The other half



Fifteen minutes of fame

Strang: VSCC Prescott – August 31, 1946

Cooper was the most famous marque to emerge from 500cc competition after WWII, but only after it had broken the stranglehold of a London rival. By Paul Fearnley

On the day WWII broke out, Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union gave the final demonstration of their prowess, Tazio Nuvolari winning the Yugoslavian GP. Their preceding six-season domination had been based on advanced metallurgical know-how, superbly equipped tool rooms, and a large injection of government money.

In the aftermath of WWII, Cooper gave the first demonstration of its prowess. British motor-racing pre-eminence throughout the second half of the 20th century can be traced directly back to finely honed pragmatism, a small garage in Surbiton, and the scraped-together cash of a handful of enthusiastic amateurs. Charlie and John Cooper are rightly regarded as founding fathers of the British garagiste movement: their chutzpah and make-do-and-mend brilliance triggered a racing revolution, a billion-pound industry. Which is ironic, because their first racing car was built in response to the need for cheap motorsport in a country racked by rationing.

Even during the war years, Motor Sport had carried eager letters proposing competition for 500cc cars. Johnny Lurani’s streamlined Nibbio, which used a Moto Guzzi 120-degree V-twin, had proved the worth, and potential, of such (Class I) racers by covering the flying mile at more than 100mph in 1935. And by December 1945, Britain’s 500 Club had been formed, thanks to the get-up-and-go of the Bristol Aeroplane Company Motor Sports Club.

Dozens of prospective constructors made all the right noises. There was even a suggestion that the cars might race on the Isle of Man TT course. The reality of the situation, however, was just that: realistic. Prescott’s 880 yards would be challenge enough for the two 500s that turned up at that picturesque venue’s first  post-war meet on May 19, 1946.

And so it was that the sun smiled upon the sport’s British renaissance, and Cooper’s neat little racer carved its notch in history.

Er, no, not exactly. It rained. And Cooper MkI was still a gleam in John’s eye. A London garage-owner did hog the 500cc limelight, but he was called Colin Strang, from Harrow.

Born in New Zealand, but educated in England, Strang had raced bikes and cars before WWII. Upon being demobbed, he ‘s got wind of 500cc racing and, with the help of George Mullett, Joe Frazer Barnes and Noel Shorrock, built his eponymous racer in just four months. He admitted that this had been a tough schedule, and reckoned many of his fair-weather rivals had perhaps underestimated the difficulties of building these ‘everyman’ racers. But Strang was tough – his epic escape from the Japanese via a long sea voyage in a rowing boat was proof of that.

He was clever, too. His offering looked a bit of a lash-up, but its layout, and many of its constituent parts, would become 500cc-racing staples.

Its donor car was a Fiat Topolino, as it would be for the Cooper. The latter back-to-backed two Topolino front ends to provide independent suspension front and rear; the Strang, though, used a chain-driven live rear axle on Fiat quarter-elliptics.

Behind its cramped cockpit sat a Vincent single-cylinder high-pushrod motorbike engine. This was originally one of the Stevenage firm’s pre-war TT units; but in a quest for more torque, Strang fitted one of its rare speedway engines for 1947. The former engine had driven through a custom-made Burman four-speed positive-stop competition ‘box; the latter used a road-going version.

The Strang also featured hydraulically activated drums at each corner and (later in that first season) the formula’s first megaphone exhaust.

When the all-faired-in Cooper appeared at Prescott on July 28, it was clearly the ‘next step’. But it was clear, too, that the Strang had been studied closely – and that it was still the car to beat.

In fact, Strang’s closest early challenger was the Tiger Kitten of Clive Lones, an amalgam of A7 chassis and running gear and a JAP engine. This Cardiff-based racer had been just five-hundredths slower than Strang at Prescott, but was over 1secslower at a subsequent Shelsley Walsh event.

 Back at Prescott in August, Strang won again, by more than 2sec, from Lones. The new Cooper, meanwhile, was struggling with teething problems – broken gearbox mounting (repaired using a plough handle) and a bent valve (hammered straight over a log) and was off the pace.

Broken gearbox mountings again plagued the Cooper at the VSCC’s Prescott meeting on August 31. The naysayers had always doubted whether these 500lb machines would be man enough for the job, whether they would be fast enough to provide a spectacle worthy of the name. And yet, while the Coopers mused over a cure for their recurring problem, Strang and his car achieved something extraordinary that very same day, something which silenced the doubters stone dead, something which breathed life into this new formula.

He won his class, as usual. But more importantly, he recorded the fastest time of the day (54.88sec) in the process. True, it rained. True, the big guns, were absent. But he had beaten the well-proven ‘Bloody Mary’ of John Bolster and Paul Emery’s supercharged Hudson Special, and in doing so had proved that 500cc racing was here to stay.

Strang’s success continued into 1947, his car featuring a reworked, simpler rear end. In all, despite Cooper’s increasing competitiveness, the Strang won the first seven events it entered. It wasn’t until the 500s went racing – at Gransden Lodge airfield on July 13, 1947 that the spell was broken. Strang suffered plug trouble on the first of the four scheduled laps, and Eric Brandon’s Cooper took the spoils.

The Surbiton marque was getting into its stride now – Brandon beat Strang at Prescott, Poole and Shelsley in the remainder of that season – and the Surbiton firm had big plans. Its 1948 MkII would go into production and be made available to privateers – one of whom would be a bushy-tailed Stirling Moss. The odds were stacking up against Strang.

Sure enough, in 1948 and ’49, if Brandon didn’t beat him, Moss would. And if a Cooper didn’t beat him, a resurgent Lones would. The first pacesetter was beginning to act as fragile as its liberally drilled frame had always appeared, particularly during its circuit outings. Strang knew his car’s time was up and sold it at the end of 1949.

He kept his hand in during 1950 with a race in a Kieft at Silverstone. But, as it turned out, the man first out of the blocks had stopped the clocks for the last time.