Concluding DTW’s exploration of the 1959 Mini and its enigmatic creator.
Leaving to one side matters of the ADO15 programme’s viability, or the product planning skills of BMC’s chief executive, there is also the matter of the subsequent account given by Issigonis when he informed Sir Leonard in no uncertain terms that “he was mad” to build the car on the basis of the prototype he had demonstrated. However, given that Alec, (like most people) was somewhat in awe of BMC’s kingpin, it’s difficult to take him entirely at his word. Furthermore, Issigonis’ secrecy, single-mindedness and formidable ego would likely ensure nobody else got their hands on his baby. He is also believed to have doggedly refused to change anything, except under the most extreme duress.
What this highlights is an attitude which seems to have persisted within elements of the UK motor industry, where it simply wasn’t seen as being engineering’s job to save the business money. Certainly, the Mini as launched in 1959 would have been unlikely to have got past the likes of Gaudenzio Bono or Vittorio Valetta at Lignotto at the time, nor indeed is it likely that Dante Giacosa would have proposed a design which costed his employer so much to productionise, a matter which despite his later protestations, didn’t seem to have troubled Alec all that much.
None of this is to denigrate the brilliance of the concept or the sheer ingenuity of its technical package. It was through the Issigonis cell’s unbending focus that ADO15 was as pared back and true to its brief as it was. And it was quite remarkable, its diminutive exterior dimensions belying a seemingly cavernous cabin. Because it was, as everyone who ever sat in one will recall, a packaging marvel.
But there was a cost to be exacted. The Mini was not a cheap car to manufacture, yet BMC undersold it in every imaginable way. Obsessed with having the least expensive car in the market, they priced it around £600 (in modern money) less than the larger but less sophisticated 105E Anglia that it was nonetheless outsold by.
Some commentators have cast doubt upon Ford’s costings for the Mini they famously stripped down (decreeing that it was impossible to produce at anything other than a loss), but there can be no doubt that had BMC priced the car in a manner commensurate with its sophistication, the issue simply wouldn’t have arisen. A more acerbic indictment came from eminent Ford executive (Sir) Terence Beckett. A leading light behind such bestsellers as the Anglia and Cortina, later becoming the blue oval’s European Chairman, he later told chroniclers, “You can trace the decline of BMC from that single product. It took up a huge amount of resources, it sterilized cash flow, and it was a pretty disastrous venture.”
What deputised for styling had been laid down by Issigonis, who despite having no meaningful grasp of it himself, expressed a horror of the craft. BMC’s own stylists were permitted only the lightest of visual garnishes following, it’s believed, an intervention by BMC’s George Harriman. The plated grilles which adorned the production cars would therefore be a late addition, the metal stamped version as fitted to Mini vans being the Martini toting Spartan’s proposed arrangement. Fortunately, both stance and proportion were spot-on, a matter which was picked up by none other than Battista Pininfarina, whose views were canvassed prior to its announcement. Upon viewing the prototype, the legendary Italian carrozzerie told them not to change a thing.
In other matters too, dogmatism ruled. A case in point being the sliding door glasses, which did allow for commodious interior door compartments. However early Minis were akin to cats – notoriously averse to water, meaning the contents would soon become awash. Owners would have traded less storage space for decent weatherproofing (in this and other more critical areas), but Issi’s intransigence time and again would hobble progress.
Initial take-up for the Mini, despite its give-away pricing was sluggish. In fact the target market rejected the car at first. So without much in the way of traditional showroom or kerbside appeal, the celebrity endorsement and motorsport successes which followed certainly did much of the heavy lifting for BMC’s (rather hidebound) product planners, who tied themselves up in knots advertising Minis, both Morris and Austin; Minis, both Riley and Wolseley, not to mention Coopers (Austin and Morris) and commercial models. All of which ensured that resources which should have fed back into improving the core product were squandered on needless model derivations.
Success brought other issues too. Having been diverted from a larger saloon project to work on the ADO15 programme, the Mini’s conceptual and critical success led both Alec and BMC to follow a broadly iterative path with the medium and large cars which followed. ADO16 arrived in 1962 as the Morris 1100 (other versions would follow) and this car, which was developed somewhat independently of Issigonis, would prove to be a far more rounded product, aided in no small part by its attractive Pininfarina exterior styling.
It was however, handicapped by having to share the Mini’s compromised engine/transmission layout, something which over time would become akin to a holy writ. Mini’s layout therefore locked BMC into something a fellow DTW author rather memorably coined as viewing “every problem as a nail to be dealt with a Mini-shaped hammer.”
Time and circumstance would over time alter both Mini’s fortunes and relevance; the doyen of London’s It Crowd, the post-’73 crisis saviour, the unfortunate Clubman period, the increasingly desperate 1980s special edition tribute-act, culminating in the return of the defining Cooper model in the ’90s. A shift in ethos which would form the template for its BMW-funded reinvention at the turn of the millennium. Yet it was really in its unembellished form that Mini truly shone.
But the car which emerged from this combination of feverish draughting-board creativity and boardroom assumptions became a larger phenomenon neither BMC, nor Issigonis himself could control. Something which transcended product to became an intrinsic part of the social fabric. Mini spoke of barriers smashing, the triumph of the meek, of the mouse (or Sputnik…) that roared.
But without its early adoption by the sophisticated Chelsea Set, the motor racing fraternity and in places like Paris (where it was considered rather chic), there is a reasonable chance we might be discussing a promising failure with a short and rather brutal commercial life, rather than the holy relic we now have before us.
Even the monstrous Alec was probably more a product of his time, his background and his unusual backstory. An outsider in an industry and an era where such people were viewed with condescension and prejudice, it is possible that Issigonis developed his more abrasive persona as something of a shield. Yet despite his lesser qualities, he was at heart an egalitarian, insofar as he strove to provide the ordinary motorist with something which offered more than mediocrity. It might not have come with what the average consumer tended to prefer in lieu of dynamic capability or active safety, but he certainly wasn’t insulting anybody’s intelligence.
But while automotive engineering aficionados can appreciate Mini both for what it represented and what it achieved, one must also acknowledge that a good deal of its execution was woeful. If any car went into production half-baked it was this, and (owing in part to successive failures of BMC/BLMC/BL management), it stayed that way for a sizeable proportion of its four decade lifespan.
One can argue therefore that Mini was the wrong product – one that almost by accident really, chimed with the ’60s zeitgeist. Part of the reason for this might be that Mini in all its pared back, Lutheran austerity was as much of an iconoclastic statement as the famous 95 Theses the German priest and scholar is alleged to have posted in 1517 upon the Castle Church doors of Wittenberg.
Yet, even if one subscribes to the notion of Mini (to say nothing of its creative imperator) being, as the Roman Catholic church might once have suggested, ‘in error‘, there is little doubt that its basic concept was inherently correct. Yet to return to the opening point around consistency, it is no contradiction for both Mini and dear sainted Alec to be both sinned against and sinning.
After all, there is no question as to where Mini resides in the pantheon. A car of enormous personality, charm and vivacity, a marvel of logical thought, one which still captivates hundreds of thousands of devoted owners and aficionados, simply through the sheer strength of its outsized personality.
Because while there’s a frivolity to Mini, at heart it was a deeply serious motor car, one designed with tremendous rigour, intellect, and craft. An nonconformist, engineer’s car from its broad grinning grille to its pert truncated tail. Also at its best as conceived: bereft of frills and fripperies, basic and austere. Motoring reduced to its minimum, just as its creators intended.
Sources: A Mini Adventure – Martin Wainwright. Issigonis: The Official Biography – Gillian Bardsley. Car Magazine.