Did a brilliant but uncompromising engineer sow the seeds of BMC’s downfall?
Sir Alec Issigonis was undoubtedly a brilliant and visionary engineer. He was also, allegedly, imperious and autocratic, and highly intolerant of what he perceived to be interference or compromise. Latterly, it has been suggested that BMC’s failure to manage Issigonis effectively and channel his engineering talents to produce motor vehicles that were both desirable and profitable was a significant factor in the company’s ultimate commercial failure. This is the hypothesis we will examine in this series of articles.
Issigonis was born in 1906 in the Greek port city of Smyrna, (now called Izmir and part of Turkey). Greek by birth, he also enjoyed British citizenship because of his father’s naturalization while studying in London in the closing years of the 19th Century. Following his father’s death, Issigonis and his mother moved to London in 1923, where he studied engineering. He initially worked as an engineer at Humber, in his spare time competing in motorsport. His first racing car was a supercharged Austin 7 Ulster with a heavily modified front suspension of his own design.
Issigonis’ success in racing brought him to the attention of the Austin Motor Company, and he was invited to join its engineering team. There, he designed and built the so-called Lightweight Special, an elegant and advanced monoposto which was based on a stressed aluminium and plywood monocoque and all-round independent suspension, using rubber springs. By 1936, when it was completed and ready to race, Issigonis had already moved on to Morris Motors, but Austin still agreed to supply him with a works specification supercharged engine and drivetrain. The Lightweight Special not only competed successfully at hill-climbs and speed trials, but also acted as a potent calling card for Issigonis’ conceptual talents.
Issigonis’ most significant work for Morris, however, would be the 1948 Morris Minor. Conceived in 1941, it was developed during the war years by a small team headed by Issigonis under the code name Mosquito. It is alleged that William Morris (Lord Nuffield) who was then chairman of the company, was not made aware of the project because it was believed he would frown at the distraction from the company’s war work and disapprove of Issigonis’ radical design.
The initial Mosquito design was indeed radical, with independent suspension all round and a new flat-four water-cooled engine. When the design was finally revealed to Morris, he hated it and was appalled by the potential cost of tooling up for an all-new clean-sheet design that shared nothing with any existing model.
Savings had to be found to make the project commercially viable. The flat-four engine was discarded in favour of an existing in-line side-valve unit from the Morris Eight. The independent rear suspension was replaced with a live axle on leaf springs. Issigonis railed against these compromises and struck back by insisting at a very late stage in the development process that the car be widened by 4” (100mm) to make it more spacious and modern looking.
Despite (or possibly because of) the compromises, the Minor went on to be a great commercial success for the company and over 1.6 million units were sold before production finally ceased in 1971.
In a 1979 interview published in Vogue magazine, Issigonis rather pretentiously described the Minor’s styling as a product of his “American period“. He also identified it as the best of all his designs, which is surprising when one remembers just how compromised it was by the cost-saving changes ordered by Morris. Rather bizarrely, Issigonis claimed that, after the merger that formed BMC, the Austin people did everything they could to kill the Minor! The reality was that the Minor was given the new Austin A-series engine from the A30, which undoubtedly helped prolong its life.
Notwithstanding the Minor’s success, Morris and Issigonis continued to clash over the latter’s engineering radicalism and in 1952, following the merger of Austin and Morris to form BMC, Issigonis accepted an offer to join Alvis.
Predominantly a producer of military vehicles, Alvis’ passenger car business was small and focused upon upmarket low-volume sporting saloons. Typically, no more than around 500 cars would be manufactured annually. As ‘Engineer in Charge’ Issigonis again set out to produce a clean-sheet design for his new employer that would utilise nothing from the company’s existing models.
The new car, codenamed TA350, would be powered by a new all-aluminium 3.5 litre V8 engine and have fully independent interconnected suspension, designed in conjunction with Alex Moulton, and inboard disc brakes. The transmission encompassed two gearboxes and clutches, a conventionally mounted Smiths Selectdrive unit behind the engine and a rear-mounted two-speed transaxle gearbox built by Alvis. Issigonis also proposed a smaller engined variant, the TA175, powered by a 1.75 litre V4. The TA was intended to lead to a major ten-fold increase in production volumes for the company.
As the work progressed, it became increasingly clear that the ambitious and complex design Issigonis was proposing was far beyond the limited resources of Alvis’ car division to productionise, manufacture and sell profitably. A single prototype was built, a rather undistinguished looking car that bore a resemblance to the contemporary MG Magnette, but development was halted and Issigonis was let go. Realistically, the TA350 as proposed is likely to have bankrupted Alvis – certainly, any carmaker who wished to put it into production would have required huge resources and an insatiable appetite for red ink.
Issigonis returned to BMC in 1955, recruited by Chairman Leonard Lord explicitly to design a new range of cars, codenamed XC/9000. XC/9001 was to be a large family car, XC/9002 a medium-sized car and XC/9003 a small town car. Priority was initially given to the large saloon, but the 1956 Suez Crisis and resultant petrol rationing caused a switch in focus to the smallest model. It was given a new development code ADO15, the letters standing for BMC’s Amalgamated Drawing Office.
Issigonis devised an ingenious and very compact powertrain with a transverse engine, below which was the gearbox within its sump and sharing the same oil. Even the radiator was mounted sideways to the right of the engine to save space. Issigonis had specified a maximum length of 10’ (3,048mm) and sketched out a rudimentary two-box bodyshell, which went into production largely as drawn. Launched in August 1959 as the Austin 7 and Morris Mini Minor, it soon became known simply as the Mini.
Sales of the Mini actually started rather slowly as people came to terms with its revolutionary design, but soon accelerated. On the back of its success, Issigonis was promoted to the position of BMC Technical Director in 1961, but would retain overall responsibility for the upcoming XC projects.
This investigation continues in Part Two.