Redesigning the car, Issigonis style


We said goodbye to Alex Issigonis, who left us on October 2nd, 1988, but not before he had revolutionized motoring for millions of us. Sir Alex Issigonis, CBE, FRS, RDI, was the son of Greek and German parents, born into the Greek community of Smyrna, the Ottoman, now part of Turkey. He moved to the UK in 1923 after being evacuated to Malta by Royal Marines when the Turks captured Smyrna. He studied at Battersea Polytechnic, now part of the University of Surrey, and went into the auto industry working for Humber and competing in racing events.

He was very proud of the part he played in developing the Morris Minor, but he leapt to fame when Sir Leonard Lord, head of the British Motor Corporation, tasked him with designing an ultra-small car following the fuel rationing that resulted from the Suez Crisis of 1956. He had prototypes running the following year, and the car was launched in 1959

The car, launched originally as the Morris Mini Minor and the Austin Seven, was a sensation. It was revolutionary, with front wheel drive, a transverse engine, 10-inch wheels, and managed to fit 4 adults into a very small car by making efficient use of space. It had a few teething troubles, such as a pull-cord door handle on the inside that many owners replaced with a lever handle. It tended to accumulate condensation in the door well, leading to rust, but this was rectified in later models.

It gained immediate cult status, with the basic model selling at just under £500. A hotted-up version by Cooper featured amazing acceleration and grip, and began winning rallies all over the world, prompting one cartoonist to remark that “if God had meant it to go that fast, he’d have given it bigger wheels.” The cars became known simply as minis.  

It became the best-selling car in British history, with 5.3 million units being produced. I owned two myself at different times - a second hand red and black version I bought as a summer runaround, and later a mini Traveller, like a tiny estate car. I found both of them to be reliable and fun, though being so close to the road took some getting used to.

In 1999 it was voted the second most influential car of the century, after the Model T Ford. The Volkswagen Beetle, whose original drawing specifications, penned by Adolf Hitler, are still in a safe deep within their HQ, came 4th in that poll, and was not as revolutionary as the mini. It democratized motoring, as the Model T and the Beetle had done earlier, bringing car-ownership within the range of humble pockets. For many people, it brought a new freedom to explore the countryside and to travel. It opened up opportunities.

When people look at the hard facts of wage levels, they often forget that those wages buy things that were unavailable previously. Inventive and innovative business introduces products that make wages go further in terms of what they enable people to do. The iPhone did that, and half a century earlier, thanks to the brilliance of Alex Issigonis, the mini did the same.