The story of automotive legend John Cooper is one to inspire. The name may not immediately make you think of the glitz and glamour of motorsport but anyone with a fondness for the MINI will sigh in reverence and the loss of another motorsport great. Many may also not be aware of his legacy in the world of F1.
Famous for turning out some of the smallest and most successful racecars in the world, John Cooper may not have had the panache and private jets of Colin Chapman, but his legacy is just as great.
For anyone working in a family automotive or motorsport business, this one’s for you….
The Cooper Family Business
John Cooper grew up with a dad obsessed with motorsport. By the time John joined the family business as a young apprentice, his dad already had a thriving small business maintaining race cars. His presence turned the Cooper Car Company into a force to be reckoned with. When Jack Brabham finished in 6th in the 1957 Monaco Grand prix, driving a rear-engined Formula One Cooper, the motorsport world was stunned. By the early 1960’s, the Cooper Car Company was holding its own in Formula 1 and the Indianapolis 500 and the MINI Cooper was smashing the rally world.
Here’s the full story…
Modifying the Mini
Everyone has heard of the MINI Cooper. The MINI Cooper is arguably one the automotive industry’s biggest successes. For over 60 years, this little hatchback has been loved by the masses. But what is now the car of choice for many mums, dads and first-time drivers, actually started out as one of the first hot-hatches to hit the racetrack. But it wasn’t the Mini brand owner Morris, who was responsible for the design and development of the MINI Cooper.
When the Mini was first developed by Cooper’s friend Alex Issigonis in 1957, the aim was to develop a small and affordable car which was more fuel efficient than the rest of the Morris range. Morris were happy with their little people pleaser but someone looked at the transverse engine and gearbox and thought hmmm….I can make that go faster! That was John Cooper.
Small But Mighty
John Cooper had already cut his teeth in motorsport by working with his dad, Charles, developing Formula 3 cars in the post WWII era. The Cooper Car Company was known for its tiny rear-engined racecars which gave some of the greatest drivers of the generation their start in motorsport. Moss, Hawthorn, Brabham and Collins all got a kick start to their career from their association with the Cooper Car Company.
By 1953, Cooper had worked their way through the challenges of both Formula Three and Formula Two and set their sights on the big one – The Formula One World Championship. They didn’t have the greatest start and the dominance of Ferrari and Maserati proved too much. Content with consistent wins in F2 and F3, Cooper didn’t return to Formula One until 1955. In 1955, they released their first Formula One car – they Bristol engined T40. Given the costs of entering a global series like Formula One, Cooper didn’t want to become a regular on the circuits until they knew they had a race-winning package.
The T40 was like no other Formula One car. Cooper’s logic told him to put the engine in the back and in typical self-deprecating style played down what would become one of the most important engineering decisions in F1’s history. Cooper later said “We certainly had no feeling that we were creating some scientific breakthrough!…We put the engine at the rear…because it was the practical thing to do.”
In 1957, Brabham finished 6th in the Monaco Grand Prix. The tiny little Coopers were getting faster. By 1958, still being underestimated, Cooper did the unthinkable.
This except from atlasF1.com sums up the moment that stunned the world –
“For the 1958 season Stirling Moss saw his chance to win the World Championship, but his team Vanwall, were skipping the season opening Argentine Grand Prix, so Moss arranged a deal with Rob Walker, to run his Cooper-Climax for that race. The teams speculated that their much smaller and lighter car would be much kinder on its consumables, thus being able to complete the race without any pitstops. So, while the Ferraris battled it out at the start of the race, they were dismissive of the close proximity of Moss and his Cooper, as they had the power. Even when the Ferraris pitted and Moss continued, there was still no alarm.
He had to pit eventually. Didn’t he? Surely? By the time it dawned on the opposition that the Cooper wasn’t going to pit, it was too late. Luigi Musso chased hard but finished second, as Moss had made one of the great escapes in Grand Prix history. Suddenly, these weird rear-engined Coopers were taken very seriously.”
The rest of the 1958 season was a mess. Four drivers died in four separate races and the season was won by Mike Hawthorn who then retired from racing only to be killed in a car accident a few months later. These were dark times for the sport but marked a leap in fortunes for Cooper. In 1959, the title race was still wide open. Going into the final round in the United States, Cooper had two drivers capable of winning the Championship – Cooper Car Company’s Brabham and R.R.C Walker’s Stirling Moss. Ferrari’s Tony Brooks was also in with a chance but needed to finish in the top 2. It came down to the last lap. Jack Brabham ran out of fuel. So, he got out of the car and pushed his T51 Cooper Climax over the line to finish 4th, just behind a disappointed Brooks. He’d done it. Jack Brabham had just earned Cooper their first Formula One World Championship. He went on to repeat the success in 1960 but by 1961, the other manufacturers were getting wise to the power of the rear-engined Coopers.
A New Love Affair
After starting the decade on a high, Cooper’s fortunes quickly turned. Every Formula car manufacturer was now favouring rear-engined designs and teams with bigger budgets were spending more and more on R&D. The sophisticated technology of Lotus, BRM and Ferrari meant that the Cooper never again got a look in. But at the same time as Cooper fortunes dipped in Formula One, they were rocketing in rally, with the Mini Cooper.
Like many motorsport engineers since, John Cooper was fascinated by the Mini. So much of the car had been designed to keep costs to a minimum that it made the MINI easier to modify. The small size and wheel position increased the interior space and improved the handling of the car. In the first iteration of the Mini Cooper, John increased the engine’s displacement from 848cc to 997cc, added front brake discs and a close-ratio gearbox and finally SU carburettors which increased the MINI’s power from 34hp to 55hp. The Mini was now ready to race.
By the early 1960’s, motorsport technology had already advanced, and John Cooper was not one to be left behind. He took the MINI Cooper and amped it up again. Known as the Model S, this MINI had a 1071cc engine and servo-assisted brakes. This paved the way for the legendary 1275 GT. By the mid-60’s. the MINI Cooper S models were having a huge amount of success in rally. The Monte Carlo Rally was won by a MINI in 1964, 1965 and 1967 and in all Mini won 31 international races and 4 championships.
Then, in 1964, the Cooper Car Company were dealt a double blow. John Cooper was seriously injured in a road accident and his father, Charles died after a period of ill health. This spelt the end of the Cooper Car Company’s participation in Formula One and John sold the team to Chipstead Motor Group the following year.
John Cooper’s accident occurred when he was driving another project – the twin engined MINI – or, the ‘twini’. The MINI had started to consume John Cooper which may also have been why the Formula One successes of ’59 and ’60 were never repeated. This great write-up from Classic Sportscar explains more about Cooper’s obsession and ill-fated last run with the Mini-Twini.
Things were never quite the same again and the Cooper Car Company’s participation in motorsport had all but ended by the 1970’s.
The John Cooper Legacy
John Cooper sadly passed away on Christmas Eve 2000, having just witnessed the first of the BMW MINI Coopers to roll off the production line. Outside of his engineering legacy, he was one of the most humble men in motorsport and never seemed to see his own genius.
John Cooper’s legacy in the automotive world can barely be rivalled. The MINI Cooper went on to become one of the world’s most successful car models and the Cooper models helped various brand owners to sell 5,500,000 in the UK between 1959 and 2000. The legacy now lives on with BMW.
The first John Cooper Works model was released in 2003, when BMW developed the first R53. John’s son Michael had decided to continue the family business and developed his own upgrade kit for the standard Cooper. But it had a hefty price tag and only offered a power increase of 11bhp. Then came the Cooper S upgrade – a specialist tuning kit which was dealer fitted after the car had rolled out of the factory. To Mini purists, this is probably the only BMW MINI to be tolerated as it had been designed with input from both Rover and the Cooper family who had made the brand so famous. With an uprated cylinder head, 11% reduced pulley, uprated exhaust and ECU remap, this supercharged MINI model was the hot-hatch the Cooper family had become so famous for.
The John Cooper Works is now the pinnacle of the MINI Brand. It’s available as a Clubman, Countryman, Convertible and the 3-door hatch. In 2021, MINI celebrated 50 years of collaboration with the Cooper family and launched the John Cooper Works Anniversary Edition.
The John Cooper Works is also still making moves in the motorsport world. The humble MINI finally returned to WRC in 2011, for the first time since the 1960’s. Run by Prodrive, the Countryman based Works WRC won 7 rallys between 2011 and 2014 and came 2nd in 6 more. MINI ALL4 Racing won the Dakar Rally for four consecutive years between 2012 and 2015 and then the MINI John Cooper Works Buggy won again in 2020 and 2021. The MINI Challenge is one of the most popular racing series in the UK, for both teams and spectators. With a JCW Class and Cooper Class, the Challenge supports the BTCC and offers aspiring drivers and teams the chance to step up to the touring car series gently.
The Cooper Car Company were what AMG or Brabus are to Mercedes. Highly specialised modders and tuners who created motorsport ready versions of road-going cars. John’s son Michael has carried on the tradition and keeps the Cooper family flag flying. The Cooper Car Company is still going and offers conversion kits, parts and tuning kits for classic Mini Coopers.
Out of all our Hall of Fame spotlights so far, the story of the Cooper family is one of our favourites. Anyone who has ever driven a MINI Cooper or John Cooper Works of any age are always left with one thing. A big smile on their face. What a legacy to leave.
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