By Brian Allison
Hello again boys and girls.
I's been quite a while since our last bedtime story but better late than never as my Granny used to say when I was a little boy.
Can anyone remember how our last story ended and who it was about? Very good Mark!, that's right, it was about Alec Issigonis, and how he had designed the Morris Minor. Can you remember when that was? Yes Babs, 1948 was the year the Minor was launched at the first British Motor Show after the end of World War Two. I'm glad someone is taking notice and not daydreaming like Leigh.
Are we all settled down now? Then I'll begin.
Alec's Morris Minor sold well enough for him to continue working to further improve his design with a view to producing a successor, and by the time Morris and Austin merged in 1952 to form the British Motor Corporation a rather different form prototype was being tested. This version had the engine mounted transversely and front wheel drive. Pardon,Keith? It means the engine was placed sideways, instead of in line with the car itself, like almost all todays small cars. One of the development engineers, Jack Daniels, used this prototype as his everyday transport and was hugely impressed with it. No Mike, I don't think for one minute that it's the same Jack Daniels that makes the drink your daddy likes so much.
One of Alec's more famous quotes is, " A camel is a horse designed by committee." Which was his way of saying that he should be left alone to get on with designing, without lots of other people interfering. So when BMC came into being he thought that would lead to even more interference than when it was just Morris Motors. His last project for BMC was the new Morris Oxford and Isis. He resigned from BMC in 1953 and took up a position at Alvis, another British car maker who produced luxury cars.
His job at Alvis was to design a new luxury car and was where he first met Professor Alex Moulton. Alex Moulton was a suspension design specialist who had done a lot of work regarding the use of rubber as a alternative to the normal methods of springing then in use. His preoccupation with the use of rubber in this way may perhaps have had something to do with his family being behind the Avon Tyres company. Alex's input into Alec's future designs was very important, as I'll tell you a little later.
Alec's design for Alvis's new car was, as developed in a prototype form, was of unitary construction which made it relatively light and strong, it offered 6 seats, had a rear mounted transaxle, including the clutch, inboard rear brakes, and a modern, sophisticated 3.5 litre V8 engine. It looked unlike any other British car at that time and more like a continental design. Probably the closest British car, looks wise, is the Jaguar Mk 1 which came out in 1955.
Intriguingly, It appears that the car was possibly designed to be suitable for a front wheel drive layout, with a flat floor and compact Moulton rubber cone suspension, leaving a large and spacious engine bay. Issigonis planned two versions, known as the TA/350 with a 3.5 litre V8 and TA/175 with a 1750cc, V4 engine. Unfortunately the TA/350 never went into production due to rising costs and also because of difficulties in getting the bodies built. The body problem was caused by the fact that the two largest body builders had been taken over, Briggs' of Dagenham by Ford in 1953, and Fisher and Ludlow in 1954 by BMC.
When Alvis cancelled the project, Alec was invited by BMC Chairman Sir Leonard Lord to return to BMC at Longbridge, as Chief Body and Chassis engineer. . He quickly arranged for Jack Daniels, do you remember him?, to move up from Cowley to Longbridge to join his team again. Daniels acted as Issigonis’s right hand man for the next ten years or more, acting as go-between for Alec and the workshops, draughtsmen, production engineers and accountants.
Lord (later Lord Lambury), had big ambitions for BMC and wanted Alec to develop the basis for a range of modern family cars to replace the existing collection of BMC products. Lord wanted modern looking cars but also wanted to be able to share some parts, especially the engines. He also wanted good quality design and cars good enough to be amongst the best in their class and internationally competitive.
BMC had already decided that some new thinking was needed to break away from the normal way of doing things, but the question was, what?.
Was it to be front or rear engined? If it was front engined, was it to be rear wheel or front wheel drive? Where was the gearbox to be fitted on a front wheel drive car? Was it to be water or air cooled? BMC had already developed, and asked outside consultants to develop, several concepts on various themes, none of which met the targets Lord had set. Lord hoped that Alec was the right man to supply the answers.
To start with the plan was to have a large family car by 1960, to be followed by a smaller car and then a city car. This plan was started on and early design studies done when it was interrupted by what became known as the Suez Crisis. If you look at your school geography books you'll see that the Suez canal is in a country called Egypt and joins the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. In 1952 a rebel force led by a group of army officers had deposed King Farouk and established Egypt as a Republic, with a man called Mohamed Naguib appointed as it's first President. Naguib was followed by Gamal Abdel Nasser as President in 1954. Although it was actually in Egypt the Suez canal had always been open to international shipping, which allowed oil tankers to carry oil from the Iraq/Iran area to Britain without having to make the long trip around the south of Africa. So when President Nasser took control of it in 1956 for Egypt and stopped the tankers using it , it led to a shortage of petrol in Britain and it had to be rationed.
The Suez business led to a fall in car buying and 6,000 BMC workers jobs were cut. At the same time sales of imported bubble cars soared due to them using less petrol. Leonard Lord noted all this and in 1957 told Alec to come up with a design code named ADO 15 to compete against them. Alec jumped at the chance and he quickly developed the first Mini prototype. By placing an A series four cylinder engine transversely with the gearbox underneath in the sump and sharing the oil, and moving the wheels to the corners, he saved so much space that it was possible to accommodate a four seat car within a length of 10 feet. Wanting to ensure that as much space as possible was given to the passengers, Alec used Alex Moulton’s compact rubber suspension and had Dunlop build 10 inch wheels and tyres just for the Mini, thereby making the most of the space available for the passengers. By October 1957, Alec had shown Lord a working prototype and the decision had been made to manufacture the car. The initial prototype had the engine fitted the opposite way round to the production models with the carburettor and exhaust at the front. This led to problems with carburettor icing and also made it difficult to service the distributor, so the decision was made to turn the engine round which meant a extra gear had to be introduced between the engine and gearbox to reverse it's rotation. When a Mini is ticking over and there is something chattering, that gear is what you're hearing.
When the Morris Mini Minor and Austin Se7en were launched in August 1959 they were an instant success. With it's rather boxy basic shape, tiny wheels and external seams and door hinges that looked rather like a inside out jumper, it was a stretch to describe them as anything other than functional looking. Only when you actually sat in one did you realise just how brilliant the design was, to be in such a small car and have ample room for four adults was totally different to any other car around. On the road the Mini continued to amaze. The precise steering, front wheel drive and a small wheel at each corner with Alex Moulton's rubber suspension gave the Mini roadholding better than most sports cars, spritely performance from it's 850 cc A series engine and excellent fuel economy, 59.9MPG at a steady 40MPH and not less than 33MPG under extreme conditions. And all for under £500 - £496 for the basic model, an extra £9 if you wanted a heater. The De Luxe model cost £536.
In less than 3 years , the Mini had gone from first sketch to full production. A remarkably short time considering this was before the days of computer aided design.
January 1960 saw the Mini van launched ,followed in September by an estate car version, the Austin Countryman and Morris Mini Traveller. The traveller had wood trim to the body giving it a distinct family resemblance to the Morris Minor Traveller based on Alec's earlier design , the one I told you about in part one of this story. 1961 was a busy year, seeing the introduction of the Mini pick-up, both Wolseley Hornet and Riley Elf versions, and the first Mini Cooper. The Mini Cooper had a larger 997cc. engine, twin carburettors, disc brakes, and revised gear ratio's.The next major change came in September 1962 when all models were fitted with Hydrolastic suspension in place of the previous dry rubber system. This was again designed by Alex Moulton. I've got a drawing to show you how it worked.
The Cooper S came along in 1963 with an enlarged engine, now 1071cc. and capable of 90 mph.
Just how effective the Mini Cooper S was can be appreciated by a look at it's record in what was at that time considered to be the toughest test of car and man; The Monte Carlo Rally. Unlike today's version, the rally then started from the four corners of Europe and 1964 saw three works Cooper S's entered, driven by Paddy Hopkirk, Timo Makonen and Rauno Aaltonen. They finished in that order in 1St,4th and 7th places.
The next year 1965 with the engines now 1275cc was held in terrible conditions and saw Timo Makonen and his co-driver Paul Easter win, remarkably without collecting a single penalty point.
In 1966 the three works cars actually finished 1st, 2nd, and 3d,with the Citroen of Pauli Toivonen 4th. The rally organisers, Automobile Club de Monaco, amid lots of argument disqualified the Mini's saying that the extra headlights fitted to them did not meet their regulations. Pauli Toivonen was eventually persuaded to accept the trophy but made his feelings on the matter very clear by vowing never to drive for Citroen again.
After covering every possible interpretation of the rules, the Mini Cooper S's were back again, the following year, 1967. And won again, this time with Rauno Aaltonen driving the winning car. So really, the Mini's had won for 4 successive years, and the resulting publicity did sales the world of good, Mini's becoming a regular sight in all the major rallies.
The last Mini Cooper built was one of a limited edition of 500 carrying the name, Mini Cooper Sport 500. Each of these last Mini's had a small plaque in the glove box, just like the one in the photo.
By the time the Mini and it's variants production ceased in 1970 the total number built was almost 5.5 million.
It was expected that the Mini would mean the end for Alec's earlier creation, the Morris Minor, but that wasn't the case. Demand for the Minor was strong enough for it to stay in production until 1970 when the last saloon was built.
Whilst the Mini was being produced Alec was busy designing new models for the range. First was a small family car, the ADO 16 which was the Austin 1100, launched in1962. I've a picture of one of those for you too. The 1100, later with an enlarged engine, the 1300, which was made in Austin, Morris, Riley, Wolseley and Mg versions, again followed the example of the Mini. Front wheel drive, transverse engine, hydrolastic suspension and maximum use of all available space. The Italian styling studio Pininfarina were responsible for the actual body styling including , as with the Mini, a Countryman and Traveller version. A luxury version, the Vanden Plas Princess 1100, later 1300,was produced from 1963. This featured full leather trim and seats, wood dashboard, Wilton carpet, etc. to produce a very luxurious interior. Production of the 1100/1300 ended in 1974 when it was replaced with the Austin Allegro.
During it's production run it was the best selling car in it's class for most of the time.
The next car Alec was responsible for was the 1964 Austin/Morris 1800, the one you've likely heard your daddies call "The Landcrab". Again this new model was also offered as a Wolseley, the 18/85, and later when fitted with a 6 cyl. engine as the Austin/Morris 2200 and the Wolseley 6. The 1800 followed the design of the Mini and 1100. Transverse engine, front wheel drive and Hydrolastic suspension.
The 1800 range was unfortunately not as successful as hoped for, something that I find puzzling. I've never actually owned a 1800 but I did have the use of one for a period during the late 60's and found it a very capable car all round, I especially liked the spacious passenger compartment. The 1800 range was phased out in 1975 to be replaced by the Princess range which became known as "The Wedge". Yes Gar, just like the one daddy has.
The last model Alec was responsible for was the Austin Maxi of 1969. This should have been a great success. It was a genuine hatchback with an amazing amount of loadspace when the rear seats were folded down, and, another first, the rear seats folded back as well as forward. This meant that when the front seats were fully reclined and the rear seats folded back you had a 6 foot long upholstered platform which made a perfectly usable bed. It had a 5 speed gearbox which was only normally found at that time on much more expensive cars. It was competitively economical for it's class, delivering an average of around 30 mpg. Unfortunately the styling was not to everyone's taste, due in part to using the doors of the 1800. Yes Zebidee, it was what we would nowadays call a Marmite car. Personally, I like Marmite. The original engine was a 1500 cc version of the new "E Series" engine, which in 1971 was uprated to 1750cc.
I ran a early Maxi for 18 months in 1971/2 and never had a problem with it but lots of others weren't so lucky. One major problem with the early Maxi's was the gearchange mechanism. This was a cable operated set up, and unless everything was in perfect adjustment and unworn could make changing gear a matter of guesswork. You knew all the gears were in there, it was just a matter of finding them. The gearchange was greatly improved in 1971 when the system became rod operated. The other major problem was with build quality. In the 1960's the British motor industry was in turmoil with endless strikes and cutbacks and in 1968 under pressure from the government BMC, which had by then changed it's name to British Motor Holdings, merged with Leyland Motors to form British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC). Then in 1975 BLMC was partly nationalised and became British Leyland (BL). All this upset led to very poor quality control and cars which should never have been allowed out of the factory were on sale to the public. A lot of problems were picked up by the Agents before the cars were sold, but they could do nothing about poor bodywork and parts and fittings that they were not able to see. Nevertheless Maxi production struggled on until 1981.
In 1965 Alec was given the job of Technical Director of BMC. Although this may sound like a promotion it wasn't a good move for Alec. His strength lay in coming up with new ideas and improvements, not sitting at a boardroom table and getting involved in the production and financial details of the business. As I said earlier, Alec did not like committees, being much happier working with a pencil and sketch pad.
In 1968, he was appointed as Director of Advanced Research of the newly formed British Leyland, and Harry Webster from Triumph became BLMC’s Engineering Director. Alec was probably privately satisfied with that arrangement, as it took him away from the daily grind of corporate management and designing production ready cars and back to where he had the opportunity to use his innovative skills – the kind of role Leonard Lord had originally given him twelve years earlier and which led to the Mini and the ADO16.
In November 1971, Issigonis officially retired from BLMC, with a major ceremony at Longbridge, for which BL marshalled an example of every car for which he had led the design, of which only the Minor was no longer in production. His retirement gift from the company was the largest available Meccano set, complete with a steam engine. Typically Alec made a grandfather clock from it, which kept good time.
Alec did continue to work as a consultant to BL after his retirement but almost always from home, more so after the mid '70's when he was diagnosed as suffering from Menieres disease. This is a problem in the inner ear which affects balance and can also cause a ringing in the ear and partial hearing loss. The effects normally happens in periods of up to four hours, but over time can lead to constant ringing and hearing loss. Despite this he continued working on new ideas, mainly improved engine designs including a six cylinder one for the Mini.
The consultancy agreement ended in 1986 when Alec wrote a letter directly to Graham Day who was the new chairman of BL. In his letter Alec complained bitterly among other things about electronics in cars, designers using CAD systems and not slide rules, and changes in the model designations of the existing Mini. Day immediately cancelled Alec's consultancy agreement.
More importantly, the end of the agreement also marked the end of goodwill payments from the Company that covered his nursing care, and he was forced to move from his home to a smaller flat. He died in October 1988, aged 82.
Sir Alec Issigonis, (Knighted in 1968), CBE (Commander of the British Empire),FRS (Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts) Died on the 2nd of October82.
Alec never married and lived with his mother until her death in 1972.
Alec is best remembered for designs that set the pattern for almost all small cars up to the present day. Yes he was stubborn, and self opinionated but his ideas had the mark of a genius. He showed that cars could be practical and pleasant to ride in and drive, and that size was not everything; he defined the template for the small petrol engined car for 50 years, maybe longer, and showed how modest cars could become “wish list” items, attracting customer such as Enzo Ferrari.
During his working life he was often referred to as "Arrogonis" due to his arrogant manner, but I prefer another of his nicknames "THE GREEK GOD".
An interesting footnote brings us back to his family connections. He was able to share his engineering and automotive interests, through frequent tours of Longbridge in the 1960s, with a first cousin once removed on his mother’s side of his family, who later completed a mechanical engineering degree and followed a career in the motor industry. His name was Dr.Ing. Bernd Peter Pischetsrieder who went on to become chairman first of BMW ('93-'99) and then Volkswagen (2002 -2006).
I hope the sheer amount of material in this story, which really only gives the main points of Alec Issigonis's life, didn't cause you to be bored, but it's hard to know what to miss out when writing about such a giant of the motor industry.
The photo's :- 1&2 - Proposed design for Alvis TA 350. 3,4,&5 - Mini prototype. 6 - Austin Se7en. 7 - Mini Cooper Sport 500. 8 - Mini Cooper Sport 55 plaque. 9 - Prof,. Alex Moulton. 10 - Hydrolastic suspension. 11 - Morris 1100. 12 - Austin 1800. 13 - Austin Maxi. 14 - Alec Issigonis. 15 - Alec Issigonis & Enzo Ferrari.
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