Saturday, September 17, 2016

Alec Issigonis: The Greek-British Father of the Mini Cooper (video)

Sir Alexander Arnold Constantine Issigonis, best known as Alec Issigonis, is a car designer of Greek origins and the developer of the groundbreaking Mini Cooper.

He was born in Smyrna on November 18th, 1906. His father Constantine Issigonis and his grandfather were engineers. After the Minor Asia Disaster, his family was forced out of Smyrna and fled to Malta in 1922. After his father's death, he relocated to England together with his mother.

His first car was a Singer with a Weymann coachwork, in which he travelled to Europe with his mother in 1925, dealing with an endless series of mechanical breakdowns. After returning from that trip, Issigonis made the decision to study engineering at Battersea Polytechnic in London.

In 1934, Issigonis went into the motor industry design working for Humber Ltd. in Coventry on the development of an independent suspension. Only two years later, in 1936, Morris Motors hired him thanks to his exceptional skills and know how in the field of chassis development.

He also developed an independent front suspension system for Morris 10 that didn’t go into production due to the breakout of World War II. However, it was later used on the MG Y-type. During the war, he served the army by designing a light tracking vehicle for Morris and several other military vehicles.

In 1952, he moved to Alvis Cars, where he designed an advanced saloon car, a prototype that was never manufactured because its cost was beyond Alvis’s resources. In 1955, Issigonis was recruited back into BMC, as an Associate Technical Director in the Austin plant at Longbridge to design a new model family of three cars, a small town car, a medium-sized family car and a large luxury car, in an effort to ensure the future of the top European car industry at that time.

In response to the Suez Oil Crisis of 1957, British Motor called upon Issigonis to head development of a small, fuel-efficient car. The result would become his masterpiece.

Initially sketched with a pencil on a tablecloth, this top-secret project was initially called ADO 15, short for Austin Design Office Project 15. The design challenge was clear. Issigonis somehow had to design and engineer a car that would seat four passengers and their luggage in a package not to exceed ten feet in length.

Moreover, he insisted that no less than 80 per cent of the car’s volume be dedicated to passengers and luggage. This meant that the engine, gas tank, all mechanicals, wheels and tires were to make up only 20 percent of the car. Issigonis used a front wheel drive, transverse mounted engine, the first modern application for this set up and one that would define all future front, transverse layouts. The suspension was equally innovative and compact, utilizing a rubber cone system instead of springs. In order to keep the wheel wells from intruding into the passenger compartment, he moved the wheels to the outside corners. The wheels themselves were only ten inches in diameter. In October, 1957, just eight months after first putting pen to paper, the first two prototypes were on the road.

On August 26th, 1959, Mini Classic was officially launched in all countries where British Motor Corporation was sold. The car was launched as the Morris Mini Minor and the Austin Seven. With a purchase price at £496 in the production country, Mini ranked 2nd in the list of the most inexpensive cars in the market of that time.

Issigonis is the designer of three out of the five British cars with the highest selling rates of all times, Morris Minor, Austin 1100 and Mini.

In 1961, he was appointed member of the Board of Directors of Austin Motor Company and two years later he moved to the Board of Directors of BMC. In 1967, he became member of the Royal Society, the most influential research company in Britain and two years later Queen Elizabeth granted him Knighthood and named him Sir, in recognition of his engineering genius in designing Mini Classic. Even after retirement, Sir Alec Issigonis was appointed advisor of the company, a position he held until 1987.

Issigonis died in England in 1988 at the age of 81, having lived long enough to see his beloved Mini sell in excess of five million units.

Fun facts:

– He did not see a car until he was 12 years old.

– He was a failure at mathematics, once stating that pure mathematics was the enemy of every truly creative man.

– Mini became the only British car that ranked first in the list of the highest car sales in history and was manufactured until 2000.

– Issigonis never missed to point out that, “I didn’t invent Mini, I designed it”.

– Queen Elizabeth granted him Knighthood and named him Sir, in recognition of his engineering genius in designing Mini Classic.

– He is credited with uttering the now-famous line, “A camel is a horse designed by committee.”

– Mick Jagger, the singer of Rolling Stones, and also Paul McCartney and John Lennon were owners of Mini, while Enzo Ferrari owned three of them.

– His colleagues nicknamed him The Greek God.

– He is a member of the Automotive Hall of Fame.

Sources:, King Rose Archives & Automotive Hall of Fame

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