Posts Tagged ‘Cooper T54 Climax’

(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…