Cooper T43: The Most Influential Racing Car of the 1950s

Cooper T43

Construction of the Cooper T43 reached completion in 1957, just in time to compete in the 1958 Grand Prix race hosted by Argentina. But before their first win, the manufacturers of Cooper models would have a lot of technical improvements to make. The Cooper Car Company gained its start in 1946 as a father and son partnership. During his childhood, John, who grew up around cars as his father, Charles, was a mechanic in Surrey, London. A mutual interest grew into a mutual passion and the two eventually went into business together. At first, it wasn’t their intention to build race cars, but as John Cooper and a close friend of his, Eric Brandon, began to dabble in putting together stock cars (a popular pass time in the 1950’s racing world), the Coopers and Brandon discovered that they may have a knack for it.

Eventually, the Coopers set out on a mission to design and execute race cars worthy of world-wide competitors. They had two goals for their vehicles – build them around a small engine, and make them as aerodynamic as possible. At the time, it was unheard of to specifically manufacture small (although, the coupe would find its shining moment in the 1960’s). The World Championship titles were being dominated by cars that had as much horsepower (and weight) as possible. On a global scale, racing was finding its niche, yet the world community had just suffered one of the roughest wars of all time, WWII.

Influential period in racing

Cooper T43 1958 Grand Prix

Despite the impact of the Second World War on Britain, professional car racing as a national sport and pass-time lived on, and an influential period of racing began. The Coopers entered this postwar atmosphere by launching the Cooper 500cc. Built like a bullet, the car was designed to be fast and efficient without the resources of wealthy professionals. The original Cooper was constructed out of scraps – a John Alfred Prestwich, or JAP, motor (commonly used on motorcycles) and salvaged body parts from old Fiat Topolinos made up the open-wheeled vehicle. One of the first racing cars of the 1950’s to feature a rear engine, the The Cooper 500cc would act as an original blueprint for all other racing Coopers to follow, with each race, win or lose, adding a new detail, taking one away, or making other minor changes.

In 1953, the Cooper Bristol was introduced into F2 racing. The Cooper’s design reinstalled the engine to the front and within the early ’50’s many infamous drivers began to race for the company, including: British national, Mike Hawthorne, and Argentinian Juan Manuel Fangio. With the endorsement of the British community and world-renowned racers, The Cooper Car Company continued to modify their models, seeking perfection.

The engine continued to find new homes within the bodies of the automobiles, from rear engine, to front, to mid-engine; it was all about testing and reevaluating. John, his father, and colleagues sought ways to minimize weight and emphasize aerodynamics. The Cooper Car Company began to create a reputation for itself as “Garage Owners”, a title they gained from competitors who found their efforts more amusing, rather than intimidating. Serious hobbyists and passionate fans began to invest in the Cooper Car Company, buying their own race cars, privately, and hiring drivers.

The Cooper T43

Cooper_T43_at_Silverstone_Classic_2009

1956 and ’57 were the golden years for Italian manufacturers, Maserati and Ferrari, with the most winning cars coming from their shops. Which is why the 1958 Grand Prix win in Buenos Aires, Argentina, of Stirling Moss in the Cooper T43, was a long-time coming and astounding win for Britain, and for those hard at work for The Cooper Car Company for over ten years. No longer running on the little JAP engine the model’s ancestors had run with, the Cooper T43 featured a Climax engine with 1500cc.

The Climax engine gained its start from the Korean War, used originally as motors for Amry-distributed fire pumps; it was light-weight as it had to be transported by soldiers along with all their other necessities. By the mid ’50’s, Leonard Lee of Coventry Climax, was marketing the war accessory as a race car engine. The Cooper Car Company chose the partnership with Climax mainly due to its ratio of horsepower to weight, promising speed without compromising minimal drag. But the engine was early in its manifestation as an engine for professional motor racing, so taking a chance with Climax was risky.

With many odds stacked up against them, Moss in his rear-engine underdog came in first place, with Ferrari team members stunned that the small, unassuming vehicle even made it through 80 laps. Not only did the revolutionary build of the car surprise on-lookers and competitors alike, the two liter tank as well as its seemingly un-fit tires had no discernible damper on the car or racer’s ability to successfully finish and win the race. The Cooper T43 finished the race without a single stop at the pit, giving it a huge advantage and demanding to be taken seriously. Its win signaled to other manufacturers that brawn didn’t matter as much brain, and the Cooper kept its genius hidden away in its small, agile build.

The rear-located engine allowed the driver to sit lower, giving the car better handling at curves by keeping its center of gravity deep. The engine’s odd location also allowed for a petite nose, insinuating the aerodynamics of the design. The Cooper Car Company would experience two, back-t-back World Championships in 1959 and 1960 with Australian racer.

The Legacy

Cooper T43 Mark II

Although, The Cooper Car Company would go on to design the infamous and popular mini-cooper, the Cooper T43 racing design isn’t implemented much in modern automobiles. Modern race cars have three noticeable attributes: bodies low to the ground, open wheels, and wings. All three are design choices are meant to help alleviate drag. Modern race cars, particularly of F1 racing, tend to sit low to the ground, which the pros call the ground effect and is utilized to create downforce, or center of gravity.

Open wheels give the pit easier accessibility and add to the car’s efficient handling and agility. Back-end wings, or aerofoils weren’t introduced until the 1960’s and were never included in the sleek design of Cooper racing models. All three common characteristics of the modern race car show the method of design that’s been passed down from one racing generation to the next. Ever since the late ’50’s and throughout the ’60’s, manufacturers have learned that aerodynamics trump horsepower – a lesson imparted by the Cooper T43, the little car that could.


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