When they were new: Austin Cooper

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An original road test taken from the Motor Sport archives, October 1961 | by Bill Boddy

Down the years it has always been fun to own a ear with a larger engine than normal for its size or weight, giving a resultant sparkling improvement performance-wise, to the astonishment of drivers of outwardly similar vehicles who have the misfortune to challenge it. Many years ago the late F?L?M?Harris, editor of the lamented Light Car, possessed one of those rather spidery 10hp Lea-Francis cars with ‘chummy’ bodywork endowed with a 1½-litre twin-carburetter Meadows engine of the kind used in the later Frazer Nash sports cars… I have always envied owners of such ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing.’ Now in 1961, we have the Austin-Cooper.

It is to the lasting credit of engineers Alec Issigonis and Alex Moulton that the BMC ADO15 possesses such in-built stability and strength that it can, virtually without modification, take 50 per cent more power (55bhp in place of 37bhp), in the form of a new engine of greater capacity, tuned to a prescription of the Cooper Car Company, makers of World Championship racing cars, following their experience with Formula Junior cars using BMC engines.

The result is quite phenomenal performance from this popular, compact four-seater saloon, rendered usable by the aforesaid stability, deriving from the ingenious rubber suspension, tiny wheels and other factors, and the introduction of 7in Lockheed disc brakes on the front.

Much of the enjoyment of this performance derives from the fact that, apart from the name ‘Austin-Cooper’ front and back, the big tail-pipe and silencer and a slightly different grille, the appearance is unchanged.

Internally there is improved carpeting, upholstery and sound damping, a new heater, the remote gear-lever which should have been incorporated in all Minis from the commencement and a new oval instrument panel with water temperature and oil pressure gauges flanking the 100mph speedometer, this panel encroaching on the facia shelf, which, however, accepts triangular parcels. The test car had a Smiths Radiomobile radio and Britax safety harnesses. There is now a roof lamp, and choke, facia lighting and heater switch and heater controls have been repositioned, the heater knob protruding rather too far when heat is turned off. New press-down internal door handles, set far back, are more inconvenient than the former wire ‘pulls’. The spare wheel now lives under a shelf in the boot. Manually-cancelling wipers and doors devoid of ‘keeps’ and courtesy-light switches remain utilitarian aspects of the little car, and the overriders on the front bumpers wouldn’t fend off a puppy.

First impressions are of less ‘punch’ than anticipated and lack of ‘through the windscreen’ retardation, but it didn’t take long to appreciate that a very sensible balance between docility and urge has been struck in what, after all, is a production model, and that the extremely powerful and impeccable disc braking has been cleverly applied to permit maximum application, even on slippery roads, without disastrous loss of control. The splendid brakes are supplemented by a fine Continental-note horn. Normally roundabouts can be taken in top gear, but for good pick-up it is advisable to use third below 30mph, although the engine pulls away from 20 in top. The noise level remains high, but bearable.

The engine commences instantly, needs little choke and attains normal temperature in a mile or two. Oil pressure is reassuringly high, varying between 55 and 85lb/sq in.

The gear change is a great improvement, the lever splendidly placed, although after 3500 miles the action was too stiff. The synchromesh can be beaten and there is unpleasant vibration on the over-run at low speeds, which causes the driver to keep both hands on the wheel and may warm a rally driver’s numb fingers but doesn’t seem quite right…

I was privileged to use an Austin-Cooper in that warm red colour chosen, I believe, by Kay Petre, Colour Consultant to BMC, for a week when it was still so much on the secret list that even at the Longbridge factory I was not permitted to leave it in the normal car parks. Naturally, my main concern was to obtain acceleration figures, but first let me enthuse over the unexpected economy of this ‘little bomb’. The range, full to dry tank, was 214 miles; it would be worthwhile fitting a second tank, with change-over tap à la Jaguar, to increase the range to some 400 miles. Consumption of Esso Extra and National Benzole came out at 38.6mpg on a fast run to Birmingham and 35mpg, including cold starts, crossing London, and making one of the quickest runs from office to home I have done for many a long day. Performance testing reduced it to 32mpg, and driving auntiewise (a great strain!) put it to 39mpg; an overall average of 36.1mpg, which I regard as excellent economy from a miniature sports saloon that, if there is any red blood left in your veins, you cannot resist driving fast. Throttle linkage is well contrived but there was an annoying flat-spot around 38mph in top cog. Without occupants and with fuel for a mile the weight was 1372lb.

The performance is quite staggering. The lower gear ratios have been raised but top remains at 3.76 to 1. The speedometer quotes maxima of 29, 46 and 64mph in the indirect gears but will go to 30, 50 and 70 before very sudden valve crash intrudes. Seventy is a casual cruising speed and a sustained 80mph is well within the compass of this astonishing small car. Top speed will work up to some 85 or more, but you need a motorway to get it.

Acceleration is the Austin-Cooper’s outstanding feature. An unbalanced speedometer needle made recording it difficult but a series of two-way runs, two-up, allowing for speedometer error, gave 0-60 in 17.1sec (normal Mini Minor 27.6) and a standing-start quarter-mile of 20.5sec.

Laurence Pomeroy concludes an appraisal of the Austin-Cooper written for BMC by remarking that “It not only takes you but also sends you.”

To me this is double-dutch, but after a week with this fascinating little car I can understand why racing drivers and other discerning motorists are placing their orders. It is good to know that, just as the original Austin Seven was sufficiently sound to lead to the highly successful Ulster sports model, so Issigonis’ ingenious ADO15 design has proved capable of development into this 997cc version (still officially called an Austin Seven!), one of the quickest A-to-B vehicles I have experienced and, for the same reasons, an admirable town-car. I await release of its price with lively interest.

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