Sir Alec Issigonis is best remembered for the Austin Mini – a car that revolutionised the small car package and probably saved the British Motor Corporation at the same time. However, there was more to his life than just one car.
He was born in 1906 in a city that is now known as Izmir, in Turkey which itself can trace its history back before Alexander the Great. He was born as Alexandros Arnoldos Konstantinos Isigonis into a thriving Greek community whilst the city was part of the Ottoman Empire – it became Turkish territory in the 1920s.
Alexandros’ grandfather was a Greek who had moved to the city in the 1830s and had gained British citizenship thanks to some work on the British built railways. This citizenship was passed down to his grandson via his son and this came in handy. Alexandros’ mother came from Germany – the area around Stuttgart and was related to a family that later also produced an automotive engineer: Bernd Pischetsrieder who was heavily connected with BMW and VW amongst other brands.
During the 1920s the Greeks and Turks were fighting over territory and this forced the evacuation of many families. As the Isigonis family had British papers, they were sent firstly to Malta, where Alexandros’ father died, and then made their way to the UK.
Now with an anglicised name of Alexander Issigonis, the teenager attended schools in London studying engineering. Although he hated maths, he loved cars and got a job at Humber whilst racing an Austin Seven “Ulster” in which he was very successful. Part of that success was the home-grown front suspension that improved the handling of the car. Automotive suspension had become the first of his specialisations.
This lead to a job with Austin where his engineering was put to good use on many models and by 1936 he had jumped ship to Morris where, again, his design ideas were fitted to many cars including the classic Morris Minor, a project that he managed – and one of the first cars to have over 1 million built. During the 1940s he designed the Nuffield Guppy, an amphibious cart that the military could use in campaigns, however it was never put into service. William Morris was also Lord Nuffield and had another business making tractors and other equipment.
When Austin and Morris merged to form the British Motor Corporation in the early 1950s, Issigonis moved again, to Alvis, a maker of military vehicles and low volume luxury saloons. He was asked to design a modern saloon with a V8 and his legendary suspension design. However the work he produced was too expensive to put into production!
This seems to have forced another move – back to the home of his early success, Austin/Morris, where he was asked to develop a range of small, mid and large cars. The economics at the time meant that the small car was first off the production line and became the Mini – his most famous vehicle. However … all three of his designs made it into production with the mid size car becoming the Austin 1100 and the large saloon was the Austin 1800. All three cars being successful for the company.
The Mini was his crowning glory, despite working on many other successful designs, he is remembered as the man who put the gearbox into the engine – specifically into the sump of an existing Austin engine: the A series. The motor was an 850cc four cylinder and Issigonis and his team needed a very compact design to allow more space in the cabin, so apart from shrinking the overall size of the engine/gearbox structure, they also mounted in transversely in the engine bay to power the front wheels.
The team didn’t invent the transverse design, Daimler had one in 1899 and DKW had a two cylinder model during the 1930s and was followed by SAAB and Borgward in the late 1940s. What the team at BMC did was to compress the whole drivetrain into a compact unit.
Issigonis also worked on the Austin Maxi and several Morris Oxford cars – the ones that became the Hindustan cars in India. He also worked on developing the Pininfarina designed Farina models and he also had major input into the classic Mini Moke.
Issigonis appears to have had a big desire to create a military vehicle – possibly because he saw a wider use of his designs across the globe. The world always has conflict somewhere and he could have considered this a great opportunity. The Moke was another design that was originally intended to be for military use and like the Nuffield Guppy never made it into full combat use, however it sold well for civilian use and was assembled in 5 different countries across Europe, Africa and Australia.
Following on from the Moke, Issigonis developed the Austin Ant and again it was intended for military use however like the Guppy, it didn’t make it to production. It is possible that the Ant was developed at the wrong time. Senior management were being forced by the Government to turn BMC into the British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC) by merging the parent companies thus bringing Austin, Morris and Jaguar from one side together with Standard, Triumph and Rover (who also owned Alvis by now) from the other. It has been suggested that management thought the Ant would cannibalise sales of the Land Rover.
The merger and creation of BLMC was also bad news for the man who was now Sir Alec Issigonis (having been Knighted in 1969). There are contradictory reports about what happened next. Some say the new company pushed him sideways into a “special developments” role – management speak for “we’ll get rid of him without redundancy” and other articles suggest that he asked to be moved from management because he didn’t like the new way of design by committee (and probably badge engineering as well).
He did “retire” in 1971 although apparently not officially until 1987 when the company finally dismissed him. Retirement meant acting as a design consultant for the company! Sir Alec never married and died in 1988 and had apparently spent the last few years collating documentation about his career.
As an endnote, I read a report that said that the management at BMC/BLMC were quite unhappy with Issigonis because of the success of the Mini and Austin 1100/1300 models! By 1971, 75% of all production (and sales) were of these cars plus the earlier Morris Minor and as such were selling far more than the higher profit “luxury” cars that the group had in the showrooms. There was one article that suggested that this was the reason that the Government forced the merger – they were concerned about huge job losses if BMC collapsed. I think BMC would have been doomed without Issigonis and his team of engineers creating such iconic models. Buyers wanted the smaller more fuel efficient cars and that is exactly what they delivered.