Go low, aim high

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The Lotus 18 forced Cooper to raise its game by building the ‘Lowline’. Tiff Needell tries both and reports back to Damien Smith. Photography by Malcolm Griffiths/LAT 

Complacency: a strong word when aimed at brittle motor racing people.  But… “Why change it when we’re winnin’?”  Sounds complacent, doesn’t it?  Well, at the dawn of the 1960s John and Charles Cooper have every right to feel comfortable. Their little ‘English Beetle’ with its engine in the ‘wrong end’ has made them World Champions. Stick a Vanwall next to a Cooper: Formula One is going through its biggest ever metamorphosis — thanks to the hard-working men in Surbiton.

BRM have already cottoned on to the mid-engine revolution, late in 1959 with the P48, but the Coopers reason there is no need to panic. Then Colin Chapman — “Flash ‘Arry” to Charlie Cooper — joins the trend. The ugly, boxy Lotus 18 makes its F1 debut at the first World Championship round of 1960 and proves that Chapman is serious about grand prix racing. Now the Coopers sniff a true threat.

Innes Ireland leads the Argentinian GP comfortably in the 18, only for a broken gear linkage and a subsequent spin to drop him down to sixth. Cooper’s works young gun Bruce McLaren scores his second consecutive GP win and the team is delighted, but any charge of complacency is blown clean out of the water: both the BRM and the Lotus have outperformed the T51, and as World Champion Jack Brabham and the rest of the Cooper team fly home they sketch out a design for a new car. The ‘Lowline’ T53 is being conceived as a direct response to the threat from Lotus. Just the reaction you’d expect from driven, competitive, obsessive racing men.

As its nickname suggests, the T53 features a slimmer body than its predecessor, its longer nose contributing to a reduced frontal area in an attempt to boost speed on fast circuits. The pedals, steering gear and radiator are brought forward, allowing the driver to lie further back. Following the line of Cooper evolution, the chassis is formed from a basic curved four-tube frame. Brabham has been pushing for straight tubes in line with the Lotus, but designer Owen Maddock is insistent. His reasoning hasn’t changed: he wants the chassis to fit close to the curved bodywork, and with the Coventry Climax FPF dropped an inch lower the new car can still boast a 25 per cent improvement on torsional stiffness.

One subject that all concur on — apart from the Old Man — is a switch to coil spring rear suspension. Charles Cooper is sceptical and insists that the old leaf-spring option should be left open. He isn’t baulking at the expense of Maddock’s brilliant new transaxle gearbox, the Cooper-Knight C5S… because he doesn’t know about it!  But the investment is clearly worth it: the T53’s transmission turns out to be bullet-proof. The Lowline makes its test debut at Silverstone on May 6, just seven weeks since that flight back from Argentina… and it flies. Brabham and McLaren lob six seconds off their best times! Charles Cooper is no longer sceptical.

Forty-five years later Tiff Needell slides his six foot one inch frame into the cockpit. The venue is Mallory Park. It’s tipping it down, but that doesn’t dampen his enthusiasm as he gets into character. “I’ve got a face mask in my bag — do you want me to wear it?” “No, it’s OK Tiff, they didn’t bother with them until a few years later…”

Needell has driven an awful lot of cars over the years as a racer and TV presenter, but he’s never been powered by a 2.5-litre Coventry-Climax before. He’s really up for it.

This car is FII-5-60′, McLaren’s chassis throughout 1960. It’s been well-used: after its life as a works car the Lowline passed to Arthur Owen, who used it to win the 1962 British Hillclimb Championship. It continued as a climber until 1980, then returned to the tracks. Current owner Barry Cannell bought it four years ago. “It’s had lumps knocked off it over the years,” he says. You wouldn’t know it now.

After a couple of decent runs the Lowline trundles back to the pits. “Brilliant,” says Tiff. “It was actually nice to feel the rain on your face and the drops on your lips. It was a bit cramped with a chassis tube under my left foot, impeding my clutch movement, and my knees were pushed up — I’m used to that with my height. But it’s fantastic sitting upright. The thing that always strikes you in the old cars is the visibility.” He’s driven a Lotus 25— and that’s when drivers really started to go to work on the horizontal.

So Tiff, what do you think? “I wasn’t expecting the steering to be so responsive, and nothing was clattering or shaking. And it was so much fun. The Cooper twitches a lot and you are constantly correcting it as you corner. You can hold a slide at slow speed, but the little corrections make it more difficult around Gerards. Maybe I was tentative and should have let it go a little more, but it’s very wet and it’s someone else’s lovely car…”

Stirling Moss was a signed-up fan of Cooper, but that didn’t stop him switching sides in 1960. The threat of the Lotus 18 was confirmed at the Goodwood Easter meeting: Moss’s Rob Walker T51 was beaten by Ireland’s 18 in the Glover Trophy, Innes famously doing the double over Stirling in the Formula Two Lavant Cup. A month later it was a similar story at the International Trophy: Ireland won at Silverstone after a wishbone broke on Moss’s car. But more significantly Brabham and the new T53, making its race debut, were beaten into second place.

Moss and Walker decided after Goodwood that they needed a Lotus if they were to stand a chance in the World Championship. Not because of a lack of faith in the new Cooper: they knew they couldn’t get one because of a clash over fuel sponsorship. The works team was signed to Esso, Walker and Moss to BP, so the order was placed for a Type 18.

The move hurt the Coopers, but was justified at Monaco when Moss delivered Lotus its first World Championship grand prix win in Walker’s 18. Brabham uncharacteristically hit the wall at Ste Devote. He eventually continued to the finish but was unclassified, while team-mate McLaren survived a spin to finish second. At this stage Bruce headed the championship, while his team leader had yet to score…

To this day it is a decision Moss wishes he had not been forced to make: “The Coopers were much nicer to drive. They were everything that was fun about racing; the Lotus was not. It was far more delicate and unforgiving. But if a driver was of sufficient ability the 18 was quicker, at the expense of fun — although it’s always enjoyable to win!”

Chapman’s answer to the Cooper mid-engined revolution was typical of the man. Lotus restoration expert and historic racing ace Simon Hadfield: “The Type 16 was fast but massively complex, a real pain to work on. To take the engine out is an all-night job. So the Type 18 was Chapman saying, ‘Enough’s enough. Let’s have the least amount of racing car we can, put the engine in the back because Cooper seems to be making it work, and take the front-engined gearbox and fit it in the back.’ Simple, no frills.”

Everything is packaged so tightly within the box-shaped car. The glassfibre body panels, originally made by Williams & Pritchard, cling snugly to straight small-gauge tubes that make up the rigid chassis frame. Remove them and it is the bulbous fuel tank covering the driver’s legs that immediately draws your attention. It holds a massive 22 gallons and looks horrendously dangerous to modern eyes. Another tank behind and to the right of the seat allows the car to hold over 30 gallons of fuel. With engine, transmission, oil tank and fuel packed within the wheelbase, handling characteristics remained constant.

The third generation ‘Queerbox’ lived up to Chapman’s quest for simplicity as speedy ratio changes could be made after just removing the rear cover. And it is this gearbox that surprises Needell the most.

“The Cooper had a fantastic gearbox, but this has really taken me aback,” he says. “I didn’t even know there were sequential gearboxes back then! It isn’t a proper sequential as we know them because the lever doesn’t flick back to the middle; it is of course ‘migratory’…” He chortles at Hadfield’s terminology for the action of the left-hand mounted lever, which pulls back closer towards you with each upshift. “I did miss a couple of changes as my elbow hit the back of the cockpit,” Tiff admits.

He is behind the wheel of a car with some history. This is reported to be chassis ‘373’, the car that gave both John Surtees and Jim Clark their first tastes of F1…

Clark made his debut in the Dutch GP, then finished fifth in Belgium and France. Surtees, still very much a ‘bike ace in 1960, joined Team Lotus at the International Trophy, then made his first World Championship start at Monaco. Runner-up in his second grand prix, at Silverstone, was impressive enough, but he should have won his third, at Oporto’s tramlined street track. “I was leading when I came up to lap Stirling,” he says. “I didn’t cross the tramlines at a sharp enough angle, got stuck in them and hit the brakes. The front fuel tank was leaking, as it often did, and my foot slipped off the brake pedal. Instead of going up the escape road I tried to take the corner. That was my inexperience — I clipped the radiator. Tragedy.”

The car is now owned by Michael Schryver, who drove it to a dominant victory in the Richmond & Gordon Trophies race at Goodwood this year. He recounts a fascinating history of the car. After 1960 it passed through various hands, including Wolfgang Seidel (17th in the ’61 British GP), before ending up in Holland in ’64 with Willem Butterman, who used it for grass-track racing! It was found in ’84 by Peter Bloor, who sold it on to Don Orosco. It was then owned by Jeremy Agace, and finally Schryver.

Mallory is drying out as Tiff hits the track. He soon finds some parallels to the Formula Fords in which he began his career. “The Cooper reminded me of my Elden PRH10, while fittingly the 18 was more like my Lotus 69, which would gently understeer and then turn with oversteer progressively. You can hold longer slides with opposite lock through Gerards with the 18 than with the Lowline. It doesn’t constantly twitch and want to be corrected like the Cooper. At high speed the Lotus is more on a knife-edge and it’s harder to find the limit. Put it like this: the Cooper is ‘working class’; the Lotus is refined. But the Lotus seems quite friendly to me.”

‘Friendly’ is not a word Moss ever uses of a Lotus, especially after the Belgian GP of 1960. A hub failure sent him into a dreadful crash in practice at Spa, breaking both legs, his pelvis and his back. Almost simultaneously, privateer Mike Taylor was severely injured when his Type 18 crashed into the trees at another part of the circuit when the steering-column weld failed. The Lotus fragility tag was stuck fast.

Worse was to come in the race when promising Yeoman Credit Cooper racer Chris Bristow died in a gruesome crash. Then, shortly after, another young hopeful, Alan Stacey, perished at the wheel of a works 18, although not because of a car failure — he is thought to have hit a bird. Following a maiden win for the Cooper Lowline at Zandvoort, Brabham took a convincing victory at Spa, but it’s hardly surprising that he took little pleasure in it.

With Moss out of the equation, the path was clear for Brabham to dominate the season. With Team Lotus, Surtees and Clark still finding their feet in F1, and the Type 18 proving less than reliable, the threat subsided. Jack swept to a second world title with five consecutive victories. He was brilliant at Reims in the French GP, then had a stroke of luck at Silverstone: Graham Hill stalled at the start in the BRM but forced his way through to take the lead, only to fall off at Copse with fading brakes as Jack stalked him.

At Oporto Brabham inherited from Surtees, securing the title as the British teams boycotted the Italian GP when the organisers insisted on using Monza’s banked circuit. Then Jack was beaten to victory in the United States GP at Riverside by Moss — who incredibly had returned to action in Portugal just eight weeks after his Spa crash. “I always worried more in the Lotus and I never felt comfortable,” Moss admits. “After a big accident like that it does play on your mind, but you have to block it out. I had great concentration in a racing car and found it easy to fall into that (mindset).”

Surtees has greater affection for the Type 18: “Compared to the opposition it was the most competitive car I ever drove. A great car—but you needed to watch it. It was very fragile: the gearbox was great, but at Monaco it never stopped giving me trouble, and when I went to New Zealand at the end of the year the steering fell off! You couldn’t drive it like a Cooper. It was like racing on tiptoes — you had to be so precise and correct. You couldn’t treat it with abandon and throw it around like a Cooper — there aren’t many photos of Lotus 18s on opposite lock. It was not the easiest car with which to start my GP career.”

The Lotus was the quickest car of 1960, but Cooper’s trusty know-how and Brabham’s wily nous delivered the title. The Type 18 was fragile, the T53 rock solid, and the quest for competitiveness on faster circuits like Spa and Reims was a success. So would Moss have won the title if that hub hadn’t failed at Spa? Considering the 18’s reliability record, probably not.

At the season’s end Surtees leaves Lotus in the wake of bad feeling over the termination of Ireland’s deal. Chapman will build his team around Clark from now on. In Surbiton, Brabham and Cooper have every right to feel comfortable — again. If they were on top of the world in 1959, they now appear to be rocketing into orbit.

But the F1 metamorphosis has not stopped — it never does. The change to a 1.5-litre formula for ’61 causes a blip for the English teams, but that’s all it is. Out the other side it is clear that Cooper has peaked: Brabham knows, and leaves to form his own team. It is now Chapman and Clark who are on a stellar trajectory. Five years after Jack’s zenith, Clark wins six grands prix — and conquers the Indy 500 too. Cooper might have started the British revolution, but it is Lotus that’s left flying the flag.

***

TechSpec — Lotus 18

Engine:  Coventry-Climax FPF, 2495cc

Gearbox:  Lotus 5-speed ‘Queerbox’

Chassis:  Multi-tubular spaceframe

Suspension:  Front: unequal double wishbone, coil spring/damper, anti-roll bar; Rear: lower transverse links, twin radius arms, fixed-length driveshaft, coil spring/damper, anti-roll bar

Brakes:  Front: outboard 10.5in discs; Rear: 9.5in discs

Tyres:  Front: Dunlop RS 5.00 x 15; Rear: 6.50 x 15

Wheelbase:  90in

Weight:  980lb

 

TechSpec — Cooper T53

Engine:  Coventry-Climax FPF, 2495cc; Carburetion: Two twin Webers; Power: 230bhp

Gearbox:  Cooper-Knight C5S 5-speed

Suspension: Front and rear: unequal double wishbone, coil spring/damper, anti-roll bar

Brakes:  Front and rear: outboard discs

Tyres:  Front: Dunlop 5.00L; Rear: 6.00L

Wheelbase: 91in

Weight: 1331lb

***

1960 Results —  Lotus 18 vs Cooper T53  (* indicates cars tested for this feature)

 

6/2/60 —  Argentinian GP, Buenos Aires

Innes Ireland (Lotus 18)  — 6th

 

14/2/60 —  Buenos Aires City GP, Córdoba

Ireland (Lotus 18) —   DNS

 

18/4/60  —  Glover Trophy, Goodwood

Ireland (Lotus 18) — 1st

Alan Stacey (Lotus 18) — rtd

 

14/5/60 —  International Trophy, Silverstone

Ireland (Lotus 18) —  1st

Jack Brabham (Cooper T53)  —  2nd

Stacey (Lotus 18)  —  4th

Mike Taylor (Lotus 18)  —  17th

John Surtees (Lotus 18*)  —  rtd 

 

29/5/60 — Monaco GP

Stirling Moss (Lotus 18)  —  1st

Bruce McLaren  (Cooper T53*)  —  2nd

Ireland (Lotus 18) — rtd

Stacey (Lotus 18) —  rtd

Surtees (Lotus 18*) — rtd

Brabham (Cooper T53) —  not classified

 

6/6/60 — Dutch GP, Zandvoort

Brabham (Cooper T53)  —  1st

Ireland (Lotus 18)  —  2nd

Moss (Lotus 18)  — 4th

McLaren (Cooper T53*)  —  rtd

Stacey (Lotus 18)  —  rtd

Jim Clark (Lotus 18)  — rtd

 

19/6/60 — Belgian GP, Spa

Brabham (Cooper T53)  —  1st

McLaren (Cooper T53*)  —  2nd

Clark (Lotus 18*)  —  5th

Ireland (Lotus 18)  —  rtd 

Stacey (Lotus 18)  —  crashed

Moss (Lotus 18)  —  DNS

Taylor (Lotus 18) —  DNS

 

3/7/60  —  French GP, Reims

Brabham (Cooper T53) —  1st

McLaren (Cooper T53*)  —  3rd

Clark (Lotus 18)  —  5th

Ron Flockhart (Lotus 18) — 6th

Ireland (Lotus 18) — 7th

 

16/7/60  — British GP, Silverstone

Brabham (Cooper T53) —  1st

Surtees (Lotus 18*)  —  2nd

Ireland (Lotus 18)  —  3rd

McLaren (Cooper T53*)  —  4th

Clark (Lotus 18)  —  16th

 

1/8/60 — Silver City Trophy, Brands Hatch

Brabham (Cooper T53)  —  1st

Surtees (Lotus 18*)  — 6th

Clark (Lotus18)  — rtd

Ireland (Lotus 18)  —  rtd

David Piper (Lotus 18)  — rtd

 

14/8/60  — Portuguese GP, Oporto

Brabham (Cooper T53)  —  1st

McLaren (Cooper T53*)  —  2nd

Clark (Lotus 18) —  3rd

Ireland (Lotus 18)  — 6th 

Surtees (Lotus 18*)  —  rtd

Moss (Lotus 18) — DSQ

 

17/9/60  — Lombank Trophy, Snetterton

Ireland (Lotus 18)  — 1st 

Clark (Lotus 18) —  2nd

Surtees (Lotus 18*)  —  rtd

Tony Brooks (Lotus 18)  —  DNS

 

24/9/60  — Gold Cup, Oulton Park

Moss (Lotus 18)  —  1st

Brabham (Cooper T53)  —  2nd

McLaren (Cooper T53*)  —  4th

Ireland (Lotus 18)  —  rtd

Clark (Lotus 18) —  rtd

Surtees (Lotus 18*)  — rtd

Ian Burgess (Lotus 18)  — rtd

 

9/10/60 — Watkins Glen, Formula Libre GP 

Moss (Lotus 18)  —  1st

 

20/11/60  — US GP, Riverside

Moss (Lotus 18)  —  1st

Ireland (Lotus 18)  — 2nd

McLaren (Cooper T53*)  — 3rd

Brabham (Cooper T53)  —  4th

Jim Hall (Lotus 18)  —  7th

Clark (Lotus 18)  —  16th

Surtees (Lotus 18*)  —  rtd