Designer who brought rear-engined drive to grand prix racing and put the
oomph into the Mini to make the car an icon of the Sixties.
WITH his father Charles, John Cooper was a pioneer of grand prix racing
the later 1950s, introducing principles of car design which re-drew the map
of Formula One. At a stroke their rear-engined Cooper-Climax cars, which
were first seen during the 1958 season, left the extant front-engined
Ferrari and Maserati designs floundering in the their wake and, with Jack
Brabham at the wheel, went on to take two successive F1 world championship
titles in 1959 and 1960.
In his own right John Cooper is remembered as the man who designed the
Mini-Cooper, the tiny high-performance saloon which became the motoring icon
of the Swinging Sixties. Film stars, junior royalty, society debs and rock
stars all clamoured to lay hands on this precocious little performer, whose
1,275cc engine developed a reputation for leaving the majestic 3.4 and 3.8
litre Jaguars standing still at the traffic lights.
The Mini Cooper became the urban bandit, its front-wheel drive - reversing
the F1 trend which had made the Cooper name in the first place - giving it
awesome traction and road-holding qualities. Tom Wolfe wrote breathlessly
about it in his celebrated essay London Teenage Society Girl. It achieved
apotheosis in the 1969 film The Italian Job, which is these days remembered
less for its star, Michael Caine, than for an astonishing escape sequence in
which robbers, fleeing with a haul of gold bullion, drive their Mini Coopers
on a breathless chase through the Turin streets, seeming to defy the laws of
gravity, space and time as they do so.
John Cooper was born in 1923, the son of Charles Cooper, an industrious and
inventive engineer and businessman who worked at Brooklands in the heyday of
motor racing at the famous circuit and established his own works at
Surbiton, Surrey, in the 1920s.
Educated at Surbiton County School, John grew up steeped in the world of
motor racing, first taking up an apprenticeship with one of his father's
companies, before going on to work for a toolmaker who specialised in
equipment for the Royal Navy. He himself spent the war as an aircraft
In 1946 the Coopers produced their first joint design, a Formula Three car
powered by a 500cc motor cycle engine, which John drove and demonstrated.
The project proved an immediate success and laid the foundations for their
subsequent commercial car racing business. The tiny single seater racer
became instantly popular, among its customers being Stirling Moss, Peter
Collins and Harry Schell.
As orders for the car flowed in Cooper co-raced the works car at meetings in
Britain and on the Continent. His first successes were at the Formula Three
race at Rouen, France, in 1951, and he went on to score victory at the
perilous Avus track in Berlin later that year. He returned to Rouen to a
second Formula Three victory in the following year.
Within six years of entering racing car manufacture the Cooper business had
a flouriushing output of Formula Two and Formula Three cars and John Cooper
quitted the circuit to become racing manager. In the meantime, Cooper cars
continued to make an impact. Mike Hawthorn - later to become Britain's first
F1 world champion - learnt his trade as an international driver in a Formula
But it was the year 1958 which made the international grand prix circuit
really look up. Stirling Moss, winning the Argentine Grand Prix in a
privately entered rear-engined 2.2 litre Cooper-Climax, demonstrated that a
technical revolution was taking place. Thanks to the superb handling he was
able to run the race without a pitstop for tyres, and the Ferrari team could
only watch and wonder.
In the following year, in a 2.5 litre works Cooper-Climax, Jack Brabham won
the F1 world championship while Cooper took the manufacturer's title. They
repeated the feat the following year.
Other F1 manufacturers were not slow to learn the Cooper lesson, and with
massive resources at their disposal, teams like the rival Lotus were able to
go rear-engined and make up the leeway on the Cooper works in a remarkably
short time. Cooper senior did not help his cause by running too tight a ship
and refusing to countenance expenditure on anything he did not consider
vital for the immediate future. John Cooper was keen to invest in a
longer-term future, with ideas that could be expensive to fund. Quarrels
between father and son were frequent. In the meantime Colin Chapman at Lotus
had seized the crown from Cooper and reeled off a series of stunning
Cooper's influence on Formula One steadily declined and after his father's
death in 1964 John Cooper sold out to Chipstead Garages. The team, which
continued to bear the Cooper name, continued to have some success under its
new ownership: John Surtees won the Mexican Grand Prix in a Cooper-Maserati
in 1966 and in 1967 Pedro Rodriguez triumphed in the South African Grand
In the meantime, Cooper had suggested to the British Motor Corporation,
manufacturer of the Mini, and the revolutionary car's designer, Alec
Issigonis, that a high-performance version of the car could not fail to have
appeal. Issigonis was at first sceptical, but Cooper was persuasive. Soon
the "cheep and cheerful" Mini was undergoing a ferocious transformation,
with first the Mini Cooper and then the Mini Cooper S establishing
themselves as the fastest and most rugged minicars in the world. The Mini
Cooper won the Monte Carlo Rally three times and was the first British car
to win the European Rally Championships. Among celebrity owners of these
Cooper-engineered Minis were Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Peter Sellers and
King Hussein of Jordan.
BMC continued producing Mini Coopers until 1971, by which time 150,000 had
been built. But John Cooper Garages was in the 1980s supplying Cooper
conversion kits to a new generation of enthusiasts in Japan. The company
also worked alongside Rover to re-engineer the car.
Cooper retired to the Sussex coast where he operated a small garage
business. He was appointed CBE for his services to British motor racing last
He is survived by his wife Paula and by a son and a daughter. A second
daughter predeceased him.
John Cooper, CBE, automobile engineer, was born on July 17, 1923. He died on
December 24 aged 77.