John Newton Cooper was born in Kingston, Surrey in July 1923 to Charles and Elsie Cooper and is best remembered as the driving force behind the Cooper Car Company. Charlie had been a mechanic to the likes of Kaye Don at Brooklands prior to the war and ran his own garage in Surbiton. In 1946, John and his best friend, Eric Brandon, both recently demobbed from the forces, decided they they would build two cars for themselves to hillclimb and race. They had already concluded that a light weight, small engined car would be the only practical way forward and the new 500 rules were ideal. John's first effort, the Prototype Cooper 500, wasn't entirely reliable but showed itself to be quick from off and led directly to the first production Cooper 500 (Mk II). What is often forgotten is that he was a competent driver, as well as a highly skilled yet pragmatic engineer, and drove regularly in the early years with some success on hills and circuits, at home and abroad and invariable in his own cars.
In 1946, which consisted entirely of hills and sprints, John finished third at Prescott in July, to Colin Strang and Clive Lones, then second on the 31st August and won the 850cc Class at the Brighton Speed Trials on the 1st September. Finally a second to Eric at Finchampstead closed a respectable first season. John and Eric attended the Prescott Practice meeting in April 1947 and the White Hart meeting in May. A misfiring JAP blunted John's attempt at Prescott on in May and at Shelsley in June and he failed even to start at Gransden Lodge in July, though John could take some comfort from Eric's win in this first proper post war race. Things improved with a fifth at the July Prescott Meeting and John was second to Eric at Great Auclum on the 26th July. Cooper was fastest again at Brighton, then triumphed at the Poole Speed Trials on the 6th of September, winning the 750cc, 1,100cc and 1,500cc classes. He took third, behind Brandon and Aikens, at the Prescott International, then second at Southsea in the 500cc class and second at Shelsley on the 27th September, the report commenting that both Coopers proved to be quicker than many of the larger cars. The boys finished the year with the abortive attempt to run at Silverstone on the 25th October, finally running at Towcester. 1947 may have been a mixed year for John for results, often out driven by Eric, but they had shown everyone what the little Coopers were capable of and had sufficient interest from other competitors to start to turn their one off cars into production items. Coopers Garage effectively became the Cooper Car Company at this moment.
1948 started well for John in the production car, winning at Luton Hoo, with Eric second but could only manage eighth at Prescott, beaten by the Tiger Kitten, Strang and the customer cars, including Stirling Moss. John didn't manage a full season, priorities having changed, but he did take second at the Grand Prix at Silverstone on the 2nd October with the top four placings taken by his cars. 1949 brought a modified car, the Cooper Mk III, but demand from customers meant that John and Eric often drove earlier cars. John took a respectable seventh at the Grand Prix in May, his cars filling all of the top ten placings, then a third on the 9th July, Coopers taking the top six and an excellent second in the 100 Mile race, beaten only by Peter Collins. 1950 Started with a fastest time at Shelsley in February, followed by two third places in the Open Challenge and Production Car races at the Inaugural Brands Hatch Event.
As time went on, John drove less and less as the demands of running a growing business reduced the time available. In July 1951, he won at Rouen in July and in October John used the streamlined Mk V to set six new records at Montlhéry. John returned to Rouen to win in July 1952, in a Mk VI and won at Grenzlandring in the Cooper Mk V in August 1952, beating Brandon and Moss, and at Avus in July 1953 in the streamlined car. At the end of 1953, used the streamlined car Mk VIII (T28), with a Francis Beart Norton engine, to set 14 new records, again at Montlhéry. Unfortunately for John, several of these were beaten within days by Piero Taruffi's Tarf then by John Brise in the streamlined Arnott. The company he founded was dominating Formula 3 by around 1955, generating significant revenue to allow the Cooper Car Company to grow into the senior classes of sports cars, Formula II and Formula I, ultimately winning two World Championships.
The start of something big (left). John, aged nine, with the first Cooper Special, built by his father, Charlie.
| An article written by John for Iota describing his early experiences with the Prototype Car |
John examines the new Mk VIII with Stuart Lewis-Evans, Les Leston and Charlie Cooper near to the Surbiton factory in 1954. The Mk VIII represented a significant step forward, lower and more streamlined due to the curved chassis tubes, penned by Owen Maddock after various interventions from Charlie.
John Cooper and the Mid Engined Revolution
It is often claimed that John "invented" the idea of placing the engine in the middle of a racing car, with its now well known benefits. Rubbish of course, as is the assertion that Porsche's Auto Unions were the first, there are several examples that pre-date both. The Rumpler/Benz Tropfenwagen (below) of the 20's being the obvious example but there are Edwardian cars which could make such a claim.
It's also easy, after sixty years, to presume that there was some sort of grand plan, there wasn't. John was a practical and intuitive engineer solving problems and making best use of the materials available to him. The Cooper 500s were all born from necessity and John's ability to devise an efficient solution to the problem of installing a chain drive motorcycle engine in a car.
Fundamentally there are three choices:
Put the engine in the front driving the rear wheels though a car gearbox, driveshaft and axle in the traditional manner with consequent power loss, Ray Cutler tried this arrangement or by extremely long chains (it was tried!).
John adopted a third and totally pragmatic arrangement, placing the engine roughly central, a short primary chain to a gearbox placed immediately to the rear and another short chain to the back axle. Even here, John wasn't first, Colin Strang's car used this arrangement and even borrowed Fiat Topolino parts to do it. Cooper's version was neat and effective but the added benefit of low polar moment of inertia was very much secondary, indeed the wheelbase of the 500s steadily increased over the years to counteract the downside of such an arrangement; its willingness to spin like a top once the limit of adhesion was exceeded.
John also had to briefly abandon the mid engined layout as the company moved into the senior classes with the Cooper Bristol, for the simple reason that the Bristol engine was intended to be mated, via a shaft, to a normal car gearbox then a differential. An arrangement that was so long as to be impractical to place the engine amidships. Cooper could only return to the mid engine when Francis Beart proposed the Citroen Traction Avant transaxle. A modified version placed behind the new Coventry Climax FWA engine formed the key ingredients of the Cooper Bobtail. Significantly, the Bobtail was based very much on the Cooper Mk IX and John went to the trouble of ballasting the 500 record car to test its handling and braking during the design process. John's background in his mid engined 500's meant that he knew just how effective such a car could be and led to sea change in racing car design.
John Cooper CBE died in December 2000. His contribution to motorsport, especially British motorsport, was immense.
The John Cooper Tribute, on the grid of the Goodwood Revival, in September 2001. Your editor was honoured to stand along with the other Cooper 500s and later Cooper cars. After the formalities, the drivers enjoyed a particularly high speed "parade". We hope John would have approved.