Finally, here is the last instalment of my series about the Sommers car museum. There is a special exhibition running on the subject of the idiosyncratic genius of Alec Issigonis.
Gathered together under one roof is a circle of oil-leaking cars from the heyday of the BMC corporation, a time when one man’s singular and, frankly, narrow idea of what a car should be was imposed with astonishing rigidity.
In brief, Issigonis had two ideas. One took the form of the Morris Minor of 1948, a rear-wheel drive smallish family car which lasted until 1972. The other idea we know as the Austin or Morris Mini-Minor. In typical BMC style it also had eleven other names: Austin 850, Austin Partner, Innocenti Mini (1965-1975), Leyland Mini, Morris 850, Morris Mascot, Morris Mini, Riley Elf (laughable), Rover Mini (desperate), Wolseley 1000 (sad) and the Wolseley Hornet. Riley Kestrel? Did I leave that out?
The second idea underwent stretching to become the Austin 1100 series, which also went under a host of names. And finally, the Austin 1800 which also went under a host of names. That this galaxy of names applied to three essentially similar cars indicates the poverty of BMC and the bizarre influence of one autocratic man.
The Sommers museum is more charitable about Issigonis: “Issigonis was the ideas man behind various groundbreaking models and directly responsible for various legendary models such as the Morris Minor and Mini (Mascot). Several of his ideas have since become the standard for a large part of the layout of the modern car such as transverse engines and front-wheel drive. At the exhibition there is drawn a portrait of the man, together of examples of the cars he created such as Denmark’s oldest Mini and one of Denmark’s oldest Morris Minors. Further, one can see some of the vehicle developed from the Mini such as the popular 11/1300, the big and comfortable Monaco and the impressively roomy Maxi.”
At the same time BMC also had sports cars like the MG and the Triumph, Rover and eventually Jaguar brands under its umbrella. However, the core of the corporation was as dependent on the FWD, transverse engine architecture as Chrysler was on the K-car in the 80s and as Fiat is on the 500-derived cars it mostly sells today.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man is the saying and you can wonder if BMC might have had a bit more of chance if they had not relied so much on a single person’s view of how to design cars. While one can deplore the conservatism of focus groups one can also see how the conservatism of Issigonis limited the range of ideas BMC had to choose from. Perhaps if a few more people had been around to provide a diversity of ideas during BMC’s hours (or years of need) then Issigonis might be remembered as the man who gave us the Mini (the loss-making, whining rust trap we all loved) rather than the cantankerous dictator for whom every problem was a nail to be dealt with a Mini-shaped hammer.
What I notice about the Issigonis cars is that there is brute indifference to style. The 1100 grille is appalling. This kind of thing is the result of an attitude that it is wrong to waste time on appearances. Where does this come from? British classical architecture is usually lovely. British tailoring is renowned. We return here yet again to Ruskin and his seven lamps. I don’t think Ruskin invented this way of thinking.
What he did do was perhaps to channel it from the mindset of engineering to the mindset of British makers where it did not belong. The 1100 grille has two concave lines around the headlamps but the ones underneath are dead straight. Compare that to the Lancia grille I showed here. A whole PhD is waiting to be written on the battle between engineering and aesthetics in British design.
Leaving all that one side it is rather marvellous to see these cars clearly displayed with lots of room around them. The exhibition closes on March 15th. I recommend the exhibition and the museum in general without reserve. It’s a real delight.