The Coopers are coming (again)….
Vintage Sports Car Club racing has a new look this year. For the first time, rear-engined cars are being admitted to the Club’s postwar Allcomers’ races.
Although qualified by age — the cut-off date for these events has long been 1960 — they have until now been specifically denied participation in the belief that they were not in keeping with the Club’s traditions.
The cut-off date was not chosen merely for convenience, as the year one Grand Prix formula ended and another began. It was widely accepted as being the end of an era, for the success of the rear-engined cars was the downfall of the traditional type of Grand Prix car. At the same time as designers switched from placing their engines in front of the driver to behind, there also began the now-accepted policy of “kit-set” construction, whereby the chassis manufacturer buys in parts from a variety of sources, his individual design being distinguished only by the way they are put together.
In preventing the new-fangled contrivances from participating in their races for pre-1960 Grand Prix cars, the VSCC felt it was preserving a Golden Age. On the other hand, simple logic suggested that if the class was for cars built before the end of 1960, then all cars built then — wherever their engines were placed — should be admitted. Thin grids in some recent events, and the success of rival organizing clubs, has now led the Club to reconsider its definitions.
Between 1957 and 1960 one make was responsible for the revolution in accepted design practice: the Cooper cars which emanated from Surbiton. At first regarded with amusement, these little cars, powered by four-cylinder Coventry Climax engines, picked up a number of places in 1957. But by increasing the engine size from the 1500cc limit of Formula Two, for which they were originally designed, to something closer to F1’s 2-1/2-litre allowance, the light nimble Coopers became increasingly competitive. And by the time they were given the full 2495cc, they were at worse on a par with anything the traditional designs could produce, at best markedly superior.
After shocking the establishment by winning two World Championship races in 2-litre form in 1958, Coopers took the Constructors’ World Championship in 1959 and again in 1960, their Number One driver, Jack Brabham, winning the driver’s title in both years.
If history is reflected in modern-day racing, Cooper-Climax cars should once again be showing the way to the four-cylinder BRM’s, the 250F Maseratis, the Lotus 16s and other front-engine cars in 1991.
The Cooper name was well known internationally before the Climax cars came on the scene. A reputation founded on lengthy domination of the 500cc Formula Three had been enhanced by a brief foray into Grand Prix racing in 1952 and 1953 when the World Championship was run to Formula Two regulations.
The later Formula Two category, which ran from 1957 to 1960, was a gift for the new Cooper-Climax. Over this four-year period some 55 international races can be identified as being the most important, and Cooper won 38 of them.
Part of their success at least can be attributed to the sheer weight of numbers. Cooper production records are notoriously hazy, but it is known that well in excess of one hundred cars were sold in the period, most of them in F2 configuration. But they could not have achieved such success without a sound design.
The first F2 car which appeared in 1956 represented no departure from established Cooper practice, having a simple curved-tube frame with transverse-leaf suspension at either end. The engine was mounted forward of the rear axle-line, with the Citroën-based gearbox behind. This made in effect a big-engine version of a contemporary Cooper 500, or perhaps more accurately an open-wheel version of the central-seat “bob-tailed” sportscar.
By the time the new Formula Two became official on 1st January, 1957, Coopers already had an updated version on the stocks, the type 43. The most important departure from the earlier cars was its use of the new FPF Coventry Climax engine. This was not a twin overhead-camshaft version of the FWB — the famous development of the fire-pump unit — which had been used until now, but in fact a quite different design, basically one bank of the aborted V8 “Godiva” Formula One engine project.
Befor the 1957 season had begun people were wondering about the possibilities of running a larger-engine version in Formula One. Private entrant Rob Walker, who had run one of the prototype F2 cars in 1956, accordingly got together with the Cooper factory to field a T43 with larger fuel tanks and a stretched FPF engine in selected 1957 Formula One races.
In its 1960cc form the FPF engine delivered some 176 bhp a significant advance on the 140 bhp or so of the F2 version but well short of the 280/285 of the existing F1 contenders; even in terms of bhp/litre, the Climax’s figure of 90 was significantly below the 112/114 of the rest.
But where the Cooper-Climax did score was in terms of weight, for it tipped the scales at a mere 368 kg. The established front runners, Ferrari and Maserati, were between 630 and 650 kg and the threatening British makes — Vanwall and BRM — around 550 kg. This put the newcomer squarely in the middle of the group as far as power-to-weight ratios were concerned. On paper its low-down acceleration, enhanced by the excellent torque characteristics of the new engine, would be competitive with the opposition’s, and its handling was considered superior to most. The twisting Monte Carlo street circuit was therefore chosen for the car’s debut.
Brabham in the works car started from the back, but after 25 laps (the race was over 105 laps this year) had fought his way through a pack of bigger cars and was now fifth. This improved as the race wore on but, with third place in its first race in sight, the gallant little Cooper-Climax coasted to a stop on lap 99 with a broken fuel pump. Brabham leapt out and pushed the car to the line, and was fortunate there were sufficiently few other runners to enable him to be classified sixth.
The cars were campaigned in other F1 events during the year, Roy Salvadori joining the works set-up after cancelling his BRM contract.
The 1958 Coventry Climax made it known that they would be able to supply larger engines — still not 2-1/2 litres, but at 2208cc significantly closer; these boosted power output to 196 bhp.
The Cooper design was slightly uprated for the year, with double wishbone and coil-spring suspension being utilised at the front. The factory also used double-wishbones with the transverse leaf at the rear, though customer cars retained the single-wishbone layout. The new T45, as the 1958 car was called, was also available with disc brakes, and a stronger Citroën-ERSA gearbox was devised.
Weight increase was only slight, so that the Cooper was now on a par with the best Formula One designs in power/weight terms.
Before the European season started, however, Stirling Moss asked to use Walker’s car in the Argentine GP, opening round of the World Championship, as Vanwall, with whom he was contracted, were not entered. To the horror of the Italians, he succeeded in winning the race. True, the Ferrari and Maserati opposition were expecting the car to stop for new rubber, as they had, but although the second-placed Ferrari crept ever closer, Moss held on for a historic victory.
In the first European round in the World Championship, the Monaco GP, Trintignant in a Rob Walker car ran just behind Brabham in the early stages, both Coopers in the top half dozen placings. There was the usual high number of retirements, after which Trintignant, to the general amazement, gave Cooper (and the Walker team) their second World Championship race in a row.
Over the remainder of the season Trintignant enjoyed several good finishes, including a fine third in the German GP at the Nürburgring. Highlights for the works team were Salvadori’s beating Lewis-Evans’s Vanwall for third place after a race-long battle in the British GP, and then second in the German GP, which left him sharing fourth place on the final World Championship table. In the Constructors’ championship Cooper-Climax was listed in third place, beaten only by Vanwall and Ferrari.
The design was further developed for 1959, to take advantage of the full 2495cc engine which Coventry Climax had developed by casting a new block. This developed 240 bhp against the 280 of the BRM and the claimed 300 of the latest Dino 246 Ferrari. And although the new engine carried a weight penalty over the old, the 1959 T51 Coopers were still 100kg lighter than the front-engined opposition, which put their bhp/tonne figure between those of Ferrari and BRM.
Thus equipped, Brabham won the Monaco Grand Prix and the British Grand Prix at Aintree, and other placings gave him the World Championship. His teammates backed him well, the American Masten Gregory involving himself in the lead battles on several occasions while young New Zealander Bruce McLaren improved all year and at the end of the season won the United States Grand Prix at Sebring.
Moss tried a number of cars before settling relatively late in the season on a 2.5 Cooper-Climax, which he ran under the Rob Walker flag. Cooper’s own development of the Citroën-ERSA gearbox was not readily available which led the Walker team to order their own, from the Italian engineer Colotti. But this was not a reliable unit, and let Moss down four times, usually when he was holding first place. The fault was not due to the design, it was subsequently disclosed, but to poor machining of bought-in parts. Everything held together in the Portuguese and Italian Grands Prix, however, and Moss won them both.
In the World Championship Brabham’s final tally was 31 points to the 27 of Ferrari driver Brooks, with Moss third on 25.5. Trintignant in the second Rob Walker Cooper-Climax finished fifth on the table and McLaren sixth. Cooper-Climax were clear winners from Ferrari in the Constructor’s championship.
1960 opened with McLaren winning in Argentina, after Moss retired the Walker car. One of the surprises in this race was the pace of the new rear-engined Lotus-Climax 18, and this was underlined back on the Northern Hemisphere when Innes Ireland won the early season non-championship race at Goodwood. This caused serious rethinking in the two main Cooper camps; Moss and Walker switched their allegiances to Lotus, while the Cooper factory produced a much lower car, designated Type 53. This used a new five-speed transaxle and coil-spring suspension on all four corners and represented a considerable saving in weight, for although there had been no increase in power the power/weight ratio was now 552 bhp/tonne — well in excess of most of the opposition (but not the Lotus). Brabham in his T53 won this year’s Dutch, Belgian, French, British and Portuguese Grands Prix in succession to take his second World Championship title. Team-mate McLaren backed him up with five top-three placings, in addition to his Argentine win, and this left him second on the points table. In the Constructor’s series Cooper-Climax ended up with 40 points to the 32 of Lotus-Climax and Ferrari’s 24.
Throughout these years a number of privateers had run Cooper-Climaxes in Formula One. The most successful of these was the British Racing Partnership which obtained backing from the Yeoman Credit company to contest the 1960 series. After a bad start, in which they lost two drivers (Harry Schell and Chris Bristow) in fatal accidents, they took a number of good placings. The best-scoring member of the team was endurance exponent Olivier Gendebien, who took a second place and a third in World Championship races. Up-and-coming Henry Taylor joined Tony Brooks as the other regular team members.
Other independent teams had made attempts to get around the shortage of full-sized Climax engines by substituting the products of other manufacturers; BRM, Bristol, Connaught-Alta, Maserati and Ferrari were all campaigned at various times, by teams of varying seriousness. None was a success.
From the scores of Coopers built over the years, a number have survived to race this year. One of the 1956 prototypes, known as the Type 41, has been a regular competitor in British historic racing events for the past few years, driven by Allan Miles, while 2-litre T43 models have been campaigned by Gerry Porter, Jeremy Agace and Mike Hayward. The T45 model is a relative rarity these days, though John Beasley was seen in one last year, but the T51s are among the most popular. They are being campaigned this year by Rod Jolley and Martin Stretton, while John Harper is sticking with his well-known and very successful low-line T53. — KHRC