Historically Speaking

Words by Craig Watson. Period photos courtesy Christopher Dowson.

Much is known about Sir Alec Issigonis as designer of the Morris Minor and Mini, but few people really knew him.

Various television documentaries have dipped into Issigonis’ private life, but stayed mainly with the safer realm of his professional career. In 2006, however, two books came out which took a closer look at Issigonis’ infl uences, and his friendships.

Still, there are very few people alive today who knew Issigonis personally, and in more than a professional capacity.

Christopher Dowson is one who is able to speak with the benefit of first-hand personal experience on what Issigonis was like socially. Christopher’s father, George, was a very close friend of Sir Alec, and spent more time working and holidaying with him than probably anyone else.

Alec shows god-daughter, Penny Dowson, one of his model planes in 1951 or 1952

George’s full name was actually John Miller Pendlebury Dowson, but he was given the nickname George by another friend, Rupert Instone, and the name universally stuck. Instone was also friends with young Alec, and it was after the running of a hillclimb at Shelsley Walsh that he introduced his two friends, who both shared a passion for cars and motorsport.

Christopher recalls one of the tales he was told by his father about that meeting. “It was at a pub in Kenilworth, called the Queen and Castle. John Bolster, the motoring correspondent, was there as well. He didn’t like the tune the pianist was playing, and he was pouring tomato ketchup down into the piano. They all got thrown out of the pub.”

George lived with his family at a farm called The Poplars, near Pershore, where Christopher and his family still live. Having studied engineering at Cambridge University, George was an engineer with English Electric, in Rugby, at the time. “From an engineering point of view, my father was probably more qualifi ed than Alec”, Christopher reveals.

Alec was working for Humber as a suspension specialist, and living with his mother Hulda on the outskirts of Kenilworth, some six miles (10km) from the centre of Coventry and 26 miles or so from Pershore.

The Lightweight Special under construction at The Poplars.
The Lightweight Special under construction at The Poplars.

The pair got on extremely well, with George offering to tow Alec’s highly-modifi ed Ulster Austin 7 to events with his Bentley. The pair soon began conspiring on what was to become the famous Lightweight Special. Jonathan Wood has an entire chapter of his book, Alec Issigonis - The Man Who Made The Mini, devoted to the Lightweight. However, the car was essentially a plywood and aluminium monocoque design, long before such a concept was considered practical, and had a supercharged Austin 7 engine, fully-independent suspension, and streamlined body.

The tools used to fit every riget on the body

It was built entirely by hand by the pair, over a period of about four years. Initially work was carried out at Alec’s place in Kenilworth, but after his departure from Humber in 1936 he and his mother moved to Oakdene, a lodge in Radley College, as Alec had got a job with Morris Motors in nearby Oxford.

If you would like to read the rest of this story, order your copy of Issue 15 of The Mini Experience. <plumshop>21</plumshop> 

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