Each morning and evening traffic sits on the Ewell Road in Surbiton with cars caught like flies in a web strung between the Tolworth Roundabout and the dreaded Kingston one way system. It’s a stretch of road where Radio 2 comes into its own and one can use a hand-held mobile phone at the wheel with impunity.
Even the pushiest Audi driver abandons hope of nudging his way a car or two further up into the gridlock and rejoins the human race (albeit temporarily). How strange it is, therefore, that this is also the home of one of the pivotal addresses in the history of British motor racing – and of the advancement of Formula One in particular.
For although it is now empty, there is still a recognisable charisma about the Riviera blue building which nestles behind a humble fishmongers on the corner of Hollyfield Road. This was the home of the Cooper Car Company.
Charles Cooper was born in 1893 to a cosmopolitan showbiz family with an English father and Franco-Spanish mother. It had been hoped that Charles the younger might take on the family business in later life but it became increasingly clear that the newfangled technology of internal combustion was what fired the boy’s imagination.
At the age of 15, Charles was apprenticed to Napier and spent six contented years working in every department of the firm including Selwyn Edge’s record car. At the outbreak of World War 1 he volunteered for the army and survived the carnage through to the bitter end – albeit recovering from being gassed at the time when the guns fell silent.
A return to civilian life saw Cooper refurbishing motorcycle engines and then setting up his own garage on Ewell Road in Surbiton, from where he very swiftly headed for Brooklands. Here was an outlet for his engineering passion which began to attract attention to his talents, and soon an old acquaintance, Kaye Don, had almost exclusive call on his services to tend a fleet of MGs, Bugattis and the Sunbeam Silver Bullet land speed record car.
In 1934, Cooper invested still further in his business – now with his 11-year-old son, John, regularly in tow. He built a large workshop on the corner of Hollyfield Road and not only prepared cars but also his own aeroplanes – an Austin 7-powered Flying Flea followed by a Miles Hawk tourer. This building was extended soon after completion and then rebuilt from scratch in 1942 to include a showroom for Vauxhall and Ford – this being the building still seen today.
While dad was growing the business, John Cooper spent World War 2 as an engineer. He had wanted to train as a pilot but was deemed to be too valuable in making top secret concepts become metal realities – engineering a one man submarine among other projects. Among those with whom the younger Cooper worked was Cameron Earl, another precocious young engineer with a passion for motor racing.
With the arrival of peace, John Cooper came home looking for excitement and in 1946 the father-and-son squad of the Cooper Car Co. revealed their first home-made racer: the Cooper 500. This creation used Fiat Topolino subframes, various Ford parts and a JAP motorcycle engine located behind the driver.
Being minimalist-minded engineers, the Coopers were greatly drawn to the idea of using light weight and simplicity of the kind that Ferdinand Porsche used to design the pre-war Auto Union. Small wonder, therefore, that this car was clothed in a gleaming silver body styled closely on the German titans.
While the Coopers set about proving that a lightweight, low-power car could out-perform virtually any cumbersome but powerful machinery, Cameron Earl was still a government-funded engineer. By wangling permission from the British Intelligence Objectives Sub-Committee, he travelled to Germany in order to meet the race team engineers from Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union – meetings from which he produced an in-depth report on their methods.
This report was published in 1947 under the title Quick Silver. It laid bare every element of design and operation of the mightiest Grand Prix cars of all time and thus informed the racing desires of two of Britain’s pioneering post-war constructors: BRM, which attempted to match the grandeur of Mercedes-Benz engineering, and the Coopers in their quest to create Auto Union-style minimalist racing machines.
Through their work and backed up by Earl’s invaluable research, the father-and-son team was soon on its way to world domination from its suburban Surbiton base…