A Body is desirable - 500cc F3

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During the war motor racing ceased but the spirit of the sport survived and this magazine played a major part in sustaining it. In July 1941, MOTOR SPORT published a letter from Joseph Lowrey setting forward an idea for a new racing car class ideally tailored for the special builder. It should use, he thought, 500 cc motorcycle engines.

Quite independently, Kenneth Neon had come to the same conclusion and the following month’s issue carried an article from him arguing the case in more detail. Among the reaction which followed was a detailed article by Lowrey and a letter from John Bolster who said that he too had been working on the same idea.

The idea had clear roots. Count Johnny Lurani had set people thinking when his Guzzi-powered 500 cc Nibbio had set Class 1 (500 cc) records pre-war, achieving 106 mph. As it turned out, the Nibbio would have been eligible for the sort of 500 cc racing which eventually did take place and indeed, in 1950, a Nibbio-based F3 car, the “Lurani”, was built. As well as being an inspiration for the first F3, Lurani later conceived Formula Junior which is the direct ancestor of the current Formula Three.

Allied to the potential of four-wheeled motorcycles, was the English tradition of hilIclimb specials. The pre-war Jameson Two Stroke Spl had used a rear-mounted supercharged JAP engine and it looked uncannily like a typical early post-war 500 cc car. There was Bolster’s “Bloody Mary” a rude but very effective device and the Dick Caesar-designed, Joe Fry-driven, Freikaiserwagen. This had a rear mounted 1,100 cc V-twin JAP engine and the name was a cheeky reference to the pre-war Auto Union Grand Prix cars.


The idea, then, certainly had its antecedents, but Neve hit upon a crucial point in proposing a new category for special builders, for everyone would start afresh. He wrote: “The war came just in time to save the genuine ‘Special’ from extinction, competition was getting too fierce. The best of the ‘Specials’, brilliant as they were, could not be expected to compete with ERA and Alta. . . It is reasonable to assume that the war will put a still wider chasm between the home-made and the factory product and it will be little more than a waste of time and money for the amateur to build his own car to compete on level terms.”

Ironically, by the time Neve built his own special, the days of the truly amateur builder in 500 cc racing were over tor factory-produced Coopers were dominating.

During the war years, MOTOR SPORT carried lots of ideas and proposals for motor racing when peace finally came, but this was one which caught on — it was simple, the cars had potential and, most importantly, it was possible.

Such a car would be easy and cheap to build and maintain. You wouldn’t need a workshop to work on it, you could lift the engine out by hand and strip it on the kitchen table. There was no shortage of very good motorcycle engines and Neve suggested that Austin Seven, GN or Morgan three-wheeler chassis could be easily adapted to form a basis for a car.

All it needed, he wrote, was for organising clubs to guarantee to include a 500 cc class and cars would be forthcoming. In this he was right, and the first club to do so on a regular basis was the VSCC.

When hostilities ceased, British motor racing was in a bad way. The three pre-war circuits, Brooklands, Crystal Palace and Donington, were lost to the sport, seemingly for ever. There were restrictions on fuel and materials. Motor Sport in Britain was slow in starting and before any sort of speed event had taken place here, the French had staged a series of races on the Bois de Bolougne in Paris which attracted crowds estimated at 80-100,000. This was in September 1945, mere weeks after VJ Day. Even the Germans managed to get circuit racing started before we did.

Still on May 19th, 1946, the VSCC climb at Prescott included a 500 cc class. Just two cars were entered and though it is common lore that Cooper was in at the start and was immediately successful, Colin Strang and Clive Lanes initially set the pace and Strang in particular was enormously successful over the first few seasons.

Strang took a strengthened 1938 Fiat Topolino chassis and fitted it with a Vincent-HRD engine and simple bodywork. The Fiat steering was modified slightly and the big tweak was binding the front, transverse, spring with cord. Though he would have preferred alloy wheels, he made do with motorcycle rims. Strang’s role in the sport is too often forgotten along with the fact that some of the best non Coopers were based on his design.

Clive Lones had, pre-war, been a notable exponent of Morgan three-wheelers and held a string of international records with them. His “Tiger Kitten” used a Triumph engine mounted in the front of an Austin Seven frame, driving through an A7 gearbox. When fitted with a 1,000 cc engine the “Kitten” became a “Cat”. Initially it had a “Ruby” front axle (inverted) but by 1948 this had given way to a Morgan-based front end. Though Lones generally had to give second best to Strang he was competitive for several seasons, even when Coopers started to appear. Both these cars were very much of the type suggested by Neve in his article, a secondhand motorcycle engine allied to scrap proprietary parts.

These cars appeared before formal regulations had been drawn up but early in 1947 the 500 Club published its formula. Engines were to be of 500 cc unsupercharged and any fuel was permitted. “Pool” petrol was of poor quality and so, in the long run, special fuels would prove more economical. They might be initially more expensive but would preserve the engines better and, besides, were not subject to rationing. Tank capacity was limited to one gallon to minimise fire risk and to add extra spice by way of pit stops in circuit racing. This rule was revised by the end of the year and tanks of unlimited capacity were permitted.

Gearboxes were free, four-wheel braking and a handbrake were mandatory and a minimum weight limit of 500 lb was fixed to allow constructors to use proprietary parts without being penalised. The regulations added that “. . a figure of 650 lb for a finished car built to the formula would be in line with machines built to really sound engineering standards.”

Bodywork was to be optional, but desirable, and while the regulations conceded that it was to some extent true that a car’s body had little effect on its performance (O days of innocence!) it was felt that a body showed that the job was completed and enhanced to formula from the public’s angle.

The 500 Club was a serious organisation, its Patron was Earl Howe, its President S. C. H. Davies and its Vice-Presidents. F. J. Findon (editor of The Light Car), Raymond Mays and Laurence Pomeroy. In other words the British motor racing establishment embraced the movement. The club published a well-produced magazine, Iota, which eventually developed into the magazine, Motor Racing.

The name “Cooper” is synonymous with 500 cc racing and the legendmongers like to tell the story of how Charles and John Cooper took the front ends of two Fiat Topolinos, welded a simple frame between them, put a JAP engine in the back and went on from immediate success to greater glory by winning two World Championships. The essence of the tale is true but what Is generally forgotten is that John Cooper himself was generally no match for Strang. Cooper, as a maker, only began to make a mark when a second car was built for Eric Brandon in 1947.

Brandon did not immediately establish superiority, indeed ltd in class at Prescott in May was taken by Lones (with a new record) and Strang beat him on several occasions. John Cooper, though, put a 1,000 cc V-twin Jay into his car and made a mark in the 501 – 1.100 cc class. With two cars doing well in two classes, the name “Cooper” began to attract attention.

In the meantime other makers began to appear and with more in the offing, the movement took root. The cars were not originally conceived for circuit racing, being in the tradition of hillclimb and sprint specials, but a race at the second post-war British meeting, at Gransden Lodge in 1947, was included for 500 cc cars and attracted six entries (four starters). It was won by Wing Commander Frank Aikens in his Aikens Special. Aikens was one of the most enthusiastic and popular early competitors and John Cooper recalls the time he had some of the boys up to his airfield and, since it was wet, runs were arranged in a hangar around operational aircraft!

MOTOR SPORT reported that an event had taken place at Towcester in October, 1947. John Cooper: “We’d heard of this disused aerodrome, Silverstone, which was ideal for sprinting and about six of us showed up and started to run before we were chased off by someone from the MOD We packed up and headed into Towcester for a beer before going home. A chap in the bar had seen our cars outside and asked what we were up to. We told him and he said. ‘You can have a run on my place’. He turned out to be Lord Hesketh (Alexander Hesketh’s late father) and ‘his place’ was Towcester racecourse!”

By the end of 1947 there was a fair sprinkling of cars but no single route had emerged as clearly the best, The two Coopers used JAP engines, as did the Strang-based Cowlan, Strang’s Special used an HRD-Vincent; the first Marwyn and the specials of Lones and Aikens used Triumph units while others tried Rudge (GSI), Norton (Marwyn and Milliunion) and Douglas (Stromboli) engines. It was a case of finding a good secondhand motorcycle and tuning its engine. Even when, later, the Norton unit became the one to have, it proved difficult to persuade the factory to supply them and, for a long time, serious users bought an entire motorcycle and sold the parts they didn’t want to use. Later Moto Guzzi in Italy took a similar line.

Chassis design was hampered by the availability of materials and there was no clear pattern. The Bacon Spl had a front-mounted engine, for example, and the Monaco a very short wheelbase with drive chains to both back wheels. The Marwyn, one of the first to be offered for sale had a beam front axle suspended by 1/2 elliptic springs with 1/4 elliptics suspending the live rear axle. The Milliunion had Morgan its and leaf spring rear suspension.

By the end of 1947, though, it was clear that Eric Brandon and his Cooper was the combination to beat and while Strang and Lones achieved this on occasion, had there been a championship, it would have gone to Brandon. Moreover, the Cooper was the most attractive car in the class. It was not finished to what we could call truly professional standards, indeed, there were better made cars, the Monaco for instance. On the other hand, it both looked good and was winning. Charles and John Cooper, who had been approached to make more examples, decided to lay down a batch of twelve cars for sale to the public.

It’s never been easy for a new manufacturer to lay down a batch of twelve cars but then there were severe restrictions on materials and racing cars came low on the list of priorities. Nothing daunted John Cooper went around and bought up as many Morrison shelters as he could. A Morrison shelter was, in essence, a steel table under which people could seek refuge in the event of an air raid.

The roof of the shelter was made of high tensile steel and Cooper used this to fabricate the box sections of his chassis. The legs were used to make chassis jigs and even Cooper’s Formula One cars were built on jigs made from the legs of old Morrison shelters. Wheels were a big headache for the special builder, and many used adapted motorcycle wheels, but Cooper decided to cast his from aluminium though as restrictions were eased, magnesium alloy was eventually used.

There was no shortage of aluminium, for breakers were scrapping WW2 aircraft, but brake drums were a problem. Cooper resolved this when he located a breaker scrapping boats. The cylinder liners of a certain type of marine diesel engine were 8″ in diameter and so he bought these liners, sawed them into 1 1/2″ slices and cast them into his wheels.

One of his earliest customers worked in the steel industry and was happy to pay with supplies of steel tubing. Sheet aluminium for the bodies was readily available from breakers yards. The Cooper garage was on the Kingston by-pass, but opposite a police station. The bobbies took an interest in the cars which the Coopers were building and somehow found it hard to track down the maniacs testing racing cars on the Kingston by-pass about which there were complaints.

The decision of the Coopers to go into production was a double-edged factor. On the one hand, it introduced an element of professionalism into what had been conceived as a purely amateur formula, on the other hand it broadened the formula to people who did not have the time, the facilities or ingenuity to build their own cars. Among the customers for the first batch of cars was a teenager called Stirling Moss.

In mid-1948, the Blackburn Motor Club organised a meeting for motorcycles and 500 cc cars on a 0.65 mile circuit on the Brough (Yorks) airfield. An attempt to do the same the previous year had failed for lack of entries (petrol shortages made it difficult for many to guarantee to arrive) but this time 16 cars entered and nine actually started. Stirling Moss came into his own and emerged the star of the day, though it has to be said that neither Brandon nor Strang started.

The British Grand Prix Meeting on October 2nd saw the first really important 500 race and a total of 24 different types of car was entered, with nine of the 33 entries being Coopers. Pole position was taken by Colin Strang and he initially led from Moss, Dryden (Cooper) and Aikens. Then Strang’s engine, perhaps unused to extended running, seized and later Moss had a sprocket loosen. The race was won by “Spike” Rhiando, a colourful American ex-oval racer in a Cooper, but the significant thing was that five of the eight finishers used Cooper-JAPs and the first four (all Coopers) lapped the field in a 13 lap race. It sounded the death knell of the amateur. The following year, the first ten cars home were Coopers, with Moss at the head.

Before the end of 1948, it was being suggested that there might be classes for “amateur” and “production” cars or at least separate classes for “novices” and “expert” drivers.

By early 1949, Charles and John Cooper were working on their third batch of a dozen cars and Coopers dominated the season. As more converted airfields became available, circuit racing took over from hilIclimbs and sprints as the centre of attention. Strang started to fade from the scene (though his design influence remained), but Lones still picked up places. Creditable finishes were recorded by drivers in non-Cooper cars but the sheer weight of numbers saw Coopers dominate. In Stirling Moss Britain found a new rising star.

Laurie Bond reappeared with his tiny fwd car which had crashed on its first appearance the previous year, but it never amounted to anything. It is mentioned only because Bond created the Bond Minicar, the Bond Equipe, and an fwd Formula Junior car with a fibreglass monocoque. Dick Caesar attempted production with his “Iota”, based on the Freikaiserwagen which had been fitted with a 500 cc JAP engine on occasion, but this did not score notable success, though Clive Lones took class wins at Prescott with one and Aikens won some races with another. Kieft began production of cars which, though they did not prove a match for Coopers, did take some International records. Some of the amateur efforts continued to appear in the frame at minor events

500 racing had established itself and the message had gone abroad, there was a 500 cc race at the 1949 Dutch GP meeting, for example. At the beginning of 1950, it was announced that the category would form a new International Formula Three.

It was thought at first that the Italians might sweep the board using their advanced multi-cylinder engines but these proved to be lacking the torque of the British single-pot motors and they never did shine. Too often the Italian constructors produced scaled-down F1 2 cars which, while pretty, were heavy and aerodynamically less efficient than the typical British product. The attractive Italian Glaurs were hardly less small than an F2 car.

Typically, the French tried to use home-produced components, often basing their cars on Simca and Panhard parts, but these proved uncompetitive.

Of 15 International events in the first year of F3, 11 were won by Coopers, two by Alf Bottoms’ JBS and one each by Iota (Frank Aikens) and Monopoletta, a German car based on the Strang.

Cooper continued its dominance throughout the active period of F3, which started to tail off in 1956 in Britain as 1,100 cc sports car racing took off. JAP engines eventually gave way to Nortons and some of the best motorcycle tuners, like Bill Lacy, Steve Lancefield and Francis Bead became involved.

There were threats to Cooper’s dominance. Paul Emery’s fwd Emeryson showed considerable promise when it first appeared in 1950 and a number were sold. Alf Bottoms JBS design was at least as good (it was based on Colin Strang’s design, via the CowIan, but had pull rod rear suspension), 12 were laid down and drivers like Peter Collins, Don Parker and Les Leston bought them. Sadly Bottoms was killed while practising for the 1951 Luxembourg GP and the project lost its impetus and faded.

A design built by Dean Delamont, Ray Marlin and John A. Cooper was started, ran out of cash, and was taken over by Kieft. Stirling Moss raced this rubber-suspended car to many wins in 1951 and the first part of 1952 and Don Parker built a similar car from Kieft components and was virtually unbeatable in 1953/4. Parker was, however, very lightly built, a fine driver and a man capable of re-engineering Kieft-supplied components so they were to the standard of the original Delamont Cooper / Martin car.

The last successful home builder was Southampton garage owner Reg Bicknell whose “Revis” cars first appeared in 1950 achieving their best year in 1954. Bicknell was a regular winner and placeman for as long as he drove them but then he turned his attention to sports cars with a Borgward-powered “Revis”.

With Continental races springing up, often glorifying themselves with the title “Grand Prix” and offering sensible start and prize money, an F3 circus flourished in the early Fifties but then the Continentals began to grow tired of handing over lire, krona, marks and francs to the British invaders and generally lost interest in the formula. From the mid-Fifties onwards, small sports cars became the way for the rising driver to go. Fiat-based in Italy. Climax-powered in Britain.

Though it had long lost sight of its original aims, the formula served Britain well as a breeding ground for drivers and men like Moss, Collins, Bueb and Lewis-Evans saw nothing incongruous about driving in both F1 and F3. It is true to say, though, that while some British drivers came to be noticed for their 500 cc racing exploits, more reached F1 via sports cars and Hawthorn, Brooks, Scott-Brown, Hill, Clark and Ireland were among them. Like Formula Ford, the importance of 500 racing in developing talent has often been overstated.

Cooper finished top of the pile and went on to greater things. This brief look at the formula has mentioned a large number of constructors but there were many, many, more like, for instance, Trimax (built by Spike Rhiando), JP (a Scottish firm which enjoyed some success at home), Parsenn, Svezda (from Russia), Arnott, Underwood, Buzzie, Effyn (from Sweden), MAC, Mackson (designed by Gordon Bedson, who became Kieft’s designer), ASA, Marrott, CFS, Grose, DB (a similar design to the later Monopoles), Taraschi-Gianni (Taraschi later made FJ cars which were initially successful). Wasp, Buckler (a one-off for Ken Smith), Barden, JLR, Taruffi (based on the Tarf record-breaker). Nardi-Danese, Scampolo, LTE-Brillian — there were many more.

Almost every type of vaguely suitable motorcycle engine was also tried along with reduced versions of some car engines (Fiat, Panhard, Simca and VW) but finally the single-barrelled Norton was supreme.

Formula Three not only helped re-establish motor racing in Britain, but helped build a broad, popular, base for the sport And it all started with a series of letters in MOTOR SPORT at a time when it was not being greatly pessimistic to suppose that we might never see motor racing again. — M.L.