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A wheel at each corner – the revolution designed by Alec Issigonis

Updated on March 25, 2011

The start of the Mini revolution

In August 1959 (what a year that was!) the first of more than 5 million Minis rolled off the assembly line and into the car showrooms of Britain. They were then called the Austin 7 and the Morris Mini Minor (depending on which badge it had on the rather plain front radiator grill).

This modest-looking, small (not to say tiny) car ushered in a new era in motor car design, an era which is still in full swing now, exactly 50 years later.

Issigonis and his brilliant design team at British Motor Corporation (BMC - the conglomerate formed by the amalgamation of the Austin and Morris companies) were given the task by company head Leonard Lord of designing a car to counter the competition, in a Europe starved of fuel by the 1956 Suez Crisis, provided by the growing popularity of German and Italian “Bubble” cars which were suddenly selling like hot cakes because of their fuel efficiency. He is reported to have said, “God damn these bloody awful Bubble Cars. We must drive them off the road by designing a proper miniature car.”

And that is exactly what the Mini was – a real, but very small car, driven by a proper car engine, and not the modified motor bike engines which drove the “bubble” cars.

The genius of the design

The genius of Issigonis's design lay in three innovations: firstly he turned the engine into a transverse position under the bonnet and driving the front wheels; secondly he placed a 10 inch wheel at each “corner” of the car; and finally he used a suspension, designed by his friend Dr Alex Moulton using compact rubber cones in the place of springs, thus saving more space.

As a result of these design innovations the usable space for passengers and luggage was 80% of the car's floorpan.

But perhaps more importantly the design innovations produced a car that was incredibly stable, with truly amazing road holding capabilities, which meant the car was both great fun to drive and had great fuel economy. Its nearest rival on the continent at the time was the Volkswagen “Beetle” which was notoriously unstable and comparatively heavy on fuel.

The success of the design has led to it being almost an industry standard in the world, perhaps outside of the US, with most cars coming off assembly lines in Europe, India, and the Far East being front wheel driven, with their engines mounted transversely. It is just the sheer common sense of the design which makes it so popular. Most manufacturers have overcome the obvious design problems, most importantly the issue of the transmission of power from engine to front wheels via a gearbox, which was in the Mini originally placed inside the sump, with most later manufacturers having separately-lubricated boxes.

My parents picniccing with my Uncle Jeff Keen's Morris Minor behind them
My parents picniccing with my Uncle Jeff Keen's Morris Minor behind them
My parent's Austin 1100 in Aberytswyth
My parent's Austin 1100 in Aberytswyth
The grill of my parent's 1100 back in Cape Town
The grill of my parent's 1100 back in Cape Town
The boot of the 1100
The boot of the 1100

Sir Alec Issigonis

Issigonis himself was born in the then Smyrna (now Izmir in Turkey) of British parents in 1906. His father and grandfather were engineers so his genius for engineering could be said to be inherited.

His father died when he was still young and Issigonis, with his mother Hulda, relocated to Britain in 1925 where he studied engineering at Battersea Polytechnic, failing maths there three times but excelling at drawing.

His first job in the car industry was with a friend making a racing car, the Lightweight Special, which Issigonis himself raced until 1948. He was hired by Morris Motors as steering and suspension engineer in 1936 where he was when war broke out in 1939. During the war he designed and developed a lightweight reconnaissance vehicle for the defence department.

Also during the war Issigonis designed the famous Morris Minor, which was to become such a popular car in the immediate post-war years. It went into production in 1948 and remained on sale until 1971.

Apart from the 1959 Mini, Issigonis also designed the Austin/Morris 1100 which went into production in 1962, the Austin 1800 which went into production in 1964, and his last design, the Austin Maxi which went into production in 1969.

Issigonis was knighted in 1969.

Minis were adapted for many different purposes. This "orange" was built on a Mini chassis for the South African citrus company Outspan
Minis were adapted for many different purposes. This "orange" was built on a Mini chassis for the South African citrus company Outspan
The interior of the first Minis was extremely spartan
The interior of the first Minis was extremely spartan
A 1959 Mini
A 1959 Mini

Into the future

The Mini had many different variants in its relatively long production time. There were several versions with higher performance specifications, most notably those designed by Issigonis's friend John Cooper, with whose collaboration the various Mini Coopers and Mini Cooper Ss were produced, to the delight of sports car fans.

The Mini, because of its stability, its amazing road holding capabilities, was popular with racers, especially youngsters wanting to start out in racing.

It won the Monte Carlo rally four times, being unfairly disqualified once, so that officially its tally was three wins.

The “real” Mini went out of production in 1990, the last of the line was a Cooper Sport built in October 2000. By then 5.3 million of the little giants had been built, and the car was an icon.

One of the most famous roles the car played was in the 1969 movie The Italian Job in which three Minis were the get-a-way cars for the sophisticated robbers. Many celebrities owned Minis, including the Beatles, Peter Sellars and Steve McQueen.

The Mini was designed to be a cheap, fuel-efficient and safe car. Its new incarnation as a luxury car is, to my mind, an abomination. The new, so-called Mini, is just a BMW with a Mini badge!

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    • profile image

      JONNY 

      6 years ago

      SEEMS YOU HAVE SOME GOOD KNOWLEDGE ON THE WORLDS MOST POPULAR CAR BUT I DO FEEL YOU HAVE A LITTLE BITTERNESS ABOUT HOW THE MINI HAS BEEN TRANSFORMED INTO SOMETHING WHICH COULD BE SEEN AS REMARKABLEB I OWN A 1994 MINI AND AN 06 COOPER S WHICH IN YOUR COMMENTS MEAN I DONT ACTUALLY OWN A MINI THAT SADDENS ME AS I FEEL I DO, MY 1994 MINI IS MY BABY AND IS 100% REAL MINI

    • ethel smith profile image

      Ethel Smith 

      8 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      THE car of my youth. Thanks for the memories

    • TrudyVan profile image

      TrudyVan Curre 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      Hi there, I love the photos. I also drove a mini for a good couple of years before my son took it over. Thank you for sharing and bringing back great memories.

    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 

      8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Tony - a great trip down memory lane! I learned to drive and passed my test in a mini, in 1969. It had sliding side windows which made the compulsory hand signals very difficult to execute!. I didn't know about Alex Moulton's contribution to the car. I thought he was strictly a bicycle pioneer. You're right about the bloated new 'minis'. They have none of the spirit of the original design.

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