John Cooper: Nigel Roebuck's Legends

John Cooper was in motor racing for fun, but that didn't stop him creating a special legacy

Places mean cars, don’t they? Hear the word `Maranello’ and you think of something red with yellow shields on its flanks. Similarly, ‘Weissach’ is synonymous with Porsche, and when I see a sign to Cheshunt  I think immediately of Lotus. It’s the same with Surbiton: to some, perhaps, the place brings echoes of The Good Life, but for anyone like me it means only ‘Cooper’.

I never knew John Cooper in his racing days, but later interviewed him more than once, and was often in his company on social occasions. A better raconteur I never met.

Modest to a fault, he would shrug off the successes of his team, declining even to take credit for putting the engine behind the driver. There remains a reverence for Colin Chapman as an innovator, which is as it should be, but it was Cooper who first swung a lamp over the fundamental shape of Formula One.

When I asked him about that, John — typically — put it down to expediency rather than inspiration. “If you think about it,” he said, “putting the engine in the back of a 500 was the only logical thing to do. We were using motorcycle engines and chain-drive after all. But our Formula Two and sportscars, which came later, were front-engined for quite a time, so we hadn’t immediately decided that rear-engined was the way to go with everything. In fact, much more novel at the time was that we had independent rear suspension on the 500s: we could certainly see the benefits of that for all racing cars.

“No, a 500 really was a four-wheeled motorcycle — or a baby Auto Union, if you like. And it did handle, for some reason!  When John Watson drove one for a TV programme he said that now he understood where and why the rear-engined revolution had started. I was quite gratified by that.”

In 1951 the magazine Iota, which concentrated on the 500cc Formula Three, carried a report of an international meeting at Brands Hatch. Every prominent 500 driver — with the exception of S Moss — entered, and among them was one BC Ecclestone from Bexleyheath. He won a couple of races, what’s more.

“Yes, Bernie was one of my early customers,” Cooper smiled. “He bought a 500, and what I remember most is that he wanted chromium-plated wishbones! We didn’t reckon that much because it hardened them, made them more brittle, but he insisted, and it was the same when he bought a Cooper-Bristol. Chrome all over the place!”

Even then, John said, it was apparent that Bernie was a smart boy. “Obviously no one could have known that eventually the bloke would have complete control of motor racing, but I could tell he had a brilliant mind. He was a great mate of Salvadori’s — they were both motor dealers — and he’d walk into Roy’s showroom, glance over the stock and make a bid for the lot!   Roy’d be fiddling around, adding up figures… and eventually he’d find that Bernie was spot on!

“There were a lot of good drivers in the 500s, no doubt about it. Stirling was obviously the greatest, but later on Peter Collins and Stuart Lewis-Evans came into it, and they both graduated to F1.  Everyone was frightened of Moss, though — and he kept doing F3 simply because he enjoyed it so much. He won his last 500 race at Aintree in late ’54— and a month earlier he’d been dominating the Italian GP in his 250F!”

Cooper himself was no mug in a racing car, although he played his ability down. “I wasn’t that fast,” he said. “Everything came into perspective during practice for the International Trophy at Silverstone in ’52. We’d built four F2 Cooper-Bristols, one of which was for Mike Hawthorn. There I am — thinking I’m going bloody quick — and Mike comes past me on the outside at Woodcote, giving me a V-sign at the same time! After that I decided it was time I concentrated on making the bloody things…”

The ’50s, for John, were the best of times, for racing was never going to be quite so much fun again. But still he never lost the ability to enjoy the sport, to keep it in a perspective which many of today’s F1 team owners could study to advantage.

“I suppose the fun began to go out of it when the big money arrived, didn’t it?  I don’t want that to sound bitter, but I’d got into it largely for pleasure, lived through all those years when it was fun, and could see the difference. There must be so many people around who have never seen it as other than a business, and I feel rather sorry for them. We went about it professionally— but in an amateur spirit.”

He remembered the 1960 season with particular pride. One year earlier his team had won the world title with Jack Brabham, but most felt that the title should have gone — perhaps inevitably — to Moss, then driving a Cooper for Rob Walker.

In 1959 the little company was still the only one building rear-engined F1 cars. Chapman had his ‘mini-Vanwall’, and Enzo Ferrari was implacable: “At Monza during practice,” said Cooper, “he told me he would never ever build a rear-engined car…” But Chapman had got the message. At Buenos Aires, the opening race of 1960, Innes Ireland drove the new Lotus 18, and Cooper recognised a problem when he saw it.

“Coming back from that race, Brabham, Bruce McLaren and I knew we needed a new car very quickly. In fact, we did half the ‘design’ work on the aeroplane! By May it was racing, and of course Jack went on to win five races on the trot with it and his second championship. That was a lovely season.

“A Climax engine cost £1250 and we’d do at least two complete meetings without stripping it down. So long as it hadn’t blown up, it cost about 70 quid to have it overhauled. We used to build a chassis for £3000, a whole car for four grand. We’d race it all season, then flog it in Australia or New Zealand at the end of the year — at a profit!

“We got £10,000 from Esso in 1960. That, coincidentally, was also Brabham’s retainer — and he was World Champion! What else? Well, a couple of thousand from Dunlop, a grand from Champion, and that was it.

“Today I know Bernie does everyone’s deals, but we used to negotiate individually. It got to around £1000 a car in our case, split 50-50 between team and driver. The first prize in a grand prix was always about a grand, which went 45 per cent to us, 45 to the driver, 10 to the mechanics — we only used to have two or three at the races; they’d drive the transporter, then come back and rebuild the cars!  It all seems so simple, looking back…”

There was a contagion about Cooper’s enthusiasm for those light-hearted times, peppered with parties and characters.

“Lee Iacocca became the great guru of the American motor industry, but I remember him in his Ford days when he came to Watkins Glen in ’61. He had a man with him to answer questions. ‘I hear you might be going into F1’, I said, and he decided to answer himself. ‘No,’ he says, ‘we’re not interested in F1. What we’re gonna do is go the whole hog on grand prix racing.’ I didn’t pursue it any further…

“At that same race I had a meeting with Howard Hughes in the back of an air-conditioned limousine. He was talking about going into the motor business, and we had vague discussions which never came to anything. It was about the last time he was seen in public. He obviously wasn’t quite as barmy as he later became, but even so I remember thinking, ‘We’ve got a right one here’…”

John Cooper died on Christmas Eve 2000, aged 77, and I remember the phone call from Eoin Young. “Bloke worth lifting a glass to,” said Eoin. That he was.