He dedicated his life to the small car
Alexander Arnold Constantine Issigonis was not influenced by cars in his infancy. He was 12 before he saw one. Maybe that's why, at 50, he was able to reinvent the automobile completely. His Mini was like nothing else. Alec Issigonis could think out of the box. He hated the rigidity of mathematics, which he failed three times at Battersea Polytechnic in London. He called pure mathematics "the enemy of every truly creative man."
He was born in Smyrna, a port city on the Aegean Sea that is now Izmir, Turkey. His British family owned a boiler-making factory and lived under house arrest during World War One when Germany controlled the city.
When he was 16, his mother took him to England to study, and afterward he started working in Britain's auto industry.
In 1943, as a project engineer for Morris, he designed a two-seater that represented his vision of what a small car should be. It had a unitary body, 14-inch wheels to increase passenger space, and a flat-four engine that drove the front wheels. He had to give up his idea for the drivetrain, but the car evolved into the legendary Morris Minor, in production from 1948 to 1971.
When Austin merged with Morris in 1952, internal squabbles between workers of the two former competitors disenchanted Issigonis. He moved to Alvis and designed V-8 sports sedan. When Alvis decided not to make the car in 1955, he went back to Morris-Austin, now called British Motor Co.
As the chief engineer, he immediately set up a task force to study his ideas for a small car. The time was right. The Suez Crisis in September 1956 led to gasoline rationing, and his bosses asked him to design a car smaller than the Morris Minor that could seat four and use an existing engine.
Issigonis exploded into action. He shrunk the wheels to 10 inches so they didn't intrude in the cabin, and stuck them in the far corners. A compact rubber-cone suspension and a wide track allowed safe, responsive handling that later won races.
He mounted the engine transversely to drive the front wheels, then placed the transmission underneath. Eighty percent of the 10-feet (3-meter) long car was given over to passengers.
The car went into production in 1959, and the last original Mini didn't leave the chains until October 2000.
Issigonis, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his success, was arrogant and highly opinionated. He thought market research was inane. He hated interior luxuries, such as radios and comfortable seats, because he thought they distracted the driver.
He thought little of styling. Battista "Pinin" Farina, who admired the lines of the Mini, asked him if he was a stylist.
Issigonis was offended: "I am an engineer," he said.
But he was a creator. The Mini, the Minor and the Austin 1100 he designed are among the five top-selling cars in British history. And his packaging ideas are the foundation of modern small-car design, living on in every front-wheel-drive passenger vehicle with a sideways-mounted engine on the road.