Mentors

The decision to train in Coventry was determined in part by the fact that in 1946, immediately after the end of the War, his father became Managing Director (and subsequently also Chairman) of the Alvis company, which at that time was manufacturing radial aircraft engines and armoured vehicles as well as luxury cars.  As a result the whole family had moved to live in the Midlands.   For someone who wanted to embark on a career in mechanical engineering Coventry was almost the ideal place to be because there was such a concentration of vehicle manufacturers in the area.  Mike could have gone to Alvis as an apprentice, but he felt it was better to strike out on his own.  He did nevertheless derive some advantage from his father’s position: he met many of his father’s peers, managers and engineers in other engineering companies, and he had the opportunity to try out and observe an enormous variety of cars.

One man who particularly influenced his ideas about engineering was Alec Issigonis, the designer of the Morris Minor and the Mini.  From 1952 to 1955 Alec was employed by Alvis as chief car engineer to work on the development of an entirely new model of car, designated TA 175/350

Technically the Issigonis car was of the greatest interest.  Designed to take, alternatively, a 1750 c.c. four cylinder engine or one of 3.5 litres in 90 degree V8 form, the prototype had an engine of the latter size. Intended to sell at £1,000 and with a high cruising speed, the maximum of the 3.5 litre car would have exceeded 100 mph.  Externally the saloon body was well streamlined, the short V8 engine permitted the overall dimensions to be small and yet allowed for the provision of a large luggage boot and full uncramped seating for six passengers. Rubber suspension was used throughout with units at front and rear to eliminate pitch. This was the first appication of the principle later used in the Mini. The transmission layout was unusual; it incorporated Laycock overdrive on both of the two speeds of the synchromesh gearbox in unit with the back axle. The propellor shaft position was very low and the car had a completely flat floor. Another unusual feature was the gear lever situated to the right of the front bench-type seat – a straight up and down movement selecting the gears. The only obvious concession to tradition in the prototype car was the wooden steering wheel. © K.R.Day – “The Story of the Red Triangle”

A prototype car was produced but, sadly, in the end it was not put into production because it was decided that it would not be a profitable venture.  After the project was abandoned, one of the V8 engines ended up in the garage of Mike’s home at Northend.  One of John’s childhood memories is of the day Mike fired up this engine using petrol fed in from a jam jar.  Without any exhaust manifolds it emitted an ear-splitting racket and blue flames shot out of the exhaust ports.
It was through this project that Mike first met Alec; they got on well together and spent innumerable evenings talking about cars.  Alec, who had an extremely creative, innovative approach to car design could be described as Mike’s mentor.  Annabel once asked Mike’s friend Harold Dawes if he thought Alec had had a lot of influence on Mike’s engineering ideas: “Enormous, an enormous influence.  … Alec had a marvellous brain, totally eccentric.  He was extremely good for everybody, in that he would throw in these extreme ideas and allow them to be talked through.  If anything, Michael followed Alec’s progression when he came to do small cars himself. ”  Tim Fry, Mike’s colleague at the Rootes Group also remembers that they saw a lot of Alec at a later stage: “We used to go once a month to have supper with Alec Issigonis and Alex Moulton at what used to be the Brine Baths Hotel at Droitwich … we used to discuss various cars and how they could be like this and how they could be like that. …  After the Mini had come out, we met Alec at ‘The Trout’ in Oxford and we had the prototype of the Imp hidden in the bushes round the back. So we handed the keys to Alec, he went off and came back and said: ‘Absolutely brilliant, but you’ve got it the wrong way round!’. [because it had a rear engine and rear-wheel drive, whereas the Mini had a front engine and front-wheel drive].”

Next: First Cars

Advertisements