With apologies to those who “were there”, it is interesting to compare our view, from a perspective in the 21st Century, with the development of motor racing over the last fifty years and gain an understanding of the position of the “500” Movement and it’s influence on modern motor sport. It is too easily forgotten, in a time where a disproportionate amount of expertise originates from England and the majority of racing cars are developed and built in one country, that this situation was not always so. Indeed prior to World War II the position was entirely reversed with continental European countries taking the lead.
England lags behind
Prior to 1940, motor racing in England was almost non existent, Brooklands was the only place where any form of racing could take place regularly and the specialised nature of banked circuits coupled with the “right crowd and no crowding” approach made it a very exclusive place with little chance for most people to become involved.
The root cause of the problem was the so called “Red Flag” Act which is best known for it’s insistence that any motor car must be proceeded by a man waving a flag! Eventually this part of the act was repealed but the remainder, which bans any form of speed event on the Queen’s Highway, remained in force. In contrast no such ban existed in most European counties and racing commenced immediately in the form of town to town races. These races slowly changed to circuits of temporarily closed public roads which improved safety and allowed the organisers to charge spectators. As a result, racing blossomed in France, Italy, Germany and Belgium with Le Mans, Spa and Monaco as examples of closed street races which developed in this way. Continental car makers were quick to see the marketing potential of racing and it is no accident that Bentley chose to tackle Le Mans, they had little choice. If an English manufacturer wanted to race they had to go offshore, either to Ulster or the Isle of Man (for the TT) where the Act didn’t apply, or to mainland Europe.
This is not to say that there was no motorsport at all in England, they simply had to develop alternative ways to compete. Hillclimbs, using private drives, became popular and still continue today at places such as Shelsley Walsh. Trials consisting of navigational sections on public roads and speed tests on private land eventually evolved into modern Rallying.
But in 1939 the status quo was changed in a most dramatic way by Hitler and his Nazis. Motorsport effectively ceased for the duration of the conflict but a number of changes, some obvious, some not so obvious, occurred as a result of the war, which were to lead to England’s modern pre-eminence in motorsport.
New Airfield Circuits
During the war, the British Government requisitioned large areas of private land in order to build airfields for use by the RAF and USAF. Literally hundreds were built, initially grass strips and perimeter tracks but most were eventually tarmaced. By VE day, of course, the majority of these were totally redundant and began to be returned to their owners. For racing enthusiasts this was a godsend as, for the first time, they had somewhere to race. The perimeter roads proved to be an ideal circuit, a few quid to the landowner for the use of the land and some straw bales and you had a race meeting. Goodwood, Silverstone and Snetterton are examples of exactly this approach but, at the time, there were many other venues including Gransden Lodge (which held the first proper post war race), Dunholme Lodge, Brough, Lulsgate (now Bristol Airport), Ibsley, Boreham and Castle Combe. For the first time, English drivers had a real opportunity to race properly, all they needed was suitable cars. A number of initiatives began including the use of pre war Austin 7s by the 750 Motor Club and others. Enthusiasts in Bristol agreed a set of rules for a new form of racing car. These rules were simple and open, the premise being to use motorbike engines of 500cc and allow would be racers to build their own cars. Most of the primary components such as the engine, gearbox and steering could be bought cheaply and enthusiasts only needed to make a simple chassis to bring the car together. These men formed the 500 Club (later changed to the Half Litre Club) and created a monthly magazine "Iota".
Different Circuits, Different Cars
Just as significant as their availability, these new circuits were fundamentally different from the majority of closed road circuits in Europe and required different characteristics from cars and drivers in order to win. The traditional circuits were generally long, sometimes over ten miles, but with long fast straights and relatively few corners. The new circuits were much shorter usually 1or 2 miles but with many more corners. The emphasis changed from power and outright speed to braking and cornering ability. This can be seen clearly if you compare pre war cars with those of the fifties. The pre war cars are large and heavy and dominated by large capacity powerful engines, usually placed up front. Braking and cornering were limited by their size and weight. Fifties cars such as a Cooper are much smaller, lower and lighter often with the engine in the middle. A high theoretical top speed is of little use if the straight isn’t long enough but a few miles an hour carried through each corner soon cuts lap times. The new breed of “500 “ cars suited the new circuits perfectly, as well as the traditional hillclimbs and it was no time before people started to appreciate their abilities, often embarrassing much larger, more expensive machinery.
Triumph through Adversity
A another factor was that post war England was dominated by rationing (including petrol) and austerity. People simply could not afford to maintain the large pre war cars and couldn’t obtain sufficient petrol to use them. At first glance this may not seem a positive factor but it forced people to adopt smaller capacity engines and then develop the car to make the best of the limited power available. The lessons were learnt quickly through the late forties and those lessons were carried forward during the fifties into the larger capacity Formula 2 and 1 machines. John Cooper is the best example but Cyril Kieft, Ron Taurenac and others followed.
Another by-product of the war was the exposure of far more men and women to basic engineering skills. Maintaining aircraft, tanks, vehicles and ships gave people skills that many had not possessed before. Bank Clerks suddenly found that they had to get their hands dirty and many enjoyed the experience. The 500 regulations were specifically intended to encourage home built specials and people found that a combination of “off the shelf” major components such as engine and gearbox and a little ingenuity could result in a proper racing car.
Riding the Wave
The story of Cooper Cars is the best example of how the new breed of English racers were able to adapt to the new circumstances and use the timing of later rule changes to develop world beating racing business’.
John and Charlie Cooper did not start with a grand plan, Charlie ran a local garage in Surbiton, South London but had been closely involved with motorbike racing prior to the War. John and boyhood friend, Eric Brandon returned from war duties and wanted to start competing. The newly announced 500 rules were ideal due to the low cost and Charlie’s motorbike experience. In 1946 they chose to build two specials for themselves to which they duly completed in 5 weeks.
The design principles were simple, a JAP engine mounted behind the driver, chain drive to a Norton gearbox and another chain to drive the rear wheels. The mid engined layout had been “invented” and would eventually dominate single seat competition. Front and rear suspension was adapted from two Fiat Topolino front suspensions giving lower wishbones all round and transverse leaf springs which acted as upper wishbones. Weight was kept down to a minimum.
Early experiences were frustrating due to unreliability, partly as a result of the shaking that a car receives from a high compression single cylinder 500 engine, but the speed was never in doubt. From the beginning they embarrassed more powerful machinery and it wasn’t long before people started to ask the Coopers to build replicas. John and Charlie simply updated the design and went into production for the 1948 season (Stirling Moss being amongst the first to order one). Then the RAC announced that a Grand Prix would be held at the new Silverstone Circuit in October and be supported by a race for 500 cars. This was a major boost for the 500 movement and Cooper, in particular, as they took first four places. Again they updated the design for 1949 and success continued including races on Continental Europe.
In 1950, the FIA gave the 500 Movement a further boost by adopting the 500 National Rules for a new international category, Formula 3. Coopers could now create a works team to race across Europe and, as success continued, so did sales. The idea of manufacturing racing cars in numbers is common nowadays but at that time it was unheard of. It certainly provided the revenue to allow Coopers to move into the senior categories, initially with the Formula 2, Cooper Bristol in 1952 and then Formula 1 in 1957 and ultimately two Formula 1 World Championships.
An Industry is Born
Of course, Cooper wasn’t alone, the likes of Cyril Kieft, Ken Tyrrell and Ron Taurenac were involved in building or managing 500 racing cars with great success and when Coopers themselves eventually faltered, the team metamorphosed into Brabham. In parallel, Colin Chapman evolved a similar lightweight strategy (sometimes taking the philosophy too far) but took some time to recognise the importance of the mid mounted engine. In the space of little more than a decade a motor racing industry had been created in England by a group of English racing enthusiasts with help from various antipodeans.
The new breed of racing car constructors and teams were not, of course, universally popular. Enzo Ferrari referred to them disparagingly as garagista but even he had to eventually abandon his beloved front mounted V12 engines in favour of smaller, lighter cars with smaller capacity engines placed in the middle.
This is the legacy if the 500 movement, a tradition which is maintained today by the 500 Owners Association.