The Cooper S in competition
The sporty handling of the Mini translated easily from road to race. However, the standard 850 model lacked power and made little impression on the track. It wasn’t until the local release of the 997cc-engined Morris Cooper in late 1962 that the Mini started to make its mark.
However the 997 and 998 production Coopers were class cars, albeit dominant ones, at production races such as the new Bathurst 500 and Sandown 6 Hour International. It would take the Cooper S 1275 to change the script.
The first production Cooper S 1275s to race in Australia were English models imported for the 1964 Sandown 6 Hour International by the newlyformed and Zetland-based BMC Competition Department, modelled on the successful British team that would prepare production race and rally Coopers for international competition up until 1969. The driving force was BMC PR Manager and rally driver extraordinaire Evan Green, who generated significant publicity by bringing out star factory rally drivers such as Northern Irishman Paddy Hopkirk and the Flying Finns, Rauno Aaltonen and Timo Makinen, to race the Cooper S with the local hotshot drivers John French, Brian Foley and Peter Manton.
While the Cooper S was outclassed by Group 2 Alfa Romeos and Lotus Cortinas at the Sandown 6 Hour, these car were not eligible for the 1965 Bathurst 500. Getting 100 Cooper S cars produced in time to qualify for the 1965 race was a close run thing. What BMC didn’t factor was the specially homologated Ford Cortina GT500 with its second fuel tank. Even though the Cooper S was a match on lap times with the GT500, it needed an additional and lengthy pitstop for fuel. The best
finishing Cooper S in the 1965 Armstrong 500 was the Australian driver combo of Brian Foley and Peter Manton in third outright, a lap behind the Barry Seton/Midge Bosworth and Bruce McPhee/ Barry Mulholland GT500s.
For 1966 the race organisers changed the eligibility rules with a minimum of 250 cars needing to be produced. This rendered the Cortina GT500 ineligible and meant that the Cooper S would have little competition for the outright win. As a result, 17 Cooper S entries were received for the Gallaher 500, piloted by the best touring car drivers of the day: Bruce McPhee, Barry Seton, Fred Gibson and even Harry Firth! Another notable driver was Frank Matich in a rare touring car outing.
Prepared at Zetland were the three factory cars of Hopkirk/Foley, Aaltonen/Bob Holden and French/Steve Harvey. These were actually prepared by the Sydney plant’s Apprentice School.
The three works cars were painted in a dark green (but not British Racing Green) hue and white in deference to sponsor Castrol.
It’s a common misconception that the factory attack used cars imported from the UK, in the manner of the trio of TWR Jaguar XJSs that were brought in from England in 1985. But the three works Coopers Ss were built in Sydney.
The major threat to the works outfit were top privateers Charlie Smith/Ron Haylen.
Noel Delforce was a 19-year-old BMC apprentice who, after hours, found himself preparing the Smith/Haylen machine, as he recalled for AMC.
“My brother Russell (another BMC mechanic) and I prepared Charlie Smith’s Cooper S. We believed we could build an engine as good as the factory and we achieved the highest speed down Conrod – 113.9mph! For some reason Dunlop wouldn’t sell us their race tyres that they supplied the factory team. (ED: BMC mechanic John Cotter believes Smith didn’t want to pay for the expensive race tyres!) We used Pirelli Cinturatos. Unfortunately, at the halfway mark a right front tyre blew at Castrol Curve with Ron Haylen at the wheel. They were leading at the time.”
Centre: BMC mechanic John Cotter, holding champagne bottle, went on to oversee another Bathurst victory 32 years later. Bottom: The Cooper S was still winning its class into the mid 1970s. #54 survives today.
The factory team prevailed on October 2, 1966, with Aaltonen/Holden #13C car leading home another eight Cooper S entries. Such domination would not be seen again until the Torana A9X annihilated the opposition in 1979.
The Smith/Haylen Cooper S was not alone in coming a cropper, with eight failing to finish, most being casualties of the ferocious squabbling and pace upfront.
The factory team returned in 1967 for one last tilt at the Mountain with its armada of factory drivers believing it had the opposition covered. The new Falcon GTs were thought to be prone to breaking wheels like big cars in the past. However, it was the Mini’s other threat, the Alfa Romeo GTV, that would have wheel problems. As in previous years, the brick-like Cooper S was able to attain a higher top speed through the art of slipstreaming. Brian Foley told Mini Experience magazine in 2005 how it was done.
“Timo (Makinen) and I were back in the pack. We were slipstreaming each other and then we’d change over so things wouldn’t overheat. Charlie Smith (in his Cooper S) had got away to a fairly good lead. Then Timo and I got out of the pack and were slipstreaming each other down Conrod and I can still remember to this day our cars were touching and when I looked through his rear window I could see his instruments. The old needle was wrapped around the end of the gauge. Anyhow, here’s Charlie going down Conrod doing 104mph and Timo and I just drove past him at 114mph! He was furious and shaking his fist.”
In the ‘67 race two Falcon GTs and two Alfa GTVs would finish in front of the first Cooper S of Holden/Tony Fall. The little car’s grip on the big race was over.
The Cooper S would go onto to win its class another five times at Bathurst and as late as 1975, the last year that it was eligible. It was a fitting farewell for a true legend of The Mountain.
#13 Rauno Aaltonen/ Bob Holden 1st
1964 Sandown 6 Hour
1965 Armstrong 500
1967 Gallaher 500
1966 Gallaher 500 podium
1974 Hardie-Ferodo 1000