John Cooper: The unassuming pioneer

When John Cooper succumbed to cancer on Christmas Eve, he died not only as one of the most profoundly influential characters in motor racing history, but also one of the most widely popular. Here we celebrate the life of a genial, pipesmoking, warm-hearted, barrel man through comments from those who knew him best.

Sir Jack Brabham: “Without John, Cooper’s would have petered out very early on, because his father, Charles, simply would never spend the money once they’d first made their mark. Once a Cooper was winning his attitude was, ‘Why change it?’, while we knew we had to change to catch up or to keep ahead. “It was John who covered for us so Charlie wouldn’t know we were getting the ZF limited-slip diffs and the strengthened ERSA gearboxes, and then our own gearbox for the 1960 Lowline car. Without them we wouldn’t have won a thing. John just kept saying, ‘Don’t tell The Old Man’. Yet when we won, Charles Cooper absolutely loved it. John really was a great bloke. A great friend.”

John Coombs was one of the Cooper Car Co.’s first customers, and vividly recalls John’s early business methods: “He was always bursting to please, he’d promise the earth. Once he telephoned to say my new car was ready. I drove up to Surbiton to see it, and sure enough there was this lovely shiny thing with a big label on it bearing my name. I was very happy, but what John didn’t bargain for was that soon after leaving I remembered there was something else I needed from the stores, so I called back and my lovely shiny new car now had a label on it with a different customer’s name.” Sonia Lundstrom was John’s secretary through Cooper’s most successful years: “I was very surprised when John died to find he’d been a Roman Catholic. When I worked for him he knew I was Catholic, and the reason I remember this so vividly was that one time [probably after the fatal accident in the 1961 Italian GP], when the Vatican said motor racing should be banned, John rushed into my office shouting, ‘Sonia, you’re Catholic. Quick, phone the Pope!’

Roy Salvadori recalls John with obvious, deep, wry affection: “You could fill an entire book with stories about John Cooper and his father Charles. In fact Charles was the really vivid character, while John spent most of his time mending things in The Old Man’s wake, or covering up what we were really up to. “Collecting the team’s start and prize money from race organisers was a terrific ritual. Once John had drawn our money always in cash he’d divide it into three packs, and put one in one pocket for the company, one in another pocket for himself, and a third for Jack and myself, as the drivers, in another. Back at the works, the first thing Charlie

Cooper would ask would be, ‘Where’s the money?’ John would hand over one pack of notes, and Charles would look at it suspiciously and grunt, ‘Is that all?’ However much John might assure him it was, Charlie would frisk him head to foot and inevitably find the rest. I’m sure John finally got wise, and began diwying up the cash into four packs, one of which he’d hide before reporting to The Old Man.” John was immensely proud of the company and factory that he and his father had built at Hollyfield Road, as design-draughtsman Eddie Stait relates: “He loved showing people around the works, but sometimes it might have been an idea for him to warn us that visitors were on the way. One day early in ’64 there wasn’t much to do, and a young Australian trainee and I were the only people in the office when John strode in showing our new team driver, Phil Hill, around the splendours that were The Cooper Car Company. Sadly I don’t think either John or Phil were quite prepared for the activity that was absorbing the drawing office. We were playing conkers.” Ken Tyrrell founded his Formula 2 and later Formula Junior, F3 and Mini Cooper saloon car team after a useful career as a Cooper owner/driver. “But when you start out,” says Ken, “you make mistakes, and it was John Cooper who was always there to say, ‘No, boy, you ought to do it this way’. He just helped us make things happen. Without his influence and input, the Tyrrell team would have gone under early on.”

Two final recollections, both from Cooper men now reunited with John and Charlie in that great saloon-bar in the sky. Firstly, the late Andrew Ferguson, team administrator, later celebratedly at Team Lotus: “I don’t think there was ever a day at Cooper’s when I didn’t go home chuckling because something hilarious was going on.” And works manager Ron Searles killed in a ‘Bobtail’ during a record attempt at Monza who in the ’50s told Cyril Posthumus of Autosport: “I love working for Charlie and John. They pay bugger all, but you’d never have as much fun anywhere else. Nobody has as good a time as us chaps at Cooper’s.” All that, a revolution accomplished, and multiple championship titles too; by any standards, not a bad resume of a lifetime fulfilled. We will miss him. Doug Nye