The name Issigonis might be familiar to you. Sir Alexander Arnold Constantine Issigonis to give him his full name, was the designer credited with one of the most famous and groundbreaking cars, the original Mini.
But what you may not be familiar with, as I was when I came across it at the British Motor Museum, is the Issigonis Lightweight Special. Built in 1938, this is anything but a production car.
Destined to be Issigonis’ take on a racing chassis, this unique car was the product of several years of hard work by Issigonis and his friend George Dowson. They started the build back in 1933, when Issigonis was employed at Humber in Coventry, so not far from the site of the museum. The car began life as a sketch on the wall of Issigonis’ garden shed at his house in Kenilworth – where else do all these fantastic projects begin, but in the humble garden shed? Amazingly, they set about building the car with only hand tools, with the basis being to use Austin Seven parts.
The car was built around a stressed aluminium monocoque, with a plywood chassis. As you can expect, building a car in your shed has limitations, and the fully independent suspension was made from large rubber bands to save weight, and the wheels were Elektron castings. Elektron is a magnesium alloy, so making it effectively lighter than aluminum.
The car was painstakingly riveted by hand, much like the construction of a Spitfire. When the funds ran low, the pair spent their time lightening the chassis by drilling holes into the car to make it as light weight as possible, giving it the name sake, Lightweight Special. Possibly something that inspired Colin Chapman with his famous mantra, simplify and add lightness.
Power was rudimentary, coming from an Austin supercharged side-valve engine he was given, after much persuasion no doubt, by their racing chief Murray Jamieson. All this while he was employed at their direct rival, Morris!
From 1938, the pair ran the Lightweight Special at hillclimbs such as Prescott and the famous Shelsley Walsh and also at speed trials such as those in Brighton. The only modification came in 1947 to gain a little more power. An experimental 748cc Wolseley 4-cylinder overhead camshaft supercharged unit was fitted, which still powers the car today up to around 100bhp.
The car is still in use today, running several modern hillclimbs and also being involved in the Goodwood Festival of Speed.
Pay it a visit at the museum, it’s a great bit of history from the legendary Issigonis.