With his father Charles, John Cooper was a pioneer of grand prix racing in the later 1950s, introducing principles of car design which re-drew the map of Formula One. At a stroke their rear-engined Cooper-Climax cars, which were first seen during the 1958 season, left the extant front-engined Ferrari and Maserati designs floundering in the their wake and, with Jack Brabham at the wheel, went on to take two successive F1 world championship titles in 1959 and 1960.
In his own right John Cooper is remembered as the man who designed the Mini-Cooper, the tiny high-performance saloon which became the motoring icon of the Swinging Sixties. Film stars, junior royalty, society debs and rock stars all clamoured to lay hands on this precocious little performer, whose 1,275cc engine developed a reputation for leaving the majestic 3.4 and 3.8 litre Jaguars standing still at the traffic lights.
The Mini Cooper became the urban bandit, its front-wheel drive — reversing the F1 trend which had made the Cooper name in the first place — giving it awesome traction and road-holding qualities. Tom Wolfe wrote breathlessly about it in his celebrated essay London Teenage Society Girl. It achieved apotheosis in the 1969 film The Italian Job, which is these days remembered less for its star, Michael Caine, than for an astonishing escape sequence in which robbers, fleeing with a haul of gold bullion, drive their Mini Coopers on a breathless chase through the Turin streets, seeming to defy the laws of gravity, space and time as they do so.
John Cooper was born in 1923, the son of Charles Cooper, an industrious and inventive engineer and businessman who worked at Brooklands in the heyday of motor racing at the famous circuit and established his own works at Surbiton, Surrey, in the 1920s. Educated at Surbiton County School, John grew up steeped in the world of motor racing, first taking up an apprenticeship with one of his father’s companies, before going on to work for a toolmaker who specialised in equipment for the Royal Navy. He himself spent the war as an aircraft instrument maker.
In 1946 the Coopers produced their first joint design, a Formula Three car powered by a 500cc motor cycle engine, which John drove and demonstrated. The project proved an immediate success and laid the foundations for their subsequent commercial car racing business. The tiny single seater racer became instantly popular, among its customers being Stirling Moss, Peter Collins and Harry Schell. As orders for the car flowed in Cooper co-raced the works car at meetings in Britain and on the Continent. His first successes were at the Formula Three race at Rouen, France, in 1951, and he went on to score victory at the perilous Avus track in Berlin later that year. He returned to Rouen to a second Formula Three victory in the following year.
Within six years of entering racing car manufacture the Cooper business had a flourishing output of Formula Two and Formula Three cars and John Cooper quitted the circuit to become racing manager. In the meantime, Cooper cars continued to make an impact. Mike Hawthorn — later to become Britain’s first F1 world champion — learnt his trade as an international driver in a Formula Two Cooper-Bristol. But it was the year 1958 which made the international grand prix circuit really look up. Stirling Moss, winning the Argentine Grand Prix in a privately entered rear-engined 2.2 litre Cooper-Climax, demonstrated that a technical revolution was taking place. Thanks to the superb handling he was able to run the race without a pitstop for tyres, and the Ferrari team could only watch and wonder. In the following year, in a 2.5 litre works Cooper-Climax, Jack Brabham won the F1 world championship while Cooper took the manufacturer’s title. They repeated the feat the following year.
Other F1 manufacturers were not slow to learn the Cooper lesson, and with massive resources at their disposal, teams like the rival Lotus were able to go rear-engined and make up the leeway on the Cooper works in a remarkably short time. Cooper senior did not help his cause by running too tight a ship and refusing to countenance expenditure on anything he did not consider vital for the immediate future. John Cooper was keen to invest in a longer-term future, with ideas that could be expensive to fund. Quarrels between father and son were frequent. In the meantime Colin Chapman at Lotus had seized the crown from Cooper and reeled off a series of stunning victories.
Cooper’s influence on Formula One steadily declined and after his father’s death in 1964 John Cooper sold out to Chipstead Garages. The team, which continued to bear the Cooper name, continued to have some success under its new ownership: John Surtees won the Mexican Grand Prix in a Cooper-Maserati in 1966 and in 1967 Pedro Rodriguez triumphed in the South African Grand Prix.
In the meantime, Cooper had suggested to the British Motor Corporation, manufacturer of the Mini, and the revolutionary car’s designer, Alec Issigonis, that a high-performance version of the car could not fail to have appeal. Issigonis was at first sceptical, but Cooper was persuasive. Soon the “cheep and cheerful” Mini was undergoing a ferocious transformation, with first the Mini Cooper and then the Mini Cooper S establishing themselves as the fastest and most rugged minicars in the world. The Mini Cooper won the Monte Carlo Rally three times and was the first British car to win the European Rally Championships. Among celebrity owners of these Cooper-engineered Minis were Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Peter Sellers and King Hussein of Jordan.
BMC continued producing Mini Coopers until 1971, by which time 150,000 had been built. But John Cooper Garages was in the 1980s supplying Cooper conversion kits to a new generation of enthusiasts in Japan. The company also worked alongside Rover to re-engineer the car.
Cooper retired to the Sussex coast where he operated a small garage business. He was appointed CBE for his services to British motor racing last year. He is survived by his wife Paula and by a son and a daughter. A second daughter predeceased him. John Cooper, CBE, automobile engineer, was born on July 17, 1923. He died on December 24 aged 77.