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.

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