Engineer who sparked Mini revolution


November 11, 2005

Gillian Bardsley's first-rate biography should be compulsory reading for students of Sir Alec Issigonis. This substantial volume also details the full Issigonis archive, which includes written and recorded material and is held by the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust.

Despite its length, I also commend Issigonis to readers with broader interests. First, it is the fascinating story of a remarkable engineer, famous as mainly responsible for designing three highly successful cars - the post-war Morris Minor, the Mini and the Mini Cooper.

Second, Bardsley's work illuminates the way personal circumstances and characteristics influenced Issigonis's career: as a young man recovering from traumatic events; as a dominating innovator; and as a technical specialist rebelling against conventional management structures. Third, Bardsley examines the contribution of mergers and managements to the post-war decline of the British motor industry, especially at the British Motor Company (BMC) and British Leyland.

Individual readers will find different parts of this volume most interesting. I highlight three. First, Issigonis was born in 1906, in cosmopolitan Smyrna, with Greek and German parents. He inherited British citizenship via his father and developed very "English" attitudes. Smyrna's destruction during regional conflict in 1923 drove the family to Malta.

There Issigonis's father died prematurely.His mother brought him to England and he based himself with her until her death in 1972, never marrying.

Given this background, Issigonis's formal education was unconventional and truncated, ending at Battersea Polytechnic, where he failed his degree in mechanical engineering but obtained a diploma. This closed more academic career routes to him, so Issigonis chose to develop practical skills, working his way into the motor industry, partly through designing and building racing cars in his spare time, partly through developing an unconventional gearbox for a small engineering firm. This gave him wide contacts, got his character and skills noticed, and brought him a job as a junior draughtsman with Humber in 1934. Soon, another offer came from Morris, joint leader - with Austin - of the inter-war motor industry.

In 1941, chance brought a dramatic opportunity. During wartime firewatching, Issigonis had a lengthy conversation with Morris's vice-chairman, Miles Thomas, who was greatly impressed by Issigonis's ideas on the future of small cars. My second highlight is therefore that of Thomas giving Issigonis the opportunity to become the driving force within a team of only three who designed the highly successful Morris Minor, launched in 1949. Issigonis did this within a conventional management structure.

He had by that time fully accepted the "stunningly simple but effective"

idea of using a transverse engine in small cars. By then, too, Morris and Austin had merged to form the BMC. When work on three new cars, including the Mini, began in 1956, Issigonis's influence became dominant both within his own "cell" and, despite some friction, among the larger group of experts with whom they worked. The Mini, launched in 1959, brought Issigonis fame as a motor-design icon. In the early 1960s, the Mini Cooper achieved phenomenal success in world motor sport.

Issigonis designed the Mini as the "charlady's car" that would also help young women learning to drive. Instead, it became an automotive style icon, taken to their hearts by Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon. Coveted by a young generation, the Mini was "in tune with the times, an emblem of a free and unrestricted lifestyle".

My third highlight is Bardsley's analysis of Issigonis as technical director. "Because the only reward BMC had for success was promotion", she says, Issigonis became BMC's technical director, causing him a ten-year dilemma. Fame, and later a knighthood, brought him into just the social circles to which he had always aspired. Yet promotion also made his working life "more and more difficult as he got further out of his depth" in a conventional management role "to which he was temperamentally unsuited".

There are valuable insights here for top managers of gifted specialists (and for vice-chancellors).

In 1967, the Wilson government forced BMC to merge with Leyland Motors, bringing disturbing consequences for Issigonis. Within BMC he had "gathered an unhealthy aura of deference and untouchability" despite his resistance to certain aspects of BMC policy. In British Leyland, with Lord Stokes as chairman, that changed as Stokes picked out Issigonis as deserving most of the blame for the failings of BMC and ended production of the Mini Cooper.

Other commentators also blame BMC's failings on Issigonis's autocratic and arrogant style, but I would rather blame the difficulty that BMC had in operating an integrated business with first-rate marketing and pricing policies. Because the Mini largely determined its own market, BMC had difficulty focusing its sales efforts. "Mr Average", the original target, was not impressed, while the enthusiasm of the relatively affluent young generated its own "market phenomenon". Especially with the Mini, pricing was questionable.

By going first into this new market, BMC "were just too keen on under-pricing their competitors", who took their time, waiting for the principles underlying the Mini to be proven and for the costs of parts and production to fall. Bardsley therefore suggests that "the Mini was the first nail in BMC's coffin" though she clears Issigonis of blame.

Despite this criticism, and even after "retirement" in 1971, Issigonis stayed on as BL's advanced design consultant. Only in 1987 was he finally dismissed, a year before his death. At 82, unmarried and lonely, he found it difficult to fill his time and spent much of it creating a bank of material for biographers.

In a perceptive final chapter, Bardsley considers the nature of Issigonis's achievements, asking - was Issigonis a genius? She refuses to answer the question, leaving it to readers to decide.

Sir Douglas Hague is an honorary fellow of Templeton College, Oxford, and an honorary visiting professor, Manchester Business School.

Issigonis: The Official Biography

Author - Gillian Bardsley
Publisher - Icon
Pages - 480
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 1 84046 687 1

Please Login or Register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments