Cooper that was shakin', not stirred

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From the sublime to the ahem not quite so stupendous, I have just fallen heir to a fascinating little cache of early Cooper photographs. Among them are some shots of one of John and Charlie Cooper’s most obscure little prototypes, the 1949-50 Cooper-Sunbeam.

One day late in 1949 a Major Barker had contacted Cooper in Surbiton. He was PA to Sir Bernard Docker, then chairman of BSA, Daimler, Hooper Car Bodies and more, whose lavish spending (largely to please his extravagantly publicity-conscious wife, Norah) filled contemporary gossip columns.

Sir Bernard was Norah’s third husband. After making a mark on London’s social scene in the 1930s as a dance hostess at the Café de Paris, she had married Clement Callingham, head of the Henekey’s wines and spirits company. He died in 1946 whereupon she married Sir William Collins, president of Fortnum & Mason. Within two years he also died and in 1949 Norah married Sir Bernard. She had a 12-year-old son, Lance, by Clement Callingham, and Major Barker now commissioned the Cooper Car Co to build a little car for the boy to drive around the family estate at Poole in Dorset. It was to use an engine made by one of Docker’s companies.

In 1943, BSA had bought Sunbeam motorcycles from AJS/Matchless. For 1947, they introduced an unusual 488cc, low-compression, in-line twin-cylinder model, with single overhead camshaft, all designed by Erling Poppe around the bottom half of a pre-war prototype BSA in-line twin.

The result was Sunbeam’s S7 motorcycle, which with its balloon tyres and bulbous mudguards was aimed (rather like Austin’s A90 Atlantic) at the US market without first seeking opinion from gen-yoo-wine American buyers. Initially its two-cylinder sohc engine seemed quite lively but, because BSA wouldn’t fork out for a proper crown wheel and pinion final drive, the S7’s shaft instead powered a worm and wheel system. This proved so frail the engine had to be detuned to 25bhp.., which turned-off most American customers when a cooking British oh/ single from Ariel, BSA, Matchless, Norton etc offered 26-30bhp in chaindrive frames some 30-40Ib lighter. A stock, cammy Manx Norton gave about 45bhp and Joe Craig’s ‘works’ engines a reputed 50-ish.

Sunbeam’s S7/S8 engines were revamped in 1949, but the reputational damage had been done. Sales never really recovered so, for Lance Docker’s special, Cooper plopped an S7 engine, gearbox and shaft drive into a sports car version of their 500cc F3 frame. As John later told me: “It vibrated so much it was completely useless, and so we never completed it. I sold them the redundant old Cooper-Vauxhall (their first postwar sports car) instead and it was modified by Hooper’s to carry a mock Daimler grille and flashy interior”.

The photos show John Cooper warming up the unbodied little Sunbeam S7-powered prototype in the Goodwood paddock, and Stirling Moss joining in for a giggle. In these health and safety-conscious days it’s enlightening to see a gravity-feed petrol tank rigged on stays above the engine. Here was one little all-British special commissioned by big industry from little industry that went nowhere fast.

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