Move It on Back! John Cooper and the mid rear engine

Move It on Back? Move It on Back! We’re talking about the engine, of course. And you can’t talk about rear mid-engines without talking about the man who pioneered the whole concept and convinced the racing world of its worth: John Cooper.
Text Herbert Völker
Photo Alamy

Before we go sorting through the years, a quick anecdote to start us off: Jack Brabham (in a Cooper) noticed that his engine wasn’t getting any fuel. That was in the second Casino Turn, so at least it was all downhill from there. By the time he got to the station, it became clear that the fuel pump had failed. Brabham let the car coast down to in front of the tunnel, jumped out and began to push – he was, after all, third in the race, behind Fangio and Brooks. As he walked his Cooper through the (then shorter) tunnel, a Maserati thundered past. Brabham pushed on to the Harbor Chicane, feeling the otherwise barely noticeable climb to Tabac, where a Connaught screamed mercilessly by. He continued on along the waterfront, was halfway there, the Gasometer coming into view, as the next car roared past. This time Trintignant in his Ferrari.

Jack Brabham, the thirty-one-year-old Australian, in the prime of his life, carried on, pushing the Cooper through the Gasometer Turn and the last hundred meters to the finish line. He came in sixth.

Okay, time for just one more: Hardcore motor racing fans will surely have read Innes Ireland’s entertaining autobiography All Arms and Elbows. There he describes how the engine on his Lotus died already on the climb to the Casino. So Ireland decided to get out and push his car up the hill. Luckily, there was a fan there who ran alongside him shouting words of encouragement: “Come on, Ireland, you lazy hound. Get to your feet. Push, man, push!” Outside help was forbidden, but the marshal slipped a chunk of rock under the back wheel whenever Ireland had to lie down exhausted behind the car. At the terrace of the Hôtel de Paris, the lunch guests treated him to a warm round of applause. And then it was all downhill, just as it had been for Jack Brabham three years earlier (in 1957, we’ll get back to that later).

So, now for those years.

John Cooper was born in 1923 in Surbiton, a suburban neighborhood of Greater London. His father ran a small garage, and young John was constantly surrounded by cars and car parts.

A hundred years ago: the Rumpler Tropfenwagen. Twenty years ago: John Cooper’s death. In between: the 1957 Monaco Grand Prix (with the Brabham story). The common thread: important steps on the way to the modern race car, inconceivable without a mid-engine layout.

John Cooper was born in 1923 in Surbiton, a suburban neighborhood of Greater London. His father ran a small garage, and young John was constantly surrounded by cars and car parts. After the war, the Coopers got their hands on lots of scrap automobile and airplane parts left behind by the Yanks, a veritable hardware buffet for the talented youngster.

By the fall of 1945, the English and the Scottish had become the first in Europe to rediscover the spirit of racing – though they didn’t feel any overwhelming need to compete against the French, the Italians or especially the Germans. An incredible racing culture and subculture flourished in the island, with thousands upon thousands of club races everywhere you looked, the milestones being set by guys like Stirling Moss, Mike Hawthorn and John Surtees, then Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart . . .

The common thread: important steps on the way to the modern race car, inconceivable without a mid-engine layout.

Before that all got started, John Cooper had returned from his wartime service and, having discovered those mountains of scrap and metal, came up with the compelling idea of building a race car – as small, as light, as cheap as could be. He took a motorcycle engine and mounted it in the rear to give the car (250 kilograms in total) at least some decent traction for its 45 hp. That would make it look good in the hill climbs. Hill climbing was the big thing back then, despite the courses usually being quite short – traditionally quoted in yards. A mile or less uphill, and that was it. A cool thing to do in post-­war England.

Stirling Moss was there from the start.

Aged nineteen, Stirling borrowed some money from his father (who fortunately was a dentist) for a very, very small Cooper. This was 1948, remember, a year of post-war hardship. The Cooper had a 500 cc single-cylinder engine made by JAP, a name that is sure to bring tears to the eyes of any real Englishman. JAP has nothing to do with Japan, of course, but refers to the venerable English motoring pioneer dating back to the Victorian era (really!) with the initials of its founder. The company was famous for its two- and three-wheelers before the modern capitalist world ate it up.

The mid-engine thing wasn’t any big deal at the time; it was an improvisation for an improvised race car, and a familiar one in principle.

For that, we journey back in time a hundred years: In 1921 Edmund Rumpler introduced the world to the aerodynamic sensation that was the Tropfenwagen, which was virtually begging for a new engine layout. And so the drop-shaped car was given the first mid-engine in the modern sense. As a racing car for Benz & Cie., the Tropfenwagen wasn’t very successful. But looking at things from today’s perspective, that was just the shortcomings of early tinkering.

In 1933 Ferdinand Porsche seized on the idea and built the fabulous Auto Union racing cars with which Bernd Rosemeyer, Tazio Nuvolari and Hans Stuck stunned the world. But for some reason, no other manufacturer had the courage to follow suit.

Somehow people had the impression that this thing could only work because of the genius of Ferdinand Porsche and the power of the 16-cylinder engine.

The Cooper with its single-cylinder engine worked in its own way. Moss won ten races in the first year, mostly uphill.

Despite the austerity of the post-war years, British motor racing picked up speed, with the Coopers, father and son, leading the way – first as mechanics, then as manufacturers. When they began to venture into larger engines, the early tinkering was not so easy to maintain. Cooper built racing cars with the classic layout, but also embraced the idea of the mid-engine design. This gave the racing world a sports car with a cut-off rear end. (Some of us remember Wunibald Kamm and his aerodynamic principles from physics class, don’t we?)

The Cooper with its single-cylinder engine worked in its own way. Moss won ten races in the first year, mostly uphill.

Soon thereafter, the idea was ripe for Formula 1 motorsports – which brings us back to the beginning of this story, to the world premiere of the rear mid-engine in Formula 1 racing with Brabham pushing his Cooper to the finish line in Monaco on May 19, 1957.

It took a little while longer before the first victory (Stirling Moss in Argentina at the start of the 1958 season), but the racing world had caught on, and within three years all F1 designers were following the lead pioneered by John Cooper.

The Cooper team won sixteen Grand Prix races and took home the 1959 and 1960 World Championship titles with Jack Brabham at the wheel. Enzo Ferrari, who, as we all know, had a loose and vicious tongue, was surely thinking of John Cooper when he dismissed the English as “garagisti”, simple mechanics tinkering in their backyard shops around London. It irritated Ferrari to no end when he was forced to adopt a technical innovation from these simple mechanics for his illustrious racing team to avoid being left eating their dust. And the most important of all these advances was, of course, John Cooper’s push for the mid-engine concept.

But it wasn’t long before Cooper had used up his lead, because in the meantime the ingenious Colin Chapman had adopted the new concept as well. It took him three years to perfect the design, and from 1963 onwards Colin’s Lotuses dominated the Grand Prix scene. By this point, even Ferrari, for all his stubbornness, had made the switch.

John Cooper himself had long since become a celebrity, despite the rather modest racing achievements. Or his equally modest business talents. Those close to him showed him more respect than love. Though when Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren set up their own racing teams, they seem to have parted as friends.

Cooper’s relationship with Mini creator Alec Issigonis must also have been complex, to say the least, the result being a product that would become an automotive icon: the Mini Cooper. Besides all the tuning exploits with Mini, John Cooper was also obsessed with the idea of developing a twin-engined prototype ready for production – and Issigonis was up for just about any kind of madness anyway. Engine in front, engine in rear, obviously all-wheel drive. Modelled on the Mini Moke, which, of course, was far from being a full-fledged, roadworthy car.

Cooper’s relationship with Mini creator Alec Issigonis must also have been complex, to say the least, the result being a product that would become an automotive icon: the Mini Cooper.

As expected, the Twini was full of surprises when it came to handling corners. After all, it had 180 horses pulling along just 750 kilograms of weight, and the transition from understeer to oversteer must have been a nightmare. Unfortunately, nobody knows what really happened that day in May 1964 when Cooper rolled the Twini several times on a perfectly normal English country road. He woke up in the hospital with a few cracked ribs and couldn’t remember a thing about what might have led to the accident. Probably, he was glad just to be alive. But that was the end of Mini’s twin-engined project.

Cooper took a long time to recover. He sold his Formula 1 team, though he was still involved in the management during Jochen Rindt’s time (1965 to 1967). For lack of technical innovations and a decent engine, however, that was Cooper’s swansong in Formula 1.

John Cooper retired from racing and opened a Mini dealership in a village by the coast. As a personality, he remained an important and highly revered figure in motorsport throughout his life. He was one of the few people in the business who was said not to have had a single enemy – though admittedly, Enzo Ferrari didn’t like him very much.


→ Read this story and many more in the current ramp #55.

mehr aus dieser ausgabe


ramp shop


Latest articles

Frankfurt Fashion Week: Fashion meets automotive and sustainability

Five days, fashion & Frankfurt: This year's »Frankfurt Fashion Week« will focus on sustainability. At various hotspots in the Main metropolis, you can experience the latest fashion between vehicles, photographs, exhibitions and at webinars.

The Greatest - Muhammad Ali

There was a time when people would set their alarm clocks to watch a live Muhammad Ali fight. And today? The legend would have turned eighty years old. We look back on the extraordinary man and sportsman - also with two extraordinary illustrated books.

ramp #56 – All in Good Time

Control-freak decision-makers are going to need nerves of steel. Because the culture of senseless activism is here to stay. “Change” is the mantra of constant transformation, “innovation” the refrain that defines the prevailing imperative.

The coolness tool

Whether in the Bible, in Newton's garden, or in your pocket: Few things have shaped and changed us as much as the apple. A brief case study - including the fall of man, the discovery of gravity, Apple's new iPhone14 - and something with Tom Cruise and Michael Fassbender.