Issigonis and the Steam Mini

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Maurice Ital
Joined: 2011-08-28

A very good chap from another forum has somehow managed to obtain an article from the July 1971 edition of "Car."

(Younger readers might not know that "Car" was once good.)

It's essentially "When Len Met Alec": the late  LJK Setright interviews the late Sir Alec to dicuss the latter's experiments with steam engines. It's interesting, it's tantalising, and if I'm being honest I'm not entirely sure what's it's all about.

I can send the article to anyone wants it: send me an email address and consider it done.

I don't know if that most excellent C&SC writer, Mr Pressnell, has read the article - his research is so meticulous that I am convinced must have done. I confess I have not got around to reading his, "Mini: The Definitive History", but I have only heard good things about it, and that is only what I would expect from the man who unearthed the TA350, 9X, ANT and so much more besides.

The Steam Mini has been nagging at my guts for years. Now that I've found out more about it that gnawing has abated, but it leaves another Issigonis-shaped whole: the E-Series engine. The awful OHC engine that BMC spent millions on for the Maxi. £14 million was spent on the unit and the Cofton Hackett engine plant contained some of the most advanced production machinery in the world. We're told it was lousy engine, if only by dint of the unloved models it was implanted into - but this engine was surely the reason Leyland felt Issigonis should be put out to grass.

He had nothing to do with the engine's design itself - other than to stipulate that it should spawn a six-cylinder unit which could be mounted transversely - and that's a little odd given that a few years later he designed the OHC 9X unit.

I recall - in an article about a proposed new mid-engined Midget replacement (the precursor to the stillborn ADO21) that Mr Pressnell referred to it as a miserable engine, but I think one of the great untold stories of BMC is why this engine was developed in the first place and what exactly was BMC's plan for it?

AR Online reports:

"Initially the E-series engine was planned with four different capacities,
1160cc, 1300cc, 1485cc four cylinder units plus a 2227cc six cylinder version
of the 1485cc engine. Contrary to previous accounts, the two smaller units were
never built leaving the 1485cc and 2227cc engines to be developed by BMC’s
engineers. The first 1485cc engine began testing in March 1966 followed by the
first six cylinder unit in July. By September 1966 ADO16 and ADO17 mules were
road testing the new engines. Very early on it was decided the E-series engine
needed more torque and by October 1967 a 1748cc and a 1797cc unit were being
tested. The extra capacity was created by lengthening the stroke."

The E-series was only ever planned as a front-wheel drive unit (although in Australia and then later in South Africa it was used longitudinally in Marinas, the P76, and SA SD1s and Land-Rovers.)

So what gives with this unloved engine that was never produced in the quantity it was supposed to have been (8,500 per week, 442,400 per annum) on some of the most advanced production machinery in existence at the time?

BMC must surely have intended the E to have been at least a partial replacement for the A-series in Minis and ADO16s. Because, otherwise, you'd have to left with the conclusion that BMC really was serious about building the thick end of 500,000 Maxis per annum, or that Issigonis as Technical Director lost the plot completely in commissioning the engine. And if that last bit's true then he really did deserve to be punted into the long grass by Leyland.

This engine has been gnawing away at me for ages. I'm not convinced that we yet know the whole story behind it; I have this feeling there was a much bigger story going on behind the scenes.

Robertas Parazitas
Joined: 2013-04-07


If the Setright article tells us one thing it is, to paraphrase L P Hartley, that  external combustion is a foreign country: they do things differently there.  

Despite Issigonis’ side-interest in steam locomotives, I suspect that neither he nor LJKS had a great depth or breadth of knowledge on steam engine matters.  After reading the 1971 article, I cross-referred to the short chapter on the steam escapade in Dr. Moulton’s autobiography  “From Bristol to Bradford-on-Avon”.  There’s no mention of LJKS’s visit to Longbridge.  Moulton had no involvement in the steam Mini project, but his informant was Eric Bareham, who had worked in the “cell” assigned to Issigonis. There’s a much better picture of the mock-up, with the wooden “boiler” under the bonnet of a Clubman.  

Its very existence raises its own questions.  My guess is that BLMC went to the trouble of building a convincing replica for publicity purposes.  This was the height of Wankel mania, and there was value in being seen to be looking outside the limits of reciprocating four-stroke internal combustion powerplants.  

Moulton doesn’t mention the auxiliary steam turbine which prompted Setright’s words: “turbine aerodynamics is a very subtle science, and to produce a good steamwheel at the first attempt is unlikely to be done other than by protracted and intensive study, or through instinctive perception of what is necessary.  In his case the latter.” 

It’s a highly perceptive comment.  Issigonis relied rather too much on instinct and self-belief throughout his career, and often led himself astray. Moulton was more of a researcher and empiricist, and his commentary lists Issigonis’ design references, and questions their appropriateness to the project.  He notes with regret that “Alec hadn’t been more continuously in association with me during the period of no less than four years of experience I was having on my own steam projects.  I would certainly have prevented him from following a number of faulty lines of exploration”.

 There’s a nice circularity in Moulton's crediting of Eric Bareham – the father of the E series, also mentioned by Mr. Ital (Is he a Rastafarian gentleman?).  That curious and misunderstood machine could have been every engine Austin, Morris, MG and even Triumph, needed, but instead was fated to being a footnote to BLMC history, usually prefaced by regret.   But that story really is yet another country…