Issigonis: hero or villain?

A recent feature in Classic & Sports Car got me thinking about, of all things, Alex Issigonis. Father of the Morris Minor, genius of the Mini, Issi has rightly been feted for decades as a visionary genius. And yet the article I read in car, about the Maxi, made me wonder about his long term legacy.

Alec Issigonis made Morris through a succession of brilliant and innovative products. The Minor mobilised Britain for peanuts. The Mini (that’ll be the one without the big bold capitals and equally big boned bodywork) revolutionised motoring. The 1100 looked good and was astonishingly well packaged. Each of these cars incorporated clever packaging and technical innovations that kept them relevant to the motoring public for decades – the Minor stayed in production for decades and even enjoyed an Indian summer (of sorts) as the underpinnings of the Marina.

And yet I think Alec was a bit like Status Quo. In the early years, he churned out the hits like our venerable rockers. The trouble is, he didn’t know when to stop – and nobody stopped him. His early cars were so successful that those around him gave him a little too much rope and he succumbed to the law of diminishing returns. The 1800 was dismal, a great barge with more space than anyone frankly needed – at the expense of truly uninspiring looks. The Maxi was a clever idea executed without concern for the mass market. Or reliability. By this point Issigonis’ biggest hits were behind him. Like Status Quo his one trick – clever packaging – was beginning to tire a little.

BMC did the difficult thing and sidelined him, a shaming act that he couldn’t weather. But there is a sound argument to suggest that this giant of British motoring, who did so much to build Britain after the war, also sowed the seeds of its downfall. His intansigent, single-minded almost tyrannical approach to Austin and Morris design and engineering effectively drove it up a cul de sac from which it struggled to extract itself. What was once a strong, world-leading design capability arguably turned into a weak drain on the business as the failure to listen to the market or take on new ideas led to a gradual erosion of fresh thinking. By the time BMC took over the company had a bare new product cupboard and little ability to develop fresh, market-focussed vehicles.

Not all of this was Issigonis’ fault. He was allowed to do this by a weak management. He was and is a great motoring icon. He deserves heaps of praise. But it’s time for some balance – every dog has its day and by the late 1960s BMH needed a new and fresh approach. That it didn’t get it sowed the early seeds of its final collapse 30 years later.

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