The Speed of Light


A New occasional series taking a lightweight look at racing cars contemporaries that are interesting in their own right and which may have influenced Chapman thinking.

Subscribers might like to see the directly relevant and integrated A&R pieces that complement and help structure this article:-

  • Lotus Mk.III

Figure 1.Editors photograph of Austin Seven racing car typical of era

Figure 2.Editors photograph: more sophisticated development of Austin Seven racing car: At Gaydon

Sir Alec Issigonis

Returning to England in 1922, not yet 16, he enrolled in engineering school, failing mathematics at every turn. He was offered a job at Morris Motors Ltd. in 1936 and was immediately given the job of steering and suspension engineer. In 1942, Morris gave Issigonis overall responsibility for an all-new model. The entire team consisted of Issigonis and just two draftsmen. At last, he thought, he could design a horse, and not a camel. This new car was launched in 1948 as the Morris Minor.

While the car’s styling was debated, the Morris Minor was revolutionary for the period, featuring a smaller exterior, a very spacious passenger compartment and outstanding road handling characteristics. The Morris Minor was an immediate success, taking just eleven years to hit the one million sales mark. More importantly, the Morris Minor was the first characterization of the Issigonis design philosophy: maximize interior and cargo space while minimizing to the extreme all other components. It was a design philosophy that was not immediately understood. In 1952, Morris Motors merged with Austin Motor Company to form British Motor Corporation.

Issigonis, forever the independent thinker, saw another proverbial camel on the horizon. In opposition to the merger, he resigned and joined Alvis Ltd. to design a luxury car. Designing a luxury car was definitely not the kind of project he wanted to work on, but in 1955, when Alvis decided to cancel the project, Issigonis resigned again and rejoined British Motor. In response to the Suez Oil Crisis of 1957, British Motor called upon Issigonis to head development of a small, fuel-efficient car. The result would become his masterpiece. Initially sketched with a pencil on a tablecloth, this top-secret project was initially called ADO 15, short for Austin Design Office Project 15. The design challenge was clear. Issigonis somehow had to design and engineer a car that would seat four passengers and their luggage in a package not to exceed ten feet in length.

Moreover, he insisted that no less than 80 per cent of the car’s volume be dedicated to passengers and luggage. This meant that the engine, gas tank, all mechanicals, wheels and tires were to make up only 20 percent of the car. Issigonis used a front wheel drive, transverse mounted engine, the first modern application for this set up and one that would define all future front, transverse layouts. The suspension was equally innovative and compact, utilizing a rubber cone system instead of springs. In order to keep the wheel wells from intruding into the passenger compartment, he moved the wheels to the outside corners. The wheels themselves were only ten inches in diameter.

In October, 1957, just eight months after first putting pen to paper, the first two prototypes were on the road. The revolutionary car was launched in 1959, dubbed the Austin and Morris Mini. The Mini was instantly popular with buyers, and international cult vehicle and forced the industry to rethink all automotive engineering conventions. In 1969, in recognition of his engineering genius, Queen Elizabeth granted him Knighthood. Issigonis died in England in 1988 at the age of 81, having lived long enough to see his beloved Mini sell in excess of five million units.

The Lightweight Special


“In 1937 Alec Issigonis designed a sprint and hill climb car , incorporating many unusual features .it was in 1939 that the Issigonis “Lightweight Special” appeared driven by his partner J.M.P.Dowson.As the name suggests everything had been done to reduce weight to a minimum  by designing the car from scratch with this an the main objective.

The chassis frame of deep box section was made from plywood faced on both side by aluminium sheet while suspension to all four wheels was independent. The front was by short wishbones, the top ones forming a bell crank which compressed rubber rings within a transverse tube .At the rear a swing axle layout was used with rubber bands stretched over half axles while the wheels were light alloy with integral brake drums. The aluminium body was in one with the chassis frame .The engine and gearbox were from one of the supercharged side valve Austin 7 racing cars, while the axle unit was also Austin 7……..

The side valve Austin engine was removed and in its place was installed an experimental engine from the factory were Issigonis was chief designer .This was a 748cc 4 cylinder engine with single ohc and a larger Zoller supercharger blowing at 28lb/ developed 5bhp at 7,200rpm and the dry weight of the car was only 720 lb. it had an exciting performance as a hill-climb car…….

The “Mini-Minor” designer …………undoubtedly learnt a lot about small car steering and handling “

Figure 3.Setof 3 photographs of Light weight Special taken at Gayden.

Issigonis had owned and redesigned/ bodied an Austin Seven sports.

This remarkable car was designed and built by Alec Issigonis and George Dawson.

It was significant design and construction accepting many of the limitations faced. It possibly deserves greater comparison with the Lotus Mk.111.It’s believed that work stated in 1933.”Almost every part had to be made slowly and painstakingly by hand without power tools even for drilling, as and when money could be found to pay for the materials “This helps explain why perhaps completion was not until 1939.

This vehicle competed in motor sport during the 1930’s and 40’s.

Its reputed it started life as an Austin Ulster. However Issigonis manufactured a front axle of his own design.

The Lightweight Special derived its name from its construction [ which again possibly inspired Chapman just over a decade later] The builders used a system of aluminium laminated plywood in what amounted to a stiff monocoque with steel tube cross members. Some refer to the construction as sandwich.

Bardsley observes:-

“it was essential to keep weight to a minimum .This was achieved by replacing the conventional chassis with a unitary construction of aluminium faced plywood, a technique commonly used in aircraft construction of the period……every part was integrated as possible………….apart from the originality of its engineering , the car was also an aesthetic success.”

Bardsley quotes John Bolster on the Lightweight Special

“The Lightweight is one of the most amazing specials [or should I say the most’ amazing special] ever constructed

The design incorporated Electron wheels with integrated brake drums [cf Bugatti practice?]

Some records suggest the car weighed 587 lbs. of which 252lbs. might be attributed to the engine, but alloy components were used throughout.

Issigonis used an advanced rubber suspension and this was all independent. “The rear wheels were carried on swinging half –axles located by long semi –trailing radius arms triangulating with three tubular transverse links at each side-one below and two above the drive shafts. Rubber hoops in tension were the springing media”

John Bolster was an admirer of the Lightweight special .He provides an extensive analysis in his book “Specials”

Marque The Lightweight Special
Year 1937-50
Model Single seat
Engine Austin
No. of  cylinders 4
Bore & Stroke 61x44mm
Capacity 748cc
Valves in-line overhead with single ohc
Induction Zoller supercharger
Wheelbase 7ft.1in.
Forward speeds 4
Front suspension independent by double wishbones & rubber in compression
Rear suspension Independent by swing axles rubber in tension
Chassis Frame Plywood and aluminium stressed skin
Max.speed 110mph

Learning Opportunities

Our learning /educational opportunities are intended to be challenging thought provoking and requiring additional research and/or analysis.

These opportunities are particularly designed for a museum/education centre location where visitors would be able to enjoy access to all the structured resources available in conjunction with any concurrent exhibition.

In this instance we suggest the following might be appropriate:-

  • How would you measure the significance of the Austin Seven and Morris Mini?
  • How do the Austin Seven and Mini benchmark in 20c automobile history?
  • Explain the Austin Seven in context/continuum of Ford T
  • How did the Lightweight Special contribute to Issigonis design methods?
  • Compare&Contrast the Lightweight Special with the Lotus Mk. III
  • Was Sir Alec a competition driver? if so did it contribute to his design approach ?c&c Colin Chapman
  • Discover the Lightweight Special Chassis drawings or cutaways or extrapolate.  c&c with chassis of Lotus Mk.III and later Chapman designs

Exhibitions, Education and Economics

In the museum context the editors believe that commercial considerations are both necessary and complementary with its educational objectives.

For these reasons our suggested outline Business Plan includes provision for promoting products and services which share Chapman’s ideals of mechanical efficiency and sustainability. In addition we propose merchandising that explain and interprets the social and cultural context of Chapman’s designs in period. It’s suggested there will be catalogue for on line purchasing.

In this instance we suggest the following might be appropriate:-

  • Seven Wonders of the World
  • 3 into7 will-go
  • Bring to Light
  • Chapman&Issigonis:Enlightened Design Engineers
  • Cast Light On
  • The Lightweight Special: Light and Switched-on
  • Chapman&Issignois :Light headed engineers
  • Chapman&Issignois :Go lightly on the Ground
  • Chapman&Issignois :Shine a Light
  • Chapman&Issignois :First Light
  • The Lightweight Special: Flash Light
  • Chapman&Issignois :The Mini, Minimalism and Making Light Work

Figure 4.Editors sketch working drawing of Lotus Mk.III


The editors believe that a comprehensive and holistic appreciation of Chapman cannot be undertaken exclusively within his oeuvre. We consider it necessary to expand and understand the significant work of others he is likely to have examined and critically assessed. To some small extent these might have inspired him.

By this method we hope it’s possibly also to detect how Chapman influenced others. This fits our general scheme of benchmarking.

Alec Issigonis and Colin Chapman were exceptional design engineers and team leaders. Both men were gifted draughtsman.

Both these designers believed in economy and light weight construction.

The Lightweight Special might have been more influential if the Second World War and not intervened. However it’s likely that Chapman saw cutaway drawings of this car.

The first car Chapman constructed was an Austin Special and used body panels not to dissimimilar to the Lightweight Special. Both engineers constructing the cars by self-assembly and with limited tools etc. Chapman’s Mk.III was built for 750racing and conformed to requirements relating to chassis although he experimented with reinforcement.

Some sources have commented the Lightweight Specials chassis had overtones of the monocoque.

Although we cannot prove conclusively that Chapman was aware of the Lightweight Special we believe he probably knew about it from his extensive reading.

Both engineers were running in parallel during the 1950.s.Chapman  developed a succession of lightweight sports racing cars with relatively small efficient engines.Issigonis worked within the larger corporate framework but still produced the advanced Morris 1000 and Mini.

Both engineers would have experienced the Suez crisis and petrol rationing. Issigonis was instructed to design an economy car as a response. Chapman’s cars were fundamentally fuel efficient due to their aerodynamics, small engines and light weight. Chapman was of the two probably more inspired by aviation technology but the Lightweight Special made a nod in this direction.

We invite subscribers to suggest racing cars or concepts they believe might have influenced Chapman and his colleagues in order we can critically examine them and publish an appropriate article.


The Racing Car pocket Book.Jenkinson.Batsford.1962.

  • Gillian Bardsley (2005). Issigonis: The Official Biography. Icon Books. ISBN1-84046-687-1.
  • Wood, Jonathan (2005). Alec Issigonis: The Man Who Made the Mini. Breedon Books Publishing. ISBN1-85983-449-3.
  • Nahum, Andrew (1988). Alec Issigonis (Modern European Designers Series). Hyperion Books. ISBN0-85072-172-5.
  • Bolster, John (1949). Specials. GT Foulis & Co.

Please note the editors of the A&R attempt to give the broadest spectrum of references but not all are available for consultation in an article. However by noting their existence it may assist students in their research.

*Items in italics non A&R library books.