A biography of one of the automotive greats

Posted on August 13th, 2006 in Opinion by Julian Edgar


This one’s rare. Firstly, the number of cars that have been produced in the last fifty or so years that can be traced back to the creative efforts of one individual are uncommon indeed. (Well, successful cars, anyway!). Secondly, while there has been a handful of individuals that have achieved automotive success in this way, very few biographies have been written about them.

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So Issigonis – the Official Biography is almost a one of a kind book, telling the story of the unique man responsible for two epoch making cars: the Morris Minor and the Mini. (He also designed the Morris 1100 and Austin 1800, but in many people’s eyes, these cars were not successful.)

Written by Gillian Bardsley, the Archivist for the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust, the biography is neither sycophantic nor a dig-in-the-dirt. The latter certainly appears possible, given that Alec Issigonis lived with his mother for over 60 years and never married. However, along with every other facet of his character, Bardsley neither skirts around nor dwells upon his sexuality; this is a very even-handed biography.

From coverage of Issigonis’s childhood through the move to Britain and his first beginnings in the automotive industry, the biography is detailed and well researched. But of course it is the development of the cars for which he became famous that’s most interesting. The stories have been told many times before but Bardsley takes it not from the direction of the finished cars but from the influences that resulted in those outcomes.

Issigonis comes across as determined, artistic, dictatorial and arrogant – mixed with a sense of fun, shyness and a lover of his friends.

The author doesn’t really highlight the point but, incredibly, Alec Issigonis appeared to be equally at home designing suspension systems (steel, rubber or fluid), engines (flat four, in-line six, alloy V8), or bodies (monocoque, FWD, RWD) – surely, one of the most versatile automotive designers ever.

And this is one of the weaknesses of the book. Bardsley makes the point that she is not an engineer – she is a historian. But this book would have been much better for having an engineering co-author – someone who could analyse the engineering excellence of the cars, describing in detail what made them far superior to their competitors. Bardsley tends to rely simply on commercial success or failure of the model as the indicator of how good a car it was; something rather dangerous to do when but for a series of happy coincidences, the Mini could well have been a sales flop. But in engineering terms, that wouldn’t have made the car any less successful…

Her analysis of Issigonis’s fall from grace at what had become British Leyland is fascinating – and no doubt she is right in suggesting that not only were Issigonis’s views becoming more and more out of step with the buying public but also that he needed a specific, supporting environment in which to work. But she falls into the trap that the company’s management also made: of assuming that the lack of success of certain models (eg the Austin 1800) was because they were lesser cars than the Mini. In fact, in engineering terms, the 1800 was a stunner (and I own one!), so its market failure needs to be examined in a broader context of a company that couldn’t price or specify their models to match their domestic competitors, especially Ford.

Overall this is a fascinating book, one that is engrossing and well worth its purchase price. But I think Issigonis would have been unhappy that his life’s dedication to engineering cars is treated superficially. Yes, the book is a biography of Sir Alec Issigonis not a treatise on his cars, but in his mind the two weren’t able to be separated…

Issigonis – The Official Biography, Gillian Bardsley, Icon Books, 2005

This book was purchased for this review.

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