Sir Alec Issigonis’ great lost masterpiece, or last will and testament?
During 1967, Sir Alec Issigonis approached his BMH* superiors, asking to be temporarily relieved of day to day duties so that he could devote himself to a new vehicle project, one intended to directly replace the Mini. Remarkably, his request was granted, particularly since this was no sanctioned model programme, merely a speculative one.
There are opposing rationales as to why Chairman, Sir George Harriman and Chief Executive, Joe Edwards agreed to this. The first (and very much the one favoured by most chroniclers) is that they recognised Issigonis’ track record of technical innovation, and the likelihood of the resultant car being a gamechanger. However, the second, and probably more likely one, was that it got Sir Alec out of the way while Edwards took some difficult decisions around product – decisions which were unlikely to have sat comfortably with the genius in their midst.
That might appear a little far-fetched to bear scrutiny, but by this point, it is clear that Sir Alec, while undoubtedly supremely gifted, had become something of a liability in his role as Technical Director and Head of Product Development. By this time, his Austin 1800 was stalling in the marketplace, and ADO14, the new medium-sized model intended to slot between it and the 1100, was mired in a series of stylistic and drivetrain-related crises as it inched painfully towards production.
Edwards had that year appointed Roy Haynes, late of Ford’s Dunton styling studios, setting him up in a separate facility at the Pressed Steel Fisher works with a brief to plan both a new family of cars, and a series of pragmatic facelifts of existing models, well out of the way of Sir Alec, whose intransigence contributed notably to the state of affairs Edwards now found himself presented with.
Meanwhile, faced with an ailing model programme for which he was directly responsible, a more conscientious individual might have considered it germane to throw both himself and his best people into the task of salvaging ADO14, but instead Issigonis appears to have washed his hands of it, moving onto a project which interested him more.
Much has been written about the 9X project, a good deal of which can be found on the authoritative AROnline, so it makes little sense to retell it here. Suffice to say it was an ambitious project for a family of compact cars – the smaller of the pair shorter overall than the Mini, while in larger so-called 10X form, similar dimensionally to the existing 1100 model, but (in both cases) with even greater space efficiency, courtesy of an advanced new powertrain.
No product planner was Sir Alec – in essence, the type of cars BMH’s conceptual supremo seemed to favour only appealed to his own ascetic tastes, which if you think about it, really wasn’t a terrific basis for a carmaker the size and scale of BMH. An even smaller Mini therefore probably spoke to the packaging zealot in him, but realistically, there was no significant market requirement, largely because not only was the Mini deemed more than small enough, but the customer was broadly ambivalent on the subject of space efficiency, tending to prefer larger vehicles. BMH’s rivals appeared to understand this, but Sir Alec seemed deaf to market logic.
Chroniclers have subsequently made much of Issigonis’ pragmatism in the design of 9X, citing his efforts to ensure that it would be cheaper and easier to build than the Mini, but by insisting upon such a radically compact, all-new drivetrain, any putative savings would have been negated, suggesting that over the course of his lengthy career, Sir Alec had really learned little.
By 1967, the Mini was still selling strongly – indeed it would be some years before it reached its sales peak. But amongst the impediments to its success was the fact that Issigonis would not agree to significant running improvements to his brainchild. What the Mini required was for cost to be extracted from it, for improvements to be made to its specification and build, and ideally, for a hatchback to be contrived. Ironically, some of these more pragmatic changes would take place, but only once Sir Alec had been sidelined.
But the real urgency lay with the ailing ADO14 programme, which finally hobbled onto the market as the Maxi in 1969. Whether it was apparent at the time that the entire future prosperity of the business hinged upon the success of this model line is a matter of conjecture. It may not have been, but getting the Maxi so badly wrong not only cost the carmaker dearly, it ultimately cost Sir Alec his reputation, and as some have latterly suggested, his job.
A fully engineered 9X prototype was presented to senior management in 1968. Despite its technical merit, and undoubted packaging genius, one can sympathise to an extent with Donald Stokes, the BLMC board and newly appointed Technical Director, Harry Webster in rejecting it. The costs would have been crippling, coupled with considerable uncertainty as to whether the advanced new power unit could be reliably toleranced for mass-production. After all, BMC/H’s track record on engine design or production engineering wasn’t exactly stellar.
However, to dismiss the larger putative 10X version outright was perhaps a more questionable decision, especially since so much work had already been carried out on its related 9X sibling. Certainly as proposed, it was unworkable, but re-engineered perhaps for existing powertrains, this may have provided a simpler 1100 replacement programme in a more timely manner and at less cost than the eventual compromised and ultimately unsuccessful ADO67 Allegro.
It is believed 9/10X was cancelled in 1970, but Issigonis spent the next decade and a half developing the DX engine family as a consultant, with a 1.5 litre six-cylinder version being fitted to a Metro development car, and four cylinder versions fitted to both the 9X prototype and a number of prototype ADO20 Minis. He continuously lobbied BL/ Austin Rover/ Rover Group management to reconsider the DX powertrain, to no avail. By then, his stock was almost worthless and his former employers neither cared, nor had the resources to implement it.
Perhaps Sir Alec suffered from an inability to reflect upon his miss-steps and learn by them. Because had he done so, he might have avoided repeating his errors, but lacking that crucial insight, he instead simply forged ahead to his next great leap, which in characteristic Issigonis fashion was theoretically sound, but never quite fully realised.
Instead of being his magnum opus, and evidence that he could bend his ideals to accommodate commercial realities, 9X instead can be viewed as manifest evidence of Sir Alec Issigonis’ staunch refusal to contemplate a middle way. And while it’s entirely possible that by stepping back in 1967, he sensed the irreversible nature of the decision he was taking, it seems unlikely he fully realised the consequences of his actions. That it precipitated such a reversal of fortune is poignant indeed, but as we know, hubris is very much a Greek construct.
*British Motor Holding (BMH) was the entity formed from the 1966 ‘coming together’ of BMC and Jaguar Cars Ltd.