The start of something small

Britain’s first post-war mainland circuit race was a 500cc event at Gransden Lodge airfield on July 13, 1947. But only four cars took the start, so it is the RAC National (right), supporting Silverstone’s first British Grand Prix on October 2, 1948, that carries greater significance.

A healthy total of 34 cars made the entry, which was whittled down to 26 for the grid (nine Coopers and 17 ‘Specials’). But this landmark 50-mile race would get off to an inauspicious start. Only Colin Strang and Stirling Moss were ready to go when pre-war British racing hero Earl Howe dropped the Union Jack. Mechanics were still tending some of the cars on the grid, while Eric Brandon wasn’t even sitting in his Cooper.

After three laps Moss led from Alvin ‘Spike’ Rhiando by a scant 0.7sec, but when Stirling hit engine problems it was the Canadian who was left with the spoils. They came at a price, however: leaking fuel left him badly burnt and in need of a loaned pair of trousers.

Rhiando’s win in a race described as “epic” by Motor Sport was claimed at a speed of 60.68mph. He beat three more Coopers driven by John Cooper, Sir Francis Samuelson and a recovering Brandon.

Reliability was awful, just eight of the 26 starters making the distance. But the little 500cc racers had caught the imagination of the huge Silverstone crowd. Rapid growth of the 500 movement and official Formula Three classification was just around the corner.

Not every seed flowered

If it hadn’t been for Cooper, the 500 story would have been very different. The cars from Surbiton held a numerical superiority because they were fast, quality racing cars built and supplied to customers with an unequalled level of professionalism. But the formula was born in an amateur spirit, and the one-off ‘Specials’ and smaller-scale marques are just as vital to its memory. In fact, it is the technical diversity which makes 500cc racing interesting, especially as Cooper was for from unbeatable. Here are some of the chassis alternatives:

Iota: Run by the Bristol-based organisation that created the 500cc movement. Shared its name with a magazine dedicated to the category (Iota is the Greek for i, the letter under which the FIA categorised the formula). Iota was simply a ladder-frame chassis designed as a template for ‘Specials’ to be built upon: for example, Stromboli, MilleUnion, Buzzi 2 and Wasp. Also built nine complete ‘production’ cars.
Emeryson: Paul Emery refused to follow quickly established convention of putting the engine behind the driver. He based the shape on the prewar Mercedes W154, with chain transmission driving the front wheels.
JBS: Wembley speedway star Alf Bottoms bought RD Coward’s ‘Cowlan Special’ and modified it to create the first .JBS in 1950. He won at Brands, Blandford and Reims, then created a new model for ’51. Sadly, Bottoms was killed in that year’s Luxemburg Grand Prix, and although JBS continued production into ’52, it didn’t last the year.
Kieft: The most significant Cooper-beater. Cyril Kieft began with a Marwyn in 1949, then built his own car and convinced Stirling Moss to race one. Cars were distinctive for ahead-of-their-time spaceframe chassis, wishbone and rubber-in-torsion front suspension, swing axles and rubber bands-in-tension rear. Don Parker’s modded versions won races well into the ’50s.

Kieft sold out in 1954 following an aborted Formula Two project and an almost-completed Formula One car.