A warm welcome to Greg Smith, Australian racer/engineer who is writing ‘A Trilogy of Australian Specials’, on cars which captured his imagination, the first of which is the Cooper MG…
Greg is a gentleman (some would dispute that descriptor!) of a certain age, suffice to say he started competing before mufflers were mandatory and seat belts were worn at the drivers own discretion!
An historic racing engineer based in Bayside Melbourne, he has had a successful career restoring and preparing cars as diverse as a 1904 TT Maudslay to a 1967 Quad Cam Ford V8 Indycar. He lists his highlights as his years working on ERA’s and GP Bugattis, looking after a 6CM Maserati for a season and multiple preparation and management jobs at the Mille Miglia and Tour Auto modern classics.
Greg has competed at , been a mechanic at, or team manager at, over sixty different venues world-wide, but declares his enduring passion as front engined ‘Australian Specials’ and local tracks.
Definition: An ‘Australian Special’ is a racing or sports car, most commonly built by an impecunious owner/driver from gathered parts and assemblies, then engineered to reflect his own thoughts, abilities and intellectual property to the point where no two are alike and every one has its own hallmarks, eccentricities and foibles-unique vehicles indeed.
In this trilogy I’ll write about three cars which have passed through, or remain in my ownership.They have given me great pleasure during my 40 odd years involved in Historic Racing and, as you will see, are all front engined and constructed prior to 1960.
The Cooper MG…
This amazing ‘giant killer’ of a little car started out life as an example of that most mundane genre of racing vehicle, a factory production car!!
It was delivered as a JAP 8/80 engined long wheel base Mark IV Cooper and was a very early example, maintaining the forged Fiat Topolino 500 lower wishbones. It was the factory demonstrator for Cooper Car Distributors in Melbourne, Australia and had some early success when lent to noted driver, Arthur Wylie. In 1952 it was sold to George Pearse of Sydney who ran it consistently for two years in its original form.
So far nothing ‘Special’ about it. George, a renowned tinkerer and engineer, had other ideas though.
The Cooper, although a light and sure footed mount, lacked the punch, power and acceleration of George’s previous car, a supercharged MG-TC square rigger which George retained.
Why not an amalgamate the cars and get the best of both worlds, he thought?
George un-bolted the J.A.Prestwich power unit from the rear of the chassis, shoehorned his blown MG-TC motor and gearbox into the front of it and moved himself rearwards!! A Ford V8 diff with a pre-war American style Casales three pinion drop box on the front allowed the driver to sit low and took the power out to the original Cooper drive and suspension.
Brakes and wheels remained the same at 8” diameter and 15” diameter X 2 ½” wide respectively, the whole was clothed in a light weight alloy body of agricultural, but pleasing proportions.
George debuted his new creation at Bathurst in October 1955 and lapped in 3:04.5, slower than the Cooper Bristols and the V12 OSCA, but still a contender on this oh-so-fast road circuit!
A ‘smack’ at the AGP circuit at Southport led to the sale of the car, in damaged form, to Sydney speedway exponent and Offenhauser guru Ray Revell. Ray set to and replaced the Cooper box chassis with a spaceframe of his own design whilst using all the remaining serviceable components and upgrading to a stronger Peugeot 203 alloy rack and pinion.
He had it back on song and entered for Bathurst in October 1956.
Now looking like a true ‘Special’ it was within seconds of the big ex-Bira OSCA and the D type Jaguar.
Ray eventually moved on to an Offenhauser powered Fiat and sold the car to up and coming Queenslander Lionel Ayers who lengthened the nose and added a more Vanwall type screen. He also fitted a 1500cc XPEG engine with a steel crank, Italian Nardi conrods and a Laystall-Lucas alloy head. This was all fed by a new Marshall J100 blower set up to deliver 22lb boost.
Ayers had great success with the car and raced it on equal terms with Jaguar D Type, Lotus 12, Repco-Holden and Ferrari cars.
The car was fitted with the larger Cooper Bristol brakes and wheels when the donor car (the WM Cooper) got its disc brakes and wobbly wheels, and prior to its sale to Hugh Gilroy about 1962.
Don Webster was the next owner and he did a prosaic re-commissioning of the car, running it in an emasculated form with twin 1 ¼’’ SU’s. It was in this form I first saw the car at the inaugural ‘All Historic’ Lakeside meeting in 1978.
During after race festivities I asked if I could try it on for size and once I was in, I wasn’t getting out until a purchase was completed!!
Imagine my delight when it was delivered to my home 1200 miles away in Melbourne when it was discovered that the garbage bag in the driver’s seat contained all the original supercharger, manifolds and drive which had not even been mentioned during our negotiations! A complete restoration commenced immediately and the car took me, and subsequent owners, Ross Hodgson and Brian Gerrard to many victories in the ensuing days of historic racing in this country.
The car is still extant in slightly modified form but new owner, Graeme Louk, is enthusiastically returning it to its correct historic specification and recently had his first outing with it to great acclaim by all as it was 22 years since its last appearance.
From a handling perspective the car had early ‘Cooper flop’ side to side with negative/positive camber change but if you divorced that seeming death wish from your left brain and just drove the car, it handled very predictably. The 10″ brakes were superb and initial understeer could easily be overcome by power application.
The supercharged engines torque was adequate and with only 3 1/2″ rims running Dunlop 4.50-L- 15 tyres, wheelspin and grip had to be closely managed, not the least reason being the cost of tyres!
The best, and most memorable feature of the car was being able to go one gear deeper into a corner, and brake one marker later than cars it competed against. This delivered rewards time after time.
Chassis; a lightweight centrally disposed monoposto spaceframe front engine racing car.
Suspension; All independently sprung using transverse leaf springs centrally located on bolted towers of the early type but not modulated in roll by the later roller support system.
Front lower wishbones are Fiat Topolino. The top shocker points were relocated by me from under the spring in 1978, the original front sway bar is still fitted.
The rear lower wishbones are Fiat Topolino with the original light series 1100 Hardy Spicer shafts increased to 1300 series. The original style rear sway bar is fitted to the car.
Steering; 203 Peugeot rack and pinion
During my ownership 1360cc (previously, in period and now again, 1500cc) it was fitted with an iron head (previously ,in period, and now again an alloy head is fitted)
My last dyno sheet from 1978 says we achieved 142 BHP at 12 lb boost and 9.3:1 static compression but I think camshaft technology will have eclipsed that figure, although it was sparkling in the day.
‘In period’ the car ran stub exhausts but an extractor system and muffler are now fitted for modern competition.
Transmission; The original Ford V8 diff and drop box were replaced by me with a Halibrand unit in 1978, the original is still in my possession
The original panels include the tail, sides, bonnet and the later model fibreglass nose. A driver roll over bar and seat belts have been fitted.
Checkout this wonderful YouTube footage of Gnoo Blas, Orange, NSW…
Look carefully in the first two minutes of the footage for Pearse’s elegant, red, Cooper MG #18 which appears quite a few times.
‘Bathurst: Cradle of Australian Motor Racing’, Turton & Armstrong , John Medley
‘Historic Racing Cars in Australia’ , Turton & Armstrong, John B.Blanden
Lionel Ayers, public domain article, TR0003, Stephen Dalton, Robert Davies
Authors archive-Greg Smith
Finito: Next article in this series soon features Wal Anderson’s 1957 Repco-Lotus-Holden sports-racer…