1988: The Passing of an Automotive Legend

October 2, 1988

The innovative automobile designer Alexander “Alec” Arnold Constantine Issigonis died in Edgbaston, a town and suburban area of Birmingham, England, at the age of 81. In announcing his death, the London-based Guardian newspaper highlighted him as “not only a great and original car designer but someone who put his stamp on a large slice of mid-century British life.”

Issigonis was born a British citizen in 1906 in the large Greek community in the Ottoman Empire’s port city of Smyrna (present-day İzmir in Turkey). His father was Greek but had inherited British citizenship as a result of his own father’s work on a British-built railway in Asia Minor. Alec Issigonis’s mother was German, and it was on her side of the family that he was a first cousin once removed to automobile engineer and executive manager Bernd Pischetsrieder.

Issigonis’s own automotive career as a designer and engineer in England first took shape during the early 1930s when he began working for the vehicle manufacturer Humber Limited. By 1936, he was employed at the British automobile manufacturing company Morris Motors Limited.

During his time with that company, Issigonis created one of his most acclaimed automobiles: the compact and inexpensive Morris Minor. This automobile, which first rolled off the production lines in 1948, became one of the most popular vehicles in England during the first several years following World War II. The Morris Minor was not only relatively low-priced, but it also came equipped with several then-novel features that had been developed by Issigonis and his team. These features included a small exterior with a spacious passenger compartment, along with steering and suspension that made the automobile much easier to drive than many others during that era.

In 1952, Morris Motors was merged with the Austin Motor Company to form the British Motor Corporation (BMC). While working for BMC, Issigonis designed and built another of one of his most renowned automobiles. The Mini made its official debut in 1959 and would become an enduring symbol of British popular culture. BMC asked Issigonis to develop the Mini in response to the Suez Oil Crisis of 1956 and the consequent demand for small, fuel-efficient cars.

Issigonis sketched out the original design for the Mini with a pencil on a tablecloth. He ultimately devised several innovations to ensure that the Mini could seat up to four passengers and also accommodate their luggage in a total space not exceeding 10 feet (3 meters) in length. The key innovations introduced by Issigonis for this purpose included a front-wheel-drive layout with a transverse-mounted engine, along with a compact suspension system comprised of rubber cones rather than springs to keep the wheel wells from pressing into the passenger compartment.

To say that the Mini made a powerful impression on the public would be an understatement; in a vote conducted in 1999 under the auspices of the Global Automotive Elections Foundation,  a total of 126 automobile experts from 32 countries selected the Mini as second only to Henry Ford’s Model T as the most influential car of the 20th century.

Throughout his career, Issigonis proved to be a difficult person. He had a reputation for being highly opinionated, something of a loner, and definitely eccentric. Issigonis denigrated radios in automobiles as too distracting for drivers, dismissed market research as “bunk,” and characterized mathematics as “the enemy of every truly creative man.”  For all of his contrarian views and the controversy he evoked, however, Issigonis also proved to be one of the most influential automobile designers of all time.  This engineer’s biggest accomplishment was shrinking the size of automobiles without sacrificing their quality or functionality. Even today, Issigonis’s ideas serve as the foundation for small-automobile design.

Issigonis, in one of several honors he received during his lifetime, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1969. While officially retiring a couple of years later, he actually continued to work in the automotive industry in one capacity or another until shortly before his death. Issigonis was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2003.

For more information on Sir Alec Issigonis, please check out https://www.automotivehalloffame.org/honoree/alec-issigonis/.

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