By Richard Sear
No man looks less designed to start off the cult of the miniature. Stooping just under six feet in height, he looms large at any traffic light. The hands are so massive they are freaks .The feet, nose and ears all appear to have been issued by a component factory for giants.
The complete envelope, now a matured sixty-four years, is the paradox Sir Alec Arnold Constantine Issigonis—the man who gave Britain the Mini-car and who next week receives the accolade from the Queen.
He says; “I hate all big things. I hate big cars, big organisations , big houses. My house is a matchbox hidden in shame by the trees.” His tiny, slightly hysterical car, with its superbly intricate simplicity, was conceived, he claims, by a professional blacksmith “weaned on Meccano.”
The uncluttered lines are a joy to him, ” a satisfactory barrier to the flamboyant stylist.”
‘I adore ornate buildings. I could sit and look at Brighton Pavilion all day,” he says.
In spite of hating large organizations , his genius has flowered in one , the largest, now the British Leyland Motor Corporation , at Longbridge, Birmingham. Heart of volume production for the ‘ social evil,” the motor-car.
‘The car is going to contribute very largely to wrecking civilisation,” he says
An artist with a fibre pen, an engineer with a T-square, he works almost always in the tweed jacket, flannels and well cut suede shoes of the gentleman farmer. And he has a reputation for looking like one. which he does not discourage.
Born in an age that cried out for his brainchild, and having served it with brilliance, Issigonis is, nevertheless, in love with the steam age and wishes he had worked alongside George Stephenson designing the 1829 Rocket. Thus he has spent months and years of his spare time building miniature steam engines in his garage which has rarely housed a car. Engines on a fixed track of his own design, running riot among the shrubbery of a garden he prefers to forget.
Socially he revels in the golden age of Edwardiana and the music of Franz Lehar. For years he spent his holidays at Monte Carlo, always staying at the Hotel L’Hermitage for its air of plush solace so beloved by the titled English of the 1900s. He worked on hydrolastic suspension on a raft offshore from L’Hermitage . His manners are circa 1900.
When I arrived at his Birmingham house I was smoking a cigar: Did he mind?
‘Put it out in the flowerbed, my boy, and light another one inside.”
His desire for comfort and need for elegance have their eccentricities. ‘I hate going into a strange bar where they don’t know how you want your drink mixed. I feel it is insufferable.”
In London, he stays at the Hyde Park Hotel where the barman knows exactly how to mix his dry Martinis. Yet his taste in food is at the simple level of a transport cafe.
‘I adore steak and kidney pudding , bangers and mash, egg and bacon.”
Often he will be seen dining alone at a reserved table in an expensive Birmingham restaurant off half a dozen sausages and baked beans. To Issigonis the great days of car designing began with the Italian master Ettore Bugatti whose first car was built in 1906.
Leaning back in his chair, light eyes softening the craggy face and huge hands blurring it , he says; ‘I am the last of the Bugattis, a man who designed the whole car in this age the committee has taken over.”
Politically he claims to be “completely stagnant “.
For years he has taken the same Tory newspaper for the crossword and to work out a ticklish design problem in the margin. The Mini was probably born in the stop press. But the Issigonis Mini goes back into time and chance, when he was a child in his birthplace Smyrna (now Izmir) in the Greek-held part of Turkey. The only child of a Greek marine engineer, an ardent Anglophile who became a naturalised Briton, he was brought up by an English governess. He also had an English tutor and from the start of his awareness , thought in English.
When he was seven years old be saw his first motor-car, an American Overland, and the first thing he did was “to ask the chauffeur if I could look at the instruction book.”
In his early teens, the Turks attacked Smyrna and the family were evacuated. They had the choice of two ships, one going to Crete and the other to Malta. His father choose Malta, intending to go on to England, where he hoped to have his son educated at Oundle. the public school with a fine reputation for engineering.
His father died in Malta and, with Mama, his Bavarian-born mother, he settled in London to attend the Battersea Polytechnic, there he obtained an Engineering Diploma, but getting it was ‘a near go.”
He says “I was no good at physics or chemistry, I was not academic and I could never take any interest in maths. I knew maths would be no use to me in designing. Calculations stem from basic laws and it was those laws I got into my head so that they became instinctive.”
For most of his life he has looked after Mama, dropping his designing pencil to go home and cook for her, taking her with him on his Monte Carlo holidays. She is now eighty-four and the accent of her native Bavaria still hangs heavy. In the drawing room of their £15,000 house in the Birmingham suburbs she sits bolt upright holding court, the natural image of German film star royalty.
Dressed in black, as was his governess, she will chide him on the colour of his shirt and will declare to the assembled company of top car executives: “I have always to tell him when to get his hair cut.”
Her pride in his knighthood is an aura. Behind the bachelor son has always stood this woman who first introduced him to the
delights of motoring in 1926 . She bought him a new Singer saloon and took him on a grand tour of Europe Forty years later he was to drive a Ferrari, lent him by the great Enzo, at 180mph down the Italian autostrada only to be told he wasn’t driving very well that day.
On his return from the grand tour, Mama told him she had done all she could, he must now go out and earn a living for them both. The young Issigonis began designing automatic transmission with a firm in Victoria Street, London, and went on to build
experimental cars in his spare time.
In a ramshackle Oxford workshop he developed his passion for small, lightweight cars. Working at night and weekends with a friend, he brought out the Austin Lightweight Special. It had rubber suspension, weighed next to nothing—he even refused to paint it to save weight—and won almost every race it entered. During this emergent period he learned the feel of metal with those great hands.
“My advice to a young engineer is to do practical work as a hobby. They are ten a penny these academic students who come down from universities and have never got their hands dirty.
“It is only by manipulating materials with your hands that you get a strong feeling of art.”
His first complete car was the Morris Minor which came off the production line in 1948. In 1957 he was asked by Sir Leonard Lord, then chairman and managing director of British Motor Corporation, to produce a new small car “really soon.”
Much of it was already in the Issigonis mind and in nine months his ideas were transformed into cut metal running on the road. The Mini, now past the 2,000,000 mark, had arrived. His approach to designing are definite and autocratic.
“I like to see the functional properties in my imagination first. It’s meaningless and too complicated to get involved in all the apparatus . But I don’t pander to public taste. I plan to give people the most practical form of public transport and this has a form of its own. I will not design cars for people who like to leave them outside their front gate.’
By this, he means he doesn’t approve of styling and once told an American: ” I think you are really ashamed of your car that’s why you make them look like Zeppelins,” If he changed the face of Britain, he says was quite unconsciously done.
“I was doing what I thought I should do,” he says.
For doing exactly that received a knighthood and tends to brush it off . “I did not realize the importance of a ‘ Sir ‘ until I received so many letters. Reading them all, I decided the must be something in this.”
More important to him is acceptance as a Fellow of the Royal Society. “To sign the book with all those famous names in—that’s marvellous.”
He is committed to making smaller and smaller cars and says: ‘We have nearly reached the ultimate as long as cars have an engine. The engine is a nuisance, it gets in the way of what I want to do.”
In his Longbridge workshop he prowls like a cat, absorbed by machinery. His long fingers on the glass roof of a transmission set-up spewing oil. “I’ve been on that problem for a fortnight and it is still not solved. You can be on for too long.”
He stalks around the bonnet of what may be the Mini of the 70s, a broader, shorter car which may be his last. He says nothing the hands spread and gesture saying much. I am aware of a glimpse of the future, a secret glimpse like a lantern slide without words. In a corner is a tiny insignificant engine which perhaps represents the unfinished in the Issigonis saga.
It is the beginnings of his experiments in steam. “Experiments with the prime consideration to prevent air pollution,” he says.
There is fifteen years work before it is fully developed, he maintains.
“And then we might not only have .steam cars, but motorcycles and lawn mowers driven by steam.”
Time will have run a full circle then for the man who feels he was meant to work alongside George Stephenson and in his personal life has opted out of the last half of the 20th-century. Even to the point of refusing to drive with a safety belt. “It is much easier to drive without having an accident. I wish could design human beings for safety,” he says.
And adds: “But it is absolute’ correct that safety belts save lives.”
The paradox remains.
- Announcement : Still working on securing AROnline’s future - 8 December 2023
- The cars : Rover P6 development story - 8 December 2023
- Concepts and prototypes : Hyundai/Rover Oden (1992) - 9 November 2023