Confounding the experts

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Remarkable Australian Murray Rainey built a remarkable Cooper 500 in the late Fifties. Following his reunion with it after 42 years, his daughter Joy reminisces…

I was just a kid when Dad took delivery of a Cooper in Australia in 1955. But when, almost 50 years and half a world later, I sat behind its wheel at Shelsley and watched him inspect his handiwork — its independent front suspension and its supercharger — my childhood memories came flooding back. I realised then that this racing car was a major contributory factor to my lifetime addiction to motorsport.

Before our new, blue Mk9 arrived my father managed to find a crashed Norton and remove its engine. This was rebuilt in readiness for the Big Day: the 1955 Australian Grand Prix at Port Wakefield. But the joy of acquiring the car rapidly turned to dismay. Its gearbox was decidedly second-hand and had to be rebuilt, all of which left little time for testing.

Luckily, its new owner was pleased with the handling — until, while lying 12th in the GP, one of the driveshafts broke. And when the rear suspension was stripped both driveshafts were found to be second-hand also. Apparently, Cooper Car Company didn’t seem too bothered about the state of its cars sent out to The Colonies.

Several years later, during his first visit to England, Dad became good friends with Charles Cooper, who admitted, “We often put second-hand parts in new cars. Go and get some new shafts out of the stores if you want, boy.”

“No thanks,” said Dad. “I’ve modified the car since then. Anyway, that was four years ago!”

It wasn’t all bad. Dad was unbeatable in the F3 class, breaking records at just about every hill-climb and circuit in Victoria. Phillip Island was the favourite venue for the whole family. From our fully enclosed pit we could see the racing directly in front of us, and by looking out of the rear door we could see most of the back section of the circuit. Father excelled here and rarely left without a trophy. Often the F3 race was combined with 1500cc and Formula Libre cars, when Dad would provide the spectators with plenty of excitement as he usually finished ahead of cars fitted with engines three or four times the size of his Cooper’s.

By the latter part of 1957, however, Dad had decided that he needed a new challenge. F3 fields were diminishing, many competitors having fitted twin-cylinder engines which put them in another class. But instead of that, Dad had other plans: his Norton single was to be supercharged. Many attempts had been made worldwide to fit a supercharger to a single-cylinder engine, but none had been totally successful. Phil Irving, who was later involved with the design of the Repco that propelled Jack Brabham’s cars to two world titles, told Dad he was crazy to waste his time on an engineering impossibility.

The main problem in fitting a supercharger to a single is the time lag between power strokes. Dad was able to overcome this, to a certain extent, by fitting an induction pipe from the supercharger with a capacity of at least two and a half litres. But this presented another problem. When approaching a corner and easing off the throttle, the pipe would be full of enough fuel for about five strokes of the engine. In theory, therefore, the corner could still be taken at full power. But then, on leaving the corner, a good stab on the throttle would not produce the desired effect until the pipe had refilled. To overcome this problem Dad designed a butterfly arrangement inside the pipe to control the flow of fuel. It worked in conjunction with a blow-off valve fitted as a safety measure.

When the engine was run in the Cooper for the first time its characteristics were amazing. It would idle at 300rpm and then produce so much power that, even with the tallest sprocket fitted, it would reach 6000 in an incredibly short distance.

Phillip Island’s April 1958 meeting was looming. There had been (as usual) little time for a proper test, so the supercharger wasn’t working at maximum efficiency and Dad was slow off the line. But he swiftly caught the 1500 front-runners and lowered his time to 2min 22sec, 6sec quicker than his previous best and just 5sec away from Lex Davison’s outright lap record in his 3-litre Ferrari single-seater.

That June, again at Phillip Island, the supercharged Cooper-Norton gave my father the outstanding race of his career. He started from the second row, behind Tom Hawkes’ Repco-Cooper single-seater, Doug Whiteford’s ex-Jean Behra Maserati 300S and the Cooper-Jaguar of Ron Phillips. Hawkes took the lead and was not challenged. On lap two, though, Dad homed in on the two big sportscars. As we watched from the rear of the pits we couldn’t believe our eyes — he was up to second place. Down the straight, of course, the sportscars surged past. Only for Dad to repass them on the twisty sections.

Phillips was eventually dropped, but Whiteford elbowed past by cutting a corner, showering the Cooper with stones. My father, who always rested one arm on the outside of the bodywork while cornering, was hit by one and had difficulty changing gear thereafter. Even so, he finished third — and the acclaim he received was as if he had won the race.

He had even bigger plans for 1959: the Cooper was to be taken to Europe for a season of racing. However, just before our departure, these plans were hit by a bombshell: it was announced that F3 cars would run on pump fuel in Britain; our Norton ran on methanol.

The conversion was a big job, but in a short time Dad produced a petrol engine capable of high revs. This meant, though, that there had been little time for testing before shipping the car. Familiar?

At a Crystal Palace meeting my father was on the reserve list. Given last-minute permission to race, he was required to start at the back, even though he’d run fourth-fastest in practice. It was a hot day and the Tarmac on certain sections of the track was melting. While carving through the field, it was one of these sections that caused him to lose control. He was unhurt, but the damage to the front of the Cooper was severe: the chassis was bent and would require a rejig at the Cooper factory.

Next morning, Dad arrived at the workshop in Surbiton with his damaged car, to be told by Charles that they were too busy with the F1 programme and so could not possibly fit the job in. “Well, the F3 jig isn’t in use,” said my father. “We could do it ourselves.” A couple of mechanics agreed the work could be done, but Charles still refused: “Impossible. Got to go, I’m very busy.”

Dad was reluctantly about to leave, when a mechanic said: “Charlie’s going away to the Dutch GP in a couple of days. Bring the car over then and we’ll repair it.”

Sure enough, with the boss out of the way, the job was started, but it was discovered that the transverse leaf springs required were not available in the stores. Dad had a look round and found some wishbones that would fit, so it was decided to rebuild the front suspension with coil springs, like the F1 Coopers. The mechanics were enthusiastic about this project, but before it could be finished, Charles returned early from his trip. Dad was ordered to take his car and leave, although he was allowed a couple of hours for finishing the job.

During that time, however, Charles brought several visitors to view the project and soon became so enthusiastic that he eventually told Dad to take his time and finish the work properly.

After finishing third in an F3 race at La Châtre, France, Dad took the car to Mallory Park. He scratched from the race due to an engine problem, but we stayed on to watch. Sadly, a bad crash occurred in right front of us, killing one of the drivers. “That’s it,” said Dad. He never raced the Cooper again, and it was sold on our return to Australia.

When Dad later came back to Britain he stuck to hill-climbing his much-modified 8C Alfa Romeo. Forty-two years on, though, he was pleased to see the Cooper again, still running the supercharger they said would never work.

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