John Cooper: a pioneer

Many people when thinking of the figureheads of Formula 1 over the years look towards the likes of Colin Chapman and Adrian Newey, however there was one man that changed the way we perceive Formula 1 cars forever and set the trend for racing cars worldwide – That man was none other than John Cooper and this is his Legacy.
Monday, August 6, 2012

Aug 5th, 2012 (F1plus / James PArker).-  If I were to pose a question to you asking who you feel were the biggest figureheads in the world of Formula 1 who would you pick? My guess is that you would look towards the immediate obvious choices, the pioneers of Formula 1 that brought huge advancement to the sport, pioneers like Colin Chapman and Adrian Newey who between them have been responsible for some of the most dominant cars ever witnessed by fans of Formula 1, developing technologies such as active suspension and ground effect, they were the leaders when it came to pushing Formula 1 forward for generations.

However what if I was to say that in fact there is an unsung figure when it came to innovation in F1? A man to this day who does not receive the credit he deserves for making Formula 1 what it is today, a man that both Colin Chapman and indeed Adrian Newey undoubtedly respected more than anyone else – that man being none other than John Cooper.

Who you say? I can picture you asking right now, racking your brains through periods of F1 to remember the name. Well firstly you need to go back a long way, infact so far that it was a period of F1 where Spa-Francorchamps was 14km long and the German Grand Prix was run on the Nordschleife. I have long had a
fascination with the history of Formula 1 which has greatly outshadowed recent years, my mouth open with astonishment at the machines drivers had to tame, the unbelievable historic circuits that they used to apply their undeniably talent on and the fantastic wheel to wheel racing we witnessed.

So what part of F1 history do we have to look at in order to understand the achievements of the mysterious John Cooper? Well we have to go back to the glorious 50’s and 60’s where Formula 1 was still establishing itself as the pinnacle in Motor racing, where leather caps were used to protect drivers and Maserati were considered the most successful team in the sport.

It was during the early 50’s that John got the opportunity to show everyone what he was made of. He started to build inexpensive single seater race cars that were designed to be as affordable as possible for privateer teams looking to get that leg up on the Motorsport’s ladder; they became hugely popular with lower racing formula up and down the country. This demand from smaller teams is the sole influence for John to found his own company and so it was the Cooper Car Company was born.

The popularity of these cars regulated under the F3 category got so strong they eventually made 300 Cooper 500 cars, and Cooper became the largest post war specialist of racing cars to privateer teams in Great Britain. This new found reputation had also allowed John to take advantage of a quite extraordinary situation, he found himself selling cars to almost all the up and coming motor racing drivers in the UK with young guns such as Sir Stirling Moss, Ken Tyrell, Jack Brabham (Triple World Champion) and Peter Collins all looking to take advantage of the “Cooper revolution” in Motorsport. Eventually of all the 78 F3 races Cooper 500 cars were entered in 64 ended up in Victory over a 3 year period.

What was so unique about these little F3 cars from Cooper were that the engine was not placed at the front unlike every other major manufacturer in motor racing at the time, due to the 500 using a little JAP motorcycle engine, it was placed over the rear wheels at the back of the car due to the chain drive system that needed to be in place. Cooper declared this as the most “convenient method” in order to get the cars race ready however he fail to realise the huge contribution this had to the impeccable record the car had achieved.

But ironically enough it wasn’t until the mid 50’s during sports car events that John realised the importance of the “Game Changer” recipe. Racing modified versions of the 500 car featuring a Coventry Climax engine (nicknamed bobtail) he decided to keep the engine in the same place as the previous JAP unit. They found the traction and agility posed from the rear engined car were far superior to their front engine counterparts in sports car racing and it was then that the magic “spark” hit John.

They designed a car to race utilising the F2 specification and looked to take it to the world’s stage featuring the first mid mounted engine. The brainchild behind this was Owen Maddock who alongside John was the pioneer within the Cooper Car Company that first presented the sketches of a chassis which was bent at every joint which allowed an engine to sit in the middle.

Sr. Stirling Moss in route to his victory in the Argentinian GP of 1958, the first for Copper Car Company and its rear mounted engine (LAT Photo). 

The car instantly became a ridiculous hit around the circuits of the world. Jack Brabham and Sir Stirling Moss both won events in 1957 and 1958 with the little rear engined car and it started to raise eye brows up and down the paddock, how is it that a little underpowered British car could beat the might of Ferrari, Maserati and Lotus?

Well if those results didn’t start to cause alarm bells the following 2 years certainly caused for a huge think amongst the big manufacturers as Cooper went on to win with Jack Brabham at the wheel 2 years on the trot, winning the WDC in both 1959 and 1960 with the little car named the T51. When evaluating the design, the big manufacturers were forced a re think and from 1961 onwards the trend set by Cooper was complete as every driver from that point sat infront of his engine, a far cry from the magnificent results achieved only 5 years early with the big front engine beasts such as the Maserati 250F.

It wasn’t only just European Motorsport that felt the full force of John Cooper’s wrath however. After the championship success in 1959 he and Jack Brabham took a prototype Cooper Car to America slightly modified to suit the ovals of Indianapolis. While on an open test, many of the established American teams chuckled with amusement at witnessing this funny little car from Europe’s race tracks declaring it was no match for their cars. However it seems Jack Brabham never got that message and he went out for a few test laps. When he came back in the American team’s mouths were well and truly open with amazement as Jack had lapped the Indy circuit at an average speed of 144mph, enough to get him on the 3 rd row of the grid from the previous year’s race.

For the next 4 years Cooper attempted to emulate that immediate success in America, however it wasn’t until the might of Lotus and a certain Jimmy Clark came along in 1965 with a rear engine 25 that American’s decided to change their recipe, after getting embarrassingly beaten badly. It was a revolution pioneered by the little Cooper 500 and after 5 years it had set the trend worldwide.

Due to Cooper being a small private team however, the moment the “Cooper” layout was adopted by teams up and down the paddock the Cooper name slid further and further down the grid as budgets and money too over with the more established teams such as Lotus and Ferrari bringing hugely more technically advanced cars than John’s little team for the years following and after 1968 the Cooper name faded from Formula 1 for good, unable to sustain its position.

However it was John’s pioneering approach that shaped the way Formula 1 is perceived today, without John Cooper and his little Cooper 500 it is a possibility that we could still be racing in Formula 1 with front engined cars, and it is a true testament to his vision that he carved a different path for Motorsport worldwide. He was the first of the “masterminds” of Formula 1, a man that set the trend for innovators in the sport throughout the following 50 years. It is without doubt that indeed the likes of the legendary Colin Chapman who was just starting out in F1 design looked up to the great man as an inspiration for paving the way cars would be built for years to come.

He was a man that led the British Motorsport generation which led to domination in both Formula 1, Touring Cars and Rallying alike, and for this deserves probably far greater accreditation for his achievements than what is known today.

I will finish this article by asking you a question: The famous Mini Cooper S was a car that took on the big boys
in Motorsport around the world, beating them to create a hugely iconic legacy winning the Monte Carlo rally 3
times, but there was one man who pioneered this the little Mini as a racing car, when you find out the answer
on to who that man is, you will come to realise what a great man John Cooper was. A legacy that is still just as
strong today.

Jack Brabham leading the group in his Cooper car at Spa-Francorchamps in 1960. The team and his Aussie driver won back-to-back championships (LAT Photo). 

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