The British motor industry of the mid to late 20th century would have been very different without Sir Alec Issigonis. He was responsible for several important cars, three of them extremely popular in their day and one now regarded as an all-time classic. Here is the story of the legendary pioneer and his creations.
Issigonis was born to Greek and German parents in the Turkish city of Izmir in 1906. He moved to the UK in the 1920s and after higher education found work in the motor industry, while also building competition cars in his spare time.
After several years of designing components at Morris, Issigonis became responsible for the company’s first post-War small car. The Minor, known during its prototype period as the Mosquito, was intended to be roomy, economical and both easy and fun to drive.
The Minor was substantially updated in 1952, four years after its launch with a new engine and repositioned headlights. Production reached one million (a very high figure in those days) in 1960. By the time the Minor was withdrawn from the market in 1971, it had been sold as a saloon, an estate, a convertible, a van and a pickup.
The most famous Issigonis car of all was the one now known as the Mini, though at its launch in 1959 it was sold as the Austin Seven (not to be confused with a pre-War car of the same name) and the Morris Mini-Minor. Other names were also used in the UK and abroad. The Mini’s outstanding feature was its interior space, achieved by fitting the engine and transmission into a tiny space under the bonnet.
Minis on the Monte
Minis won the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964, 1965 and 1967, and would have done so in 1966 except for a series of disqualifications which conveniently eliminated all the leading British cars and gave victory to a Citroen. The resulting outrage may have given the Mini more publicity than the three wins it officially achieved.
Like the Minor, the Mini was available with several body styles. One of the more unusual involved an extended rear, as found in the more upmarket Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet which also had chrome grilles. Introduced in 1961, they were abandoned in late 1969.
Issigonis made two attempts to produce off-road vehicles. The Nuffield Guppy of the 1940s did not make it to production, but the Mini Moke did. It was intended for military use but in fact became popular as a leisure vehicle and is still the favoured car of residents of St Tropez.
By the time the Mini went on sale, Issigonis was already working on a larger model known internally as ADO16. It was sold under the Austin, MG, Morris, Riley, Vanden Plas and Wolseley brands, usually with the model names 1100 or 1300, depending on engine size. Similar in concept to the Mini, it was produced from 1962 to 1974.
The UK’s most popular car
ADO16 dominated the UK market. It was launched before registration figures were properly recorded, but the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders has confirmed that it topped the charts nearly every year from 1965 to 1971 and was placed second in 1967. It remains the only non-Ford ever to have been number one on the SMMT’s annual list.
Issigonis was passionate about small cars, but he also designed what at the time was considered quite a large one. Originally sold as the Austin 1800 (and actually smaller than today’s Ford Focus), it was also marketed as a Morris and a Wolseley. It was named European Car of the Year in 1965 and was surprisingly successful in endurance rallies, finishing second in the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon.
The Mini Clubman and 1275 GT featured new front-end styling in 1969. It made the car look more modern, though the rounder shape was retained for cheaper models, and in fact continued to be used long after the Clubman shape was abandoned in 1980.
The last production car designed by Issigonis was the Maxi, by no means the first hatchback but certainly one of the early examples. Very practical for its day, it was manufactured between 1969 and 1981. John Lennon crashed one in north-west Scotland while on holiday with Yoko Ono and their children from previous marriages.
Alec Issigonis was knighted in 1969 and officially retired from the motor industry two years later. He died at his home in Birmingham in October 1988, six weeks short of his 82nd birthday.
End of the Mini story
The Mini outlived its creator and any of his other designs. By now seriously outdated but still with a loyal fanbase, it remained in production until October 2000. The company that built it was now called Rover, which had been bought by BMW in 1994. The chairman of BMW at the time was Bernd Pischetsrieder, a first cousin once removed of Alec Issigonis.
One of the greatest honours given to the most famous Issigonis creation was announced in December 1999. After a complicated process lasting three years, five cars were named as the finalists in the Car of the Century awards. The Mini was voted number two, behind the Model T Ford but ahead of the Citroen DS, Volkswagen Beetle and Porsche 911.