Sir Alec Issigonis

People

Alec Issigonis, who would create the most iconic piece of fully realized automotive design of the 1960s, was born in the Greek port of Smyrna in 1906. He was the descendent of at least two generations of passionate engineers, but there were countless reasons why he should not have succeeded in his chosen trade.

This was not a man who cared too much about the whys and wherefores of statistics or market research. To him public demand was bunk, and mathematics the enemy of the truly creative individual. As if to underline his distaste for numbers he failed the maths module of his course at Battersea Polytechnic three times.

But Issigonis compensated for this arithmetical inadequacy with a determined vision that carried him through the troublesome details of engineering. “I thought we had to do something better than the bubble cars”, he said just before his death in 1988, “I thought we should make a very small car for the housewife that was economical to run with lots of shopping space inside which didn’t need a big boot.”

It was a seemingly modest ambition- but its realisation changed the way the public saw small cars forever.

After finally completing his training at Battersea Poly – under the tutelage of his watchful mother – the nineteen year old began to pick up work with various design consultancies in London and the midlands whilst setting to work on building a racing car. We’re not sure whether the project ever saw the light of day, but it’s fair to say that it sparked in him a desire to build innovative motors that would never fade.

Illustration by Paul Willoughby, commissioned exclusively for Influx

In the thirties he went on to work for Morris on a number of mainstream industry projects, and during the war years he penned a motorised wheelbarrow for the War Department. He was also, of course, the main architect of the iconic Morris Minor.

The project that would become Issigonis’s magnum opus started with unassuming moniker “Austin Design Office Project 15.” The project was infused with innovation from the get-go. Engine was switched sideways to save space. Drive was focused on the front wheels to remove the weighty and space hungry transmission tunnel. The gear box was placed just below the engine in a single unitary design

The result was one of two cars at the time into which my grandfather – at 6’5” – could fit. The other was a Jaguar.

The Mini was an unprecedented success. It was perfect for Joe Public with its price tag – a snatch at £497 and celebrities loved it for its radical new design. The mini came to be associated instantly with a new generation of car owners. This baby boom generation was younger, more fashion conscious and more socially mobile than any that had preceded it. The mini, in other words, chimed perfectly with the times.

Sixties fashion supremo Mary Quant summed up the Mini’s quotidian appeal. “It was my first car and I was very proud of. It was black with black leather seats – a handbag on wheels. Flirty, fun and exciting, it went exactly with the miniskirt.”

So was Issigonis’s vision a case of the right man being in the right place in the right time – or a sublime piece of celestial inspiration that can perhaps never happen again? Perhaps we should leave the last word to Sir Alec himself: “the public don’t know what they want – it’s my job to tell them.”

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