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Alec Issigonis

His beginnings

Alec Issigonis was born Alexander Arnold Constantine Issigonis in Izmir, Turkey (then the Ottoman port town of Smyrna) on the 18th of November, 1906. He and his parents were British subjects, his grandfather having obtained British nationality through his work on the British commissioned SmyrnaAydin Railway project. Alec's father, Constantine Issigonis, was schooled in England where he studied engineering. Back in Smyrna he formed an engineering business with his brother, Alec's uncle. His mother, Hulda, was of German descent ­ the daughter of a wealthy fig 1 ­ Alec Issigonis brewery owner with a branch in Smyrna. In 1922 his family was moved by the British Royal Marines to Malta, following the end of the GrecoTurkish war of 19191922 and the subsequent repossession of Smyrna by the Turkish. Following his fathers death this same year Alec and his mother moved to the UK, where Alec enrolled at Battersea Polytechnic (now the University of Surrey). With his father and uncle working in engineering it perhaps comes with no surprise that Alec became interested in the subject, however he was not a great fan of the mathematics involved. He is quoted to have described pure mathematics as 'the enemy of every truly creative man' (Patrick C. Paternie, 2002). He failed his maths modules three times before leaving Battersea to finish his studies at the University of London External Programme.

Early employment

At the end of his studies Issigonis got his first job working as a draughtsman for an engineering firm developing a semiautomatic transmission. In his spare time he and a friend named George Dowson developed a lightweight racing car, the Lightweight Special, constructed purely using hand tools. He developed a 'stressed skin' design for the vehicle, using plywood panels and aluminium sheet to create a very lightweight frame.

fig 2 ­ the Lightweight Special

In 1933 he gained employment with the Humber company, working in the drawing office in Coventry until 1936 when he moved to Morris Motors (formed by William Morris in 1912) in Cowley, Oxfordshire. At Morris, Issigonis worked on an independent front suspension system, developing it for the Morris 10. Wartime prevented a production run of the Morris 10 using his advanced suspension, opting for a cheaper and more conventional beam axle system instead, and Issigonis and his team were tasked into working on military projects, notably a reconnaissance vehicle and a motorised wheelbarrow for use by the Royal Air Force in jungle conditions. During the latter stages of the war he began work on a project named 'Mosquito', after the highly successful De Havilland fighterbomber of the same name, which would become the Morris Minor. By 1945 a full scale model was unveiled, and production began. The Morris Minor was produced between 1948 and 1971, a hugely long production run thanks in no small part to Issigonis' steering and suspension designs giving it excellent handling characteristics. William Morris, who had now become Lord Nuffield, was outspoken about his disdain for the cars looks, nicknaming it 'the poached egg'. Initially motoring critics agreed, but the practical handling and the driving experience of the car soon defeated any dislike of it's outward appearance. When Morris merged with the Austin company, forming the British Motor Corporation (BMC) in 1952, Issigonis moved to the much smaller Alvis company fearing such a large company might stifle his creativity. Here he worked on designs for a luxury saloon car, including advanced designs for the era such as an all aluminium engine and independent suspension systems. A lack of sufficient resources at the small company meant the project was shelved, and in 1955 Sir Leonard Lord invited him to rejoin BMC.

The British Motor Corporation

'Back' with BMC (although he had never officially worked for the new company), Issigonis was given a mission: to develop a car to counter the popularity of European 'bubble cars'. He began work on a range of 'XC' experimental cars, assigned codes XC/9001, XC/9002, XC/9003. During his first couple of years at BMC, he focused on the first two projects ­ a large and mediumsized family car respectively. Come the end of 1956, and the Suez Crisis, focus shifted to fuelefficient (and hence small) cars given the petrol shortages associated with the situation. XC/9003, a small town car, became the important project and Issigonis was ordered by Lord to bring it to production as soon as possible.

fig 4 ­ the BMC crest

Rumour has it Issigonis drew his initial sketches for XC/9003 on a tablecloth ( His design was given the drawing office project number ADO15. The car would be launched through both the Morris and Auston factories as the Morris Mini Minor and the Austin Mini Seven, but it would come to be known simply as the Mini.

fig 5 ­ an initial Mini sketch

The Mini

The Mini is doubtless Alec Issigonis' most famous design. By early 1957 working prototypes were available and in 1959 the car was officially launched to huge success. The design was ground breaking, even though the final production car omitted some of Issigonis' more advanced ideas. The car was frontwheel drive with a transversemounted engine, a sump gearbox, 10" wheels and previously unseen space efficiency. Through mounting his engine eastwest, and via other spacesaving fig 6 ­ Alec Issigonis with two Minis touches, Issigonis managed to make 80% of the Mini's 3 metre length usable to the driver and passengers. Issigonis had also planned an interconnected suspension system for the Mini, which was replaced by a rubber cone system developed by his previous coworker and friend Alex Moulton. This system went on to be developed along with Issigonis to form the Hydrolastic suspension system, used in the 1962 Morris 1100 and the 1964 Austin 1800. The Mini was a versatile machine and Issigonis took it upon himself to develop numerous variations on his design. Van and pickup variants, the MiniMoke and the Mini Traveller, as well as variations designed for use by the Fire Service and the Royal Mail. Oddly, given his previous stint as a race driver himself, he had no desire to develop a racing or rally variant of the Mini. He has described his development of the Lightweight Special, the car he developed for his brief racing career, as 'a frivolity in my life. It was not so much a design exercise as a means of teaching me to use my hands.' ( Thus the task of developing a raceready Mini fell to John Cooper, giving rise to the now infamous Mini Cooper which would become the first car raced by James Hunt, Jackie Stewart and Niki Lauda as well as many other aspiring 'boy racers'.

The Morris 1100 / Austin 1800

The Mini had established Issigonis as not only a worldclass designer but had even propelled him to the status of a household name. Not the kind of man to revel in fame, Alec continued his work at BMC and worked in collaboration with the Pininfarina studio on the production of the Morris 1100. Battista 'Pinin' Farina had admired the lines of the Mini, and asked Issigonis if he was a stylist. Offended by this, Alec retorted 'I am an engineer' ( The Morris 1100, or the ADO16, sold considerably more units than the Mini ( It was larger than the Mini, but designed around the same engine and the same design ideals. As with the mini, Issigonis pressed ahead with uncommon innovations and technology, such as disc brakes and the previously mentioned Hydrolastic suspension system. Pininfarina took care of the exterior styling. As with the Mini, Issigonis managed to create an unprecedented amount of interior space, fig 7 ­ a Morris 1100 comparable with the much larger Ford Cortina ( The Austin 1800, ADO17, was produced between 1964 and 1975, and was again designed by collaboration between Issigonis and the Pininfarina design house. Again Issigonis introduced new technology, this time an early form of an Antilock Braking System (ABS). This car was much less of a success. The spacesaving methods employed to great success in the Mini and 1100 were much less relevant in the larger 1800, and the Pininfarina styling, which differed to that used on the 1100, wasn't much to the taste of the British public.

fig 8 ­ a mk1 (left) and mk2 Austin 1800. The vertical rear lights were believed by many to be the offputting aspect of the styling, hence were changed.

The Greek God

Issigonis had a simple mantra. 'One thing I learnt the hard way ­ well not the hard way, the easy way ­ when you're designing a new car for production, never, never copy the opposition' (Gillian Bardsley, 2007). He described himself as 'the last of the Bugattis. A man who designed whole cars. Now committees do the work' ( Issigonis loathed committees and study groups, believing that anything he designed would be good enough for anyone. He is credited with the phrase 'a camel is a horse devised by committee' (, now a reasonably infamous quote. His career saw him live the 'British Dream', so to speak. After receiving his education in London he worked for the largest British automotive company and really shaped the progress of car development into what is has become today. Whilst he cannot be credited with inventing the notion of the small 'run around' car, he undoubtedly brought it into the limelight and managed to force his unconventional design ideas into public acceptance. His hobbyist building of the Lightweight Special proved to his mind that he was capable of building a complete car from design to production, something which surely shaped his often regarded arrogant stance on 'totalitarian' design. In recognition of his great achievements he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1967 and as Knighted in 1969 to become Sir Alec Issigonis, CBE, FRS. His contemporaries at Morris nicknamed him 'The Greek God' (Jonathan Wood, 2005), but Issigonis, despite his innate arrogance, remained down to Earth.

fig 9 ­ the final act. Sir Alec receives his retirement gift

He continued to work for BMC until retirement in 1971, aged 65. He produced his last car, the Austin Maxi, in 1969 but by this time he had begun to deteriorate both physically and mentally. Never married, and assumed by many to be a 'non practising homosexual' (Jonathan Wood, 2005), Issigonis lived a reasonably lonely private life. He had friends but his insistance on working alone and slightly abrasive attitude meant he lived out his final years as quite an isolated man. He died aged 81 in October 1988, his funeral addressed by Sir Peter Ustinov 'His eyes, of a surprisingly intense deep blue, were recalled in the wideeyed 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.'


Cited references (in order of citation): Paternie, Patrick C., 2002. Mini. Motorbooks International Publishing. Alec Issigonis / Designing Modern Britain [online] (not dated). Available at: [accessed 02 November 2008]. He dedicated his life to the small car [online] (not dated). Available at: [accessed 02 November 2008]. BMC ADO16 [online] (updated 10 November 2008). Available at: [accessed 10 November 2008]. Bardsley, Gillian, 2006. Issigonis: The Official Biography. 2nd Ed. Icon Books Ltd. Alec Issigonis interview [online] (updated 20 September 2008). Available at: [accessed 10 November 2008]. Wood, Jonathan, 2005. Alec Issigonis: The man who made the Mini. Breedon Books Publishing. Uncited references (in order alphabetically): Inductees ­ Sir Alec Issigonis [online] (not dated). Available at: &type=inductees [accessed 02 November 2008]. The Morris Minor [online] (1996). Available at: [accessed 10 November 2008]. Famous Designers. Alex Issigonis 19061988 [online] (not dated). Available at: [accessed 12 November 2008]. Old English Car Club of British Columbia. Roundabout Vol 12, Num 3 [online] Available at: [accessed 10 November 2008]. Alec Issigonis [online] (updated 28 October 2008). Available at: [accessed 02 November 2008]. BMC ADO17 [online] (updated 25 October 2008). Available at: [accessed 10 November 2008].

References continued

Image references fig 1 ­ Alec Issigonis Available at: Direct url: fig 2 ­ the Lightweight Special Available at: Direct url: fig 3 ­ the Morris Minor, William Morris at the wheel. Available at: Direct url: fig 4 ­ the BMC crest. Available at: Direct url: fig 5 ­ an initial Mini sketch Available at: Direct url: fig 6 ­ Alec Issigonis with two Minis Available at: Direct url: fig 7 ­ a Morris 1100 Available at: Direct url: fig 8 ­ a mk1 (left) and mk2 Austin 1800 Available at: Direct url: fig 9 ­ the final act Available at: Direct url:

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Alec Issigonis

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