DTW completes its investigation into Sir Alec Issigonis’ career and legacy, and arrives at some conclusions.
It is important to state from the outset that we make no insinuation that Sir Alec Issigonis was solely responsible for all the problems that beset BMC and, later, BL. The company’s failure was very much a collective one and there is plenty of blame to share around.
In the first instance, Leonard Lord, then Chairman of BMC employed Issigonis to replace Gerald Palmer, a talented and capable engineer with whom Lord fell out and summarily dismissed. Lord and BMC’s CEO, George Harriman, then promoted Issigonis to the post of Technical Director, a senior management position for which he demonstrably had none of the essential organisational, interpersonal or management skills.
This was extraordinarily ill-judged and the problems it created were exacerbated by Harriman’s excessively deferential attitude to BMC’s technical wunderkind after Lord retired and Harriman became Chairman and CEO of BMC.
A more astute leader might have either moderated Issigonis’ excesses directly or employed an equally senior counterweight from an automotive product design or marketing background. Their role would have been to ensure that the company was designing and producing cars that met the demands of the market and were styled to appeal on aesthetic rather than just engineering and packaging grounds.
Such an individual would admittedly have had a difficult task asserting themselves, given Issigonis’ apparent lack of respect for non-engineers. Even his engineering colleagues allegedly found Issigonis often intransigent and dismissive of their ideas.
Because he appeared for a time to have the Midas touch, George Harriman in particular felt he could trust Issigonis to intuit what the market required. This was, in retrospect, a grave error and, ultimately, an indictment of the management culture that characterised BMC under Harriman’s leadership.
The failure to manage Issigonis led directly to the market’s rejection of the 1800 and Maxi, two critical models for both sales volume and profitability. The 1800’s failure contributed to the serious profitability* and cashflow issues that prompted the UK government to push BMH and Leyland together in late 1967. The merger did little to help and the first cars BLMC released (the Austin 3-Litre and Maxi) merely compounded the problem.
It is also worth noting that, as Technical Director, Issigonis had overall responsibility for BMC’s entire range of cars, including the more technically conservative RWD models. He displayed little interest in these, delegating most of the responsibility to more junior colleagues. His dismissal of anything that did not interest him and his preoccupation with the technically complex and advanced vehicles he conceived led to an unbalanced product strategy, which put too many of BMC’s eggs in a single and, as it would turn out, Mini-shaped basket.
Issigonis also appeared indifferent to the profitability of his designs and, by implication, the financial health of his employer. Despite the apparent success of the Mini, it is widely believed that BMC and its successors never made sufficient return on its sales to fund a replacement. There is a (possibly apocryphal) story about Ford buying and dismantling an early Mini to analyse its cost of production, only to conclude that BMC must have been selling it at a loss.
Furthermore, Issigonis seemed to have little interest in further developing his cars once they came to market. He famously resisted changes being made to Mini and 1800, and seemingly contributed little to further refining and improving the highly successful 1100. Was it that he regarded his vehicles as completed masterworks, which would simply carry on indefinitely as launched until he brought an entirely new clean-sheet concept to market as a replacement? In his 1979 Vogue interview, he said as much with regard to the Minor.
This is simply not how the automotive industry has worked since its inception well over a century ago. Development is almost always iterative and meeting perceived customer requirements is crucial for commercial success. Issigonis, notwithstanding his extraordinary conceptual engineering talents, either failed to grasp or chose to ignore these truths, at great cost to BMC and its successor companies.
Issigonis undoubtedly enjoyed the status and trappings of his position as Technical Director of the BMC, a position he felt he had earned and fully deserved. However, he seemed to have little aptitude or patience for the day-to-day workload involved and singularly failed to develop a cohesive engineering strategy for the group, particularly with regard to powertrains.
There was also a pervasive ‘cult of Issigonis’ perpetuated by the motoring press which he did little to refute; the eminent engineer happy to bask alone in the limelight while giving no credit to colleagues who had worked so hard to realise his concepts. This was not only selfish and graceless on his part, but probably very damaging to morale.
But for all of these shortcomings, Issigonis was someone who would today be labelled a disruptor and would be highly valued. He dispensed with conventional orthodoxies and brought radical new thinking to the industry. Other manufacturers were undoubtedly influenced by his ideas and capitalised upon them through further development and refinement.
Issigonis’ own tastes were a curious mix of the ascetic and austere, such as the modest Edgbaston bungalow he shared with his mother, and the extravagant: he enjoyed holidaying on the French Riviera, quaffing Martinis and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Princess Margaret and the 1960s glitterati.
Despite moving in celebrity and establishment circles, Issigonis may still have suffered from unspoken discrimination because of his Greek-German heritage and suspicions about his sexuality. His notorious abrasiveness might well have been simply the defensiveness of a person who knew that, for all his talents, he would always be regarded as an outsider and not one of us in that notoriously class-ridden and prejudiced era.
Issigonis’ legacy is not dissimilar to that of other brilliant British inventors, whose creations were profitably productionised by others who were capable of the pragmatism and flexibility that eluded them. This was a tragedy, both for him personally, and ultimately for the company at which he spent the majority of his working life. The wider industry, however, undoubtedly benefitted from his vision and radicalism, and that should be recognised and appreciated.
Issigonis leaves what must be viewed as a somewhat compromised and decidedly uneven legacy, one which amounts to so much less than his talents and abilities once appeared to have promised, at least as far as BMC/ BL is concerned.
Ultimately, however, the failure of BMC/ BL was a failure of successive management and not of a single individual. The company had a prodigious talent in Issigonis, but singularly failed to channel his extraordinary engineering skills into the design and production of commercially successful vehicles. A more astute and effective management could have made so much more of his brilliance.
* 1964/65 1965/66 1966/67
Sales: 886k 846k 694k
Profit: £33.4m £34.4m £12.4m
Profit per Unit: £38 £41 £18
Author’s note: While this series carries my name, I must acknowledge the involvement of DTW’s Editor, Eóin Doyle, who provided a great deal of background information and many very useful insights, for which I am most grateful.