One-pot dictator

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It’s always the small ones you have to watch for. The 500cc formula pointed the way forward for post war motor racing. Damien Smith finds out why

After six years of ravaging war, it was hardly surprising that much of European motorsport was revived with machinery dating back to the previous decade. New racing cars were not a priority as countries recovered from Nazi occupation, while Britain revelled in victory, then awoke from the party to face the reality of a crippled economy and continued rationing.

But the resourceful determination that had helped win a bitter conflict reared its head in peacetime, too. Britain’s motor racing folk did not dally in creating something for a new era. In December 1945 a group of men in Bristol formed the 500 Club from the germ of a pre-war idea, and drew up a formula to reflect the straitened times. Its influence on the sport would be profound.

The 500cc movement single-handedly created new racing companies that relied on the ingenuity of individuals who would shape modem motorsport. But when Surrey father-and-son garage owners Charles and John Cooper were first attracted to the 500 Club, they had no aspirations of greatness. Quite the contrary; they were just looking for a bit of competitive fun.

Influenced by 500cc pioneer Colin Strang, the Coopers built a prototype with help from friend Eric Brandon out of the front ends , of two Fiat Topolino chassis attached back-to-back. For power they chose the simplicity of a JAP speedway engine and sat the motor behind the driver, for practicality’s sake as much as anything. This car, and a second for Brandon, caught attention. Orders were placed, one coming from an 18-year-old Stirling Moss, and a first production run of 12 was built. Postwar motor racing had truly begun.

Alan Brown had endured a tough season of varying fortunes. Two crashes, at Silverstone and Monaco, left him disheartened. But still he carried on through to the end of 1950, scoring a win, three seconds and nine thirds to boost his confidence for another crack at the new 500cc Formula Three.

It was just as well that he did. Brown and team-mate Brandon would prove to be the top Cooper drivers of 1951, joining forces with 22-stone patron Jimmy Richmond to form a smart, professional team. The two aluminium Ecurie Richmond Coopers — Brown’s with blue nose trim, Brandon’s with red — stormed British F3. Alan won the Half-Litre Club Championship and the Light Car Cup, and finished second to Stirling Moss in the BRDC Gold Star standings. Brandon won the new Autosport British 500cc Drivers’ Championship.

Brown had been lucky to meet Richmond, a 27-year-old public works and haulage contractor from Nottinghamshire, who was keen to become involved in racing but found himself limited to an entrant’s role by his size. He bought a truck to transport the cars and a pair of ‘double knocker’ Norton engines, the power plant that had replaced the JAP as the thing to have in this form of racing.

Along with the championships, Brown and Brandon shared out a good haul of race wins. Eric took great satisfaction from victory at the Nordschleife in the German Grand Prix support race, while Alan triumphed in the Luxemburg Grand Prix, which was run to F3 rules.

Brown never capped the success of that season.

Fifty-three years and one day after that Luxemburg GP, I find myself sitting in Alan Brown’s driving seat at Castle Combe. Chassis MKV/7/51 is as immaculate as it was new, its aluminium body panels glinting in the Wiltshire sun. The familiar grill, marque badge and Ecurie Richmond insignia have already pumped up the adrenalin as I face what will be a totally new experience. But excitement drowns the jitters; I just know that I’m in for a whole lot of fun.

The Mark V or T15, as with all Cooper 500s, was an evolutionary step from its predecessor. The basic chassis and transverse leaf-spring suspension layout remained unchanged, but the body design had become more purposeful. An extra tubular rail running parallel to the chassis’ main side members allowed pannier fuel tanks to be fitted, giving the impression of a little more girth.

The cockpit is tight (especially for someone not jockey-sized like, er… me), but not uncomfortable. Against expectations, the feeling is of sitting ‘in’ rather than ‘on’.

The sequential gearshift juts out of the body just behind the fuel filler for the right-hand tank. A similar stick sits on the left, but I can ignore the handbrake. Instead of the ‘double knocker’ Norton, a JAP sits behind me, the only change from the spec this car ran in to win that Luxemburg race.

In a way, I’m the perfect candidate for a test. As a new formula created directly after WWII to attract all corners to cheap racing, this was — and probably still remains — the ultimate junior single-seater category. My lack of driving experience will highlight just how user-friendly 500cc racers are.

That doesn’t mean my run starts well, of course. The Cooper’s generous (and trusting) owner Peter Wright has given the car a quick warm-up before I jump in, then simply says, “Off you go.” I stall it. That means a bump-start with the help of a couple of Peter’s friends. First gear is a little sticky today, so I select second, and as the motors bumbles into life, I drop the clutch. The JAP sings loudly in my ears under acceleration, as the Cooper judders and shakes. I am startled, despite having been warned to expect as much, and don’t even think about checking the little rectangular mirrors bouncing around on top of the front springs. They’re of little use, and anyway, I’m lucky to have ‘Combe to myself today.

But once you get accustomed to the shakes, the ride is actually comfortable and the sequential shifter smooth and satisfying. As for the drum brakes, I am very pleasantly surprised. The pedal offers firm retardation and entices deeper use into Combe’s chicanes.

The Wiltshire weather has a few tricks up its sleeve to make sure my limbs never lose their nervous tension. Talk about micro-climate; on one lap half the circuit is hit by a squally shower, but as I exit the second chicane the track is bone dry. The wind, too, buffets and disconcerts. At times it feels like the little car is picked up and sent sideways a few inches across the track, while mid-corner gusts defy my visor and make my eyes water.! ignore the instinct to shut them…

But the lively conditions do not spoil the day. I grow in confidence, and even though I stick to my natural bring-it-back-alive caution, I begin to have fun. The rear twitches and slides even at my modest cornering pace, but it is always manageable. Sadly, I’m not quite up to leaning over and sticking my arm out over the side a la Brown or Moss for dramatic and more effective cornering, but that’s okay. I’ll keep both hands on the wheel, thanks very much.

A top speed of a little over 100mph doesn’t sound much, but believe me, just reaching three figures in a 500 is plenty. Then to go wheel-to-wheel as well… Brown and his comrades set the trend for frenetic and entertaining duels that F3 would become famous for.

And for a virtuoso performer like Moss, the 500 formula was the perfect rookie proving ground to master driving technique and racecraft. That raw teenage promise was a beacon pointing to the racing drivers of the future, just as Cooper and its funny little machines offered a glimpse of the cars that would carry them.