Archive : Mr Issigonis looks to the future

Sir Alec Issigonis


Whatever the outcome of the BMH-Leyland merger in model rationalization, intensified marketing or expansion-and any joint project will not appear for at least 3 to 4 years-there will be no retreat within BMH from the Issigonis advanced engineering concepts.

Front-wheel drive family saloons and sports cars, lighter, more powerful multi-cylinder engines, gearboxes designed for motorway driving, compact, space-saving bodies with an increasing accent on aesthetic lines – these will be the trends in BMC marques. From last year’s appointment of Mr Roy Haynes, Ford of Britain’s chief stylist, as BM.C.’s director of styling, will emerge re-vitalized body shapes, married to models of advanced technical design.

But the basic emphasis will be on higher performance and primary safety. To make an authoritative assessment of the engineering approach inside BMH. I talked to Mr. Alec Issigonis, their technical director and ‘.father’ of the Mini. He remains uncompromisingly in favour of front-wheel drive small and medium- sized cars, against the conventional front-engine, rear drive. rigid back axle layout.

As we forged in his Austin 1800 through deep snow and ice around Longbridge, while ‘conventional’ cars slithered by the wayside, his argument was reinforced. ‘If we had months of this weather every year, it would kill the old design approach’, he said.

‘Combine front-wheel-drive with a good automatic and the resultant traction and stability become sensational… I am more than ever convinced that this is the future road.’

He underlined the vital importance of weight distribution, in a conventional car about 55 per cent on the front wheels and 45 per cent on the back, compared with the 70/30 in a front-drive car. But he exempted from the argument cars with a refined independent rear suspension, which makes a good compromise, and rear-engined models, which have exceptional traction.

‘It’s just possible, in the long run, that there might be some technically acceptable solution there’, he added. He thought the cost difference between front and rear-drive had been greatly over dramatized. Looking around Europe, we find the recruits to front-wheel-drive family cars steadily increasing, now including every major French manufacturer and soon to be seen on a bigger scale in Italy.

But it is still out of favour for the larger cars. I detected little enthusiasm at Longbridge for revolutionary types of engine, ‘The piston. engine is still in its infancy ‘, Mr. Issigonis maintains.

‘Economics will prolong the 4-cylinder unit but I foresee a change around the corner to more than four cylinders, even for cars of under 1 litres. Today, the average power for a family car engine is about 50 bhp a litre. I see this being raised to around 65 within five years.

Simultaneously, engines will become still more compact and lighter, through greater use of aluminium (this can save up to 1201b. on a small four-cylinder unit), and plastics for less-stressed parts. Power will be increased by improved combustion chambers, coupled with completely new thinking on induction and carburation. Experimental work now being done on exhaust emission controls to meet the United States regulations is already raising engine efficiency.’

Fuel injection?

Mr. Issigonis said: ‘I do not see much future for it on bread and butter engines, though it will have applications on out and out sports cars. The extra cost. £50 to £60, still rules against it. But the real development will come through anti-smog design. Because of time, our work on this so far has had to be done in a crowded, makeshift way, using a system of burning the hydrocarbons in the exhaust as they escape from the engine. This is not only costly, but does nothing to improve engine efficiency. The next stage is to improve the induction system so that these hydrocarbons get burnt within the engine.’

BMC engineers are now working on a new approach to clean exhaust, likely to be applied to all cars within the next five years. The price difference will be negligible. On electric car development. two lines are being followed: a battery powered car and separate power units for each wheel, this system being closer to a breakthrough than the zinc-air battery.

‘I still see the first electric commuter car with a lightweight, zinc-air battery,’ Mr. Issigonis declared.

‘We have made a car and it is very good. but we cannot do much with it until we get this battery. The future city runabouts will no doubt start along these lines. but once you get a range of 200 or 300 miles with a unit that can be immediately replaced, the customer wants four seats and as soon as you make it a four-seater because of economic and social requirements. it is no longer the ideal city car…’

In their automatic Minis, 1100s and 1300s, BMC have unquestionably achieved a significant advance in abolishing the clutch for everyday motoring, but the extra £92 in cost for the Automotive Products system is still a deterrent for most buyers. Here, the engineering view is that until the public accept the advantages of an automatic transmission which allows full control of each gear. and it is more widely used. a breakthrough on price cannot be made.

At the same time, an attack must be levelled on the design side. lronically, the cost of a small car automatic transmission system is higher than that for a bigger car because, ideally, it needs four gears. To gain really widespread acceptance, the extra cost (about 16 per cent) needs to be halved.

‘It is infuriating’, Mr. Issigonis says, ‘that people are so reluctant to accept the higher cost for a car that combines all the advantages of compactness with an automatic box, so dramatic and so near, yet so far from the ideal.’ Looking at future developments in the Longbridge pipelines I see no likelihood of BMC moving out of the small and medium car markets.

Design, production and future engine projects are all being directed principally towards models of under 2 litres and particularly between one and 1-5 litres. The life of the Mini would appear to stretch indefinitely ahead, while the 1100/1300 and 1800 saloons are still in their comparatively early stages of development Although these are also early days in the BMH-Leyland group (which should receive a less unwieldy title than British Leyland Motor Corporation before long), an obvious field for future joint projects is the sports car market, where up to now both BMC and Triumph have been competing with models similar in appeal.

‘Europe will always remain a limited market for big cars,’ Mr. Issigonis observed.

‘I still see it as the biggest market for cars of 1.5 to 2.5 litres. while the Mini has yet to be exploited on the Continent. In all the underdeveloped countries the small and medium-sized car is the one that will be most acceptable, because of economic problems-say. up to 1.5-litres. The same applies in eastern Europe. We shall sell bigger engines maybe, but not bigger cars there, while I think the time when the American buying public become sensible and accept small cars is very far away.’

Keith Adams

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