He made the Mini - and broke the mould

The Mini brand is on a high, and there is renewed interest in the man who started it all. But, says Jonathan Wood, Alec Issigonis was a flawed genius

The vehicle that brought about this radical change to the way in which the world designs its motor cars was the British Motor Corporation's Mini, of 1959. Unlike practically all of its contemporaries, this vehicle was the product of a single individual's extraordinary creativity. The Mini, which also bequeathed its name to the language, represented the apogee of Alec Issigonis's career and it stands out as the most technically significant car in the history of the British industry. By virtue of that accolade, its creator's reputation remains unsullied.

There was, however, a downside. In 1959, the BMC built 430,000 cars and was the world's fifth-largest motor manufacturer. Thanks to the Mini and its 1100 derivative, output would soar to 730,000 in 1964. But its descendant, MG Rover, which occupied the site in Longbridge, Birmingham, where the Mini was created, built a little over 105,000 cars in 2004, before calling in the receivers this year.

The reasons for the collapse of Britain's last volume car manufacturer are multifarious. One unpalatable truth is that in the 1960s the flair and ingenuity for which the Mini is so rightly famous were not apparent in subsequent larger models. This is because Issigonis's formidable creative ability could only express itself in the design of small cars. Intuitively committed to the need to save weight, he was a minimalist before the word became current. This goes some way to explaining why the Mini's larger-engined successors failed to sell in the expected numbers, and was one of the reasons for the BMC tumbling into decline. As corporate technical director, Issigonis, an uncontrolled force who was given a free reign by a weak and vacillating chairman, must share some responsibility for its demise.

Issigonis's origins were cosmopolitan. Turkish-born of Greek/Bavarian parentage, he was a fairly tall, slightly stooping figure with an aquiline nose and intensely blue twinkling eyes that were alive with creativity and humour. He was a man of contradictions: his voice and dress were suggestive of the English upper middle classes, yet this donnish figure designed cars for the masses. He was, by his own admission, arrogant - he readily described himself as "Arro-gonis" - but he self-deprecatingly considered himself to be "a mere ironmonger". Intensely proud of Britain and devoted to its royal family (who were great fans of his cars), he venerated the Establishment and possessed, as one of his friends diplomatically expressed it, "strong views on certain foreign countries and nationalities". He was, despite being half-Bavarian, stridently anti-German, an ardent Francophile and dismissive of Americans.

Issigonis thus presents the figure of an automotive Janus. He was disarmingly shy, humorous, charming and excellent company, and he maintained lifelong friendships outside his workplace. However, his other face reflects a more bigoted, narrow and introspective personality. Throughout much of his motor industry career, he could be domineering and dismissive of the opinions of others and he was incapable of according praise or credit to his colleagues. Yet, more positively, an oft-overlooked characteristic is that Issigonis was an intensely practical man who knew how to use tools and did so with remarkable dexterity. His hands were those of the artist-craftsman.

It comes as no surprise to find that his childhood was as unconventional as the cars he produced, and, indeed, goes some way to explaining why he designed them as he did. Constantine and Hulda Issigonis's only child was born on 18 November 1906 in Smyrna, Turkey, and christened Alexander Arnold Constantine, names that accurately mirrored his Greek ancestry and the high regard that his father, proprietor of an engineering concern, felt for Britain, where had spent time studying engineering and had become a citizen at the age of 24. Even though he was taught by private tutors, Issigonis had difficulty in mastering arithmetic and subsequently declared: "All creative people hate mathematics. It's the most uncreative subject you can study, unless you become an Einstein and study it in an abstract, philosophical sense, as to why numbers and things exist."

Issigonis was seven years old in 1914 when the First World War broke out and in the mayhem and massacres that befell Smyrna the Issigonis family had been lucky to escape with their lives. The family's rescue by the Royal Navy would underpin in the young Issigonis the esteem in which he already held British institutions: "There was a deep, deep gratitude built into him and a respect for Establishment," says Alex Moulton, Issigonis's friend and collaborator.

Some months later, Issigonis's father died. Thereafter mother and son would remain together. Issigonis never married, and, apart from occasional absences, he would share a home with his formidable mother until her death in her 86th year in 1972. In such circumstances there was a widely held view within the industry that Issigonis was a homosexual. It should be said that this supposition was fuelled to some extent by his habit of peppering his speech with "my dear", an affectation he probably acquired from his friend, the unquestionably heterosexual Laurence Pomeroy, coupled with a theatrical delivery. So was Issigonis gay? "Probably, but non-practising," believes the former Autocar journalist Ronald "Steady" Barker, who knew him. Christopher Dowson, son of George Dowson, with whom Issigonis built the Lightweight Special hillclimb car in the 1930s, says: "He lived for his engineering, his mother, his hobbies and, of course, his dry Martinis and Yellow Perils, his name for the Gold Flake cigarettes he smoked."

Without the presence of a family, some of his more extreme opinions went unchecked. Some of his pronouncements in the 1960s, such as, "I never wear a seatbelt. It's much easier to drive without having an accident," and "I never have a radio in the car, I need to concentrate on the job of driving," were at best controversial and, less charitably, plain dotty. He had clearly never been challenged by a wife or a child.

Before the Second World War, many of his ideas found practical expression in the design and construction of the Lightweight Special, the most advanced British hillclimb and sprint car of its day. This sprang from his recognition that "it was no use designing and studying one part of a car. Everything was too tightly integrated for that." Thus he was able to demonstrate that he could create a complete car, a discipline he would apply first to the Morris Minor and then the Mini.

The Minor had a protracted gestation and Issigonis had begun work on what was to be code-named the Mosquito prior to the outbreak of hostilities in 1939. It was the first production car for which he was responsible and it was to become as British as the Union flag or Giles Gilbert Scott's red telephone box. Yet the Minor was conceived by an engineer of Greek and Bavarian parentage who had drawn his design influences from America, central Europe and France.

Above all, it was to make money for Morris. "The greek God" was the name accorded to Issigonis by his contemporaries. Yet Morris failed to recognise the Minor's true worth, an indifference that today can be identified as one of the many tragedies that has punctuated the British motor industry's turbulent history. It left a gap ably filled by the Volkswagen Beetle.

The transversely engined front-wheel drive Mini bristled with ingenuity. But, underpriced, it produced little profit and should therefore be judged a commercial failure. Sir Terence Beckett, who masterminded Ford's Cortina and went on to become chairman of Ford of Britain, says, according to one technical assistant, that a note of paranoia was apparent in the Issigonis psyche as "he used to drink Malvern Water because at one stage he thought he was being poisoned. He never had any money and would not discuss money so everyone who worked with him was never well paid. He was always asking his 'boys in the shop' to get his blue Pentels for him and they would buy them 12 at a time."

The last of Issigonis's cars, which was to emerge in 1969, was the Austin Maxi. Sadly, "towards the end of his life he was ever so lonely," remembers a friend, Charles Bulmer. "He was not really mobile and quite isolated, having fallen from a position of such power and strength when everyone wanted to see and talk to him. I think he felt it very badly." On 2 October 1988, Issigonis died, aged 81. The funeral address, given by Sir Peter Ustinov, suggested that the Mini reflected Issigonis's "own twinkling personality. His eyes, of a surprisingly intense deep blue, were recalled in the wide-eyed innocence of the Mini's headlights, childish but hugely sophisticated. The Mini was not only a triumph of engineering but an enduring personality, as was Sir Alec with his exquisitely caustic tongue and infectious merriment."

Extracted from 'Alec Issigonis: The Man who Made the Mini', published by Breedon Books, priced £19.99

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