issy drew much of his inspiration from – he thought Citroën was brilliant and the Traction Avant and 2CV provided much inspiration, he told me that.
What inspired Issy
He loved minimalism in all things, a single basic instrument in the middle of the dashboard to him was genius….telling the driver only what he needed to know, he conceded to having a light come on for other information but was against telling the driver too much.
Putting the instrument in the middle of the dashboard was ideal for making right and left-hand-drive cars.
He thought the Citroën 2CV suspension was brilliant, he liked the minimalism of the seats especially and I heard him say once that seats should not be too comfortable to keep the driver awake and to concentrate… the same goes for the heater.
Thoughts on vehicle styling
Styling offended him and he was a utilitarian, he saw space in cars as a priority, he was good with ideas like those and the Mini, to him, was a people’s car. Going on holiday with the boot lid down was perfectly okay, so he hinged the rear number plate and light.
He liked the Traction Avant front-wheel-drive arrangement – all of these can be traced back to the Mini. His brief from Len Lord was to use an existing engine, the A-Series, the existing A-Series gears and as many existing components as possible, the gearbox and primary drive arrangement were indeed clever developments.
Design limitations with the monocoque body caused subframes to be adopted to manage the suspension loads and these were very expensive items and he was disappointed to have to use them. I understood from Jack Daniels that Issy was very keen to re-engineer the body to avoid sub-frames but time ran out.
Overseeing the ADO20 Mini facelift
I was asked to manage a development project on Minis known as ADO20 – a refinement programme involving isolating subframe mountings and other changes, I was fortunate to spend time with Jack to discuss the work he had done in the past and to get his views. Introducing compliance into sub frames is a complex issue which impacts on both ride and handling, a sensitive issue with Minis.
Jack had engineered a ‘refined’ Mini which we used as a comparator during the project. I believe this project was eventually stopped after I left the company. I’d witnessed the rough side of Issy firsthand, but I also knew another side, a gentle humbler man and for me watching him and his personality change so much when Leyland took over was sad.
I had an incredible life as an Engineering Apprentice at the ‘orstin, my apprentice indentures – signed, incidentally, by George Harriman -remind me of the learning opportunities I was given at Longbridge.
I was fortunate to have a career in Experimental and the variety of challenges which came my way. I am especially fortunate to have eventually worked with my childhood engineering hero, Sir Alec Issigonis, and to have some very good memories.