Established in 1946, the Cooper Car Company started life with a pair of donor Fiat 500s. Stripped of their front suspension components and disc wheels, the little Fiats formed the four corners of John Cooper’s first prototypes. By the ‘60s, the Surrey based operation was a two-time Formula 1 world champion, beating Ferrari and Lotus to the 1959 and ’60 titles respectively.
Although components from the 500s did not make their way onto Cooper’s F1 cars, the engine layout of the first prototypes featured in Cooper designs throughout team’s history. Out of convenience, the original Cooper featured a mid-engined layout – its JAP powerplant was placed behind the driver but forward of the rear axle. The 500cc unit was traditionally mounted in motorcycle speedway racers and its chain driven system lent itself to a rearward layout.
Cooper’s machines established the conventional motor sport wisdom regarding engine layout in single seaters and I cannot think of a modern open-wheel category that bucks the trend.
Building on the success of its prototypes and the subsequent Cooper 500, Cooper manufactured over 300 Formula 3 cars between ’51 and ’54. They invariably dominated the category. During this period Cooper also produced a series of front-engined F2 challengers before the benefits of a rearward set-up were truly understood and exploited at the sport’s highest level.
The Cooper T43 was designed for the ’57 F1 season and reverted to the team’s traditional engine layout. With Jack Brabham at the controls, it took sixth position at the season-opening Monaco Grand Prix. The paddock took notice.
A year later, when Stirling Moss won the Argentine Grand Prix in another T43, the rear engined revolution took hold. From ’59 to the present, every driver to win the world championship has sat in front of their engines. It is a trend which may never be broken.
Appropriately, the run of results for rear engined machines began in ’59 with a car designed by John Cooper and Owen Maddock. Their creation – the T51 – won five of eight rounds in the ’59 season in the hands of Brabham, Moss and Bruce McLaren. Brabham secured his first driver title, Cooper-Climax lifted the constructors’ trophy and the T51 made history. Brabham repeated the feat in 1960 too, in the lowline T53.
Although significant, it was not solely the location of the engine that enabled Cooper’s success. The T51, as with its predecessors, utilised a curved spaceframe chassis. The design contradicted established engineering know-how but enabled packaging benefits and saved weight – advantages which overcame the loss of rigidity.
Another feature of the Cooper was the location of its fuel tanks – positioned either side of the driver’s cockpit (rather than behind the pilot), the T51’s handling balance remained consistent as the 2.5-litre Coventry Climax drained petrol from the fuel cells into its four cylinders.
The engine itself was designed specifically for the rearward layout employed by Cooper, but sourcing a compatible gearbox for the T51 proved more difficult. The works outfit settled on a modified Citroën unit while Rob Walker’s impressive privateer team commissioned bespoke components from Valerio Colotti. In time, Hewland stepped in to fill the technical void in transmission development for rear-engined racers with much success.
The T51 featured in this article is a former John Surtees car, most likely from his stint with the British Racing Partnership. More recently it has been campaigned in historic events by Willie Green, Stirling Moss and Nigel Bancroft. The car underwent an extensive restoration in 2007 and has since had a full engine and transmission rebuild. It seems impossibly narrow by today’s standards, but looks the part in its two-tone paint scheme. Cheshire Classic Cars will provide #53 with a detailed history file, period programmes, photos and race results, but there is much more to come from this pretty history maker.