DAVID MULLAN takes a look back at 60 years of one of Ireland’s favourite cars.
When Egypt seized the Suez Canal in 1956 triggering Suez Crisis, like all wars in the Middle East, it drove up the price of oil. Just as today, when the price of oil goes up, so does the cost of fuel. Almost overnight, petrol became scarce in Britain (one of the combatants) and the cost went through the roof, badly hurting the pockets of motorists.
Until then, car buyers were concerned mostly with reliability and style. As soon as the price of petrol went up however, buyers began to think more and more about fuel economy and started turning to tiny German bubble cars which could seat two, were usually powered by motorcycle engines and ran on fumes.
Naturally enough, the bigwigs in the British motor industry were none too pleased about this and tried to think of a way to strike back. In 1952, the Morris and Austin companies had come together to form the British Motor Corporation (BMC) and by the late-’50s it was one of the biggest car companies in the world.
Leonard Lord, the head of the organisation, turned to the talented engineer Alec Issigonis to design a small car to beat the Germans. Issigonis was Turkish-born and had form in designing successful small cars, having designed the beloved Morris Minor back in 1948. He set to work.
Issigonis believed that the bubble cars were poorly designed and that he could come up with something just as small with all the comfort of a much bigger car. What he came up with was a marvel.
By turning the engine sideways, putting the gearbox underneath and having it drive the front wheels, it saved enough space to have a cabin that could easily seat four people. There were big pockets inside for all kinds of luggage, and the boot, though it wasn’t huge, could still fit bags and cases.