‘While the Mini is seen as a Modernist mas­ter­piece, the Mi­nor is a thatched Tu­dor cot­tage’

CAR (UK) - - Quick Group Test - Much to ed­i­torat-large Mark’s cha­grin, CAR grew out of Small Car & Mini Owner, with­out much of a look-in for the Mi­nor

WHO RE­MEM­BERS Ex­change and Mart? It does still ex­ist as a web­site, though as a house­hold name it’s been usurped by the likes of eBay and Auto Trader. My dad was a car en­thu­si­ast be­fore me, and he used to buy Ex­change and Mart ev­ery week, to thumb its densely packed pages (no pic­tures!) in search of cars. Con­se­quently, I grew up driv­ing all sorts of old dross that would come and go on the farm: an Austin Champ, a Peu­geot 304, a Mini pick-up, a Mk1 Polo, a Jaguar 420G… eclec­tic, ec­cen­tric and al­ways cheap.

One that hung around for a while was a Mor­ris Mi­nor, and I’ve had a soft spot for Mi­nors ever since. It’s a car ill-treated by his­tory – it was de­signed by Alec Is­sigo­nis, fa­ther of the Mini, yet while the Mini is seen as a Modernist mas­ter­piece, the au­to­mo­tive equiv­a­lent of a man on the Moon, the Mi­nor is… what? A Tu­dor cot­tage, com­plete with thatched roof and a box of clot­ted cream fudge in the glove­box. The Mi­nor was launched 70 years ago, so – as it’s the an­niver­sary – I thought I’d start a cam­paign to have it recog­nised for what it re­ally is: ev­ery bit as sub­ver­sive and avant garde as the Mini in its day.

My cru­sade would be eas­ier if the dear old Moggy had kept its orig­i­nal co­de­name: the Mos­quito. Named after the racy fighter-bomber that en­tered the war in 1941, the new Mor­ris project be­gan in 1942. It was com­mis­sioned by Miles Thomas, head of Mor­ris Mo­tors, who gave the job to a 36-year-old Greek im­mi­grant called Alexan­der Arnold Con­stan­tine Is­sigo­nis. Mor­ris was part of the Nuffield Or­gan­i­sa­tion, still headed by its founder, Wil­liam Mor­ris him­self, Lord Nuffield. Nuffield was an old-school Vic­to­rian in­dus­tri­al­ist, and he didn’t like Is­sigo­nis, who he re­ferred to as ‘Issy-wissy’, ‘Issy-what’s-his-bloody-name’ or more usu­ally, ‘that for­eign chap’.

But Thomas recog­nised a spark in Is­sigo­nis, who’d joined Mor­ris in 1936 and proved him­self a tal­ent in sus­pen­sion de­sign. The Mos­quito was to be ‘the for­eign chap’s’ first ma­jor project.

Sketch­ing his ideas in a notepad, which were then trans­lated into de­tailed draw­ings by Jack Daniels and Reg Job, Is­sigo­nis would later proudly claim: ‘I de­signed the whole car my­self, even the lit­tle knob that opens the glove­box.’ And know­ing what we know now about the Mini, his fin­ger­prints are all over it: a state-of-the-art mono­coque shell (very new in its day), beau­ti­fully pack­aged and wholly ded­i­cated to pas­sen­ger space; the rad­i­cal use of small, 14-inch wheels that had to be spe­cially com­mis­sioned; ad­vanced in­de­pen­dent sus­pen­sion and rackand-pin­ion steer­ing for great han­dling, de­spite it be­ing a bud­get ‘peo­ple’s car’. Is­sigo­nis also worked on a new, 800cc flat-four boxer en­gine for his Mos­quito, though this was even­tu­ally ditched in favour of an out­dated side-valve unit. The whole thing was fab­u­lously pure and aus­tere: at launch, it only had one wind­screen wiper and one rear light.

Then there’s the styling: far from be­ing a cosy Na­tional Trust cot­tage with doilies and home-made plum crum­ble, the Mi­nor was re­bel­lious and fu­tur­is­tic. In­spired by Amer­i­can cars, it did away with run­ning boards and mounted the head­lights down in the grille. Nuffield hated it, de­scrib­ing it as ‘a poached egg’. In­cred­i­bly, after a cou­ple of pro­to­types had been built, Is­sigo­nis de­cided it was too nar­row, so he had a body cut in two, then he moved the two halves apart un­til it looked right, and welded a four-inch strip down the gap. The stretch was mostly hid­den in the pro­duc­tion de­sign, though you can still see a stripe down the mid­dle of the bon­net.

Best of all, the Mi­nor was – and still is – bril­liant to drive. Is­sigo­nis did the test­ing him­self, head­ing off to North Wales with his flat-four Mos­quito pro­to­type. Seventy years later, a Mi­nor’s steer­ing still feels amaz­ingly alive and ac­cu­rate, and the han­dling is beau­ti­fully poised and stable. There’s no soft fudge in its di­rect me­chan­i­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Con­vinced? I know, it’s hard to look at a crusty old clas­sic and see a revolutionary – es­pe­cially when crusty old Lord Nuffield won the bat­tle over the name. But the Mor­ris Mos­quito re­ally was the Mini be­fore the Mini, and it de­serves to share its edgier rep­u­ta­tion.

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