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John Cooper, Father Of Modern Race Car, Dies

by Larry Roberts

January 1, 2001

It probably won't make it to the evening sports news on television but John Cooper, the father of the modern single-seater race car, died last week at the age of 77 at his home in England.

And how ironic that the best-known vehicle to bear his name is the Austin Mini Cooper which is not a race car at all but a minuscule British econobox sedan that he developed as a sideline.

The reason for Cooper's notoriety in racing circles is that he was the first modern constructor to take the engine out of the front-mounted engine bay and put it behind the driver. Prior to this relocation of the powerplant, international Formula One cars, Indianapolis racers and virtually all other forms of open-wheel racing had forward-mounted engines. Cooper was a pioneer whose design parameters have been adopted by almost every race car builder in the world.

Cooper's beginnings in the race car business were humble. He and Eric Brandon, another car designer of note, put together a tiny four-wheeled single-seater for the British-only Formula 3 circuit that was the only type of racing that amateur and professional race enthusiasts could afford at the end of World War II. The duo constructed a chassis using parts salvaged from a tiny Italian Fiat "Topolino" sedan and installed a JAP Speedway motorcycle and transmission behind the driver's cramped cockpit. The car was an instant success and many future champions like Jack Brabham and Sterling Moss got their starts behind the wheel of Cooper's tiny racers. Even the current Formula One impresario Bernie Ecclestone owned and raced one in the '50s.

Unlike many of the contemporary Formula 3 builders of that era, Cooper entered into more prestigious racing venues when he elaborated on the rear-engined theme and put larger four-cylinder Coventry-Climax converted pump engines into a tubular space frame of his own design. Steve Froines, a friend and long-time Cooper race car restorer, told me that in those early days, the Cooper "works" mechanics eschewed formal blueprints and simply laid out a chassis on the concrete floor, cut and bent steel tubing to match and welded them together using the chalk "template" as a pattern.

But if the methods used were simplistic, the successes were dramatic. When he first entered into the heady world of Grand Prix racing with the enlarged but still small cars, the establishment laughed. But the successes gained by Cooper drivers soon had Ferrari, Lotus, and the rest putting their engines behind the driver.

Cooper's rear-engined design first appeared at the Indianapolis 500 in 1960, when Brabham placed his grossly underpowered Formula One Cooper into eighth place among the then all-conquering front-engined sprint car-type cars. Within a few years there were no front-engined cars at the Indy 500.

Although John Cooper stepped out of racing in 1965, his name is destined to be recognized by at least a generation of upcoming American BMW buyers. That German company now owns the Austin Mini name and will soon begin marketing an updated and very upscale version of that little British sedan.

The name that BMW has selected to introduce the car under is the Mini Cooper. It's a fitting memorial to the man who changed the configuration of open-wheel racing.