The name Sir Alexander Arnold Constantine Issigonis, CBE, FRS, RDI may mean nothing to most Greeks today, but the English-Greek man had the distinction of being the designer of one of the two most emblematic cars in the world, the Mini Cooper.
Αλέξανδρος Αρνόλδος Κωνσταντίνος Ισηγόνης, as his Greek name was, designed the groundbreaking Mini, launched by the British Motor Corporation (BMC) in 1959.
Forty years later, on the eve of the millennium, the Mini was voted the second-most influential car of the entire twentieth century.
Issigonis was born on November 18, 1906 in Smyrna, Asia Minor, which was once home to a thriving Greek community. His grandfather Demosthenis, who had migrated to Smyrna from the island of Paros in the 1830s, acquired British nationality through his work for the British-built Smyrna-Aydın Railway.
Therefore, when Alec’s father, Constantine Issigonis, was born in Smyrna in 1872, he was also a British national. As a young man, Constantine was sent to England to study, and he later married Hulda Prokopp, the daughter of a wealthy German brewer in Smyrna.
In September of 1922, the days of the Great Fire of Smyrna and the massacre of Greeks by the Turks, the Issigonis family was evacuated to Malta by the British Royal Marines since they were British subjects.
Constantine died later during that fateful year, and Alec and his mother moved to England in 1923.
Issigonis then studied engineering at Battersea Polytechnic in London. Since he failed his mathematics exams three times, he decided to enter the University of London External Programme to complete his university education.
After university, Issigonis entered the motor industry as an engineer and designer, working for Humber. He also successfully competed in the sport of motor racing during the 1930s and 1940s.
After racing with a supercharged “Ulster” Austin Seven, later fitting it with a front axle of his own design, the engineer landed a job at Austin.
In 1936, Issigonis moved to Morris Motors Limited at Cowley, beginning work on designing an independent front suspension system for the “Morris 10.” He worked on various projects for Morris during his years there, and after the war he began work on an advanced automobile codenamed “Mosquito.”
This became the beloved “Morris Minor,” which was produced from 1948 until 1971.
At the end of 1955, Issigonis was recruited into the British Motor Corporation (BMC), a merger of the Austin and Morris firms, and he worked at the Austin plant at Longbridge. There, Issigonis was tasked with designing family and mid-size automobiles.
Greek designer asked to produce Mini cars
However, at the end of 1956, Issigonis was ordered to build a smaller car as quickly as possible as a result of the fuel rationing brought about by the Suez Crisis.
By early 1957, prototypes of the revolutionary new vehicle were already in the making.
In August 1959 the car was launched as the “Morris Mini Minor” and the “Austin Seven,” which soon became known as the “Austin Mini.” In later years, the car would become simply known as “the Mini.”
The Mini went on to become the best-selling British car in history, with a production run of 5.3 million cars. It was a groundbreaking design, with its front-wheel drive, transverse engine, sump gearbox, 10-inch wheels, and incredible space efficiency.
Mini remained in production until 2000
The beloved auto remained in production until 2000, and has been the inspiration for almost all the small front-wheel drive cars which have ever come into production after it.
In 1961, with the Mini gaining in popularity, Issigonis was promoted to be the Technical Director of BMC. He designed other models for Austin and Morris, but the rising costs of vehicle manufacturing and service warranties made him turn to research his Mini replacement 9X, with its compact transverse engine.
In the 1964 Queen’s Birthday Honors, Issigonis was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of his role as Technical Director of the British Motor Corporation.
As part of the Queen’s Birthday Honors for 1969, he was appointed a Knight Bachelor in recognition of his role as Technical Director of British Leyland Motor Corporation Ltd., allowing him to be known thereafter as Sir Alexander Arnold Constantine Issigonis.
Designer knighted by Queen Elizabeth II
On July 22, 1969, Issigonis was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II during a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.
Issigonis’ contemporaries in the world of automobile design nicknamed him “The Greek god.” While he is most famous for his creation of the Mini, he was actually most proud of his involvement in the design of the Morris Minor.
He considered it to be a vehicle that combined many of the luxuries and conveniences of a good motor car with a price suitable for working classes — in contrast to the spartan Mini.
The Mini, however, is one of the emblems of British manufacturing, and is definitely a symbol of Britain itself, as recognizable as Big Ben or Buckingham Palace.
Sir Alec officially retired from the motor industry in 1971, although his love for automobiles led him to continue working until shortly before his death, which occurred on October 2, 1988 at his home in Edgbaston, Birmingham.