Out of a small workshop, and against enormous odds, sprang an unlikely world force. But Paul Fearnly believes that what made cooper great also caused it to fail
Cooper’s numerous successes provide the framework from which hang the innumerable anecdotes and fond memories that give this legendary team its winning appearance. You can’t help but warm to Surbiton’s finest and its ugly-bug machines. Sure, they killed off what many onlookers consider to be motor-racing’s ‘classical’ period, but their makers were not the brash, cocky newcomers kicking over the traces; they were the disarming common-sensers, having fun, cocking a snook, but showing respect and winning friends and admirers. They had a hard side, tough as old boots they were, but there was always a smile to soften the rough, tough edges.
Of course, all this counted for naught as the team slid inexorably down the slick pole of sponsorship in the late 1960s. Just as Maserati’s 250F was the epitome of its era, so Cooper was inextricably linked to its: there could be no Lotus-like seamless transfer to Formula One’s burgeoning financial houses. For Cooper was small beer not a Champagne Charlie, blue collar not a suit, cash in hand not an offshore speculator. It was Surrey without a fringe on top. The time it tried to join the big league, it was too late and short-lived.
But then the bond that held it together had nothing to do with money. Far from it. Instead there was a community spirit — which still exists. Check a list of addresses of its ex-mechanics, machinists and fabricators (most employees were all of those rolled into one) and its clear that they haven’t flown the coop: Epsom, Esher, Claygate, Chobham. Their reunions tend to involve 20-mile round trips.
And yet this ‘insular’ boiler-suited bunch turned the racing world on its head, changed it forever, secured a British racing empire upon the foundation stone laid by Vanwall, convinced a legion of special-builders to widen their horizons. Theirs is a story that lifts the spirits, that makes you laugh out loud.
Like when John Cooper was absolutely creased despite enduring a severe wigging from an irate hotel manager, because burly Ivor Bueb was wedged horizontally, and unseen, above him in the doorway.
Like when the glass tops of the petrol pumps at Hollyfield Road were mown down by the counterweight of a crane that was unloading cars still crated after their return trip from Argentina.
Like when Charlie Cooper smashed a papier mache model of a proposed F1 streamliner over his knee to prove that it would never have been strong enough.
Like when John told an earnest reporter that his team recommended Ribena not because of its taste, or recuperative powers, but because of its superior engine cooling properties.
Like when magnificently moody mechanic ‘Noddy’ Grohmann shattered Surbiton’s slumbers with his acetylene-triggered potato mortar from the roof of the Langley Road F1 workshop.
Like when new recruit Phil Hill was ushered into the ‘penthouse’ drawing office atop the Hollyfield Road HQ, to discover it populated only by designer Owen Maddock and an apprentice. They were playing conkers.
Designed by Maddock’s architect father, this curving, sky-blue-panelling-and-glazed three-storey edifice was perhaps Cooper’s only stylish public nod to its success and growing affluence. Yet nobody gives it a second look these days, let alone pays it a Maranello-like pilgrimage, tucked as it is down an anonymous side street.
It never reverberated to glamorous, sonorous V12s — just honest-to-goodness bike singles and twins or fire-pump in-line fours. It never laid the red carpet out to patrician drivers and their mechanicking batmen — just found a place for spannerrmen drivers who were happier getting their fingers dirty than polishing their silverware, and who could survive and thrive without heat or light. A sort of volunteer Colditz : full of the same make-do-and-mend ingenuity and up-and-at-’em mentality, but without the subsequent feature films, TV series and board games.
Even we at Motor Sport have tended to overlook Cooper. When shooting the breeze about possible forthcoming features, a chill wind blew through when Cooper was mentioned. Covers since 1997 relaunch: Lotus nine, Cooper none. Hardly fair, but indicative of the teams’ personalities and PR nous.
We will never be able to redress this balance in one hit, if ever, and would be unable to cover all things Cooper even had we given up an entire issue to it. What we have done instead is attempt to navigate you through the team’s ascent and descent via its historical trig points — from Moss’s first overseas race to Cooper’s final works F1 driver.
In the process, we have spoken to mechanics and team managers, as well as drivers. We have talked technical and anecdotal. And through it all we have heard time and again of the fun had, of the toil sweated out and of the galvanising spirits ofJohn Cooper and Jack Brabham.
This dynamic duo are often deemed to be the steak and chips to the nouvelle cuisine of Chapman and Clark. This analogy might be not so far from the truth, but it should never be forgotten that they tucked in heartily at the tables of the mid-engine and Indianapolis before Lotus. What’s more, with Bruce McLaren ensconced in the number two seat, during 1959-60 Cooper perhaps boasted the finest trio of intuitive engineers any F1 team has ever had.
The story of Cooper encapsulates the sport’s human side, its strengths and its frailties. The team succeeded because of it. Failed because of it. And all things in between because of it