Accidental heroes

No one believed that a garage owner and his son could take on and beat the might of Ferrari and Maserati. Matthey Franey looks back at, and samples, a bit of Cooper history

In 1955, the Cooper Car Company, perhaps unwittingly, built a sportscar that would change forever the face of motor racing. Charles and John Cooper's tiny concern from darkest Surbiton had already enjoyed considerable success with its little 500cc Formula Three racer and, with a burgeoning order book, the father-and-son duo turned their attentions to building the small, affordable 1100cc Cooper Bob-tail.

Designed around the new Climax FeatherWeight Automotive engine, the car would be driven by barely 70bhp, and all at Cooper realised the importance of reducing both the overall weight of the new car and aerodynamic drag. The solution they struck upon was a simple one like the little Formula 500, they put the new engine in the back.

The Bob-tail performed admirably, its power-to-weight ratio and balance more than a match for beefier rivals. And while the sportscar continued to claim some impressive scalps, anew, Australian face at Cooper's Hollyfield Road site came up with the idea of slotting a 2-litre Bristol engine into the back of a Bob-tail chassis and calling it a Formula One car. He went by the name of Jack Brabham.

After a successful but controversial start to his racing career down under, the young Brabham had made the leap and came to Britain. Happy to turn his hand to a spot of welding, panelbeating, or whatever needed doing, Brabham was also an astute engineer, quick to spot a new tweak or even invent one.

Huddled away at the back of the Cooper workshop, jack set about building his own Grand Prix car, finishing it hours before the start of the British GP at Aintree. The Cooper-Bristol did little to catch the attention of onlookers that day, overheating its way into retirement. Few could have known or guessed this hastily fettled sportscar would lead the way for Grand Prix racing for the rest of the century. It was what you might call a rather inauspicious start.

By 1957, a new internationally recognised Formula Two class was about to be given the go-ahead and the Coopers, already so successful with the 500cc F3 racers, saw at once the commercial opportunities that came with an off-the-peg F2 car. The Bob-tail chassis was rejigged once again by designer Owen Maddock to take a 1.5-litre Coventry-Climax engine and some sleek single-seater bodywork. The new Mark I was raced by Roy Salvadori at Silverstone in a British GP support race and the car lived up to expectations, taking pole and winning by over 30sec. With the company's reputation by now in full blossom, the only possible route was upwards.

The first World Championship Grand Prix victory came courtesy of Stirling Moss in a Rob Walker-owned 2-litre Climax-powered Mark II. The British driver's now legendary win stunned the Ferrari hierarchy, the Briton tricking the Italian team into expecting a late pitstop while all the time intending to run to the finish. By the end of that 1958 Argentine GP, his Cooper's tyres were down to their canvas, but the win was in the bag.

Ferrari's back-up driver that weekend was Phil Hill. He was later quoted in Doug Nye's book Cooper Cars: "After the race, our team manager was wandering around the paddock, with his hands palm upwards, fingers interlocked and waggling in the air – a sign like a bug on its back wiggling its legs. He couldn't believe his masterpieces had been beaten by this horrible iddybiddy thing with its engine in the wrong end..."

Moss's remarkable win marked the beginning of the end for the great '50s front-engined dinosaurs. From now on, if you wanted to be at the front, you put your engine in the back.

The Cooper philosophy when it came to its single-seaters was equally simple: Keep them nimble, keep them strong but above all keep them light. Charles, John and Maddock would cast their eye across every part of a car, paring ounces from all conceivable areas. Rival teams would often get their hands on a Cooper to see where they were making such savings. BRM team engineer Tony Rudd even went to the trouble of stripping down and weighing every part of a 1958 Mark III in an effort to spot the differences. Without the high-tech equipment on hand to their rivals, some of Cooper's components were actually heavier (as a direct result of cheaper materials and production processes) but many were lighter, the Mark Ill's suspension weighing as much as 40 percent less than that of the rival BRM.

Two victories in '58 became five the foIlowing season as Brabham lead the team to a glorious world title in the latest Cooper the Mark IV 'T51'. Right across the spectrum, the company was sweeping the board, dominating the F2 scene along with its F1 successes. The time had come for the racing world to truly wake up to the advantages of the rear-engined racer and it duly did. BRM and Lotus unveiled their new contenders and even Ferrari tried out its 246P.

The benefits were soon apparent. Drivers could sit lower and more prone in the cockpits, with the driveshafts running directly from engine to rear wheels and, as a result, cars became more aerodynamic. Neatly packaged engine and transmission units meant designers needed less load-bearing structures to support them and hence the weight began to tumble, too. The T51 tipped the scales at 458kg. The big, front-engined BRM's of the time were a portly 673kg.

Thanks to the resulting power-to-weight ratio advantage, the lightweight Coopers were far less demanding of brakes and tyres. It was in so many ways a package made from a mixture of expedience and intelligence. Yet it worked better than even they could ever have hoped.

The following season Brabham jumped into the new Towline' TS3 and streaked to five consecutive Grand Prix wins. It was the highpoint of the Cooper success story. The Towline' had even less frontal area, and its drivers, Brabham and Bruce McLaren were almost prostrate in the cockpit, the pedals and steering rack pulled even further forward than in the T51. A new five-speed gearbox was matched with the Coventry-Climax and straight from the box, the Towline' performed spectacularly. On a warm, spring afternoon, the drivers were lapping six seconds under the Silverstone lap record. The team, not surprisingly, was elated.

Brabham's five victories may have given the impression that everything was rosy in Cooper's garden, but in reality things were about to take a turn for the worse with the change to 1.5-litre cars in Grand Prix racing. While Ferrari was able to tweak a healthy 185bhp from its little V6 powerplant, the four-pot Climax struggled to put out more than 150bhp.

In 1961, Cooper failed to win a single World Championship Grand Prix. Worse, Brabham's situation was fast becoming untenable. The man who had committed so much of his career to Cooper still had ambitions to build his own F1 car. Towards the end of the season he announced his departure from the team.

Although Cooper would see the winner's circle again before it finally withdrew from Grand Prix racing, the Formula One glory days were sadly over. The company maintained its presence in the highest echelons of the sport but throughout the 1960s its bread and butter was no longer earned with F1 successes but, instead, in its equally important role as bespoke race car constructor. Cooper built and sold hundreds of Formula One, Two and Three chassis worldwide with Formula Juniors, Cooper Monacos and the odd Libre racer to boot.

A glance down the chassis records so scrupulously collated for Nye's book shows how deeply the Cooper name had penetrated racing circles. Juniors were sold to the likes of Steve McQueen and Briggs Cunningham, a Mark I F1 car was bought by Roger Penske in 1961, Carroll Shelby took four Monaco sportscars in 1963, Ken Tyrrell a couple of T75 F2 cars in '65... The list goes on.

The last Cooper bowed out of a Formula One race at Monaco in 1969 when Vic Elford succeeded in getting his ex-works T86 Cooper-Maserati home in seventh place. The Cooper Car Company had seen its machines raced seriously on the Grand Prix stage for exactly 12 seasons, winning 16 races in that time (plus 11 pole positions for good measure) as well as two drivers and constructors world championships.

But one last statistic perhaps shows the incredible impact the Surrey race car marque had on post-war motor racing: During its history, no fewer than 115 different drivers tried to qualify a Cooper for a Grand Prix. The company may be remembered as the team that changed the direction of racing with its rear-engined racers but what it really did was open the sport up to all those with the ambition but not necessarily the means.

The pros and cons of driving Silverstone… a Grand Prix Cooper when you're 6ft tall

The hardest part about driving a Grand Prix Cooper is getting out though climbing aboard runs it a close second. Even so, when you get the chance to try a Formula One car of any era it seems a shame to miss out on the opportunity by not being able to wedge yourself in.

Beautifully prepared by historic race car expert Alan Baillie after discovering it rotting away in a garage in California, this 1963 Cooper 171/73 was actively campaigned in the early 1960s by Bob Gerard's racing team with John Taylor behind the wheel. It is, as I was to find out, a wonderful car to drive. It is also extremely small.

Cooper's inclination to building its single-seaters lowline-style with the driver reclined in the cockpit is all very well in principle, but only if your driver is knee high to Frankie Dettori. If you want an idea of just how small the car is, look at its vital statistics. Its wheelbase is 7ft 7in and the driver's seat is smack in the middle. If you've imagine trying to cram six feet into what feels like three, you will soon get the picture. Just to compound the problem, your thighs are crammed into a bulkhead that does a worryingly good impression of a catflap and to make it more cosy still, the nice men at Cooper have slotted a couple of fuel tanks around your knees and even managed to fit the coil spring suspension adjacent to your feet to give that added touch of claustrophobia.

The T71 was originally built for one-litre Formula Two racing, but the Gerard Racing chassis was made specifically to take part in the Formula One races of the time and even before the car left Cooper's factory it had been fitted with an uprated brakes and transmission system. Shoe horned into the back was a 1500cc four-cylinder Lotus-Ford twin-cam engine, matched to a Newland Mark V dog gearbox, which remains delightfully original to this day.

With 160bhp on tap, privateer John Taylor was never going to set the Grand Prix world alight, but he still managed to nurse the Cooper home in 14th place in the British Grand Prix — which may not seem so significant until you realise this was the only four-cylinder car to finish any World Championship F1 race, anywhere in the world during 1964.

Crammed into the Cooper as you fire the engine into life, it is hard not to feel extraordinarily exposed. Sitting too high in the car for comfort, my helmet protrudes nervously above the roll-over bar, and the semi-stressed skin panels wrapped around the simple tubular frame are much too close for comfort. This is a car to be kept well away from any Armco barrier.

But for all its obvious safety limitations, the Cooper soon cocoons you in its own little world, the last thing on your mind being the dangers of crashing it as you head out onto the Silverstone tarmac. Behind your head the Lotus-Ford makes all the right noises — a little whirry low in the rev range, penetrating as you reach the 8,000rpm limit for the day. The surprisingly large steering wheel, Cooper badge proudly jutting out towards you, takes up a Fair deal of room, the distance your hand has to travel from wheel to gearshift almost too short. But every change of ratio in the five-speed box is quick and certain, the clutch light and wonderfully user-friendly.

The Cooper is no quicker than you would expect in a straightline; where it comes into its own is when the track turns right on you at the end of the Hangar Straight, the long, constant radius Stowe Corner demanding that the car is set up just right for the entry.

Don't rely too heavily on the brakes here, the period discs and skinny 8-inch front rims do a reasonable job but no more of slowing the car from around 110mph as you grab third gear. Now comes the all important part. Keep your left foot lightly kissing the brakes, plant the accelerator and sit back and enjoy. The Cooper drifts wildly from apex to corner exit, scrabbling for grip, settling into an easy, oversteering drift. As you head up towards Club Corner the experience is more than enough to plaster car to car grins across your face.

The Cooper is not what you might expect of a Formula One car — even a privateer's under-powered example from the early-1960s. It has less grip by far than a contemporary entry-level single-seater like a Formula Ford, no more power than it either. The brakes are less responsive, steering not as sharp, chassis more flexible... you get the picture. Does that make the 171/73 a bad car? Far from it. I could have continued lapping all day, time permitting, for what the Cooper lacks in technological prowess, it makes up for in character. The best cars, remember, are not always the fastest.

Our thanks to Alan Baillie, Silverstone Circuits Ltd (01327 857271), and the organisers of the Coys Historic Festival for helping make this feature possible.