Sir Alexander Arnold Constantine Issigonis was one of the most creative and celebrated automobile designers of modern times. The Mini, the Minor and the Austin 1100, all of which he designed, are among the five top-selling cars in British history. His innovations are the foundation of modern small-car design, living on in every front-wheel-drive passenger vehicle with a sideways-mounted engine on the road. On his own behalf all Issigonis ever offered was: “I am an engineer.”
On November 18, 1906, Alexander Issigonis was born in Smyrna, during the last days of the Ottoman Empire. His grandfather, Demosthenes, migrated to Smyrna from Paros in the 1830s and through the work he did for the British-built Smyrna-Aydın Railway (in the engineering works that he had established) had managed to acquire British nationality.
Demosthenes’s son Constantine was born, with British nationality, in Smyrna in 1872. Constantine studied in England and later ran a marine engineering business with his brother. Alexander’s mother, Hulda Prokopp, could trace her origins back to Württemberg (now part of Germany). Her father was a wealthy beer maker who had a branch office in Smyrna. As fate would have it, it was through his mother’s family that Alexander was a cousin to BMW (and more briefly Volkswagen) director Bernd Pischetsrieder. Young Alexander was educated at private schools in Smyrna and as he later recalled it was not until he was 12 years old that he saw his first automobile.
In September 1922, given that the Issigonis family was British subjects, they were evacuated to Malta by British Royal Marines ahead of the Great Fire of Smyrna. Constantine Issigonis died in route to Malta, and the family arrived in England virtually penniless in 1923. While Alexander’s mother encouraged him attend art school he preferred engineering. Not long after his arrival Alexander enrolled in the Battersea Polytechnic. It was also, at this time that he became known as Alec. After Battersea Polytechnic, Alec decided to enter the University of London External Programme to complete his university education. It still surprises many people that Issigonis’ formal education was limited to a diploma in mechanical engineering.
Between 1928 and 1933, Issigonis worked as a draughtsman with the inventor Edward Gillet trying to perfect Gillet’s semiautomatic clutch mechanism. The young Greek engineer also took to racing cars. It is this period of Issigonis;’ life that many point to as the time when the young engineer personally familiarized himself with all aspects of car design as he raced d and built his own cars. Ever the engineer, between 1933 and 1936, Issigonis worked at Rootes Motors, dealing with issues related to suspension systems. As later events were to testify in was in 1936, when Issigonis’ career break arrived when he joined Morris Motors.
In the early 1940s, Issigonis began work on the design of a car that was to become the Morris Minor. “The car which gradually emerged from Issigonis’ sketch-pad and from engineering drawings prepared by his two right-hand men Jack Daniels and Reg Job was by the standards of the nineteen-forties unconventional to say the least. Gone were separate running boards and wings, replaced by a highly modern unitary body shell which dispensed with a chassis frame…Underneath the skin, the new Morris was similarly up to the minute. First and foremost, Issigonis sited the engine right over the front wheels instead of well behind them, much investigation and experimentation having proved that the weight of the engine in this position dramatically improved the stability and controllability of a car. The front wheels themselves were given an advanced torsion-bar independent suspension, which combined with the rigidity of the unitary construction body, gave a standard of ride comfort such as had never been experienced in a small British car before (www.morrisminor.org.uk/history).” Throughout the entire process, Issigonis was clearly attempting to follow one of the time-honored principles of automotive design – to provide a vehicle that carried the greatest payload in the smallest practical space.
An especially telling story of Issigonis’ fabled eye for detail is recorded in L.J.K Setright’s, The Designers. Great Automobiles and the Men Who Made Them: “The story of his final proportioning of the Morris Minor is famous…the car had been completed as a mock up, but Issigonis thought it looked wrong, feeling that it needed to be wider. He had his men cut it straight down the middle and move the two halves apart until the proportions of height to width looked right, whereupon the addition of a 10” gusset was the final step in clearing the mock-up design to go to the detailers in preparation for production (Chicago: Follett Publishing, 1976).”
The Morris Minor was launched in 1948 and produced until 1971. The minor appeared as a convertible and as a wooden-paneled sedan. By 1964, 1,250,000 were sold. Collectors do not only cherish surviving models but Morris Minor websites are to be found all over the internet. With Morris’ 1952, merger with Austin, Issigonis resigned. After briefly working at Alvis, in the early 1950s, Issigonis returned to what had become in his absence the British Motor Corporation.
On August 18, 1959, prompted it is said by the Suez energy crisis of 1956, and the phenomenal popularity of Volkswagen Beetle, Issigonis introduced the Mini. The Mini was boxy, inexpensive, and fuel-efficient and used a transverse engine to power the front wheels. This last point was a radical design, at the time, and because of its use could seat four passengers quite comfortably despite being only 3 meters long. The four rather tiny wheels, of this front-wheel drive car, were placed directly at the corners for better handling. Initially the car critics wrote mocking reviews since Issigonis took $28-million dollars to produce this exceedingly simple car. Still, it was this very principal of functional simplicity over stylistic design that won the day.
It must be recalled that 1959 in Detroit, was the time when huge tail tins, dazzling oversize chrome bumpers and the intentional placement of decorative holes along the front fenders were all in vogue. The Mini’s practicality and affordability made it immediately popular with all classes of people. Excellent road handling, space-efficiency, compactness and the subservience of style to function made it an instant cultural sensation quickly becoming a symbol of the Swinging Sixties. We should stress that aside from its cult status the Mini set the pace worldwide for small, economical and sophisticated cars.
By 1964, the Mini was being built at the rate of 6,000 a week with an original sticker price of $1,500. By the time of Issigonis’ death more than 5 million Mini’s had been sold. A version of the Mini is still in production. In point of fact, the Mini remains the most successful car ever made in Great Britain.
The Mini did not remain a cult car for long. John Cooper, a builder of racing cars immediately recognized the superb handling capabilities of the Mini. In 10964, with Paddy Hop irk and Henry Lindon as drivers the Cooper-Mini won the most famous car rally in the world, the Monte Carlo Rally. The Mini-Cooper (as it came to be called) won the Monte Carlo Rally a total of three times.
A lifelong bachelor, Alex Issigonis died at his home in Birmingham, England of Meniere’s disease on Sunday October 2, 1988.
Unquestionably, Alec Issigonis’ life-time of accomplishments can stand on their own. Having said that there are other dimensions to this man’s creativity that deserve our close consideration. Issigonis is also part of a trio of internationally recognized industrial designers of Greek descent who all began their professionally careers at virtually the same historical moment. Alexander Sarandon Tremulous (1914-1991) the noted maverick designer for Cord Automobile, Duesenberg, General Motors, Tucker Car Corporation and Ford Motor Company and George Burris (b. November 20, 1925) the recognized premier customizer of hot rods and theme cars each reached their creative peaks just as Issigonis was achieving international acclaim in Great Britain for his groundbreaking and influential development of the economical Mini and the perennially popular Morris Minor.
Somehow it is unthinkable to allow that three individuals of Greek descent were responsible for Detroit’s fabled 1950s era over-sized space age tail-fins, the hot rod and the family car/European race car par excellence –at virtually the same moment in time—is typical of how modern Greeks are treated in the West.
Lone Greeks can, and very often do, receive the highest honors in the Western nation in which they reside. Yet, any suggestion that there are wider connections, based perhaps on their ethnic background, and one is simply ignored, or worst, laughed at openly. And who can blame these people? If Greeks, or Greeks in the Diaspora, fail to acknowledge their own, why should anyone else? Alec Issigonis’ place in the history of industrial design is assured. Paradoxically, Issigonis’ creative ties to others in the Hellenic diaspora have yet to be fully established.