Dawn of the Iconoclast (Part two)

Concluding DTW’s exploration of the 1959 Mini and its enigmatic creator.

ADO15 prototypes in 1958, with Issigonis’ preferred frontal treatment. (c) imcdb.org

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.

Space, the final frontier.  Image via pinterest

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.

When BMC’s stylists did finally get their hands on ADO15, they came up with this. (c) classicandperformancecar

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.

Big Mini. 1962 Austin 1100. (c) autosclassiques

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.

By the 1980s, Mini was simply a nostalgia act. (c) flashbak

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.

You’d get a bus in that space, love… (c) minif56.com

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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

20 thoughts on “Dawn of the Iconoclast (Part two)”

  1. A really thoughtful and insightful retrospective on the Mini, its creator and the circumstances surrounding its birth and future (lack of) development. The Mini’s role in the future troubles of BMC and its successor companies cannot be blamed (at least not entirely) on Issigonis, but on those who failed to manage him effectively and ensure that his brilliant invention was properly developed before launch. The car was far too complex and technically dense to sell purely on price, effectively replacing the ultra-conventional and basic Austin A35. BMC should have recognised that and insisted on further refinement of the concept. Instead, they squandered development funds on the booted Wolseley and Riley mutants, which must have been a huge affront to Issigonis, destroying the purity of his creation.

  2. The Coopers were superb.
    Eveyone had to relearn cornering technique, with the lift-off understeer, which could catch out the novice. But on country roads the 1071S was unbeatable.

    I never minded the booted “mutants”.
    But ADO 16 was a much more sensible car, and deserved to sell well.
    It did, however, lead to a “British is Best” feeling, which has done the Brits no favours in succeeding decades.

  3. This whole piece is an excellent essay; thoughtful and thought provoking. There are three interesting parallels for me. First, the DS in that one found so any new or advanced ideas or applications of engineering in one model, such that it lasted in production for so many years. Also, the DS also endured so many early production issues that hobbled its appeal. Second, the iQ, which proposed something similar in terms of ingenious packaging and sophisticated engineering solutions that made it more expensive, perhaps than people were prepared to pay for a car of that size, and so had a relatively limited production run with no like-for-like replacement. Third, our friend the A2, which suffered a similar fate to the iQ and for similar reasons, but was delightfully light and economical. I think as well as the size/ price quotient being an obstacle, it had NVH type issues and was maybe taken to be too serious to be attractive as a small car.

    Thanks again for an excellent read and resultant think.

  4. There was a university study done on the Mini and the question of how and why it could be made to a loss, and it is the best evaluation I’ve ever read on the subject. It was linked at the ARonline site for a couple of years ten years ago, and I read the perhaps 60 pages as a pdf-file. However, the link disappeared because the university took it down, and I have forever tried to get my hands on it since. Does anybody know what I’m talking about? It was an English university, but I don’t remember which one, and I don’t remember what the paper was called, so it is almost impossible to search for it. But it is probably the best explanation I’ve ever read, and I think it’s crucial for discussions like these.

    The problem is I don’t exactly remember the root cause of the problem, because it was a complex matter with at least ten different reasons all leading to the Mini being made at a loss.

    Among the problems, BMC couldn’t even cost the car themselves, they had actually no idea how much it cost them to make. Another problem which I don’t remember the significance of was the matter how the workers got payed, piece meal or weekly salary. And it seems the workers hold out for piece meal pay even if it meant they had to work unpaid over time and to a loss for the company.

    The biggest reason for the decline of income was that both the Mini and the 1100 was sold as loss-leaders, even though they were the biggest sellers. So BMC deliberately sold them for less they cost to produce to conquer sales, but they weren’t selling as much of the cars they actually made a profit of. They were making millions of the 1100 and never made a profit, and they never sold as much 1800’s to make a profit on them. It’s really remarkable the downfall didn’t come sooner.

    1. Hi Ingvar,

      I do vaguely seem to recall that article, yes, but I don’t have a copy of it myself. Do you have a copy of the deleted URL? It might be helpful in tracking it down.

    2. No, I don’t have a copy of the url, unfortunately. I even reached out to Keith Adams who put it up there on ARonline, but he had no idea either.

  5. I’m usually suspicious of counterfactuals, as most of them tend towards the fanciful, but having indulged in a few myself over time, I’m not really in a position to throw ripe fruit. However, while sourcing photos for the piece, a thought struck me regarding the much criticised in-house restyling work carried out on ADO15 to bring about the Wolseley and Riley variants. While the frontal treatments aim for a kind of faux-gravitas which falls on its face on a car like this, the remainder of the restyling isn’t altogether bad.

    The lengthened tail was entirely in-keeping with the fashions of the time and while the original is better (and more prescient), one could see the logic in offering something a little more conformist in appearance.

    It raised a thought.

    What if BMC, instead of the Hornet/Elf twins, had utilised the longer wheelbase floorpan of the Mini Estate/Van combined a version of the Mini’s centre section with the tail treatment of the Elfnet, in conjunction with a slightly lengthened version of the existing Mini’s nose (with appropriate changes to denote a more upmarket car)? Couple this with hydrolastic, the larger 998cc engine and perhaps the option of a four-door model and you would have a car which could have replaced the Morris Minor, allowing the larger ADO16 to be pushed further upmarket, where it might have made BMC some money. Market it as a larger, more conventional looking Mini, but retaining the virtues of the smaller car, with greater passenger and luggage room, while lending the ADO15 improved economies of scale.

    It wouldn’t have been meaningfully smaller than the Minor in real-terms since the biggest differentiator would have been in width, which itself isn’t a reliable barometer with the Minor’s comparatively narrow cabin relative to body-width. Of course by the early ’60s, the Minor was probably fully amortised, but even by 1962 it was a very dated product, with little commonality with other BMC products. It certainly would have been a relatively cheap way of replacing a long-in-the-tooth model.

    Okay, it’s probably as logically faulty as any other counterfactual you care to think of, but personally, I can some merit in it. It certainly makes a damn sight more sense than the pair of ennobled Minis they did end up producing.

    1. I rather like your ideas for the elongated Countryman approach.
      But it would never have had the load space of a Minor Traveller, which continued until 1971.
      There was a good reason for this. If the pin-sharp steering has ever been bettered I’d like to know. The 1098cc A-Series was good enough to cruise at 75-ish. The torsion-bar suspension gave it little unsprung weight — and little comfort either: it was used on the Wolseley/Riley B-Series 1500s, which were terribly nose-heavy.

      I’m not sure people would have paid much more for the ADO 16. There were “Princess” versions, with low sales.

    2. It has been proven the Minivan / Estate platform was capable of siring 4-door bodystyles via the 4-door prototype, a three-box version of which would feature a likely length of 134-inches. However not really a fan of the rear tailfins on the Elf/Hornet and am unsure whether a more subtle Peugeot 404 Coupe solution would have worked, yet believe a 2/4-door Mini three-box saloon could have been a more attractive proposition had Pininfarina been involved by essentially carrying over the styling theme from the MG ADO34 prototype.

      Not 100% sure whether this attractive three-box Mini could have worked as an Austin or Morris (let alone a Morris Minor replacement) instead of an MG or Vanden Plas.

      The only niggles IMHO would be for ADO16 to in turn also feature an upscaled version of the Pininfarina styled 2/4-door three-box years before the Austin Apache, entailing the existing Mini and ADO16 to take their two-box bodystyle to its logical conclusion by adopting an Innocenti A40 Combinata layout at the rear.

      Also believe a detachable version of the Minivan grille with a 721-803cc engine on a de-chromed decontented entry-level 2-door Mini roughly along similar likes to the Renault R3 could have allowed the 850cc+ Minis to be sold at a higher price to make them more profitable, though obviously more could have been done to take cost out of both the Mini and ADO16.

      It has been mentioned both the Mini and ADO16 should have been replaced on a common / flexible platform as was later embraced by Fiat with the 128, Peugeot with the 104 and even Ford with the original Fiesta. Though am surprised such commonalty was not already the case at BMC given the ADO16 was an upscaling of the Mini formula with ADO17 in turn being an upscaling of ADO16. Even the post-war Morris Minor, Morris Oxford MO and Morris Six MS and later derivatives were AFAIK apparently upscaling/downscaling of the same basic Minor derived platform.

      Also of the view BMC needed its own version of the Renault Cléon-Fonte / Sierra and Nissan A engines to eventually replace the A-Series from the early 1960s and quickly supersede the heavy lower end B-Series, essentially a slightly enlarged A-Series influenced unit still capable of fitting within the Mini’s engine bay yet with a lightweight cast iron block and all-alloy cylinder-head helping to keep the weight down. If deemed necessary the existing A-Series could have played a similar role to the new A-Series influenced engine as the Renault Billancourt / Ventoux did to the Cléon-Fonte / Sierra engine.

      The Morris Minor and derivatives come across as a family that were not properly developed. Had it been feasible logically speaking, instead of fully embracing front-wheel drive it would have perhaps been in BMC’s interest to have used the Minor platform as the basis for conventional Kadett A and mk1/mk2 Cortina type rear-wheel drive models as a stop-gap until the front-wheel drive layout was further refined for the late 1960s to early 1970s.

  6. Much to consider , both in Eóin’s articles and the comments. It’s puzzling that the A35 (commercial variants) apart were discontinued as soon as the Austin Seven and Mini-Minor arrived, yet the Minor had another twelve years of life. I’m sure that Len Lord resented the Issigonis Minor’s greater success than his A30/A35, and he very much held the reins of power at BMC in 1959.

    Compared with every competitor the Mini and 1100/1300 were a brilliant drive, no surprise given that Issigonis was an amateur racing driver, and constructor of his own single-seaters. Alex Moulton, from a more privileged background, had a fabulous stable of rare, costly, and historically significant road cars even before his involvement with the Alvis and Mini projects.

    This explains their insistence on the Rzeppa joint. Even with a Hooke joint combined with a sliding Cardan joint at the hub end of its driveshafts, the FWD Minor prototype of 1952 suffered steering ‘fight’, weighting up of steering effort, and a restricted turning circle. In a cheap sub-500cc Lloyd or Citröen 2CV with a power output barely in double figures such compromises were bearable, but Issigonis and Moulton were determined that the new BMC generation would be “driver’s cars”, cornering new customers with a superior driving experience.

    Creation of the technological ecosystem which brought a demand for mass-produced homokinetic driveshaft joints was BMC’s gift to the automotive world. The Giacosa front wheel drive system would not have been feasible without affordable and durable Rzeppa CV joints.

    1. Vic: I fear you misinterpreted my idea. I was not suggesting a larger Mini Countryman, but a larger saloon using the Countryman’s elongated wheelbase. As to the Minor Traveller, surely a passenger version of the Minor Van could have been retained in production, which being an entirely pressed steel body, would have been less labour intensive to build and could therefore have been built in commercial and passenger versions.

      Robertas: The Rzeppa joint is indeed a marvellous piece of engineering and like all of its ilk, a lovely thing to examine in detail. We had a few knocking about when we were trying to get our ’66 Mini back on the road, many years ago now.

      On an unrelated topic, it interests me that the very earliest Minis’ gearlevers were straight (or at least very gently curved), whereas, shortly into its production life (I couldn’t say exactly when, but I’m certain someone will know) it was reshaped with a pronounced upward kink. This (as fitted to the aforementioned ’66 car) I never found to be particularly user-friendly, and I would have imagined the straight lever would have made for a more ‘positive’ shift.

      However, it occurred to me, from reading accounts of how much trouble Alec and his engineers experienced with disintegrating synchro rings that perhaps the lever shape was altered to discourage owners from overtaxing the internals by shifting too ‘positively’? Again, I’m certain someone will know…

  7. Hi Eoin,

    Thanks for the article and the prototype pictures. I find it interesting that the MINI was able to prosper and becomes a brand in itself with several models in its line up while the new Beetle was a hit only for the first few years and was more of a fad. Perhaps the Beetle shape was just too particular or too cute compared to the more restrained Mini ? I guess you could go to the office, a funeral or a business meeting with the new MINI without attracting a second glance while the same perhaps cannot be said about the new Beetle.

  8. Replies to several people.
    The “new” Beetle is a silly waste of space — of which there’s not enough for rear passengers.

    The Rzeppa joint was perfectly controllable in the Flavia. It was big, probably heavy, and even with PAS, lovely to steer with. The turning circle wasn’t great.

    Having been a passenger in the back of a Minor Van (we youngsters had more flexy joints than now, sadly), yes, a “saloon” version would have been all right, but with little luggage space and the cost of two more doors it wouldn’t have worked.

    1. Hi Charles. I hadn’t seen that image of the four-door Mini before. It’s a shame BMC didn’t persist with the idea. The extra rear room and better access would have been very welcome. For my money, it’s better resolved than the five-door version of the current MINI!

    2. Daniel. The Minivan-based 4-door prototype could have certainly made the Elf/Hornet (or some non-Riley/Wolseley analogue) a more use proposition had it been available as a 4-door from the outset (instead of being limited to a pretty useless 2-door three-box saloon), not to mention have also allowed BMC to create a 5-door Mini hatchback by pairing the 4-door prototype with the work done on the Marples Mini hatchback (along with the Radford as well as Wood & Pickett hatchback conversions).

      Some would cite concern of overlap with ADO16 as a possible reason to dismiss the idea (likely born from their likely bias on believing the Mini’s appeal is down to staying the way it is and being resistant to anything else), yet one only needs to calculate the additional 4 inches in the wheelbase of the Mini and Elf/Hornet to see that neither is anywhere close to overlapping with ADO16 and in fact a 4-door Elf/Hornet would have been roughly as long as an Austin/Rover Metro.

    3. You’re right, Bob. BMC could have anticipted the success of the ‘supermini’ format over a decade before Renault 5 and Fiat 127. Another “close, but no cigar” moment in the company’s chequered history.

    4. Indeed Daniel. BMC or more specifically Issigonis could have completely stolen Giacosa’s thunder had he persisted with his work on the end-on gearbox layout in the front-wheel drive Morris Minor prototype, though realistically could only see it being used on ADO16 and ADO17 at the beginning.

      Even had the above happened at BMC, the Mini would probably still be constrained initially by the existing in-sump layout due to the dimension parameters set out for it at the start of its development. Yet based on the later Minki-II prototype being both lengthen and widened by 50mm / 2-inches to fit a 1.4 K-Series*/end-on gearbox arrangement, it would have not been completely outside the realm of possibility for an updated Mini to be widened to roughly below the original Fiat Panda’s 57.5mm width at minimum in order to receive an end-on gearbox. An updated Mini with end-on gearbox could have appeared in place of the Clubman at about the same year as the Autobianchi A112 had BMC been on the ball.

      *) Despite being a lighter more modern engine, the 4-cylinder K-Series was actually said to be slightly longer than the A-Series engine with the latter being roughly equivalent to a K-Series 3 and a half cylinder engine in length.


  9. It’s not the 404 but the 204 that should be looked at. Wider than either Mini or Minor, but had about seven bodystyles spun off it.
    A friend had a convertible — very chic at the time, although a squeeze into the “third-passenger” rear seat. But the reasonable boot made it fine for a couple to tour in.

    1. Meant 404 with regards to the more subtle rear tailfins. The 204 meanwhile was basically the same width as ADO16 and almost as long as the ADO16 based Austin Apache, whereas the Mini was intended to stick to its design brief within certain strict parameters.

      That is not to say BMC couldn’t have adopted a few things from Peugeot or more specially the more modern Pininfarina styling theme Peugeot embraced with the 204, 304 and 504 from the mid 1960s onwards. Whereas BMC seemed stuck with Pininfarina’s early 1960s styling theme at a time when their front-wheel drive designs needed a facelift with a revised more squared-off styling language (like on the mk2 Ford Cortina), essentially a mid 1960s Pininfarina take on the Mini Clubman carrying over some influence from the Peugeot 204.

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