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Issigonis, Alec

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(1906–88) British engineer: the most successful car designer of his time.

Issigonis’s father had a marine engineering factory in Smyrna (then in Turkey) and engines were familiar to the boy from childhood; but in 1919 Smyrna was ceded to Greece, only to be invaded by the Turks in 1922. As a result the family fled, first to Malta and then to Britain. Later in the same year Alec was living in London with his widowed mother, as a rather poorly-educated refugee studying engineering at Battersea Polytechnic. From the mid-1920s he was working in the motor car industry, then dominated (as it had been from 1900) by designs with a petrol engine placed in-line at the front and driving the rear wheels. By the mid-1950s Issigonis had much experience in car design based on these principles, but his most innovative ideas had been frustrated, mainly by the Second World War. Then in 1956 the Suez crisis led to petrol shortage, and economical but unattractive ‘bubble cars’ appeared. Issigonis was given the task by the British Motor Corporation of designing a new and economical small car to compete with them; his response was highly original.

His answer (the Austin Design Office project 15) was to design and produce within 2 years a small car with its small wheels close to the four corners, and with the novel feature of a front transverse engine and transmission driving the front wheels. The suspension was an all-independent rubber system designed by A Moulton. The body shape of this ‘Mini Minor’ was functional and distinctive, and surprisingly roomy for its overall size; and its road-holding, stability and freedom from pitching were outstanding. From its launch in 1959 the Mini dominated the small car market for two decades and even after 25 years its market share was still growing. Its general layout has since become standard for all except large-size motor cars. Issigonis led design teams responsible for other successful cars, but none was as novel and influential as the Mini. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1967 and was knighted in 1969.

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