The Morris Minor Is a Quintessentially British Icon
Designed by Sir Alec Issigonis, who would later pen the Mini, the Minor was brilliantly engineered and brought the motor industry out of its 40s slump
This is a 1956 Morris Minor Series II, and it’s probably one of the most enduring images of Britain in the 50s, along with the Queen’s coronation, Harold Macmillan’s moustache, and state-sponsored discrimination.
A little known Greek fella named Alec Issigonis fled to Britain in the 1920s and was found to be pretty adept at designing cars. He was hired by Morris and set out to design his first real icon. Such an icon in fact, that this car has become the embodiment of old England.
The Second World War had practically stalled the entire motor industry, and most models were looking a little old hat as the march of technology surpassed the industry. The powers that be at Morris saw Issigonis as the man to address this, and replace the old Morris Eight with a modern small car, filled with modern engineering.
The man had loads of ideas to eek more interior space out of the car’s external dimensions. The wheels are 14”, a good chunk smaller than the 17s on the Morris Eight. That not only reduced unsprung weight, but having smaller wheels meant smaller wheel arches, so more cabin space.
Many cars of the time had a beam axle at the front, but by introducing independent front suspension, the engine could be pushed as far forward as possible, creating extra passenger room and improving weight distribution.
Issigonis had originally wanted an all-new flat-four engine for the Minor. Not only would that have lowered the centre of gravity, but it also would’ve improved practicality. You see a flat engine could have increased cabin space as there are two fewer cylinders taking up room, but the resources just weren’t there. We’ll come back to the engine bay in a little while.
The Minor would also benefit from its unibody construction, meaning there isn’t a separate chassis beneath the body. It means the car is lighter, more rigid, and uses less steel, which was important after the war. Issigonis also wanted rack and pinion steering, and this along with the unibody would massively improve handling.
Now, none of these ideas were brand new, many had been seen on other cars and Issigonis himself had been pushing them since the mid-30s, but when it all came together on what was a small economy car, it was a revelation, especially considering how much more modern it was than the Morris Eight. Bear in mind four things. One that a heater wasn’t even an option at the beginning; two that Britain in the late 40s was austere with a capital A; three that there was still rationing; and four that Morris was the biggest manufacturer in Britain at the time. This technology was a big deal.
The prototype car with all these features was called the Mosquito, and although it carried the basic shape of the Minor body, it had much more radical, aerodynamic styling, with the headlamps hidden behind the grille, but before it could make production, William Morris had a few things to say.
The old man hated everything about the car, from its unconventional styling to the expensive engines, and it was clear that not everything was going to make the final cut. Not only might money have been an issue, but Morris wanted their new small car out as soon as possible, at the first British Motor Show after the war, in October 1948.
The flat-four engine was the main distraction and it had to go, replaced by the same side-valve engine from the Morris Eight. Issigonis had planned for torsion bar suspension all-round, but that was replaced at the back by a traditional live axle on leaf springs. This means the car is a shadow of what could’ve been, but it was by no means disappointing. Here was a practical, fresh looking small car that would carry Morris forwards and compete against the latest offering from their old foe Austin.
The Morris Minor was finally ready for production, but at the eleventh hour Issigonis grew unhappy with the car’s appearance. The quick and cheap solution he came up with became a styling touch in itself. The problem was that it was too narrow. Pre-war cars were always very narrow, and with the transatlantic styling that Issigonis was so keen on, it didn’t work properly. The solution was to make the whole car four inches wider, as you can see by the strip down the centre of the bonnet.
So that’s how this little car was born, but nobody at the time could’ve seen just how synonymous with its nation this car would become. It’s as British as fish and chips and Marks and Spencer. Just as well then that Issigonis was Greek, Michael Marks was Polish, and battered fish is Portuguese.
For the rest of the article, see it in video form at my YouTube channel, Twin-Cam.