Jack’s Indy Cooper T54 Climax…

Posted: May 29, 2021 in Features
Tags: , , , , ,
(De Lespinay Collection)

Jack Brabham and John Cooper’s attack on the 1961 Indianapolis 500 took place on May 30, 1961. Lordy, that’s 60 years ago this weekend.

The story of their initial testing sortie in October 1960 in a GP T53, and Brabham’s problem-plagued ninth place in the race has been well told, not least in my piece in this week’s Auto Action #1811 https://autoaction.com.au/issues/auto-action-1811

Noddy Grohman giving the car a birthday after its qualifying run. Note the Dunlop wheels and tyres, more substantial roll-bar than the F1 equivalent, and big fuel tank on the left side (De Lespinay Collection)

David Friedman’s rare body-off shot shows the T54’s offset secrets- suspension, engine and gearbox, fuel tanks and driver. Transaxle is Cooper Knight C5S but with three, rather than the five speeds of the F1 spec ‘box (D Friedman)
Cooper receiving some Bear service before qualifying in May (De Lespinay Collection)

After the race, the star of the show was shipped back to the UK for a demonstration run at Silverstone, and then back to the car-owner, Jim Kimberly in the US. The Kleenex heir funded Cooper’s 500 attack.

The T54 at an SCCA Divisional meeting, Hillsborough, US in June 11, 1962. “Just after Kjell Qvale purchased the car…the Kimberly Cooper Spl lettering has been removed…at tis point the car had no engine, gearbox or driveshafts…(R Spencer)

Kimberley ordered two cars from Mickey Thompson for his ’63 Indy campaign, Kimberley sold 61-S-01, which had been on display in the Indy Museum for a little while, to Kjell Qvale, operator of British Motors in San Francisco.

Joe Huffaker, prominent engineer, suggested fitment of an Offy 4.2-litre DOHC, four-cylinder engine to the T54, this combination was potentially a race winning one.

Qvale sold Aston Martin amongst the suite of marques his British Motor Cars Ltd sold in San Francisco. He substituted the big, long, heavy – and as it turned out reliable but not powerful enough – Aston DOHC-six for the far more compact and suitable Offy four.

Joe Huffaker and Kjell Qvale with Cooper T54 Aston Martin in 1963, it looks pretty sleek from this angle (De Lespinay Collection)
Joe Huffaker contemplates the Aston Martin six, bulk, length and height. Chassis lengthened to accommodate it (De Lespinay Collection)
Rodriguez, T54 and crew for the obligatory Indy portrait shot (IMS)

Initial test laps at Indy by Ralph Liguori showed the Dunlop wheel/Firestone tyres combination was too weak, so cast Halibrands fitted with Firestones were substituted.

Later despite the best efforts of fizzy, fast Pedro Rodriguez at the wheel, the ungainly-looking car failed to make the qualifying cut.

The Cooper was the fastest thing through the corners, besting even the Clark and Gurney (Dunlop wheels and tyres) Lotus 29 Fords. The AM engine simply lacked the puff the company had promoted, Rodriguez’ qualifying speed was only 2mph than Brabham’s two years before despite better tyres.

The engine was returned to Newport-Pagnell, while the T54 was sold to a San Jose, California club-racer.

The photograph below shows the largely unmodified chassis, albeit fitted with a beefy roll-cage and nerf-bars for sprintcar use on the paved tracks of the northwest.

(De Lespinay Collection)

By 1966 T54 had changed hands a number of times. It was raced with a Maserati engine at Trenton and Phoenix, then Buick, Ford and Chev V8s in quick succession.

By 1976 the Cooper had morphed into a bizarre Chev-powered mid-engined sprintcar raced by Darryl Lopeman.

Cooper T54 Chev (De Lespinay Collection)

Under that mountain of sinful-ugliness (ya gotta admire the guys’s innovation however), “are the original chassis and suspension, brakes, shock absorbers, pedal-cluster, radiator, oil tank, dashboard, seat and plenty of other bits” wrote Phillippe de Lespinay, saviour and restorer of the car.

The car was crashed through a wooden wall at Spanaway Raceway, Washington due to a stuck throttle. While Lopeman was ok, the nose and both rear, magnesium uprights were damaged.

(De Lespinay Collection)
(De Lespinay Collection)

The T54 “reappeared in 1990 as a bad wreck” in Tacoma Washington, its main components were the basis of the rear-engined sprint car.

The remains of both (the wreck and sprint car) were bought by De Lespinay in partnership with Robert Arnold. The car was then rebuilt, including the original 2.7 Climax FPF, by De Lespinay, Thomas Beauchamp and Gene Crowe aided by detailed photographs taken in period, and provided by David Friedman, some of which are included within this article.

T54 parts acquired by De Lespinay (De Lespinay)
Brabham with T54 chassis in 1991, ample hole in 2.7 FPF block clear (De Lespinay)

The chassis survived “inside another car”, the engine parts were tracked down in Texas and in Colarado. The block was welded by renowned Indy engineer Quincy Epperly, then rebuilt by Gene Crowe at Steve Jennings Race Engines in California.

As much as possible of the original car was used. An indication of this is shown by the shot of the machine during its rebuild in California during March 1991 – with Jack Brabham inspecting progress – it was ready for Brabham to drive at the Monterey Historics six-months later.

After the best part of a quarter-century of ownership Lespinay sold the car five years ago, many of you will have seen it demonstrated in the US, the UK or the Gold Coast.

Brabham and Cooper reunited at the Monterey Historics (De Lespinay)

Etcetera…

(De Lespinay Collection)

Smiles, and relief all round. Jack has made the cut, Cooper and Rodger Ward – who had cajoled and bullied, in a caring kinda way, Cooper and Brabham into doing the initial Indy test in October 1960 – all looking happy with a hard won time. Look at that crowd.

Front suspension detail, upper and lower wishbones each side – but offset to the left. Adjustable Armstrong shock and coil springs. Oil tank aft of radiator, Alford and Alder upright just visible, so too the Cooper steering rack and roll bar.

Note fuel filler cap, fuel tank above the drivers knees and big soft crash-pad attached to steering wheel hub.

Just don’t think too hard about a very high speed frontal collision…

(B Tronolone)

Charlie and John Cooper taking in the Indy vibe.

A decade before they were knocking out Cooper Type 15 and 16s as fast as they could build them. Ten years later they had a couple of World Championships in their pockets, and the rest.

Who knows, if the planets had been aligned, shod with Firestone tyres and a trouble-free run they may have bagged Indy in ’61 too.

Fortune favours the brave. That, they most certainly were.

Jim Kimberley leaning in at left, Cooper up. Pit stop practice

(S Dalton Collection)

Beautiful portrait of Brabham and his F1 Cooper T53 Climax 2.5 FPF during the October 5-6 1960 initial test session at Indy.

Credits…

Phillippe de Lespinay’s tsrfcars.com website and Cooper T54 Facebook page

Time-Life, David Friedman, Roy Spencer, Bob Tronolone, Car and Driver, Stephen Dalton Collection, Grid

Tailpiece…

(Life)

What it was all about really.

Beating a great big car with a little itty-bitty-one. John Cooper in the T54 being pushed away from Rodger Ward’s Watson-Offy roadster after practicing some pitstops

Finito…

Comments
  1. David Zeunert says:

    Hi Mark,
    WOWEEEeeee What A Fantastic Article on Our Jack, combined with wonderful pics – Thanks Mark – David.

  2. andrew Sapiro says:

    yup its that time of (race) year saw the restored Cooper on the fairway at Amelia – 3(?) years ago with the Indy feature – took some photos – but the car was unfortunately all buttoned up – this article has some terrific source photos that I suppose Nye was unable to access for his Cooper bible – and as I’m American and old enough to have seen Andretti and Foyt race at the Trenton 300 – I’m embarrassed to admit that I am unfamiliar with the ON THE GRID publication! My Father put me to work at a fairly young age – I think I could have sprung for a copy for 50 cents – how long did the publication last ??

    • markbisset says:

      Cheers Andrew,
      Yes, tosspots like me have access to the internet those who wrote ‘the seminal defining books’, we all have in our libraries written in the seventies-nineties didn’t have.
      The history of every collectible racer on the planet has been debated online, and more or less agreed. Or not!
      As to the colour what would I know, I wasn’t there! To me, the small number of colour shots online are more green than blue, but its only a push of a photoshop mouse to change them.
      No idea about ‘On The Grid’ its one from my mate Stephen Dalton’s collection.
      Best of luck with the model, if you haven’t seen De Lespinay’s Facebook page you should have a gander; ‘Cooper-Climax Indy Car “Kimberly Special” Fan Page’, is the name to key into the FB search-engine.
      Mark

  3. Andy Sapiro says:

    almost forgot – plan to make a 24th scale replica – there is a very nice resin cast kit made by a kit maker fr Portugal – Fernando Pinto – the paint finish has long been a source of – well – disagreement – the color photographs in period are simply not good enough to nail the color – my impression from seeing the restored car is that I should just mix my favorite dark blue and dark green to taste and just go for it … any further thoughts ??

  4. Stephen says:

    Andy, On the Grid was 8 issues only (as shown is the final), then it morphed into Today’s Motor Sport. However, although there was 8 issues the November 60 issue never made the newstands (as you American folk say) because the printer burnt down.

    As for the Cooper T54 colour, yes dark blue and dark green can be hard to pick on aging colour photo/slides. The restorer and previous owner has argued for years that because of some blue he found on the bones of the car he started with, that was its original colour. I can in part understand why because back in the 1990s I had some involvement in an early Australian built Morris Cooper S restoration. It was a dark factory shade of British Racing Green and up in the internal roof frame (cant rail) there was overspray that made it look like dark blue. Although I should mention Marine blue was a dark blue colour BMC Australia also used on Cooper S at the time. Whatever the formula was it must have a fair degree of blue in the BRG. .

    If that doesn’t convince you towards green then there’s always the USAC specification document that states ‘COLOR OF CAR’ (typed) – GREEN (neatly written in)

    Stephen

  5. graham64 says:

    “Under that mountain of sinful-ugliness (ya gotta admire the guys’s innovation however)” – it is a shame that innovation and variety have gone the way of the dinosaurs in contemporary racing.

  6. […] His father, Geoff Brabham and grandfather Jack ran at Indy many times. Jack’s most important start was his first of course. His Cooper T54 Climax FPF 2.7 finished ninth and showed the Indy establishment the mid-engined path; Jack’s Indy Cooper T54 Climax… | primotipo… […]

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