No. 43 The Cooper T51
Small and perfectly formed, this car began F1’s rear-engined revolution
Just as a horse pushing rather than pulling a cart would be a rare sight indeed, until the late 1950s precious few car designers felt that putting the engine at the rear was anything other than sub-optimal. Yes, the likes of Tazio Nuvolari had rampaged through Europe’s racetracks in twitchy rear-engined Auto Unions in the 1930s, but few engineers returned to the concept as racing began again after the war.
The revolution brewed in the lower formulae, where the cars were lighter and less pendulous and the races shorter. In 500cc Formula 3, which grew out of a thriving post-war scene for racing home-built cars with motorcycle engines, former race mechanic Charles Cooper and his son John turned a hobby into a growing business. Putting a motorcycle engine behind the driver was a matter of expedience – no need to add complexity by re-engineering the chain-drive transmission – and without a huge weight of fuel to lug around or a great deal of power to put down, the cars handled with a sweetness and predictability unlike the snappiness of those pre-war leviathans.
Stirling Moss and Bernie Ecclestone were early customers, and Moss even lodged an entry for a pre-championship grand prix in 1949. By 1950 Cooper were offering a longer chassis to accommodate larger engines and, for reasons now lost, Moss’s F3 sparring partner Harry Schell somehow contrived to start the Monaco GP that year in a Cooper powered by an 1100cc V-twin JAP engine.
The world championship’s step down to F2 cars in 1952 and 1953 paved the way for more Coopers to participate in grands prix, but the marque still had little appetite for competing as a factory team in F1. That changed with the arrival of Jack Brabham in 1955. Charles Cooper, designer Owen Maddock and the mechanically astute Brabham formed a potent combination, honing Maddock’s new curved-tube spaceframe concept into a competitive Formula 2 car.
In 1957 Rob Walker Racing modified one of Cooper’s F2 chassis to accommodate a two-litre Climax engine, and Brabham entered the Monaco Grand Prix – finishing sixth, having pushed the car home after its fuel pump failed. Walker then entered Stirling Moss for the first race of the 1958 F1 season, in Buenos Aires, where he scraped to victory on disintegrating tyres by 2.7s from Ferrari’s Luigi Musso. It was the first world championship victory for a rear-engined car.
Maddock’s 1959 T51 set the wheels of rear-engined machinery in motion. Now with a Climax engine stretched to the full 2.5 litres allowed, the new Cooper made its rivals look like bloated dinosaurs. Only its Citröen-derived gearbox would let it down, meaning the title chase went down to the wire. Brabham and new team-mate Bruce McLaren took three wins between them and Moss nailed a further two in a Walker-run T51. Brabham won the title at the final round, pushing his out-of-fuel car across the line.
Enzo Ferrari sneered at these British garagistes and their dainty rearengined cars. But only one more grand prix would ever be won with a frontmounted engine.