John Cooper: Formula One pace setter

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John Cooper and father Charles revolutionised Formula One in the 1950s. Last month John was rewarded with a lifetime achievement award at the inaugural historic motorsport awards evening. Shaun Campbell profiles the innovative genius

Lifetime achievement awards are usually consolation prizes for people who made a career out of finishing second. John Cooper so rewarded by the historic racing world is clearly an exception. For when you think of Cooper and his lifetime achievements it’s the word ‘first’ that most readily comes to mind.

The Coopers John and his father Charles didn’t so much revolutionise Grand Prix racing as reinvent it. The trail they blazed established the foundations of the sport as we know it today. What they achieved would be surpassed many times by those who followed Colin Chapman, Ken Tyrrell, Ron Dennis and Frank Williams among them but the Coopers were the first of a new breed.

It could only have happened in one place and at one time Britain immediately after World War II. There wasn’t much money sloshing around, but that didn’t stop a massive upsurge of interest.

There were thousands of technically trained young men, fresh from military service, looking for competition and excitement. New venues were springing up all over the country on perimeter roads of the now disused wartime aerodromes. And there were the specialist firms that could turn out minuscule production runs at very short notice.

The Coopers weren’t just in on the racing boom in Britain, they practically started it. In 1946, from their unassuming garage in Surbiton, they built their first racing car: a 500cc motorcycle-engined single-seater, based around parts from an abandoned Fiat Topolino. It was simple, even crude, but this spindly mid-engined car worked. It was fun to drive, cheap and easy to maintain, and brilliant to watch. The 500cc class, pioneered and generally ruled by Cooper, made motor racing available to people who could never have dreamt of competing before. It’s not pushing the point too far to describe the first 500cc Coopers as the Model T Ford of the motor racing world.

In itself, that was a significant achievement, but the intriguing thing about the Coopers was that they had the ambition, the bare-faced cheek, to aim higher. In 1952 the dingy garage in Surbiton was the launchpad for Cooper’s first ‘proper’ racing car, the conventionally front-engined T20. It handled as well as anything Ferrari and Maserati were making, but the Coopers couldn’t find an engine to do it justice. A blond, bow-tie wearing Englishman called Mike Hawthorn performed heroics with a nitro-methane boosted Bristol-engined car, and finished third in the British Grand Prix. That was better than the well-funded BRM V16 ever managed, but Cooper’s Grand Prix aspirations had to wait until a competitive powerplant could be found. The engine that transformed Cooper from the junior leagues to the premier division had similarly humble origins. Coventry-Climax was a forklift truck and industrial engine builder, but there was both enthusiasm for knowledge of motorsport within the company and their FWB engine, originally developed for a fire pump, was widely used in small racing sports cars and single-seaters.

In 1957 they built a racing engine the four-cylinder 1.5-litre FPF intended for Formula Two. It was the perfect match for Cooper’s mid-engine design and the Climax-powered Coopers dominated, but didn’t have the range or the power to gatecrash the Grand Prix party.

What made the breakthrough possible was not just the development potential of both car and engine, but a change in the Formula One rules that made the races shorter and the use of commercial fuel mandatory. On 19 January 1958, Stirling Moss whose first racing car had been a 500cc Cooper drove Rob Walker’s privately-entered T43 to victory in the Argentinian GP.

This was a ‘first’ of the greatest magnitude. The first Grand Prix win for a rear-engined car since 1939: the first for a privately-entered machine; and the first for an independent assembler of racing cars from off-the-shelf components.

Veteran Frenchman Maurice Trintignant proved that the win in Argentina was no fluke when he drove the Rob Walker car to victory in the second round at Monaco. And, although the factory-built front-engined cars were to rule for the rest of the season, the Coopers had shown the way ahead.

In 1959 there was room at the top; Maserati and Vanwall had quit, leaving only Ferrari and those perennial under-achievers BRM to compete against. The Coopers filled the vacuum. On a budget of £40,000 (less than £500,000 today) the ‘works’ team won three times and lead driver Jack Brabham took the title. There were two more wins for the marque through the Walker/Moss combination, with other private entrants filling up the grid.

The aristocrats had been overthrown, but the Coopers were never real revolutionaries. There was one more glorious year, when Brabham raced to the 1960 title in the lowline T53, but they never had the edge, the sheer drive that would make Colin Chapman’s Lotus the chief beneficiary of the legacy.

There was always a feeling with the Coopers that having achieved so much with so little, that there was a reluctance to adapt to new ideas.

Brabham had provided much of the impetus and the team missed his influence when he left at the end of 1961. Then, in 1963, John was seriously injured in a car accident and, in 1964, Charles died. Cooper continued in Formula One until 1968, and there were wins for the Maserati-engined cars in the preceding two years, but they were no longer the force they had been. At the dawn of the next revolution the era of sponsorship and the Cosworth DFV they slipped quietly out of the sport.

And yet more people than ever were aware of the Cooper name. The mid-60s marriage, that survives today, of the Mini with Cooper, was made in some kind of motoring heaven. Yet it was, in essence, what John Cooper has always done, right from that first 500cc single-seater. It was about making the fun of high-speed driving available to a wider audience.

John Cooper’s achievements have to be seen in a wider context than a list of the team’s Grand Prix achievements. More than anyone, he democratised the sport and did it with humour, good.