Issigonis, The Mini Mastermind

Paddy Hopkirk driving his Mini Cooper to victory in the gruelling 1964 Monte Carlo Rally
Paddy Hopkirk driving his Mini Cooper to victory in the gruelling 1964 Monte Carlo Rally

by Ray Setterfield

November 18, 1906 — Car designer Alec Issigonis, the man who gave the world the Mini, was born in Turkey on this day to a Greek father and Bavarian mother.

He immigrated to Britain in 1922, studied engineering and in 1948 masterminded the Morris Minor, the first British car to sell more than a million. In 1959 he unveiled the Mini, which 10 years later became the first British car to sell over two million.

The Mini became the icon of the Swinging Sixties and its list of celebrity owners was long. It included the actors Steve McQueen, Peter Sellers and Brigitte Bardot; pop stars the Bee Gees, the Beatles, and Mick Jagger; fashion model Twiggy, clothes designer Mary Quant and in royal circles, King Hussein of Jordan, Princess Grace of Monaco, Prince Charles, and the husband of Princess Margaret, Lord Snowdon.

In 1969 the car became a movie star in its own right with the release of The Italian Job, in which Michael Caine leads a likeable British gang stealing gold bullion in Italy. In a dramatic getaway they thread their way through the traffic-jammed streets, tunnels and steps of Turin in three Mini cars – one painted red, one white, and one blue. (The film was re-made in 2003 using newer Mini models.)

But before all that the Mini had to make its mark. It owed its existence to high oil prices in the 1950s and a consequent demand for smaller, more economical cars. Leonard Lord, head of the British Motor Corporation, issued a brief to designers outlining what he was looking for.

He wanted a car with lots of space inside, seats for four people, impeccable driving characteristics, great fuel economy, and a very affordable price. It should be no more than 10 feet long, 4 feet wide and 4 feet high (305cm x 122cm x 122cm) and to save costs it should use one of BMC’s existing engines.

Alec Issigonis accepted the challenge and introduced a few innovations of his own. First, he placed the transmission in the sump. Then, so that it took up less space at the front, he mounted the 850cc BMC engine transversely across the front wheels instead of the conventional fore and aft arrangement. Traditional steel springs were replaced by inexpensive rubber cones in the suspension system.

The Mini's innovative transverse engine and front-wheel drive layout has been the inspiration for almost all small front-wheel drive cars since that time.

It was launched in August 1959 as the Morris Mini Minor and the Austin Seven at a cost – in the currency of the time – of four hundred and ninety-six pounds, nineteen shillings and tuppence (£496 19s 2d). The deluxe version, with a fitted heater, cost an extra £40, but still retained front windows that had to be slid backwards and forwards by hand.

Austin and Morris were once competing British car manufacturers but both later came under the BMC umbrella. The names were retained to capitalise on consumer brand loyalty, though the car soon became known as the Austin Mini and in later years simply as the Mini.

As its popularity grew racing car constructor John Cooper saw its great potential as a racing vehicle and, working with his friend Issigonis, refurbished the car to meet standards required by Group 2 rally competition. The Austin Mini Cooper and Morris Mini Cooper were launched in September 1961 and enjoyed unprecedented success at the Monte Carlo Rally from 1964 to 1967. 

It began with driver Paddy Hopkirk winning the 63/64 Monte Carlo winter rally in his Mini Cooper. A year later, Finnish driver Timo Mäkinen – known as “the Flying Finn” – climbed into his Mini Cooper and won in weather so bad that only 35 out of 237 entries finished the course, which ran for thousands of kilometres. The following year sealed the Mini's rallying status with Mäkinen, Rauno Aaltonen, and Hopkirk finishing first, second and third.

The Mini was successful, in fact, in several forms of racing, and legendary drivers including Graham Hill, Niki Lauda, Jackie Stewart, Jochen Rindt, John Surtees, and James Hunt all started out racing Mini Coopers.

In 1968 British Leyland, primarily a manufacturer of trucks and buses, took over BMC and changed its name in 1986 to Rover Group. By 1994 it was struggling and was acquired by Germany’s BMW. The Independent newspaper commented: “It will be remembered as the day when the sun finally set on the British motor industry.”

The final version of the original Mini was built in October 1996 but would continue in production until 2000. It had been manufactured in the UK, Spain, Italy, Australia, South Africa, Belgium, Chile, Malta, Portugal, Uruguay, Venezuela, and Yugoslavia.

BMW sold off most of Rover in 2000 but kept the Mini name and unveiled the new Mini at the Paris Auto Show that year, launching it in 2001. They saw it as the new hip and cool car of the day, a confidence that was justified in 2007 when sales reached one million. It has been forecast that the new Mini could outsell the old one sometime in the late 2030s.

Alexander Arnold Constantine Issigonis, who was knighted at Buckingham Palace in July 1969, then to be known as Sir Alec, would have been proud. He died in 1988 aged 81.

Published: September 20, 2021
Updated: September 28, 2021

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