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DECEMBER 24, 2000

Racing legend John Cooper dies aged 77

JOHN COOPER, the junior half of the famous father-and-son partnership which revolutionized Grand Prix racing in the 1950s, died on Christmas Eve at the age of 77.

Together with his father Charles, John Cooper re-wrote the F1 record books by introducing a new breed of rear-engined car to the tracks - at a stroke rendering obsolete front-engined machines such as the Vanwall, Ferrari Dino 246 and Maserati 250F by the end of the 1958 season.

Their partnership was a testimony to the old adage that timing is everything in life. As a commercial manufacturer of racing cars, the Cooper Car Company lasted just two decades, as a Grand Prix contender for just 11 years. Yet the contribution to motor racing history they made was as profound as it was far reaching.

John Cooper was born on 17 July 1923. His father Charles, an industrious and hard working man, had an instinctive nose for business and managed successfully to combine this with a growing interest in motor racing.

Cooper senior was active at Brooklands and was actually employed by the famous record breaker and racing ace Kaye Don. John in turn took up an apprenticeship with one of his father's companies on leaving school and then went to work for a toolmaker who specialized in work for the Admiralty shortly after the Second World War broke out. He had really wanted to serve in the RAF, but by the time he was recruited, the war was almost over and he worked out the closing stages of hostilities as an aircraft instrument maker.

In 1946 the Coopers built a 500c motorcycle engined hillclimb special that would lay the foundations for their commercial racing car business. By 1948 they were in serious production making 500cc Formula 3 cars and, in those heady immediate post-war days, almost everyone who was anyone would learn their trade at the wheel of these spindly little single seater racers.

Stirling Moss, Peter Collins, Harry Schell, Stuart Lewis-Evans - and even a youthful Bernie Ecclestone, today the billionaire commercial boss of formula one - were all customers at one time or another and there was not a circuit in England where Cooper 500s did not do battle at some time or another during that period.

Cooper Cars steadily went from strength to strength. Mike Hawthorn, later to become Britain's first world champion driver in 1958, cut his international racing teeth in a Formula 2 Cooper-Bristol in 1952. But it was in 1958 that Cooper was propelled into the spotlight when Stirling Moss won the Argentine Grand Prix at Buenos Aires in privateer Rob Walker's 2.2-liter Cooper-Climax.

Thanks to the consistent handling of the rear-engined Cooper chassis, Moss was able to run the race non-stop without a tire change, beating the perplexed and bewildered Ferrari team in the process. It was a seminal turning point in post-war formula one history and, within two years, virtually all the cars on the starting grid would mimic Cooper's rear-engined layout.

Yet Cooper's way of going motor racing was stark and primitive by the standards of the new millennium. Charles Cooper avoided expenditure on all but absolute necessities.

His works at Surbiton, in Surrey, were dark, dank and dingy, his staff underpaid and often grumbling. Yet somehow he managed to imbue tremendous loyalty in those who worked for him. He inspired a peculiar brand of affection in a workforce which frequently reckoned it was getting the rough end of a not-very-generous deal.

By contrast, the genial, pipe smoking John Cooper was always straining at the harness of his father's penny pinching ways. He was imaginative and saw the scope for business expansion, but was prone to letting his enthusiasm for new and expensive projects get slightly out of control.

Rows between father and son were therefore predictable and numerous. Yet by 1959 they had recruited the rugged Australian Jack Brabham to lead their own formula one team and stormed to two consecutive world championship titles.

Yet Cooper would fade from the grand prix front line almost as quickly as they appeared. Rival Lotus boss Colin Chapman copied and quickly refined the rear-engined concept into a stunning succession of winning cars during the early 1960s. Cooper, by contrast, went into a gentle decline.

In the summer of 1963 John Cooper was badly injured in a terrible road accident when his prototype twin-engined Mini-Cooper saloon - one of his pet personal projects - somersaulted to destruction on the Kingston bypass. He took many months to recover and Ken Tyrrell obligingly took over as Cooper team manager while he recuperated.

The following year was marked by Charles Cooper's death at the age of 71, after which the dwindling fortunes of his formula one team caused the son to sit back and take stock. He therefore proved particularly receptive to an offer for his company from the Chipstead Garages group - controlled by entrepreneur Mario Tozzi-Condivi and Marks and Spencer heir Jonathan Sieff - to buy out the company for around 200,000 pounds.

Although now out of John Cooper's immediate control, the team carrying his name enjoyed a brief renaissance with the advent of the 3-liter formula one regulations at the start of 1966. John Surtees drove a Cooper-Maserati to victory in that year's Mexican grand prix and the late Pedro Rodriguez followed that up with victory in the 1967 South African grand prix at Kyalami.

In the summer of 1967 an unknown 19-year old joined the Cooper formula one team as a junior mechanic. It was Ron Dennis, today the millionaire chairman and chief executive of the McLaren formula one team; Cooper was certainly continuing the long established British motor racing tradition of offering the opportunity to prove that the sky is the limit for even the most modestly qualified recruit.

The company also received royalties from the British Motor Corporation for each of the Mini-Cooper saloons sold during the 1960s when they became one of the most familiar fashion items, a touchstone for their time.

In 1969 John Cooper retired to Ferring, on the Sussex coast, where he opened a small garage business which his family operates to his day. A genial, gregarious man with a wry sense of humor, he would happily reminisce about his great days in motor racing without a hint of regret at potential missed opportunities.

John Cooper, motor racing engineer. Born 17 July, 1923. Died 24 December 2000.