In 1958, when an English Van wall was voted the best Grand Prix car of the year, it was rather freely reported that a revolution in auto racing had taken place. Actually, at that time it hadn't—but it has now.
The Vanwall was a brilliantly engineered machine, and in its big year it proved faster and more durable than the Ferraris, Maseratis, Jaguars and other cars it basically resembled. It was not, however, of a revolutionary design, and it did not assure Britain the dramatic ascendancy in Grand Prix events that has now been attained. In race after race this season the winning names have been English—Cooper, Lotus, BRM—and to discover the reason you need look no farther than directly behind the drivers. That is where John Newton Cooper (below), English car builder and a long time proponent of rear-engined propulsion, has put the engine.
A fortnight ago at the Silverstone course in Northamptonshire, England, Revolutionist Cooper tumbled upside down in the somersault he invariably performs when one of his cars wins. He might have added a couple of front and back flips and a double handspring. Of the first five finishers in the British Grand Prix, three were Coopers. In second place was a Lotus, and all five cars were rear-engined. The English sweep before 80,000 delighted spectators demonstrated on home grounds an invincibility already proved outside the country, where the English had won all five major Grand Prix tests.
Cooper, who celebrated his 37th birthday the day after the race, has been preaching rear propulsion for a good many years. With his father Charles he has built more than a thousand rear-engined racing cars—sports cars, small-engined single-seaters and, finally, the full-scale 2.5-liter Formula I Grand Prix machines. The success of this last design has placed Cooper at the very top in this highest form of road racing.
Cooper was not, of course, the first man to think of putting the engine behind the racing driver. The rear-engined (some say mid-engined) German Auto-Union Grand Prix cars of the 1930s were among the most effective ever built, and Germany's rear-engined Porsches have distinguished themselves in postwar races for small-engined cars.
Down through the years, however, orthodox Grand Prix cars have worn their engines in front. Now, and thanks to Cooper, it is unorthodox not to have a rear-engined car.
At the beginning of last season Cooper's voice was still a small one and his cars were the only full-scale rear-engined models in the sport. Previously he had done some sniping in Grand Prix races, but the engines in his cars weren't large enough to match those of his competitors. Last year, however, the English Coventry Climax firm, which had been supplying his engines, turned out an adequate 2.5-liter power plant, and Cooper staggered the traditionalists by winning the world championship. He won the title for manufacturers; his No. 1 driver, Jack Brabham, took the driving championship.
The wisest of the other builders promptly scrapped their front-engined cars and shopped frantically for rear-engine designs. Those who resisted the trend, or who were tardy changing over, have found themselves up against it this year.
Two horrible examples may be cited. First, consider the Scarabs built by Lance Reventlow, son of the Wool-worth heiress Barbara Hutton. These were the first American Grand Prix cars to be seen in Europe since 1933. Completed a year behind schedule, they appeared at the very moment front-engined cars became passé. They were the handsomest cars in racing, but unfortunately they were among the slowest, and they failed to finish their only start—the Belgian Grand Prix.
Two weeks later both of Reventlow's cars developed bearing trouble in practice for the French Grand Prix. At this he decided to write them off and build, with all possible speed, a rear-engined model. If all goes well, it will be ready in time for the U.S. Grand Prix at Riverside, Calif. on December 12.
Next, take Italy's Enzo Ferrari. The most faithful and one of the most successful postwar manufacturers, Ferrari has failed so far to get the bugs out of his rear-engined car and is stuck with a stable of front-engined autos. These are not badly outclassed by the best British cars, but they are measurably inferior. It took phenomenal driving by California's Phil Hill to keep one on the tail of Brabham's leading Cooper for a good part of the Belgian Grand Prix, and by both Hill and Taffy von Trips to dispute the lead with Brabham in the French race. The builders of the British Lotuses and BRMs proved to be cannier than Reventlow and Ferrari. Between seasons both makes became rear-engined and, in consequence, serious threats to the Coopers.
Cooper himself did not stand still. He further reduced in size his already small racer and replaced the old four-speed gearbox with a five-speed box. As usual Cooper fitted out the cars in his two small brick shops in Surbiton, a suburb of London, and as usual his driving aces had an important hand in their preparation. Both Brabham, the 34-year-old Australian, and Bruce McLaren, a 23-year-old New Zealander, are savvy mechanics.
In London, Cooper's greatest rival, Colin Chapman, produced a rear-engined Lotus that looks like a big cigar on wheels. All of this year's Grand Prix cars have their weird aspects, but Chapman's baby is the most bizarre. The driver's torso projects up and out of it as though he were sitting in a canoe. It is an amazingly light car, weighing only 900 pounds (to 1,000 for the Cooper), and it is powered by a Coventry Climax engine identical to the Coopers.
"We went to rear engines," Chapman says, "because they make the cars very much easier to build, they remove some handling problems, and they eliminate the power losses we were having last year."
The bulk of an engine prevents the streamlining of a front-engined car beyond a certain point. Reventlow laid the Scarab's engine on its side but still couldn't match Cooper's or Lotus' aerodynamic shape. With lower wind resistance, rear-engined cars go faster and handle better and therefore give drivers more confidence while tiring them less.
It is easier to build rear-engined cars because they need no drive train from the front. This permits a compact power and transmission package at the rear. It also permits some valuable weight saving.
Neither Cooper nor Chapman has tinkered with the engine itself.
A tight little rivalry
"Cooper and ourselves have such an intense personal rivalry that we tend to outstrip the others in our own little efforts," Chapman says. "But we don't worry a bit about using the same engine. We spend all our time on chassis design. It would put the cat in among the pigeons if either of us bought a dynamometer and started playing with the engines, too."
Over at Bourne, in Lincolnshire, the BRM people put their own 265-hp engine (the Coventry Climax yields about 240 hp) into a new chassis with a sawed-off tail, so designed to give access to a single disc brake serving the rear wheels. The car has been a steady victim of bad luck, but it may yet take its place alongside the Cooper.
A Cooper driven by McLaren won the first race of the year, in Argentina. Then Britain's Stirling Moss sped a Lotus to victory in the Monaco Grand Prix. Next came three straight wins for Brabham's white-striped green Cooper—one of them the Belgian Grand Prix.
Britain had never had it so good. Not very long ago it would have been front-page news if any of its cars won a single international race. British Grand Prix devotees were like wistful, ragamuffin children pressing their noses against the window of a candy store they could not hope to enter.
For long, deprived years this was so, and all the king's horsepower was thinly spread out among Sunbeams and Bentleys and ERAs and the old BRMs. But two years ago British Industrialist Tony Vandervell brought out his Vanwalls, designed with a front-engined chassis by Chapman, and ended the drought. Last year, on a doctor's advice, Vandervell had to give up competing. Cooper's little rear-engined wasps moved to the forefront.
At Silverstone, a fast three-mile course laid out on the perimeter roads of an airfield 60 miles northwest of London, there was never a doubt that a British car would win. It was a question merely of which one. The answer might well have been a BRM, with Graham Hill driving. But just as he had done in the French Grand Prix two weeks earlier, Hill stalled his engine on the starting grid. He got going again and surprisingly overtook Brabham after 54 laps. But on the 72nd lap—with just five to go—the mustached, bandy-legged Hill overreached himself and spun out on a 75-mph corner. He was too eager. Brabham motored on in that relaxed way of his and took his fourth straight Grand Prix of the year.
Next year a new era begins in Grand Prix racing. The engine size drops from the 2.5 to 1.5 liters. The British expect some powerful new competition from Porsche and Borgward. The chances are, though, that John Cooper, Grand Prix racing's man of the year for 1960, will have something pretty potent himself.