‘It could have been a disaster’ Gordon Murray uses his own Austin Seven to break down the crucial design decisions that turned Issigonis’ imp into an icon. Car designer Gordon Murray CBE gives us a 360° walkaround analysis of the Mini, revealing what made it such a triumph of innovative design and smart packaging Words Jesse Crosse Photography Neil Fraser.
Gordon Murray on why the 1959 original was a tech triumph
THE TECHNO WONDER
Alec Issigonis is universally credited with paternity of the original Mini, but the design team consisted of Jack Daniels, Chris Kingham, a pair of students and four draughtsmen. So who really came up with the famous shape? ‘Oh, it was Issigonis,’ says Gordon Murray, father of the McLaren F1, with which the Mini shares a surprising amount of design philosophy and context.
‘It’s absolutely no accident that most iconic cars are what I call single-person cars. You never get the focus and purity with a committee. You just don’t. Not just from the style but from the package, and usually, the style comes from the package. A lot of the really beautiful cars, designed by engineers actually, were single-person cars.
‘The styling comes from the packaging. Nobody styled Concorde’
‘Another absolutely iconic package and shape was the Fiat Cinquecento, which pre-dated the Mini by two years. That was Dante Giacosa. And the story is really familiar because before that he did the Topolino. A beautiful car again, but not the iconic package that the Cinquecento was. Issigonis had just done the Morris Minor, which was a conventional in-line four-cylinder with a live rear axle. The styling was quite fun and the package was OK. Then he went from that to this absolutely ground-breaking car and that’s exactly what Dante Giacosa did. The same thing happened with the McLaren F1. There were only six of us and I just signed off every single drawing. What you get as a result is a pure, uncluttered design.
‘I like to do a 360 degree walk around a car, and with the Mini there’s not an angle or proportion that’s wrong. The Cinquecento has got one angle I don’t like – the three-quarter rear. The rear deck slopes a little too much but apart from that it’s also perfect.’
An important contribution to the Mini’s success was the guidance of BMC chairman Leonard Lord, on whose orders Issigonis would start work on a new small car following the 1956 oil crisis. Lord was no fan of the German bubble-cars that were also a product of the oil crisis. ‘He hated those and wanted to do something a bit more grown up,’ says Murray.
Our walk around Gordon’s own 1959 Austin Seven 850 flags up some of its unique and distinctive features, including the protruding external body seams and hinges. ‘The only internal hinges are on the bonnet, all the others are external,’ explains Murray. ‘The same with the seams. Before the Mini, if you tried to tell somebody you were going to fold the sheet metal out rather than in, and then spot weld it, they’d have said forget it, you’ll never sell a car. But it was so cleverly done, it just added to the car’s individual character.’ The Mini’s unique rubber cone suspension was a real engineering breakthrough. ‘He had a bit of help from his friend on the suspension of course,’ says Murray of the meeting of minds between Issigonis and Alex Moulton. ‘It does two things that you can’t do with conventional suspension very easily. One is the way the front and rear cones do not intrude into the cabin space, which most suspension does. And in those days, it was unheard of for a car in that price range to have four-wheel independent suspension anyway.
‘The other thing that suspension gives you which makes the handling so good is rising-rate springs, which you couldn’t get on a conventional car. So it had very well-attached, rising-rate independent suspension, in a light little bodyshell with a very low centre of gravity and all the weight over the driven wheels. It’s a go-kart, basically, and that’s exactly what it feels like; it’s just fun.
The Mini was very light and it didn’t have an enormous amount of power so it didn’t suffer from usual traction issues and front wheel scrabbling. It was a pure little car.
‘Another thing the rising-rate springs really helped with in such a lightweight car is in the packaging – you could literally put five people in it. The difference between unladen weight and fully laden weight is a horrendous percentage increase in any car. If you’ve got a car weighing a tonne and a quarter, and you put four people in it, it soaks up a lot of wheel travel and gets near the bump stops. If the Mini had been given conventional springs it would have been a disaster.’
Murray is keen to elaborate on the cleverness of the Mini’s packaging, ‘There are two things that give it all the space inside. The first is obvious – the tranverse engine with the gearbox in the sump only takes up about 20 percent of the wheelbase. But the other clever thing about the Mini is that it uses areas that were filled in on other cars. For example, on a conventional car, you had drop glass, window winder and door card, which altogether added up to about three inches of door thickness.’
Issigonis used sliding windows for the Mini’s front side windows and a cord strung horizontally to allow easy unlatching of the door instead, with no door cards, allowing large storage bins. The initial window mechanism design was not without its glitches, however. ‘On the very early cars built in the first six months like this one – which I bought in tribute to the third car I ever owned – the window buttons didn’t work. Each button only has one pin and it spins around when you try and open or close the window, so after about six months they added a second pin.’
Returning his attention to the spacious interior Murray points out, ‘Now you’ve got all that elbow room and the world’s biggest door pocket for free. He’s even done that in the back – the rear windows don’t drop, they flip on a vertical hinge. On the early cars you had these huge bins on each side of the rear seat and then underneath the seat there was even more stowage space. Suspension that ate into that space would have driven him mad. The rubber cones didn’t step into the package at all because they’re tucked in horizontally beneath the rear floor. The front cones just share the turret that would be for a normal spring anyway and they’re driven off the top wishbone not the bottom. The styling comes from the packaging. Nobody styled Concorde. I did all the McLaren F1 packaging, engineering and aerodynamics on the block models before I even started styling it.’
One of the Mini’s most striking features are the tiny 10-inch wheels. As well as being perfectly in proportion with the car as a whole, they also play a major part in the success of the packaging and handling. ‘The one intrusion into the rear interior space is the wheel arch liner, but if you put 13-inch wheels on a Mini you’d have far less space because they would break into the rear seat area and boot area much more,’ says Murray. ‘The Mini is a very short wheelbase car and that causes longitudinal pitch, so you try and push the wheels right out into the corners to get the longest possible wheelbase. That gives it much more stability and better handling and packaging. As you come down on the wheel diameter, you can push the wheels further out to the corners but it also makes brake packaging more difficult. The four-wheel drums on the basic Mini weren’t too bad but when the Cooper came along with front seven-inch discs it was a packaging nightmare.’
The famous adaptation of the A-Series engine originally introduced in 1951, turned east-west and mounted on top of a purpose-designed four-speed gearbox, may have been brilliant but was inevitably a compromise. ‘That engine was forced on Issigonis,’ Murray continues. ‘I can put myself in his mind because he was all about light weight and packaging – my two favourite things. If you look at his wonderful Lightweight Special racing car I would bet you anything you like that, given a free hand, he’d have done an aluminium engine for the Mini, which would have made it around 30kg lighter.’
Nevertheless, the success of the Mini owes a lot to the lessons learned by Issigonis when building the Lightweight Special in the garage of his home between 1933 and 1938. Its body was a rigid plywood and aluminium monocoque, the powerplant was a light, 750cc Austin Seven engine and tellingly, the suspension springs were made of rubber. Although by modern standards the crash safety of the Mini was poor, its monocoque bodyshell proved extremely rigid when destruction tested, yet the kerb weight was only 585kg. As it was, the east-west mounting with engine sitting atop the gearbox was unique not least because the two shared the same lubricating oil. ‘The only way you got away with that was by going transverse because you don’t need a hypoid oil-lubricated final drive. If you have a crown-wheel and pinion like a conventional north-south engine and have to turn the drive through 90 degrees at the axle using a hypoid helical gear set, you need a very strong, high-viscosity oil,’ explains Murray.
The engine and both front and rear suspension of the Mini are mounted on subframes, something which, in hindsight, Murray thinks of as another triumph of the design. ‘I think they originally tried to mount the suspension directly onto the bodyshell but the loads into the structure were too high compared to conventional suspension,’ he says. ‘This approach cleverly contains the loads, so the pivots and the reaction of the rubber cones are all contained in the subframe which is made of much heavier gauge steel. There’s a manufacturing benefit too, because the whole thing could be assembled off line then brought to the line and bolted in. If it hadn’t been for that change, you wouldn’t have had the thousands of kit cars based on Mini subframes. The negative bit is increased weight, but the positives outweighed the negatives.’
Walk-around complete, I ask Murray if there one specific reason Murray can single out above any other for the Mini’s greatness. He ponders that for a second and replies, ‘You only have to look at his little monocoque racing car. I think Issigonis had always been a clever engineer and this time, somebody gave him a free hand. I’d loved to have met him. I think we would have got on.’
East-west orientation and bespoke gearbox were crucial, but Murray reckons Issigonis would have gone all-aluminium by choice.
Card-less doors, minimal fittings and no centre console are just a few examples of the Mini’s pared-back cleverness.
‘The clever thing is that it uses areas that were filled in on other cars’