For Gordon Murray, the cooper-climax had it all. Great concept, simplicity and lightness. And it trounced its big-budged rivals.
When I think back to GP design milestones, it’s pretty obvious, really: the first rear-engined Fl Cooper. Not so much from a technical point of view even though it was after my own heart from that aspect because it was so simple and so effective compared to the other more complex cars of the time but because it brought with it probably the single most significant change in Grand Prix cars. Nobody went on building front-engined cars much after that There was that Aston Martin and the Scarab; I suppose the last was the Ferguson P99 4WD with its weird offset drive-line like the Lotus 16.
Who else can lay claim to such an impact? And I’m including pre-war cars like Auto Unions because they were such bad examples of rear-engined cars. They were done so badly and in such a complicated way that they threw away the advantages. They had the fuel right in the tail, the mass change on the axle must have been horrendous from full to empty and they had lots of fuel in those days the weight distribution wasn’t wonderful; all sorts of things. They just did it badly, like people did aerodynamics and four-wheel-drive badly at first. The real pioneers were Charles and John Cooper, first with the 500 F3 cars, and then having the bottle as a small concern to go ahead and do a Grand Prix car.
I nearly picked the Lotus 25 because Chapman was my hero as a kid and it was a huge step forward the monocoque, the low frontal area and the reclining driving position, which I cribbed much later. Drivers had got more and more upright again as they fitted more fuel in behind them, and with high wings it was all just too easy. When I did the lay-down Brabham I thought “hold on a minute, this isn’t new, Chapman did this”. People can drive with their lower spine at 35 degrees to the horizontal, cranking the head and shoulders up. Then when I did the very low ’88 McLaren, the MP4/4 that won all the races, I used the same driving position. There’s no embarrassment in this business in thinking “that’s good, I’ll use that”. Sometimes you have to.
Really, the Cooper was more significant, more forward-looking even than the Lotus 25 because it meant a fundamental change in packaging, weight distribution, frontal area, in philosophy. And it was an ultra-simple car as well, easy to run, easy to work on. I always tried to build my GP cars, both at Brabham and McLaren, to be as simple and easy to work on as possible, and therefore get reliability, and the Cooper was such a good car from that angle. And that Climax was a very under-rated engine because it was built by a very small company. So the whole package was pretty radical. John probably hasn’t had the credit he should have overall.
All sorts of things appeal to me about it: firstly that it was a great little family business, two bright guys; and then the giant-killing aspect It was the same at Brabham; we had a tiny budget relative to McLaren or Ferrari, and we won not just races but championships too. I just loved that aspect And these guys did two tides back-to-back. From a nostalgic point of view it’s one of the racing cars that sticks in my mind from the period when! began to follow Grand Prix racing my first GP was 1959, East London in South Africa.
I loved the shape then and I love it now. In fact when I was designing the Rocket road car, a lot of the shape was influenced by the Cooper. When I went to Brabham I ‘inherited’ Peter Bedding and his dad, who made all the early Cooper shells, but I don’t know who actually styled them. Whoever it was obviously had an eye, because they were very pretty, and quite effective aerodynamically. I suspect it was John saying “it’s a bit like this…” I still love to see a little Cooper at Goodwood; they still stir the blood just as much as a Ferrari or a Lotus. They were also well made for their period — if you look at, say, a Ferrari of the time, the frame technology is pretty basic; the rear-engined Coopers were at least multi-tubular. Not pure spacefrarnes like Chapman moved on to later, but they were ‘simple-clever’ for reliability.
They were just trying to make an effective racing car within the regs — something which gripped and handled, was forgiving and driveable. Those who have driven them will tell you they are extremely driveable and easy to setup. And they were so light, only about 800lb; and the Climax was light too. Come to think of it, the Rocket is the same weight and not far short on horsepower.
Ergonomically, it would have been quite a switch for someone used to front engines. You’re sitting further forward, your eyeline is lower; it would have had a higher limit but been more twitchy, with its lower polar moment of inertia. But it must have been a revelation in braking and turning; after the frontengined cars it would have felt incredibly nimble. Even now, jumping into the Rocket when you haven’t driven it for a month, you can’t believe how quick it is, how it changes direction and brakes, and that’s probably how it would have felt getting into a little Cooper for the first time from a big Ferrari.
As a designer I’d have loved to have been the first to say “hang on, that’s a bit cranky having the engine in the front”, with that weight distribution, that frontal area, the prop-shaft losses, compared to the extra traction, better braking — everything gets better with the engine behind. You can’t help saying “Why didn’t somebody think of this before?”
Cordon Murray was talking to Gordon Cruickshank