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Brabham's Cooper debuting among the all-conquering Mercs



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Jack Brabham, Leslie Marr, Harry Schell


Cooper-Bristol T40 CB/1/55, Connaught-Alta B3 (self-entered), Vanwall VW2




1955 British GP


In 1955, the Cooper Car Company built a sportscar that would forever change the face of motor racing. Charles and John Cooper's tiny concern from Surbiton had already enjoyed considerable success with its little 500cc Formula 3 racer and, with a fast-growing order book, the father-and-son duo turned their attentions to building the small, affordable 1100cc Cooper T39 "Bob-tail". Designed around the new Climax FeatherWeight Automotive (FWA) engine, the car would be driven by barely 75bhp, and all at Cooper realized the importance of reducing both the overall weight of the new car and its aerodynamic drag.

The solution they came up with was a simple one: like the little Formula 500, they would put the new engine in the back. It was to prove dramatically successful, sold in substantial numbers to private entrants at an initial price of £1350 and turned out to be the only serious challenger to Lotus in the 1100 cc and 1500 cc sportscar classes.

The basis of the new car was a chassis formed by four main tubular members of 1.5" 18-gauge steel, curving downwards and inwards at the front and rear with tubular bracing hoops extending to full body width immediately ahead and aft of the cockpit area. The driver's seat was on the centre-line of the car (a layout first used by Kieft on their sports/racing cars) with the passenger seat to the left. The weight of the chassis frame was a mere 65 lb. Front and rear suspension followed familiar Cooper practice - transverse leaf springs with single tubular lower wishbones and Armstrong telescopic dampers. These leaf springs were clamped between rollers at their outboard ends. Cooper rack-and-pinion steering was used and the first cars had the same tiny 8" brakes as fitted to the Cooper Formula 3 cars. The Climax engine, developing 75bhp at 6200rpm, was mounted behind the rear bracing hoop on the centre-line of the car and drove through a hydraulically operated Borg & Beck 7.25" single dry-plate clutch and a French CitroŽn front-wheel-drive gearbox. This gearbox was turned about and used the special 4-speed close ratio gears and shafts made by ERSA, a Paris firm, as a conversion for production CitroŽns. The gear lever was mounted on a tube welded to the chassis tubing to the right of the cockpit and operated the gearbox through rods and levers. Drive to the rear wheels was by Hardy-Spicer shafts.

Although inspired by the record-breaking Formula 3 cars, the body was much stubbier, with a cut-off tail having a concave rear panel. The aerodynamic advantages of the cut-off tail had been advocated before the Second World War by Professor Kamm, and although this style of tail was usually known as the "Kamm tail", the Coopers were more familiarly referred to as "Manx-tail" or "Bob-tail". Let's hear designer Owen Maddock about it: "I'd been reading somewhere about this German aerodynamicist Professor Kamm and his theories about cutting off the rear of an aerofoil and making the airflow mimic its shape, so you get as low drag as with a long trailing section without the extra material and inconvenience it entailed. I don't think John (Cooper) ever really approved of its looks, but he told everybody we had to cut it off because it wouldn't fit in the transporter otherwise, and everybody was happy."

The rear of the Cooper body featured a combined headrest and sleek hump to clear the engine with a bulge for the carburetor intake on the left side of the hump. The whole of the rear of the body opened rearwards and the whole of the front, including the decking of the right-hand side of the cockpit, hinged forwards. To the left of the cockpit was a two-piece drop-down door, there was a wrap-round windscreen and a full-length undertray attached by Dzus fasteners. The radiator was in the nose of the car and hinged with it, but the header tank was bolted to the headrest above the engine. Standard fuel capacity was 8 gallons in an aluminium tank mounted just behind the right front wheel, but a 14-gallon tank could be substituted for longer races.

Ivor Bueb drove the works' first Bob-tail in its debut race on Easter Monday at Goodwood in 1955. The little rear-engined 1100 finished third after an early battle with two 1500cc Connaughts (driven by Les Leston and Ken McAlpine) before they drew away. Several other 1500s were left in its wake. A second works Bob-tail was completed for Jim Russell and the first customer car was sold to Tommy Sopwith (who also raced a Cooper-Jaguar). Sopwith also ordered a second car, which was fitted with the 1484 cc Connaught engine. In practice for May's Silverstone race, Bueb lapped faster than all other 1100 and 1500 cars and in the race he equalled Archie Scott-Brown's fastest 2-litre lap with the Lister-Bristol. The Bob-tail performed admirably, its power-to-weight ratio and balance proving to be more than a match for its rivals.

Meanwhile, a dark-tanned taciturn young man named Jack Brabham had arrived in Britain, and he had been hurling the ex-Whitehead Cooper-Alta (T24) round in wild and wooly style. He had made his British debut at Easter Goodwood. Gregor Grant wrote then: "This Aussie is certainly a presser-onner and possesses remarkable control over his car. More will be heard of this young gentleman." He then drove hard for fourth place at Ibsley in the New Forest only for the Alta engine to break before the finish; so he brought a Bristol unit to replace it. The Bristol engine was fitted and the broken Alta returned to Geoffrey Taylor for repair. Meanwhile he joined the Cooper team more or less by osmosis. John Cooper explains: "He didn't so much start working for us as just start working with us. He just began coming in more often, and we got used to having him around. He acted as a kind of fitter-cum-welder-cum-driver and he was bloody good at all of it."

Brabham was keen to build a Formula 1 version of the Bob-tail around a 2-litre six cylinder Bristol engine. The Bob-tail frame had the wheelbase increased by two inches to accommodate the long Bristol engine, with first gear removed from the Bristol gearbox (the power-to-weight ratio was such that first gear was superfluous) and without all the road-going sports equipment such as lighting. Brabham entered his car in the British Grand Prix at Aintree, but although it was supposed to have an enlarged 2.2-litre engine as fitted to Bob Gerard's front-engined Cooper-Bristol single-seater, it ran in 2-litre form (although appearing in the programme as a 2.2-litre).

The F1 Special was completed in a frantic rush the night before the Grand Prix at Aintree. On the morning of the race the clutch failed and Brabham raced it clutchless until it expired through overheating. The Cooper-Bristol did little to catch the attention of onlookers that day, for few could have known or guessed this not too nicely finished sportscar would lead the way for Grand Prix racing for the rest of the century. It was what one might call a rather inauspicious start.

Subsequently this Cooper-Bristol T40 was properly sorted and at Snetterton in August Brabham drove a fine race with the Cooper-Bristol in the Formula 1 event, battling with Stirling Moss's Maserati 250F for third place until he spun off, restarting to finish fourth. After running the car in other British events such as Brands, Charterhall and Crystal Palace, the pale-green car and Jack Brabham went to Australia, winning the Australian Grand Prix and finishing second (to Whitehead's Ferrari) in the South Pacific Road Race Championship. He sold the car on and returned to Europe where he was to become an important element in the restructuring of motor racing.

By 1957, a new, internationally recognized Formula 2 class was about to be given the go-ahead and the Coopers, already so successful with the 500cc F3 racers, saw at once the commercial opportunities that came with an off-the-peg F2 car. The Bob-tail chassis was retouched once again by designer Owen Maddock to take a 1.5-litre Coventry-Climax engine and some sleek single-seater bodywork. This new car (codenamed Mark I) was raced by Roy Salvadori at Silverstone in a British GP support race and the car lived up to expectations, taking pole and winning by over 30 seconds. What happened next is history.

Reader's Why by Gerald Swan

Although no one was to know it at the time the leading car in this group was to begin the development of one of F1's great revolutions as well as featuring the debut of one of racing's legendary drivers.

Just after the end of the Second World War in 1946 the green shoots of motor racing began to reappear with just two major problems holding it back, firstly there was a shortage of cars, secondly there was a shortage of money and materials. So it was that father and son Charles and John Cooper began to look around for something suitable to provide employment at their garage at Surbiton in Surrey, England. They decided that the newly formed 500cc class had potential. Suggested by a number of enthusiasts during the war, the formula provided for a four-wheeled chassis powered by 500cc motorcycle engines that would cost about £150 thus making it a viable option for the enthusiastic and/or penniless home builder.

The Coopers were shrewd enough to realise that for every one person with the knowledge and facilities to produce such a machine there might be ten others without the time or ability to do it who would be prepared to pay for a cheap competitive proprietary chassis. Fate decreed that at that time the Coopers had a Fiat Topolino it their yard that had a badly damaged rear end. John Cooper realised the independently suspended front had great possibilities, and after some thought he realised that another Topolino front could be used as a rear end on the racing chassis. After locating another accident-damaged example, the two front ends were butt-welded back to back, now for a power plant. J.A. Prestwich was a well known name in tuning speedway motorbike engines and his JAP engines were used in many applications (John drove a Morgan 3 wheeler with a JAP engine), one of his lightweight air-cooled alcohol-burning 40 bhp engines was obtained and fitted, the Cooper Mark 1 was born. Both John Cooper and Eric Brandon used the car in a number of hillclimbs and sprint races and despite some initial teething troubles it was successful enough for there to be a number of orders for customer cars.

Such was their success that by 1948 young drivers such as Stirling Moss and Peter Collins were winning races in these new fangled Coopers. With a policy of bringing out an improved version every year so that, for example, the Mk6 of 1952 had a tubular frame and the Mk9 of 1955 had disc brakes added, Coopers ensured a ready market for themselves. So successful were these cars that between 1951 and 1954 Cooper won 64 out of 78 major races. Ever looking for new markets Cooper began to build sports cars as well with varying engines, for instance, both MG and Jaguar were employed, further 2-litre single-seaters were built, the Bristol engine being a popular choice although the Alta was also used, notably by Stirling Moss.

It was in 1955 that Sir Jack Brabham was to enter the picture and at that time no one could possibly have envisioned what was to happen. Born on 12th April 1926 in Hurstville near Sydney, Australia, Brabham was demobbed from the Royal Australian Air Force in 1947 where he had trained as a mechanic. As well as running his own engineering workshop (where he would first encounter Ron Tauranac) Brabham began a successful racing career in a number of classes. After winning the Australian Speedway title from 1948 to 1951 Jack went onto win the Australian hillclimb title in 1953. After racing a Mk 4 Cooper- JAP Jack purchased a Cooper-Bristol and showed his shrewd business sense by getting Redex sponsorship for the car. Sadly though, being ahead of his time, the Australian sporting authorities made him remove the identification. With this car Jack came 2nd in the 1953 New Zealand GP and 4th in 1955.

Realising if he wanted to further his career England was the place to be, Jack sold the Redex Special and departed Australia in 1955. On arrival in the UK Jack bought the ex-Peter Whitehead Cooper-Alta, a major mistake as the engine proved very unreliable. Ultimately Jack fitted a Bristol power plant but by then circumstances had changed. The Coopers were developing an 1100cc sportscar for the Coventry Climax FWA engine. Designed by Owen Maddock it consisted of four main longerons with transverse bracing hoops, transverse leaf springs were fitted front and rear with tubular lower wishbones and Armstrong shock absorbers, also used were fabricated steel uprights. Cooper rack and pinion steering was fitted together with drum brakes although discs were being considered if they became cheaper!

The gearbox was a modified reversed Citroen traction avant modified by ERSA of Paris. An aluminium body covered the centre seat chassis with the rear cut off sharply, giving the car its nickname of Bob-Tail or Manx-Tail (the Manx cat from the Isle Of Man in England has no tail). By this time Brabham had become part of the Cooper team by virtue of constantly helping the team as an unpaid mechanic. As John Cooper realised how much Brabham knew he began to listen to him more and more so that when Jack suggested an F1 variant of the Bob-Tail fitted with a 2-litre six cylinder Bristol engine, Cooper was willing to let Brabham use the works facilities and chassis jig to construct the car.

Eventually the car was finished the night before the GP at Aintree, on race morning a failed clutch meant Jack starting from the back of the grid. He raced around keeping out of everybody's way until the engine overheated and Jack retired from the first race of a rear-engined GP Cooper. The beginning of a revolution?

In 1957 Jack joined the Cooper works team and their rear-engined GP cars, in 1959 he won the Monaco GP and then the British GP and became World Champion and the writing was on the wall for the front engined car, only Ferrari hanging out for as long as possible. Soon every GP team was running rear-engined cars. In 1960 Jack would be World Champion again, winning the Dutch, Belgian, French, British and Portuguese GPs. In 1961 Jack would take a 2.7-litre Cooper to Indianapolis and finish 9th, a result that shook the Indianapolis teams to the core and began the rear-engined revolution in America.

Jack would of course leave Cooper's to set up his own GP team in 1962 and win the World Championship again in 1966, the first driver to do so in a car bearing his own name. The Brabham GP team would go on to many other triumphs even after Jack left.

To briefly mention the other two drivers in the photograph, Leslie Marr, born 14th August 1922 in Durham, England, was a professional artist who raced his private Connaught extensively. He finished 13th in the 1954 British GP and was to retire this year, 1955, with brake problems after qualifying 19th. Harry Schell was an American. Although he was born in Paris (29th June 1921) of a French father, he was known for being what today would be described as a party animal but he was nevertheless a more than competent driver. He drove Maseratis, Ferraris, Coopers and BRMs as well as Vanwall. It was in fact his excellent drive at Reims in 1956 that showed Vanwall was a force to be reckoned with. He took part in 55 GPs and finished 9th in this, the 1955 British GP.