World War II temporarily put on the shelf was to eventually come back 20 years later:
Charles Coopers rear-engined cars which set the trend for cars that are with us to
quite a few rear-engined racers before the Cooper such as the 1923 Benz Tropfenwagen,
which also broke new ground in aerodynamics, and of course the incredible 1930s Auto-Union A to C-type cars designed by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche. The truth is that these cars were
incredibly hard to drive. With 500+ bhp, narrow tyres and a swing-axle rear suspension
made handling so hard to cope with that the whole concept of these cars was compromised.
New rules in 1938 reduced engine capacity and therefore power, while new chief engineer
Dr. Robert Eberan von Eberhorst changed the rear suspension design to incorporate a De
Dion rear axle and the cars finally came good. But it was too late, the war was at the
door and the rear-engined concept lay ignored for years, one of the few exceptions being
the 1955 transverse-engined but pathetic Bugatti 251.
Changes to the regulations conspired
to allow for the introduction of smaller, lighter and simpler cars, just the type that
could be built by a specialist manufacturer like Cooper or "Garage-Owners" as
Ferrari would call them later in a moment of frustration. These new rules involved the
banning of alcohol fuel in exchange for AvGas and the reduction in minimum race distance
to 300 km from 500 km. While the cars produced less power on AvGas they required less of
it and with the shorter races fuel tankage was further reduced.
Charles Cooper was a between the
wars racing mechanic who lately started producing lower-class racecars with his
enthusiastic son John. Cooper cars dominated 500cc F3 class for years and gradually the
Cooper company made its way up to forefront of motorsport, Formula 1.
Its Bobtail rear-engined sportscar was modified
by Jack Brabham and entered in the 1955 British GP. It wasnt to achieve great
success but it was a sign of times to come. The first victory was achieved against great
odds, in Argentina during the 1958 season when Moss, with worn-out tires, ran non-stop in
a little 1.96 liter Cooper-Climax T-45 to defeat the mighty 2.4-liter Ferrari 246s. It was
the first victory for a rear-engined car since Formula 1 was created.
By the end of 1958 Vanwall had
pulled out of racing and Stirling Moss was left unemployed. He joined private entrant Rob
Walkers team to drive Cooper-produced cars. The Works team was lead by Australian
driver-engineer Jack Brabham and a New Zealand youngster named Bruce McLaren as second
driver. The car was fitted with full 2.5-liter Climax FWA engine. What was exceptional
about the car was not only its engine position but its curved tube frame. Almost every
tube making up the frame was curved and every engineer will tell you thats not the
right way to do it. Tubes should be straight so that they could be loaded only
longitudinally. Curved tubes inevitably have to be loaded on flexion, which compromises
rigidity of the frame. However, the big tube chassis was designed intelligently by Owen
Maddock and it was to prove remarkably successful.
What is so clever about
mounting engine at the wrong side? Theres no need for driveshaft to pass under
drivers seat so driver could seat lower. This plus the fact that the front bodywork
did not need clear the engine made for a much smaller frontal area improving aerodynamics
while the center of gravity is situated lower which improves cornering. No driveshaft and
a smaller car means substantial weight saving. The real question is why it took so long to
finally take that step
The weak spot on cars was the
gearbox. The Works cars were fitted with modified Citroen gearboxes with castings
reinforced to endure high loads applied by the powerful 2.5-liter Climax engine. However,
although performance did not suffer, they did not prove to be a success. Mosss dark
blue Walker car was fitted with a tailor-made gearbox by Italian specialist Valerio
Colotti. It may have been more promising but due to low manufacturing standards Colotti
gearboxes were to prove very unreliable.
The first 1959 World Championship
race took place at Monaco. Jack Brabham won after Moss qualified on pole, led and retired due
to broken gearbox. The pattern for the rest of the season was set. Brabham and Moss both
won 2 races but Brabham took the crown due to better reliability. The last race of the
season was won by Bruce McLaren who remained for the next 20 odd years the youngest winner of a World
Championship GP, being 22 years 3 months old at the time. Cooper thus won the first ever
World Championship for manufacturers beating Ferrari and BRM.
For 1960 a new
car was designed, the T53, with coil springs in place of the leaf springs employed on T51.
The new car also had better aerodynamics thanks to lower bodywork. The T53 would prove
extremely successful with Brabham taking 5 consecutive wins by mid-season.
The trend was set and the shape of
racing cars was changed forever. Ferrari, the last front-engined runner, began to
experiment with a rear- mounted engine in 1960 and by 1961 the entire F1 field would be
rear-engined. More and more sophisticated cars followed and they overcame Coopers
simple blacksmithery cars but Cooper will always be revered by racing fans as
the marque to re-introduce a successful rear-engined F1 car who's success in fact
relied on the engine layout.