1958 Morris Minor
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

The Morris Minor (later the Morris 1000), built from 1948 to 1971, was one of Britain’s most popular cars. The name came from an earlier overhead cam engined Minor that was produced from 1929 to 1932.

The Minor was designed by a brilliant engineer named Alec Issigonis (knighted to become Sir Alec in 1969), who would later revolutionize car design with his cross-engine, front-drive Mini.

Issigonis, who died in 1988 at the age of 81, came to England from his native Turkey in the early 1920s at age 17. He received a mechanical engineering diploma from Battersea Polytechnic, and worked for several car companies before settling at Morris where he had become chief designer by the end of the Second World War.

Small cars held a special interest for Issigonis, and the Minor originated as a small car called the Mosquito that he developed during the Second World War. By war’s end a prototype had been built.

The proportions of the car didn’t look quite right to Issigonis, however, and he decided that the car was too narrow. In his practical way he had it split longitudinally, pulled the two halves apart, and added 102 mm (4 in.) to the width. It now looked “right,” and became the shape of the production Morris Minor.

The Minor was introduced at the 1948 Earls Court Motor Show in London. It had such advanced features as unit construction and torsion bar independent front suspension, at a time when neither torsion bars nor unibodies had found wide acceptance by the motor industry. Rack and pinion steering gave the Minor excellent steering characteristics, and its overall roadholding and handling were superior for an economy car of the day.

Issigonis had planned to use a new side-valve, horizontally-opposed (flat) four cylinder engine. There were some vibration problems, however, which were eventually solved, but internal company resistance couldn’t be overcome. Instead it got the 27.5 horsepower, 918 cc (56 cu in.) Morris Eight inline, side-valve four that had been around since 1935. Power went to the rear wheels through a floor-shift, four-speed manual transmission.

The new 1949 Minor, a replacement for the pre-war designed Morris Eight, came in two-door sedan and convertible versions. Except for its carryover engine, it was more modern than the Eight in every way. It had somewhat bulbous, though still pleasant styling, but with one rather homely feature: The tiny headlamps were tucked down low in the grille. Fitting larger lights and moving them to the tops of the fenders in 1951 vastly improved the Minor’s appearance.

The Minor was a quite small car. Its wheelbase was only 2,184 mm (86 in.), and its over-all length a mere 3,759 mm (148 in.). It weighed some 680 kg (1,500 lb) and rode on 5.00 x 14-inch tires. In comparison, rival Volkswagen from Germany had a 2,400 mm (94.5 in.) wheelbase, was 4,039 mm (159 in.) long, weighed 708 kg (1,560 lb), and had 5.00 x 16-inch tires (they became 5.60 x 15 in 1952).

Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated magazine (1/52) tested a Minor and reported a 0 to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 39.2 seconds, and a top speed of 103 to 105 km/h (64 to 65 mph). This compares closely with Volkswagen’s 0 to 96 (60) time of 37.2 seconds and a top speed of 106 km/h (66 mph) (R&T 12/52). Both performances were pretty modest.

The Minor received detail improvements along the way. In 1951, a four-door sedan was added, along with the aforementioned headlight change. For 1952, the Nuffield Group’s (Morris, et al.) merger with Austin to form the British Motor Corp. made the overhead valve 803 cc (49 cu in.) Austin A30 engine available.

It developed 30 horsepower, but Road & Track (10/54) reported decidedly poorer performance: an agonizingly slow 0 to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 52.5 seconds, and a top speed of only 101 km/h (62.7 mph). The new engine had produced a slower car.

In 1954 the stylish traveller station wagon was added. But as the decade progressed Morris sales fell more and more behind Volkswagen, particularly in North America, where VWs had been sold in the United States since 1949, and Canada since 1952.

To help counter this, the Minor was fitted with a larger 948 cc (57.8 cu in.), 37-horsepower overhead valve four in 1957, becoming the Morris 1000. This, according to Road & Track (8/57), improved the zero to 96 (60) time to 31.2 seconds, and brought top speed up to 118 km/h (73.2 mph).

Succeeding models received more improvements, the most significant being the larger 1,098 cc (67 cu in.), 48-horsepower engine in 1963. Production finally ceased in 1971 after a very respectable 23-year model run, and 1.6 million Minors.

Although Alec Issigonis became more famous for the cross-engine, front-drive Austin/Morris Mini, which set the pattern for most front drivers today, he always called the Morris Minor his favourite design.

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