THE MINI MAG. Volume 2 No.5
  May 2000

Vol.2 Home Page | Index Page

Classic Coopers.
With Stephen Dalton.
Life After Grand Prix.

History shows that 1968 was the last year the Cooper Car Co entered into the F1 Grand Prix arena, but as you are about to discover it wasn't the last time the Cooper marque would be represented in the highest level of motor racing.

The South African race had played its usual part in getting the new season underway, but this time it was on March 1st 1969. Having been moved to slightly later in the year, so as to be closer to the European racing season - instead of new year's day or January 2nd which had been the case for 3 of the previous 4 years that the South African race counted towards the F1 World Championship - there were no Coopers entered though. Off to Spain for the second championship race on May 4th. And still there were no Coopers. Even the fact that is was now 5 months into the year, there had been nothing official to say one way or the other whether the factory Cooper team would continue. Admittedly speculation some 2 months earlier was rife within Formula 1 and those who covered it, that Cooper's 1969 campaign wasn't looking too positive. The Cooper Group response was that if suitable sponsorship was secured they would be back on the grid in 2 months with likely Cosworth DFV power. In the meantime though the then growing Formula 5000 formulae was looked upon as a possible source of continuing race car construction. Two were built, becoming the T90 and displayed at England's 1969 Racing Car Show. But all would be to no avail.

The third round Monaco race took place on May 18th at which a lone privately entered Cooper competed. Vic Elford drove the old 'works' T86 Cooper-Maserati now in the private ownership of Colin Crabbe, who ran a business under the name - Antique Automobiles Ltd. A man responsible for unearthing many rare and significant cars from motoring and motor racing's past from all over the world. Given that of his business name and the fact that in a sport where the most up to date equipment is a major ingredient of success, the use of the 2 year old Cooper-Maserati chassis was quite appropriate one could say. Vic completed the race to pick up 7th place in a race that was won by Graham Hill in his Lotus 49.

After the Monaco race 2 things happened - Colin Crabbe purchased an McLaren-Ford M7 for Vic to race and confirmation through the pages of Autocar magazine, on May 22nd was made that the Cooper Car Co had withdrawn from Formula 1. In fact pages is too strong a word, it was quite literally 2 paragraphs devoted to the demise of the team. Noting how the team's final 2 race cars - the Cooper-BRM's would be auctioned on June 11th. It also quoted Cooper Group Managing Director, David Blackburn that "Until we can arrange major sponsorship for a Cooper works Formula 1 team, we will not be re-entering Grand Prix racing. It was never our policy do anything in a half-hearted manner, we do it properly or not at all. Without sponsorship there is no point in hanging on to these cars." And so it was that in the June 19th issue of the same magazine, 1 paragraph was devoted to the results of the auction stating how the one of the cars sold for £1500 complete with BRM engine, while the other sold for £2225. Even then a bargain. This meant Vic Elford's Monaco race was the last time the Cooper marque would grace a Formula 1 grid.

With no Formula 1 commitments John Cooper returned to give support to Ginger Devlin with the running of the Cooper Car Co Mini racing team in the 1969 British Saloon Car Championship. But even this had the writing on the wall.

Donald Stokes, leader of newly named British Leyland empire at the time, showed no enthusiasm towards motor racing. Bringing Abingdon's famous BMC Competitions Department to its knees and not continuing long standing contracts with the likes of Donald Healey and John Cooper as they came up for renewal. And in doing so tainted himself into a place in BMC/Leyland history that began their loss of prestige that would take some 20 years for what would become the Rover Group to have any semblance of recovery.

Since 1962 the Cooper Car Co and for a period its agent, Ken Tyrrell had been the official BMC sanctioned team to prepare and run Minis in the British and European Saloon Car Championships, while BMC Competitions Department looked after the rallying side of things.

Cooper's 1969 team driver, Steve Neal

Both teams bringing much prestige and sales to the BMC network in the process. But Stokes soon changed that for 1969, Cooper were on the outer. With the Peter Browning managed Competitions Department now required to give up rallying to concentrate running the British Leyland racing program with the Mini Cooper S. The two Johns, Handley and Rhodes, both one time Cooper team drivers (Rhodes as late as 1968) were enlisted by the Leyland team. While Steve Neal (father of current British Touring Car driver Matt Neal) and Gordon Spice drove for the newly liveried yellow and black Britax Cooper Downton liveried team cars.

By seasons end all racing activities had now ceased for the Cooper Car Co – including the Mini team. Car sales became the main concentration for all concerned. The Cooper Group continued marketing and establishing the likes of the BMW marque within Britain. Something that they continue to do today, although its fair to say that BMW are now extremely well established in most markets around the world. John Cooper did something very similar and took over the British Leyland garage in Ferring, West Sussex on England’s south coast. Something that is perhaps not widely known being that for the first 2 years he ran Ferring it was a Mini only garage, before the decision to broaden to the bigger Leyland picture was taken.

After 23 hectic, but satisfying years building, racing and organising life around motor racing, John Cooper has obviously found the move to Ferring to his and his families liking. Because some 30 years later this family run business is still based there. Several of the Cooper family have or do work at the garage – Michael, John and Paula Cooper’s son (co-incidently named after Mike Hawthorn who raced Cooper-Bristol early in his career before moving to Ferrari and becoming World Drivers’ Champion in 1958) has come up through the ranks within the business to now hold the position of Managing Director.

Over the 30 years at Ferring, it could be said that John Cooper Garages has endured a lot and turned a full circle in the process. Starting with Minis only, following with other Leyland/Austin Rover products that no doubt brought a number of headaches with them to Ferring.

There’s been special cars – such as the Cooper-ised Metro of 1981, that Michael played a large part in developing. Quite obviously it was meant to be the Mini Cooper of the 1980’s, but the Austin Rover management were still years off finding their enthusiasm to support such a vision. Particularly as it would compete against the then secretive MG badged Metro, so consequently only limited numbers of Cooper’s Metro ‘Monaco’ were built.

John & Mike Cooper's Metro Cooper in photo on right.

Then there was the decision that saw John Cooper Garages leave the Austin Rover fold for greener pastures with them taking on a Honda franchise in 1986. Due to the fact that there was too many Austin Rover dealers in the district. Around the same time also saw John Cooper Garages start dealing with Japanese Mini enthusiasts with their performance conversion kit to breath some life into Japanese 998 Minis. The kit consisted of modified cylinder head, twin SU’s, inlet manifold & sports air filters, extractors, alloy rocker cover and packaged in an elaborate wooden box. They sold like hot cakes.

The kit in turn led to a certain amount of déjà vu for John Cooper, the Rover management were now taking notice and prepared to enthusiastically listen. It was now July 10th 1990 and the 1275 engine was back into a Mini, some special features added – including a sunroof, the Cooper name was attached and 1000 Rover Mini Cooper RSP (Rover Special Products) were in production. The wheel had been re-invented. This in turn allowed John Cooper Garages to develop their own special edition Mini Coopers throughout the 1990’s and into 2000 – such as the Cooper S, Grand Prix, Cooper S Touring, Cooper S Sport 5 and S works based upon the latest Rover offering of the appropriate period.

The revival of Mini enthusiasm throughout the 1990’s has been in no small part due to John Cooper himself. He has remained a very loyal ambassador for the marque throughout more than 40 years of the Mini’s production. Perhaps even more so now with the likes of his monthly column in MiniWorld. Always filled with interesting anecdotes from his vast motoring and motor racing endeavours. To give us, his fellow enthusiasts, that insight into what it was all like.

In his ‘retirement’ John Cooper still usually spends a couple hours each day at the garage, there’s normally a Mini enthusiast or two from some part of the globe. Having made the trip to Ferring to meet the great man and get that famous autograph, plus of course to buy those special Cooper goodies for their Mini. As far as car club life is concerned, John Cooper is no stranger. Having joined what was then known as the 500 Club in 1947. The club responsible for establishing Brands Hatch race circuit in Kent and making the 500cc motorcycle engine racing cars so popular in the early post war period. In the intervening years since the 500 Club was formed it has had two name changes, first changing to the Half-Litre Club, then finally the British Racing Sports Car Club (BRSCC). He also joined the British Racing Driver’s Club (BRDC) in 1949 which runs Silverstone – the traditional home of the British Grand Prix in England’s Northhamptonshire county. In both clubs he attained long standing committee positions – having held the position of President for the BRDC and Vice-President for the BRSCC. He also holds the position of Honorary President for England’s Mini Cooper Register.

In late 1998, putting their confidence into the Mini’s future, both John and Mike Cooper developed the John Cooper Mini Centre at East Preston in West Sussex, not a huge distance from their Ferring business. An opportunity to expand the Mini theme and be in readiness for the new BMW inspired Mini due next year.

Recognition can be a long time coming and with modesty being a John Cooper trademark, he isn’t the sort of person to sit around waiting for it to arrive. But after more than 50 years officially involved in motor sport and a lifetime in reality, John Cooper’s Chrysler sponsored ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ given in recognition of his efforts to further the sport at the inaugural British Historic Motorsport Awards held on November 15th 1996 was more than well deserved. The icing on the cake though arrived with the announcement of the most recent New Year’s Honour’s List. Being bestowed Commander of the British Empire (CBE) by Queen Elizabeth. Accepting the medal from the Queen at Buckingham Palace on February 22nd this year. A very proud moment for a humble, great man in front of his children, Mike and Sally, and daughter-in-law Linda. To simply say it was deserved is an understatement of the highest degree.

On a personal note, I have been fortunate to have met my hero – John Cooper CBE on more than one occasion. First time we met was at Mini 35 at Silverstone in 1994. Followed by a special trip to Ferring during the 1994 trip to England with John Parnell of Original Mini Cooper & Cooper S book fame. One could not find a more accommodating man who makes every Mini enthusiast welcome. Since then I have caught up with the great man during my 1997 visit to England, presenting him with a very special watercolour featuring John and his father, Charles with Jack Brabham driving his world championship-winning Cooper-Climax T53 and John Rhodes, demonstrating his giant tyre killing exploits in the works Cooper Car Co Cooper S. This watercolour painted by an artistic cousin of mine, Jodie Dalton was quite simply my way of saying thank you to a great man. And who knows if you visit Ferring one day you might just be able to view it.

As the salute concludes, I hope through the pages of this Classic Coopers series I have given you an insight into why the Cooper name attached to our Minis in so revered.

Stephen Dalton.