Issigonis Exhibition at Sommers Automobile Museum

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.

Sir Alex Issogonis and his big idea: sommers automobile museum
Sir Alex Issogonis and his big idea: sommers automobile museum

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.

1972 Morris 1800
1972 Morris 1800, spacious and unattractive.

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.

2016 sommers interior

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.”

Engineering dominates design
Engineering dominates design

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.

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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.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

13 thoughts on “Issigonis Exhibition at Sommers Automobile Museum”

  1. The Mini is the Mini, and I find the 1100 a fine car for its time (though of course it went on too long) but the 1800 is unforgivable. On paper, it should be nudging the DS on anyone’s list of great cars but, of course, it isn’t. Primarily because, if you get past the looks, it is nasty to drive, a direct result of one of Issigonis’s most innovatively cheapskate contributions to primary safety, make the driving position uncomfortable and the driver will stay alert.

    As usual, there’s an excellent article on the 1800 at aronline.

    Apart from pointing out that if you think the final result is bad , you should see how it could have looked, it has the following quote from Issigonis ” Styling? I don’t approve of the word. It tends to date a car”. Which is broadly true, but then all cars do date, so what’s the problem? Undoubtedly Issigonis was brilliant, but was really given too much autonomy. Remember that Pininfarina were greatly involved in both 1100 and 1800 development (though how much was vetoed by Issigonis who knows) and I suspect that the grille designs you dislike are theirs (though I thought the 1100 facelift you show was OK actually).

    All Pininfarina’s contributions to BMC, especially the big, agricultural saloons like the Morris Oxford, take the style and anglicise it in a rather stuffy way that makes contemporary Lancias, Fiats and even Peugeots that were styled either with Pininfarina’s direct or indirect input, look far more elegant.

    1. The ARonline story is superb, I have read it before. My favourite titbit is that Issigonis was happy to prove the 1800 over only three running prototypes before placing the car into series production. No doubt the revelation would have made engineers from BMC’s rivals splutter out their coffee. That such a sparse testing schedule was allowed to go unchallenged is a clear indication of poor management. Surely the capital risk should have been obvious? And again, multiple consultations by Pininfarina threw up a series of questions about the car’s styling. But no: cowed by the genius in their midst, BMC top brass allowed a poorly developed and poorly styled car to crawl on to the market. It is a tale of abject failure on everyone’s part, and reeks of rank amateurism. It would be funny, if so many people’s livelihoods did not depend upon it.

  2. The 1800 shell was renowned for its extreme torsional rigidity. In comparison, possibly stung by Ford’s correct conclusion that the Mini was drastically unprofitable, BMC tested a Mark 1 Cortina shell for torsional rigidity, and were horrified at the poor result. Possibly there was a fair amount of back patting and, indeed, the desire to produce a strong body is praiseworthy in itself. But the converation “Malcom, I see you’re driving the new Austin. Did you consider a Cortina instead?” “Crikey no Eric! Not with their poor torsional rigidity” never actually occurred.

  3. We’ve touched on the superb Pininfarina proposal for the 1800 elsewhere before, but it is worth relinking here anyway:

    More of interest (to me anyway) is the Australian market Kimberley, which topped and tailed the 1800 into a more conventional looking saloon. It says something when your international outposts regard your basic product as so unsellable that it must be re-engineered wholesale.

  4. As time goes on, I’m minded to view Issigonis with increasing disdain. Lionised by the UK motoring press to the point that his ego became uncontainable, he may have been clever and charming company, but he treated his co-workers abominably and was given a now unthinkable level of control, not just over engineering, but product planning; an area, like car styling he knew absolutely nothing about.

    Harriman was generally regarded as a thoroughly nice chap, but seemed utterly out of his depth. The fact that a model as vital as ADO17 was allowed on the market looking as it did, and as unproved as it was is scandalous. Its commercial failure pretty much sealed BMC’s fate. Interestingly, the X6 Kimberley was introduced in 1970, six years after the 1800’s launch. It’s a classic piece of Roy Heynes styling, the rear looking almost identical to the Ford Escort of its day. Nevertheless, surely something along similar lines would have given the model a boost for the final five years of its life? The tooling was already paid for.

    Apparently, Issigonis liked Berlina Aerodynamica, which surprises me, given his distaste for ‘styling’, but it was never given serious consideration back in Longbridge. Harriman reportedly told journalists that it might be appropriate for Jaguar, but not ‘for us’. The prototype was broken up and only the smaller 1100-based prototype survives.

    Gillian Bardsley’s biography on Issigonis is required reading on the subject, but I doubt anyone would get through it without blood pressure medication at the ready.

    1. Yes, Eoin. When I typed above that Issigonis was ‘brilliant’, I nearly went back and typed ‘very clever, but not as clever as he thought he was’, a state which is the downfall of many.

      I’m guessing that Issigonis disliked styling because he had low aesthetic abilities so couldn’t view it as loftily as he did engineering. Thus, instead of a piece of elegant styling, he would have approved the Aerodynamica primarily as a piece of good and logical streamlining.

      I probably knew it once, but had forgotten that the Aerodynamica had been destroyed. Why? I sort of imagined it still lurked in a dusty corner somewhere.

    2. The Jonathan Wood Issigonis biography is much better than the irritatingly banal Bardsley book, but there’s enough additional factual material in the latter book (described as “The Official Biography” – on whose authority?) to justify its purchase.

      Regrettably – as far as I know – there’s no biography of Harriman. According to Martyn Nutland’s Len Lord biography, Harriman seemed to have all the qualities to be an effective successor to Lord, with a very sound understanding of engineering and production and a reputation as a tough manager, yet was found woefully wanting when he took over the controls at BMC.

      The Nutland book is well worth reading for its insight into the post-Alvis Issigonis period, and in its entirety. If you don’t know about Leonard Lord, you don’t know about the British motor industry.

    3. Robertas: The Bardsley book is not what I’d call a gripping read, but it seems well researched and refreshingly free of the sort of blind worship that surrounded Issigonis during his latter career and following his death.

      I’d be very interested in reading the Len Lord biog. Issigonis was reportedly terrified of him…

    4. Have always wondered how Issigonis would fare in a BMC led by Miles Thomas then (Leonard Lord and) Joe Edwards instead of Leonard Lord and George Harriman.

      Mile Thomas being one of the few people mentioned in the Issigonis bio that could have reign Issigonis in and kept him grounded, being a man who having worked for Morris would likely have likely known how to properly cost control cars and whose post-war plans for Morris (including the Morris Minor as well as post-war modernization) were almost completely scuppered by Lord Nuffield himself.

  5. This is a really good article – I laughed at the wordsmithing. And the comments aren’t too dusty either. My poor old dad bought an 1800 after six years of faithful service in the colonies from a Consul – tough as old boots, those things. An ex-pat Brit has to buy British, after all.

    Issigonis’ claim of structural rigidity was no doubt true on the day the car left Longbridge, providing all the welds were completed. Three years in our rust zone, and the jack went straight up through the mounting point when changing a tyre.

    It always reminded me as I went through a career as a mechanical engineer that you can make an extremely rigid structure with Basildon Bond writing paper, some scissors and a bit of mucilage. Everything works well until you add environment. Soak our paper masterpiece in water, and it has no strength whatsoever.

    Issigonis was a man with a mind structured to operate in only one way it seems, based on all I’ve read. Unfortunately such mundane things as styling and suitability for purpose were not part of his internal dogma. This failing is very wittily described in this article.

    1. Thanks Bill and you can add your own comment to the lively and thoughtful remarks readers have graced this article with. I liked that point about Basildon Bond paper. That’s the kind of statement a good engineer makes.
      My dad had a Maxi and I think it drove him insane. I have vivid memories of the peculiar vinyl upholstery and the black plastic internal door opening flaps.
      The next and last British car we had was a Rover 2600 and after that it was Swedish cars only for 20 years. Oh, and one rotten Mercedes 190D.

    2. Perhaps the full Issigonis conversation should read :

      “Styling? I don’t approve of the word. It tends to date a car”.

      “I find that rust dates a car even more Alex”

      “Nonsense dear boy, my cars never rust. Just get your man to wash it down with Appolinaris water every evening and dry it with soft cotton towels. Martini?”

    3. I managed to purloin an extract of an interview (circa 1958) carried out by our esteemed editor with the legendary Sir Basil Milford-Vestibule, where the subject of Issigonis comes up. Sir Basil, never a man to mince words, was in typically waspish form commenting; “Dear Alec at BMC is tolerable company over a cocktail or two but I really wouldn’t trust him with a slide rule. The poor thing hasn’t done anything worthwhile for years now, apart from that silly Alvis that never got made… He has a very mediocre degree you know.”

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