The Mini is one of the most ingenious, most innovative cars ever, but is also one of the most maddeningly inconsistent. In this two-part essay, DTW considers both icon and author.
The problem with icons is that often their venerated position can act as a shield against scrutiny, an insuperable barrier to unsentimental analysis or critique. How after all does one approach one of the most significant motorcars of all time objectively, without skirting the boundaries of iconoclasm?
Because to look at the Mini through one narrow prism is to observe a vastly expensive model programme which despite its undoubted commercial success, was a loss-maker throughout the bulk of its 40-year lifespan. One which set its maker down a needlessly confined technical path. One which many believe led to perdition, representing not only the collective failure of BMC management, but that of the orthodoxy from which it emerged.
But on the other hand, the Mini was a work of conceptual brilliance. A startling confluence of technical firsts which brought a car of exceptional qualities into being. While few of its technicalities were entirely new, the idea of bringing so many together into a single vehicle of such extraordinarily compact dimensions was not only brave, but at the time, considered quite fantastical. Because like Mini itself, the car’s creative founder was himself something of an iconoclast – certainly a nonconformist. After all, the car couldn’t have come into being without an entirely first-principles approach, a full-throated rejection of time-honoured orthodoxy.
We all know the Mini story by rote, so there is little value in retelling it here. According to the official narrative, it was entirely the work of one fertile mind, ably assisted by a small number of (nameless) minions. This of course is totally untrue, albeit one never disproved by the benighted Alec, who it appears rather revelled in the perception of being the gifted virtuoso. In fact the Issigonis cell of gifted conceptual engineers who conceived the car, (codenamed ADO15), consisted of BMC principles, Jack Daniels and Chris Kingham, aided by Charles Griffin, and John Sheppard; consultants, Alex Moulton, Bill Cull and of course, innumerable others who played highly significant roles.
Alec’s own iconography has him painted as the conceptual genius who was garlanded, then mortified for his pains, prior of course, like all latterday saints to his subsequent canonisation. Certainly, both Mini and Issigonis are mutually indivisible. But of the reams written about the car and its creative lynchpin, the assertion that there is more of Alec poured into Mini than any other car he was involved with may be amongst the more accurate that have attached themselves over the intervening years.
Issigonis was somewhat unique for a variety of reasons, but despite his charm, wit and undoubted urbanity, he comes across as a high-handed and graceless character; riven with insecurities, latent snobbery and a lack of generosity towards those who aided his work, to say nothing of those hapless individuals who were by circumstance drawn into his orbit. The ‘Arrigonis’ soubriquet therefore was not plucked from the ether. Not that he was alone in this – tales of oversized egos litter the automotive landscape, but one cannot reasonably ignore this failing in Alec, the man.
A telling anecdote was written by journalist, writer and sometime confidante, Ronald Barker, who Issigonis approached late in life to author his memoirs. However, the mercurial Alec summarily dismissed him, decreeing that owing to his superior technical nous, Leonard Setright should instead be his chosen biographer. This arrangement however was as abruptly terminated when the eminent engineer became aware of a piece LJKS had authored in praise of his great rival, Ingenere Giacosa of Fiat. Setright was out, could dear Ronald come back? This story and others like it were presented after his death as amusing vignettes, but really, how does one deal with someone like that?
Because from the written accounts of Lignotto’s engineering supremo, who was at least as influential when it came to the nature and composition of the cars with which he was associated, it would appear that here was a man of equal intellect, but of considerably greater modesty and creative generosity towards colleagues and minions. So while Dante Giacosa’s stamp is rightfully over generations of often groundbreaking Fiat designs, he seemed, like most good engineers, entirely uninterested in the limelight.
The Mini was many things over its long production life, but fundamentally at heart it was, like Issigonis himself, a contradiction. Mini brought a new level of technical and spacial sophistication to genuinely small cars, especially in its home market, where dreary conformity and stolid mediocrity were very much the prevailing order. Also a symbol of social mobility, it played a role vastly outsize of its dimensions, not only in providing inexpensive transport for millions of impecunious motorists, but also with its early adoption by the worlds of intelligencia, fashion, showbiz, motor-sport and royalty, becoming perhaps the first British car which defied class-riven stratifications.
It was however an immature product, insufficiently developed, and poorly production-engineered so that it proved a difficult and complex car to build accurately, with many of the features intended to reduce production costs proving to be liabilities in themselves. The Mini was a technically complex car, containing a good deal of bespoke and unproven componentry and technologies – not an ideal recipe for any new model, but particularly for what was conceived to be an inexpensive charwoman’s car.
One of these innovations would prove pivotal to not only the Mini’s viability, but to countless transverse FWD designs thereafter. Known as the Rzeppa Continuous Velocity Joint, it was the exquisitely engineered outboard universal drive coupling, which allowed motive, steering and deflective forces to be channelled through the front wheels at greater speed and at much wider extremes of angle than existing units. Pioneered by Czech-American, Alfred Rzeppa during the 1920s, and used in the drivetrain for Willys’ legendary US Army Jeep, it nevertheless retained some unsatisfactory characteristics in other applications.
Having purchased the Rzeppa patents, Bill Cull, a British engineer and inventor set out to painstakingly improve upon the design, founding his own small-scale business in Bradford, called Unipower; his primary customer being the military, who employed Cull’s modified CV joint for submarine periscopes.
With Issi’s cell despairing of the endless failures of experimental drive-joints on ADO15 prototypes, MG’s chief engineer, Syd Enever, a clever chap who kept a close eye on broader technical developments, came to the rescue. Having learned of Cull’s modified joint, he informed Alec and within a relatively short time, BMC’s drivetrain supplier, Birfield/Hardy Spicer made Unipower an offer which made Cull a wealthy man, if a largely unsung one. But Mini might never have succeeded without him.
History is wasted upon us, so the extent to which Issigonis’ BMC’s masters grasped of it when ADO15 was greenlighted in 1956 remains unclear. Certainly, the experience of Andre Citroën, (no stranger to CV joint-related maladies himself) who attempted to introduce a similarly advanced motor car, ought to have concentrated minds at Longbridge. Because the difficulties Citroën faced getting the Traction Avant (which predated many of the Mini’s technical innovations) into production in 1934, brought about his ruin.
Unlike Citroën, BMC wasn’t betting the farm on its new baby-car, so the costs of failure, while eyewateringly high, were not likely to have been fatal. Yet, given that the only meaningful carry-over would be a short-stroke version of the existing A-series power unit (with expensive changes to accommodate the gearbox/transaxle layout), there is a compelling case to suggest that BMC’s failure to sufficiently cost the ADO15 programme would pave the way to their eventual undoing.
Essentially, the prototype as presented to BMC Chief Executive, Leonard Lord in 1957 ought to have been viewed simply as an interesting thought experiment, before being evaluated according to strict cost and marketing requirements. While this might have resulted in a somewhat diluted product, equally, it might have been one where the customer wasn’t required to complete the development programme.
Because even after the passage of sixty years it remains unclear why there was such unseemly haste on the part of Sir Leonard Lord, his deputy George Harriman and the BMC board (assuming they were given a say) to rush ADO15 into production. After all, if its commercial viability was unquestionable, it ought to have been equally so in 1960 as it was likely to have been in 1959. The other unanswered question was whether by 1959, with the Suez crisis already behind them, there was a meaningful commercial rationale for ADO15 at all?