Dawn of the Iconoclast (Part one)

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.

(c) pinterest

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.

Sir Alex Issigonis and his big idea: (c) sommers automobile museum

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.

(c) The Telegraph

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?

Continued in part two

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

7 thoughts on “Dawn of the Iconoclast (Part one)”

  1. There’s a delicious irony that Issigonis, allegedly a graceless snob, designed not a “charwoman’s car” but one that became truly classless.

    Issigonis was undoubtedly a brilliant engineer, but I’m afraid I subscribe to the view that his undue and unmoderated influence did BMC/BL a great deal of harm in the long term. As Eóin says, the Mini lost money for the company for most of its production life. The 1800 and Maxi, despite their cavernous interiors, were singularly unappealing for the majority of buyers because of their frumpy appearance. Only the 1100/1300 really hit the mark, and that was down to Pininfarina rather than Issigonis.

    Did buyers really care about the Mini’s super-efficient packaging? Wouldn’t they have happily traded an extra foot in length for a more natural driving position and underbonnet access that didn’t lead to skinned knuckles when working on the engine? It’s a shame there was nobody in BMC to act as a counterweight to Issigonis. The resulting ‘compromise’ might have been not just an engineering triumph, but a brilliant commercial success too.

    Looking forward to part two.

    1. Exactly, Daniel. I’ve long agreed with everything you’ve just said, especially how Issigonis was ultimately more of a hinderance than an asset…with the proviso that more effective management would have found a way of using his talents without ending up with a range of brilliantly-conceived but horribly-flawed cars.*

      I always think its notable that Issigonis’ best cars were produced when he was constrained: The Morris Minor was produced when he was still relatively junior and was subordinate to Vic Oak, Miles Thomas and even Lord Nuffield who collectively removed a lot of the advanced but pointless (or obviously troublesome) features like the IRS and flat-four engine while keeping the fundamentally good bits. The 1100/1300 was ‘productionised’ while Issigonis was busy bringing the Mini to market and then dealing with (some of…) its snags, so was finished off by Charles Griffin and Batista Farina who were told by Leonard Lord to make it a bit more stylish and upmarket than the Mini (or Issigonis’ austere original plan) and the result was a much more broadly popular and multi-faceted car than would otherwise have been.

      In fairness to Issigonis (!) the Mini’s footprint was set by Leonard Lord and Issigonis had to work within that, so a lot of the inherent flaws required to get the volume into the footprint were the latter’s solutions to the fundamental problem set by the former. But you (and Eóin in this article) are absolutely right that there’s a real ying-yang element to the Mini’s design – almost every single stroke of brilliance in it is also one of the design’s major flaws.

      As for “Wouldn’t they have happily traded an extra foot in length for a more natural driving position and underbonnet access that didn’t lead to skinned knuckles when working on the engine? ” – Yes they would. Because that’s exactly what Giacosa did with the Primula and the Fiat 127, which was then copied by all the first-gen superminis. They took the Mini’s basic principles but realised that there was no actual need for the Mini to be quite as small as it was and if you expanded it only slightly in each dimension then you suddenly had much more volume to play with. So suddenly there was room to put the transmission next to the engine rather than in the sump, the driving position was improved, you didn’t need tiny 10-inch wheels with special tyres and you could fit conventional suspension which gave a better ride.

      Even Issigonis knew this – his very first experiment with transverse FWD was a converted Morris Minor with the transmission next to the engine (permitted by the very wide engine bay he had originally designed for his never-realised flat-four…) and, after trying a two-cylinder version of the A-Series with an end-on transmission he was forced to go for the transmission-in-sump arrangement. Which, to continue the theme, is a truely brilliant solution to a problem that shouldn’t have ever existed.

      * I always think a dream scenario would be Gerald Palmer being retained by BMC (rather than kicked out on spurious grounds to make room for Issi) as Technical Director and Issigonis being brought back from Alvis as head of some sort of Experimental Department. Issigonis could work, as he preferred, in a small hand-picked group largely free from managerial oversight or influence but anything he produced had to be filtered through Palmer. The two had worked together at Morris and Palmer was a free-thinker in the similar vein (as witnessed by the the Jowett Javelin) but had also shown that, when required by tedious practical and commercial considerations, he could produce what were ‘merely’ good, conventional cars. He doesn’t seem to have had Issigonis’ artistic temperament or arrogance. In reality I’m pretty sure that Issigonis would never have accepted such an arrangement in the first place, and certainly not after a few years when he felt he wasn’t getting his due – it’s typical of the man that even though he loathed corporate politics and the tedious managerial and administrative duties that were implicit in being Technical Director he insisted on being promoted to such as recognition for his success…and then proceeded to spent the next decade mostly neglecting the requirements of the role to BMC’s perennial loss.

    2. Largely agree with Jack on Issigonis being more of a hindrance than an asset and given free reign by George Harriman, perhaps Issigonis could have been kept in check had Joe Edwards succeeded Leonard Lord instead together with Gerald Palmer being retained to focus on RWD cars (akin to what he was involved with at Vauxhall) and BMC’s Research Department being put to more productive use in taking the unnecessary cost out of the Mini and 1100/1300 (rather than developing stuff that never enters production).

  2. Wonderful commentary, Eóin. If only the mainstream could look away from the regurgitated mini love fest and delve deeper like you have here. But they wouldn’t stay mainstream for long.
    The picture of Issigonis has his eyes closed. With my limited psychological learning, in my experience people who photograph as such maintain that snobbish, aloof air about them. Even for that split second the shutter captures them, with knowing no background of the man suggests to me “I’m alright Jack and sod the lot of you.”
    And an excellent question to close part one; just why was the mini so hastily produced?
    And my parting shot is the orange mini was last taxed in 1990, seventeen years since manufacture.
    Very much looking forward to part two

  3. much thanks, Eóin, for a particularly thoughtful consideration
    of the Mini and Issigonis. in the 60s and 70s I drove quite a few miles
    in Minis without ever owning one. indeed I never wanted to own one
    as I knew a good mechanic who knew their ways all too well and daily
    cursed their design and engineering. but I loved them from the start
    and still do. what pleasure it gives to see them now and then on the
    road amid the gross hordes of present car design.

  4. Having wrenched a fair bit on my own 72 mini 1000, i can attest to it being a bit of a pain to work on due to the tight packaging, odd solutions, ever changing part-updates, and weird specialty tools needed.

    Need a new ignition barrel for a 72 for instance? well, then you need to throw the entire steering column in the sea and buy a new one, since the 72 had a unique and non interchangeable barrel…

    Also, why so many different bolt standards on the same car?
    i remember loosing a bolt used to attach something behind the dash, and it turned out to have a completely different thread pitch to all the other bolts on the car, for no apparent reason.

    Fun car to drive though, and incredibly spacious for the size.
    As a student, i can remember packing it full of 5 rather burly people with full climbing gear and backpacks, and we all fit just fine.

    1. As the owner of several old British motorcycles I can confirm that it is always fun to play the ‘guess the type of bolt’ game. There is a wild mixture of AF/UNF, Whitworth and British Standard (normally used for gas plumbing) that sometimes changes with every model year as manufacturers like Triumph progressively moved from Whitworth to AF. And some suppliers like Smiths did whatever they deemed appropriate anyway.

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