Warhorses - Cooper 500

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It’s spindly and can be fractious, yet this buzzbomb hasn’t stopped competing from the time Ivor Bueb climbed aboard 47 years ago. Gordon Cruickshank explains how this stepping stone to F1 became one of the sport’s foundation

The third places must have been disappointing. For Ivor Bueb’s 1955 season brought him 21 victories — heats, finals, classes, oh, and Le Mans — and 10 seconds, so a third (there were five of them) was letting the works Cooper squad down.

He and team-mate Jim Russell ruled 500cc racing that year, Russell taking the British F3 title and Bueb lifting the Irish version. Despite appearances then, the bulky Bueb and his skimpy racer were perfectly matched, so when he set up his own team for 1956, his works car went with him. This is the story of that car, and what it’s been up to since.

Nowadays we look at 500 racers and nod wisely about the Formula One revolution. No-one was doing that in the austerity of the mid-50s. These minimum machines with their rasping bike engines in the small of the driver’s back were just the simplest, lightest, cheapest way to propel oneself around a track. Which is exactly what appeals to current owner David Woodhouse: “I love the four-wheeled motorbike feel of it — everything is so slim and light.” And as a car designer himself, Woodhouse is attuned to engineering efficiency, even if there’s a price to pay.

“They’re high-maintenance, these 500s, what with methanol fuel, which has to be flushed each time, and drive chains. It’s a lot of work to keep this one in good shape.” Especially if you live 6000 miles away. David is the chief designer for Lincoln/Mercury within the huge Ford empire, and his studio recently relocated from Oxfordshire to California. That means more sunshine, less racing; the car stays here. “And I’ve really missed it,” says its fond owner, gazing at the slim, bottle green form.

There’s nothing in the US comparable to the 500cc racing which has blossomed here recently. “I love 500 racing: it’s hard, it’s close. And I’m afraid the excitement is related to the danger; we have no belts or roll-over bars.”

That has its own drawbacks. You may have seen pictures of 500 drivers cornering with an arm outside the cockpit, apparently clinging on for dear life. Well, it’s true. They are, says Woodhouse: “Even with these narrow tyres, these cars generate real g-force.”

And if you spin, it’s worse: “I spun at Donington Park when I was leading, and I was physically hanging on to prevent being thrown out.”

Almost uniquely in the vintage world, David would like to run on even thinner tyres: “The fronts should be 400s, but you just can’t get them. We’d all like to run them for less rolling resistance.” Which reflects the knifeedge closeness of the series in period: Bueb’s mechanic Pip Preece would even use superlight grease on the wheel bearings for that fraction less drag. Legend has it that, on level ground, works Coopers would roll away in a breeze.

Woodhouse and the little Mk9 have a good record together. Did you see the 500cc nailbiter at the Goodwood Revival last year? He led the whole race by a whisker from archrival (and good friend) Julian Majzub until the last corner, when Majzub scrabbled round the outside in a Mk8 Cooper which David had mended for him.

This isn’t David’s first 500. Previously he had a front-wheel-drive Emeryson, but even then he had his eye on this Cooper: “I saw it at a VSCC meeting 10 years ago and fell in love.” At that point it was owned by Charlie Baynard-Smith, well-known as an expert on twin-cam Manx Norton engines which make these cars fly. He it was who returned the car to its original 1955 works spec after a couple of decades in hill-climbing which saw many changes.

Bueb’s last season with it was 1957; from 1958 to 1960 Jack Welton and Pauline Brock used it on the hills, before passing it on to Ian McLaughlin. By now it was just another outof-date racing car, and after a few seasons McLaughlin decided that the Norton single wasn’t equal to the fight with gravity and installed an 1100 JAP. With 100bhp, this little four-wheeled torpedo held its head high in the British Hillclimb Championship of the early ’60s.

Then it had an unexpected rebirth. In the 1970s, new owner Barry Brant refitted a 500 engine, this time a Triumph twin, and began to collect 500cc hill records. Before long, the 20-year old racer had the majority of British half-litre records, making it as dominant in its field as it had been in Bueb’s day. To conquer the 1100 class he later installed a supercharged 680cc Triumph. It also had another make-over: the willowy front leaf spring, a Cooper trademark since it was first borrowed from the Fiat Topolino, was replaced with coils. As the leaf also locates the top of the front uprights, this meant installing upper wishbones — a common Cooper mod.

That was its form when Baynard-Smith took over in 1982— but not for long. Streaking up Shelsley, he lost control and hit the bank. The impact lozenged the frame and split many of the tubes. Musing over the remains, Charlie reasoned that once he had cut out the unrepairable parts he would only have half the original chassis left; so he bit the bullet. He would build a new frame and return the car to its original spec. This was not such a drama in historical terms; Ivor had also badly bent the car and had the chassis replaced once before.

Having worked on numerous Coopers, Baynard-Smith knew the famously curvedtube chassis inside out, and copied the details accurately from another works car, down to the lighter tubing which gave the factory drivers an edge over the customers. For future reference, he hung on to the chassis, which Woodhouse now has. For motive power he found a very rare unmodified Manx engine, allegedly from Harold Daniell’s Emeryson, and built it up in period spec, ignoring the many recent mods available.

Thus, after a busy career and many mechanical changes, the little Cooper reverted to the way it left the Surbiton works in 1955. Despite the alterations, its historical integrity persists, even in the body: McLaughlin and Brant ran it without the tail panel, which was stored and is now refitted, while the nose cowling shows the patch where the cutaway for the one-time wishbones has been filled. Visible pitting in the alloy shows the 50 years of the engine block — “We’re on borrowed time,” says Woodhouse ruefully — while the mag-alloy final drive unit proclaims its first home: Bueb’s initials are cast into it. And the light-alloy wheels, with their Bugatti-like built-in brake drums, are of uncertain age. Woodhouse shrugs cheerfully when I ask when they were last crack-tested.

Because of Bueb’s size, Preece shaved every gramme he could from the car, which shows in the delicate pedals. Otherwise, there is very little in the cockpit: tachometer, ignition switches, an upside-down handbrake lever, and a black cable like an early Mini door-pull. This is vital on the start-line: the fuel pump is driven from the final drive, so if you aren’t rolling, you aren’t pumping. Pulling the cord tickles the pump and keeps the juices flowing until the green light. By David’s right hand is a slim gear lever shifting the four-speed ‘bike-style sequential ‘box.

Compared with the JAP engine, David tells me, the Norton is a touch harder to drive, with its heavier flywheel and cammier delivery, compounded by the tuned megaphone exhaust: “You can feel when it’s on the mega — it’s like coming on cam. And it’s very loud.” The residents of Fulham would agree, after David fired it up during the Louis Vuitton Concours the weekend before. (Despite the racket, the Cooper won its class.)

With its flyweight 5001b and free-revving 50bhp, David says, the Surbiton projectile is delicate and exciting to handle — “and the brakes are phenomenal.” Praise indeed, considering there are only three of them. With no duff on the rear axle, Cooper twigged that a single disc on the final drive would have the same retarding effect while reducing both unsprung and overall weight. A double performance gain — easier to accelerate, easier to stop — and typical of the Cooper half-litre philosophy, which Woodhouse feels peaked in 1955: “Up to the Mk9, there was always a new idea; after it there were no real changes.”

Well, there was little need. The combination of engineering nous and commercial cuteness meant that from 1950 on almost every significant 500cc race fell to a Cooper, with names such as Stirling Moss, Stuart Lewis-Evans and Peter Collins driving them.

One privateer who bought himself a Cooper was Bueb, a Gloucestershire garage owner. He made such a mark with his Mk8 during 1954 that Cooper signed him up as works driver for ’55, along with his fiercest rival Russell, and chassis number 9/55/E1 was built up specifically for him. Between them, they won 15 of the 28 races they contested, and Bueb also landed a drive with Jaguar at Le Mans. Low-powered or not, the fierce half-litre lacing was where teams sought new talent, and it had a high profile. David’s scrap-book brims not only with photos but also with adverts where Bueb promoted ICLG, Mintex, RedeX, even Ribena.

Bueb elected to remain in the field where he had made his impact, and formed his own team, Ecurie Demi-Litre, for 1956, buying his works car and beginning another winning run. The following year, though, was less rewarding. A huge crash at Oulion Park left Bueb close to death for several days. He recovered, but the car needed anew frame, though retaining the works number it still carries, now on the third chassis.

As Britain’s economy recovered from the war, money and materials came easier to hand, and 500cc racing began to lose its significance. Like many others, Bueb moved on, selling the car to Welton. Both man and machine embarked in new directions for 1958, but while the car is still going, Bueb lost his life only a year later, at Clermont-Ferrand, driving a Cooper-Borgvvard.

No doubt Ivor the Driver would be astonished that his lightly-built and hard-used racer is, in all essentials, still doing the business in its fifth decade. He might be equally amazed at 500cc racing’s revival in these times of plenty; but sometimes a little austerity is good for your perspective.

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