For many of us, it’s probably difficult to imagine life in the immediate post-war with the hardships placed on society by the hostilities – dependant upon our age of course. Certainly many of our parents and grand-parents had a frugal existence for at least the first 10 years after WW2 ended. A family with a car was an exception, not the rule. The point of having a car made even more difficult with fuel rationing. So to be involved in motor sport wasn’t often on too many people’s minds, but it was on 2 young enthusiasts, one of whom could tap into his dad’s vast experience. It of course, also helped they had the right connections. But things could have been a lot different if the original intent of building a ‘mud plugging’ Trials special had eventuated.
To indulge in such motor sporting pleasures in early post-war a few quid no doubt helped. Eric Brandon, then 25, with access to his family’s Halsey’s Electrical business could help there. He was almost 3 years to the day older than his toolmaker mate, John Cooper, 22, and his experienced 52yo dad, Charles with their Surbiton Garage facilities at their disposal. But after hours! This meant mud plugging was quickly scratched from the agenda when Cooper junior was exposed to what would become ‘The 500 Club’ movement. Having only come into the thoughts of a group of Bristol Aeroplane Co Motor Sports Club enthusiasts nearing the end of 1945 and slightly later the concept gained publicity in the pages of 3rd April 1946 The Motor.
Seventy years ago in 1946, circuit racing was in limbo and needing to find a proper home again. There had been an event in North London’s Cockfosters estate, prior to its full development on 14th July 1945. But the likes of Goodwood, Silverstone, et al were still pipe dreams for enterprising Motor Clubs to demob from the War Ministry. Until such, Hillclimbing and Sprints, or Speed Trials as they tended to be called had to suffice. So the ‘Coopers got coopering’ and between them turned out their interpretation of a small 500cc racing car after the odd favour was forthcoming. Not least getting ones hands on a Speedway JAP engine and rear end damaged Fiat Topolinos to graft the salvaged front end/suspension from the baby Fiats together. One of which was supplied by a man, who would also build racing cars, John Heath of HWM.
The 5 week effort to build the prototype of what would be the two early JAP motorcycle-engined Cooper specials saw Eric & John each have a birthday just prior to the shared competition debut of the new Cooper special at the 27th & 28th July 1946 Prescott Hillclimb. However, in the run up to the event (Friday 26th) that rascal John, with Cooper Garages’ trade plate ‘307 PD’ took the prototype for a spin and caused a bit of a racket around Surbiton. Even so, it wasn’t enough to stop the Cooper special’s Prescott debut going without hiccups, nor another that would follow. Just 500cc of J A Prestwich, Charles Cooper-breathed upon ‘Speedway’ JAP engine produced enough torque to set forth a series of engine mount failures and head scratching to solve it from continuing to happen. Also at the July Prescott meeting, John fluffed a gearchange and bent a valve. They were however, young, keen and although not the first within the ‘The 500 Club’ movement to create their own cars, one of the very earliest to have a car running. Just two 500s built and ran before the Cooper. In the process meaning they were about to get noticed and soon there was plans afoot to help make motor sport easier to be a part of.
Essentially John and Eric’s 1946 events with the Cooper special consist of 4 events. That 1st Prescott, followed by another 31st August event with further engine mounting issues as previously mentioned. Their 3rd event was the 7th September Brighton Speed Trials on Madeira Drive. Early that morning bringing on another of John’s Kingston by-pass tests! As he stated in an April 47 IOTA feature “It was a joy to be alive though the occupants of the houses probably thought otherwise, and I believe blamed the “Hellish” racket on to Jeff Taylor whose works are situated nearby and who was also racing at Brighton that day.” Jeff was in fact Geoffrey Taylor, who built Alta racing cars in the area and getting the blame that time. But no doubt the locals would soon learn who the real culprits were as they spotted Cooper racing cars on their streets and by-ways in the years to come!
Brighton showed promise with their efforts to iron out the bugs in the Cooper special when both John and Eric ran entry #29 Cooper in two classes. John in the ‘Racing Cars up to 850cc’ – that he duly won with a 35.81 second run over the 1 kilometre course. Eric running the ‘Racing Cars up to 1100cc’ for a 4th place in class. Amongst their fellow competitors were Alec Issigonis and George Dowson with their Lightweight special and Marcus Chambers running his Austin. A name or two, part of BMC and Mini folklore. ‘Issi’ came second to Cooper and Dowson won the 1100 class.
The fourth 1946 meeting for John and Eric was the 15th September, West Court Speed Trails – run by the Hants & Berks Motor Club at Finchhampstead. That day dawned with hostile reception from Cooper senior when awoken by Eric breaking a manhole cover in the process of loading up the car below Charles Surbiton Garage flat. Despite his threats of damage to the Cooper special, West Court became a successful day for John & Eric. The full entry list reads as a who’s who of British motor sport of the day and into its future – Sydney Allard, Roy Salvadori, Daniel Richmond and Ken Wharton to name a select few.
With 13 entrants in Class 5 (Racing Cars up to 1100cc) and what appear to be 10 starters, John and Eric did themselves proud with the following times.
58 J Cooper Cooper Special 498 1st run 25.7; 2nd run 24.73
60 E Brandon Cooper Special 498 1st run 27.66; 2nd run 24.42
Giving a few other drivers and larger class cars a fright, because they too could only muster 24 point something second passes at best. After this, enthusiasm down Surbiton way was on a high.
So by the end of 1946, the 500 Club was gaining popularity. In ‘The Sporting Side’ feature of the 8th January 1947 The Motor, there’s a piece titled ‘The 500 Virus’ stating the Club already has a membership of 247 with 67 cars under construction. Garnered so successfully because of the club’s ethos to help amateur racing car builders get started.
Showing some of his astute ways, Charles Cooper knew that not everybody had the wherewithal to build a racing car. So Cooper’s made mention in early April 1947 of their intent to start production to ‘make hay’ of this 500 virus. At the time they were in the process of completing a small streamlined sports car with a Triumph motorcycle engine and Eric Brandon’s own slightly tweaked second version of the prototype Cooper special. A couple of the ever so slightly visible differences between each car being the nose/grille treatment, slightly different in shape to #1 and more sloped placement of the grille. While on #1’s there is 2 spaced dimples under the grille area and on its RHS cockpit area there’s a lever poking through the bodywork and Eric’s car doesn’t feature this. The head fairing on each of the engine covers differ too, on #1 it looks like an afterthought and on Eric’s it’s made to be there, plus dimensionally smaller. There was also a lone inch added to the wheelbase of Eric’s car to accommodate his frame a little easier. As best I can find this car made a brief appearance with #1 on the Saturday of the 2 day, 26th – 27th April 1947 Prescott practice meeting and there’s photographic evidence of them together at the 11th May 1947 Prescott meeting. Around that time there was also a bit of publicity for the Cooper-Triumph sports car in the pages of 23rd April 1947 issue of The Motor and a month later in The Autocar.
Events-wise 1947 brought forth more variety of events, seeing John and Eric criss-crossing England. But in the main that’s not what this feature is about. It’s just a reminder of the efforts those 3 men and their little ‘childs car’ – that some press christened it at the time – played 70 years ago in creating what many Cooper racing car and Mini Cooper enthusiasts enjoy to this day. We know who got the last laugh! Retrospectively, in Cooper model ‘Type-number’ code, the Cooper special prototype became T2, Brandon’s T3 and the Cooper-Triumph T4. With the T1 title entrusted to the Cooper-Austin 7 special of 1935 – John’s 12th birthday present.
This Saturday, 30th July there is a special 70th anniversary meeting being held at Prescott Hillclimb to celebrate Cooper. https://www.prescott-hillclimb.com/
Special thanks to Stephen Dalton for writing the article and use of images from his collection
The Motor, MotorSport, British Pathe, Sutton Images, Iota, Dacre Stubbs Collection/Martin Stubbs
Tailpiece: Dwarfed by the 1904 Mercedes 18/28, John Cooper sits in the 500-based, Cooper-Triumph T4 sports car at the 1947 Brighton Speed Trials (Dacre Stubbs / Martin Stubbs collection)