Alexander Arnold Constantine Issigonis was born into the Greek community of Smyrna in Ottoman Turkey. His grandfather Demosthenis Issigonis migrated to Smyrna from Paros in the 1830s and through the work he did for the British-built Smyrna-Aydin Railway had managed to acquire British nationality. Alec’s father Constantine Issigonis, was born, with British nationality, in Smyrna in 1872.
Because Alec and his parents were British subjects, they were evacuated to Malta by British Royal Marines in September 1922, ahead of the Turkish destruction of Smyrna at the end of the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922). Following the death of his father in 1922, Alec and his mother moved to the UK in 1923. Alec studied engineering at Battersea Polytechnic in London. He failed his mathematics exams three times and subsequently called pure mathematics ‘the enemy of every creative genius’.
Issigonis joined the motor industry as an engineer and designer working for Humber and did some motor racing during the 1930s and 1940s. In 1936 he moved to the Morris Motor Company and worked on an independent front suspension system for the Morris 10. He worked on various other projects for Morris through the war and towards its end started work on an advanced post-war car codenamed Mosquito that became the Morris Minor, which was produced from 1948 until 1971.
At the end of 1955 Issigonis was recruited by BMC to design a new model car. Morris Mini Minor and the Austin Se7en were launched in August of 1959. In later years the car would become known simply 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. This ground-breaking design, with its front wheel drive and phenomenal space efficiency, is still being manufactured to this day (2019) and has been the inspiration for almost all small front-wheel-drive cars produced since the early 1960s.
“The public don’t know what they want;
it’s my job to tell them.”
In 1961, with the Mini gaining popularity, Issigonis was promoted to Technical Director of BMC. He continued to be responsible for his original XC projects. XC/9002 became ADO16 and was launched as the Morris 1100 with the Hydrolastic interconnected suspension system in August 1962. XC/9001 became ADO17 and was launched, also with the Hydrolastic suspension system, as the Austin 1800 in October 1964.
Issigonis (nicknamed “The Greek God” by his contemporaries) was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1967 and was awarded a knighthood in 1969. Whilst he is most famous for his creation of the Mini, he was most proud of his participation 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 the working classes – in contrast to the Mini which was a spartan mode of conveyance with everything cut to the bone.
Sir Alec officially retired from the motor industry in 1971, although he continued working until shortly before his death from Parkinson’s Disease in 1988.