People : Sir Alec Issigonis

Sir Alec Issigonis: an insight into the great man, from an interview originally published to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the launch of the Mini.

The genius in 1979

Sir Alec Issigonis still has some interesting ideas on car design. Anne Hope finds he still hates all things big.

Sir Alec Issigonis

No one looks less like a man to start the cult of the miniature — for isn’t that what he did with his Mini? — than Sir Alec Arnold Constantine Issigonis. Just under 6ft tall (‘I’m shrinking, my dear, it’s such a bore’), his hands are huge, expressive, never still. Mischievous — or downright rude — he simply hates all things big — big cars, big organisations, big houses — and loves to shock his listeners.

But at the same time he’s considerate, with an old-world courtesy. Born in Smyrna (now Izmir) in Turkey in November 1905, the son of a Greek marine engineer who had taken British nationality and a Bavarian mother, Issigonis came to England when 16 and went to Battersea Polytechnic, ‘where in those days you could get the most wonderful training, my dear, for £3 a term’.

On the 20th birthday of the Mini

Now he’s receiving congratulations as the inventor of the Mini. So what will he be doing on 26 August 1979, the 20th anniversary of the day the Mini was launched?

Probably go out to lunch in a restaurant not far from his Edgbaston bungalow — driving there in a Mini. A celebration lunch? ‘With my bank manager, perhaps,’ he said. He hates going into a strange bar or restaurant. ‘They don’t know how you want your drink mixed or what you like or don’t like eating; I find that insufferable.’

For years he spent his holidays at Monte Carlo, always staying at the Hotel L’Hermitage, luxurious — with an ornateness and ostentation he intensely dislikes in cars. Cars — they were what I went to talk to him about — or rather, the cars which he designed: the Morris Minor, the Mini, the 1100, the 1800. ‘How boring, my dear,’ he said. What was he most proud of? ‘When I became a Fellow of the Royal Society and signed the book containing signatures of people such as Charles II and James Watt — that was marvellous.’

Issigonis on the future

I wondered about the car of the future. He shrugged. I persisted. Finally, he predicted: ‘In the next decade, if not before, rear-engined cars will be illegal. Apart from cars that have engines at the back, I’d never blame any car for causing an accident. I’d blame the man at the wheel — or the other wheel. People cause accidents, cars rarely do. But I think that rear-engined cars can be dangerous even in the hands of an expert. Mid-engined cars? I call them playboys’ cars…’

Ten years ago he told me, ‘I think that all small family cars in Europe — though not necessarily sports cars — will be front-wheel-drive within 10 years. The small car will be acceptable because of its convenience in heavy traffic.’ Then we were in the Hyde Park Hotel, where the barman knew how to mix his Dry Martinis. I reminded him of that conversation. Was he proud that so many manufacturers had copied his ideas?

He waved his hands. ‘So many manufacturers are copying each other now,’ he said. ‘When I designed the Mini, people said ‘It’ll never sell. It’s too expensive for what it is’. I was told I could use any engine, but it had to be one in production. It was a good, sturdy little engine but by today’s standards very expensive to make.

Mini marvels copied by the rest

‘The universal joints were made specially for us. Now the opposition are using them too.’ The BBC have been to interview him. He’s been photographed for the cover of the Radio Times. ‘How boring,’ he said, and was told that the Radio Times had the largest circulation of any magazine in the world. ‘Really?’ Did I want ‘to wash my hands?’ I did. ‘Good — then you can see General Motors’ proving ground, a big poster of the lunar landscape.’

Mentioning GM reminded him of another of his pet hates — big American cars, ‘dinosaurs’ — and he went on: ‘The change to smaller cars in America will take a long time. They want the biggest possible cars for the least amount of money. Our middle range cars like Cortinas they think are tiny.’

But the Americans were ‘downsizing’, I said, and switching to front-wheel-drive. ‘About time…’ What did he think of GM’s new X-cars? ‘Today’s cars all look the same to me,’ he said, and repeated: ‘The US market doesn’t want small cars, my dear, though the legislators may…’

And to a gearless future

So we left for lunch, Sir Alec driving — a Mini, of course. But not any old Mini — a gearless Mini. ‘You were asking what the car of the future might be like, my dear,” he said. “It’ll be a car without any gears — with forward, reverse and neutral. Mark my words, within 10 years the barbaric gearlever will have disappeared.’ Would we all be driving automatics, then? ‘Not automatics as you know them today, but gearless.’

Issigonis’ gearless Mini…

In the car, incidentally, he did not belt up. And the car had no radio. ‘I never wear a safety belt,’ he said. ‘It is much easier to drive without having an accident,’ he added. ‘I have never had a car radio; I like concentrating on the job of driving. I never smoke when I drive either.’

‘The Chinese in their wisdom, I’m told, have a law: it’s illegal to speak to a driver.’ So I stopped asking questions. Over lunch he talked of how he designed the Morris Minor and the Mini. ‘I’m the last of the Bugattis,’ he said. ‘A man who designed whole cars. Now committees do the work.’

Or computers? ‘Now meetings are held to decide where to have meetings. When I was working on the Morris Minor, a meeting with more than two people was overcrowded,’ he said, ignoring my interjection about computers. Sir Alec, the designer who refuses to give up even though way past retirement age, is now a design consultant with an experimental workshop. Meetings are held — in his drawing room — every weekday morning.

Anything longer than 10ft is too big…

Now he’s receiving the congratulations. But he was among the first to congratulate Sir Michael Edwardes on his recent knightood.

Final comments from Sir Alec, talking of how he developed the Mini. ‘At Cowley I had an experimental department. They were making a bubble car. I said ‘Never, never copy the opposition’ — and there and then decided on the Mini. I feel very, very proud that so many people have copied me.’

Then he let me drive his gearless Mini back to Edgbaston. It has a 1500cc engine and a torque converter and felt much like an ordinary Mini except there is no gear lever or gear selector. As I parked outside his spacious and comfortable bungalow, he noticed the car in which I’d arrived, a small car made in Japan. Small?

‘Too big,’ he said. Any car more than 10ft long is too big as far as Issigonis is concerned.

‘Well, my dear, I’m tired,’ he said, as I admired his clematis. ‘Would you like to see General Motors’ proving ground again?’

From Autocar magazine, 25 August 1979

The Alec Issigonis gallery

Ian Nicholls has put together a gallery of images, celebrating the great man’s life

Sir Alec Arnold Constantine Issigonis was the most famous employee of the British Motor Corporation and to many its public face. As the designer of some of Britain’s most popular cars he became a personality in his own right and over the years was photographed with many other collegues. The following images feature Issigonis and some of the other personalities who feature on this website.

A formal function in 1962. On the left is George Harriman , 1903 to 1973, Chairman of BMC 1961 to 1968. Centre is Harriman’s predecessor, Lord Lambury, formerly known as Sir Leonard Lord, and Alec Issigonis.

Alec Issigonis and Dr Alex Moulton, the creator of Hydrolastic and Hydragas suspension, with a Morris 1100, circa 1962.

An image from the 1964 Racing Car Show in the aftermath of the Mini’s first Monte Carlo Rally win. On the right is Alec Issigonis and standing next to him is John Cooper. The gentleman standing in front of the Mini is Bill Appleby, BMC’s Chief Engine Designer, and credited by some as the creator of the A-Series engine which lasted in production from 1952 to 2000.

The year is 1965 and the Mini reaches the one million production mark. Issigonis on the left is standing next to BMC works driver Timo Makinen, who had triumphed in that year’s Monte Carlo rally in a Mini Cooper 1275S. On the other side of the Mini stands BMC Chairman Sir George Harriman and works rally driver Paddy Hopkirk.

A 1967 photo of Charles Griffin, at the time responsible for BMC’s passenger car develoment with Alec Issigonis. Charles Griffin occupied many senior engineering posts with BMC and then British Leyland until his retirement in 1978. His son, Brian, followed in his father’s footsteps, working at Longbridge until the demise of MG Rover in April 2005.

The year is 1969 and Alec Issigonis is pictured with the 1964-70 Labour Government’s Technology Minister Tony Benn. Tony Benn was instrumental is forcing through the merger between the Sir Donald Stokes-led Leyland Motor Corporation Limited and British Motor Holdings Limited to form British Leyland Motor Corporation Limited.

The resulting merger and management musical chairs saw Issigonis sidelined into a research and development post. As the Minister for Trade and Industry from 1974 to 1978 Tony Benn was also involved with British Leyland’s affairs following its financial collapse and nationalisation.

The year is May 1971 and British Leyland celebrates the production of its five millionth front-wheel -rive car, a Mini Clubman saloon. Sir Alec Issigonis, the Chief Designer of all five million of these vehicles, is on the left. To the right are the two most prominent Triumph men brought in the former BMC, now known as the Austin Morris division of the British Leyland Motor Corporation.

Centre is George Turnbull, who ran Austin Morris from 1968 to 1973 turning a loss making operation into a profitable one after spending all his working life at Standard Triumph which he joined as an spprentice in 1941. Turnbull left BLMC in 1973 before the organisation’s financial collapse and continued a successful career in the motor industry.

On the right is Harry Webster, who after a career spent at Standard Triumph in which he was responsible for a whole series of stylish classic British cars moved to Longbridge in 1968 as overall head of Austin Morris design, development and engineering, effectively usurping Sir Alec Issigonis who was moved sideways into research and development.

Many of Lord Stokes’ team felt that Alec Issigonis was to blame for BMC’s decline, and this is borne out by the fact that at least 4.3 million of the five million front-wheel-drive cars produced from 1959 to 1971 were Minis and ADO16 1100/1300 models.

The public were simply not buying the larger Maxi and 1800 in enough numbers, hence BLMC’s decision to produce the simple rear-wheel-drive Morris Marina to appeal to fleet buyers. That makes this image all the more interesting – if Harry Webster’s glory years were at Triumph, then his British Leyland period was controversial. The Marina and Allegro emerged under Webster’s stewardship and the failure of the latter may have contributed to his departure to Automotive Products in 1974.

December 1971 and Alec Issigonis retires from British Leyland and he is seen here being presented with a No 10 Meccano set by Austin Morris head George Turnbull.

Article and images: Ian Nicholls

Ian Nicholls
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  1. “The year is May 1971 and British Leyland celebrates the production of its five millionth front wheel drive car, a Mini Clubman saloon. Sir Alec Issigonis, the Chief Designer of all five million of these vehicles is on the left.”
    Are all the Triumph 1300 fwd cars not included in the five million, then?

  2. Some interesting predictions from the man himself.
    FWD is now ubiquitous, and the US are starting to embrace “small” cars such as the 500 and the Fiesta, albeit the 500 is larger than the 50s original and the Fiesta is now mk1 Focus sized.

    The UK are still suspicious of automatic gearboxes, though with electric cars on the horizon this could all change.
    And rear engined cars for the most part died off (other than the Porsche 911), though the Smart ForFour and Twingo have seen them make a small return.

    However cars in general are getting ever larger, as consumers demand more space, more equipment and better safety, and the family hatchback has morphed into something that resembles a large off road vehicle.

    • The anthropomorthic models used in the car industry are largely based on a study of USAF personnel, carried out in the early 1950’s. There have been very few large scale studies carried out of ‘people sizes’ that are of any value in automotive design. Car dimensions have simply grown bigger, as a function of increased crash test standards.

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