Little Belter

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In the space of four years, Cooper went from a contender punching above its weight to world champion. Gordon Cruickshank speaks to the men who were in its corner

photography by James Mann

Pragmatists, not purists: That was Cooper compared to design-led Lotus, or the intensive engineering of BRM. While Colin Chapman was stripping out every gramme and making components double up, Cooper’s were bending the rules, adding material, beefing things up — and, in 1959-60, beating the world.

Irascible, forthright Charlie Cooper, his practical son John and bushy-bearded sax-playing design maverick Owen Maddock made for a fiery creative brew; but what honed Cooper’s ‘about-face’ principle from a short-term expedient to world-changing force was the all-time dream duo of Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren. On top of supreme driving skills, their technical input leap-frogged the beetle-back machines ahead of the racing world, and in 1959 brought ‘Black Jack’ the first of his world championships.

Brabham drove the T51 illustrated here — 4-F2-27-59 — to victory in the British GP of that glorious year. Yet the humble origins of this grand prix winner remain clear: a simple, sturdy frame of curved tubes — theoretically weaker than straight ones — with conventional wishbone suspension and a transverse leaf spring, serviced with bought-in components. And all assembled in a cramped workshop with little more equipment than the average garage. No aerospace materials and, barring the rear engine, no novel concepts. Just efficient engineering — and a small, happy, dedicated team. We spoke to some of them about the winning years.

Douggie Johnson: “I went to Mr Cooper’s garage in 1940, and when they started the Cooper Car Company in 1948, I built the first 500cc chassis. I was there till it closed, too, so I saw all the changes. It was very gradual, and once we’d got a design that worked there didn’t seem much point in changing it: even the later F1 cars used the same four rails with cross-members.

“I was in charge of production cars later on — Formula Juniors, F2, sportscars and customer F1s … Yes, there was a difference between customer and works F1 cars. The F1 team had their own ideas on layout and fittings, though the main parts, like the suspension, could be swapped around. Some of their tweaks would end up on production cars.

“A lot of people would put a little mark on their frame so when it came back for repair they would recognise it. But they were pretty strong. Lotus built very light and only added when they broke; we built ’em from the right stuff in the first place.”

Terry Kitson: “I went to Cooper’s straight from college. I worked at the Training School at Brands Hatch, so I got 15 laps every morning warming the cars up. The school also acted as our testing facility — we soon found out which bits were going to break.

“At first we gas-welded the frames, which would distort slightly. On production cars we’d spring the mountings back into alignment, but on the F1 cars, which were dedicated from the ground up, we’d use shims to realign them.

“Later we moved to non-distorting gas-flux brazing, and there was less difference between customer and team cars. In 1959, the F1 team was in a corner of the Hollyfield Road shop, so the customers could walk around and see everything. Then John rented two lock-ups from the pub next door, reached by a bridge [others say a plank!] over the River Mole, and that was the F1 department for a while.

“There were about 14 people in production, and three or four in R&D, where I started before I specialised in chassis. I built the Indycar and two Tasmans as well as the F1 frames. I can still recognise my own chassis when I go to the Goodwood Revival.

‘Then there were the customer ‘kits’ — we’d supply all the tubes but no chassis plate, and they’d assemble it. No Purchase Tax, you see.

“I think one of the reasons Cooper was such a success was that everyone enjoyed themselves. There was a very dose nucleus of us for many years. John claimed afterwards that he knew what went on, but he didn’t know the half of it. Even Jack Brabham — I remember him filling a cardboard box with acetylene gas and blowing it up in the pits.”

Eddie Stait: “I was Owen’s right-hand man in the design office at this time. He was more of an artist than a scientist; he got the proportions about right by eye. There’s a lot of fuss talked about the curved tubes — they aren’t that bad. If you stick to straight tubes, it’s harder to turn corners, so you need more of them. The main tubes were sent away to be bent: they were filled with sand, then bent around quite a crude pattern. The curves were never quite where you expected, so we had to send a 25ft tube and then trim off.

“Owen would detail the whole chassis, but some things like damper positioning were exploratory. We would lay them down, mark them up, then weld the mounts. There were only a few adjustment choices — different wishbone pivot points or adding a bit of rubber on the damper to add a bit of rising rate.

“What I remember most about the Cooper days is the fun we had.”

‘Ginger’ Devlin: “During the championship years I was the third race mechanic, alongside ‘Noddy’ Grohmann (Jack Brabharn’s) and Mike Barney (Bruce McLaren’s). Jack himself was a very capable engineer and a bit of a thinker. The difference between him and Bruce was that if Jack asked for a change, you knew he’d really thought it through; if Bruce asked for a change, often as not he just wanted to suck it and see. Of course, there was always Ron Tauranac in the background behind Jack. Ron was not popular at Cooper’s, but I’m sure that some of his ideas would feed through Jack.

“The supply situation was never easy — we were always waiting for something. For instance, every Cooper wheel was turned by an old bloke called Len, who was the foreman at a machine shop in Kingston, and who came in on evenings and at weekends. He was a wizard — did it all with a 6in rule on a big old lathe in the corner.

“Driveshafts were roughed out at Hollyfield Road, then sent away for finishing. They were machined from a huge pile of Dennis lorry shafts Charlie had bought — very strong. The supply lasted for years. And we made our own steering wheels: we had the flats stamped out locally, then a bloke called Fred put an alloy half-round bead on the front and a rubber one on the back. Then they were wrapped in leather by the people who upholstered the seats for us, and we engine-turned them using a drill, a bottle cork and some valve-grinding paste.

“Fuel and oil tanks were made by Maurice Gomm from our patterns, and radiators by a firm in Willesden. There were lots of specialist firms in the area, because they had grown up around Brooldands before the war.

“Once Jack Brabham had redesigned the ERSA-Citroen gearbox casing, they were all assembled by Jack Knight in Battersea. They were very sturdy ‘boxes — heavy but reliable. That was one of the things that made Cooper’s successful: a reputation for staying together.

“We used Armstrong dampers, set higher on rebound to keep the car planted. Owen would feed the figures to Bill Blydenstein, who would work out the spring rates…”

Bill Blydenstein: “I was working in the aircraft industry when I wrote to John Cooper in 1959, saying that I could find out what was causing the problems with his gearbox. I asked for all the broken bits and analysed the damage. The bearings were overstressed, so I redesigned it to reduce the stresses, and in 1960, Jack won five GPs on the trot

“Jack and Bruce were excellent engineers, and John was intuitively brilliant. The way they designed on the hoof was delightful. The drivers told John the wheel rates they wanted, and I would work back to find the spring rates. John would give me a figure on either side of the drivers’ one, but invariably they were right — it would be the middle one.”

Mike Barney: “Brabham was the master, but Bruce was nearly as good. Mind you, there was little you could do to the [1959] car — maybe stiffen the rear spring, but really the car was set at the beginning of the season. As long as ‘Whiskers’ — that’s what Charlie called Owen Maddock, he hated beards — had got it right, you got on with it. There was no testing at all.

“We only had one spare engine, and it was only at the end of ’59 that we completed a spare car. But we had no-one to look after it ‘Noddy’ and I drove from Lisbon to Monza with two cars on the truck, one on the trailer, and got straight to work. Scarlatti drove the third car, and when his gear linkage broke he stormed out and we never saw him again. That’s what happens when you’ve too much on your plate.

“It was a great time to be motor racing, though. If we had a serious problem, we’d go and ask Lotus or BRM…”