The Beast – Cooper Bristol MkII 3/53. After a first life of Fifties grand prix action this Cooper Bristol is tearing up the tracks of Europe again. We find out how easy it is to exploit. Words Ivan Ostroff. Photography Lyndon McNeil.
The great Mike Hawthorn made his name at the wheel of a Cooper Bristol Mkl, so thoughts of the great man race through my mind as I swing my leg into a Mkll. Thankfully, I’ve been forewarned about the need to straddle the gearlever with my legs, so any possibility of an eye-watering collision between a delicate part of my anatomy and unyielding metal is averted as I climb inside, legs splayed. This is the preferred arrangement of Paul Grant, the owner of this ex-Rodney Nuckey car, and feels decidedly strange at first. At least the four-speed gearbox retains the normal H-pattern change.
Bristol straight-six proves reliable
With ignition and fuel pump on, I press the button, prompting the three Solex 32BI carburettors to gulp air. With a raucous bark through the side exhaust it fires up.
I keep the engine spinning at around 2000rpm while the Bristol (nee BMW) 2.0-litre straight-six warms up. Now, the big question: do I use my left or right hand to change gear? After due consideration, I grab the stick with my left hand and pop it into first, noticing how the clutch doesn’t feel very heavy and is particularly docile as it engages.
I pull out of the pit garage of Spain’s Jerez circuit, point the nose to the left and make my way past the other pits. Once the marshal waves me through, I accelerate on to the track, accompanied by a deep, rasping crackle that morphs into a heavy growl as the tacho passes through 4000.
I grab second and let the car take me gently through the first right-hander. Then, as I’m about to change up into third, I experience another split-second of indecision over which hand to use. I go for the right, just to see how it feels. It works, but somehow the left felt easier. I make a mental note.
By the time I get to the back straight I’m beginning to feel more comfortable. You feel everything through the steering of the Cooper Bristol and the brakes are very impressive – they’re so good they allow you to brake really late. On the advice of Bristol engine guru Ian Nuthall of INRacing, Paul restricts himself to 6000rpm when racing and that has kept the car reliable. But as the car has plenty of torque and really comes alive around 4000, I keep on the safe side and restrict myself to five thou, out of respect. I’m getting used to that strange central gearlever; I suppose it’s handy to be able to change with either hand.
As I familiarise myself with the rest of the car I discover that grip is excellent, but it’s still easy to slide the back end. When I come off the throttle to provoke some oversteer, then go back on the throttle, a beautiful drift results. The trick is to be very gentle with the car and not stress it, then the back end will never end up where the front should be. Paul concurs that it is indeed very difficult to spin the Cooper Bristol, except in the wet.
The front-engined layout gives a tendency towards initial understeer, so you need to make sure you get on the power to turn the corner, otherwise you’ll find yourself steering one way but going straight on. The Cooper Bristol has just enough power to break traction and get the back round with the throttle, allowing you to tease it into a sweet drift without having to be over-brave and risk getting yourself into trouble.
Now imagine a deep, rasping crackle developing into a heavy growl at 4000rpm and you’ve virtually projected yourself into the Cooper Bristol’s cabin
As I swoop by the pits for the second time – watching the suspension working away merrily and registering how well the front and rear transverse leaf springs work – I clock another Cooper Bristol, sporting race number 18, entering the track. It’s Paul, in his wife Mary’s car (the ex-Horace Gould sister car to the one I’m driving). I’m not sure whether he’s come out to keep me company or keep an eye on his treasured possession. But whatever the reason, it’s a fantastic feeling as we charge around the circuit side by side, just like Fifties privateers Nuckey and Gould did in the cars’ heyday.
Paul bought these two Cooper Bristol Mklls 12 years ago, selecting them as an easier-to-maintain six-cylinder alternative to the 1100cc supercharged Amilcars that he and his wife used to race. They also benefit from the later, lighter, tubular chassis. ‘My car is the Mkll that Rodney Nuckey raced, owned and campaigned in 1953 and 1954,’ explains Paul. ‘It competed in many non-championship grands prix across Europe – including Syracuse, Sweden, France and Germany – along with the 1953 German GP at the Niirburgring, at which Nuckey and the car finished a creditable 11th out of the 34 starters.
‘Later, it was sold to Alec Mildren through the Cooper Factor)’ and arrived in Australia in December 1954. Mildren competed most notably in the 1956 and 1957 Australian GPs, before the car passed to Syd Negus for the 1958 Australian GP.
It was then sold to Jim Harwood in the mid-Sixties, before being brought back to Britain and sold to Cecil Bendall through Cameron Millar. Since then, it’s been used on the historic racing scene by various notable drivers and owners including Richard Pilkington, Julian Majzub, Flavien Marcais… and now, myself.’
Paul’s low-maintenance Cooper Bristol can compete with some of the very best and most wonderful racing cars in the world, including Maserati 250Fs, Ferraris and Aston Martins. ‘The engine is strong and reliable, and everything is simple, so it’s easy to run,’ he says. ‘Furthermore, it’s a light car and it’s an F2 car, so it can run with period F1 cars. And I think it’s beautiful.’
When Paul bought the cars, they both needed work to get them eligible for the HGPCA regulations. They were too low, the wheels were the wrong size and the carburettors were incorrect.
Paul carried out the requisite alterations at his garage – he and Mary run a classic car workshop and dealership in Brussels, which Paul’s parents started back in 1946 – and then gave the cars to Ian Nuthall so he could fettle the engines.
His switch to the Cooper Bristol certainly had the desired effect, as Paul explains. ‘It quickly felt good driving the Cooper Bristol almost immediately and after one year I was first in my class. I had a good race at Monaco this year; I usually finish in the first ten – but when it’s wet I’m the rain man. I’m always out in front and I can even beat the Aston, Maserati 250F and Lotus 16.’
Last autumn, Paul was able to claim victory in the front-engined class at the Jerez Historic Festival, despite tricky conditions due to oil on the track. On faster circuits, the car has a speed disadvantage, but on twisty tracks like Dijon the Cooper Bristol really comes into its own.
Apart from the car’s relative practicality and competitiveness as a racer, Paul also gets a kick out of its provenance. ‘It’s so nice to own a slice of racing history,’ he says. And, of course, there’s the Hawthorn connection – he competed in his first grand prix in Belgium in 1952, finishing fourth at the wheel of the Mkl F2 version of Paul’s car prepared by Hawthorn’s father and owned by Bob Chase, who ran an engineering firm in Shoreham.
The race put Hawthorn on the map, and he followed up by achieving third place at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone and fourth at the Dutch GP. Although the Ferrari of the day was better developed, the Cooper Bristol was extremely reliable and, at the end of the 1952 season, Hawthorn and the Cooper Bristol were in fifth place in the World Drivers’ Championship.
Hawthorn cutting his GP teeth on the Cooper Bristol brought him and this superb racing car to the public’s attention. Of course, by the end of 1952 Ferrari had hired Hawthorn.
But I’ll leave it to Paul Grant to put a historical finale on the story of his and Mary’s cars. ‘I have an old copy of Autosport from June 25, 1954, with both of our cars on the front cover. They are racing together, “storming into Ramp Bend”, with Rodney Nuckey in my car, leading Peter Collins’ Connaught, Jack Fairman’s Turner and Horace Gould in my wife’s car. It is a fantastic privilege to own these two cars and maintain their racing history.’
Thanks to: lan Nuthall at INRacing (inracing.co.uk); the Historic Grand Prix Cars Association; Rachel Bailey and The Masters Series (themastersseries.com); Circuito de Jerez, Spain; Doug Nye for additional information.
COOPER STYLE: JUST LIKE THAT…
Cooper produced its earliest 500cc racing cars with a box-section frame stiffened by a tubular superstructure. The company continued with the same format in its Cooper MG sports cars and the Cooper Bristol Mkl. That single-seater had a perforated box-section twin-longeron chassis (in essence, two parallel box sections, with the previously proven tubular section above that, to stiffen the box). Basically, it was a glorified ladder chassis with a superstructure supporting the body.
However, the Mkll Cooper Bristol had a proper multi-tubular lattice frame that was lighter and stiffer, which gave extra performance. It wasn’t a true spaceframe, but it was certainly a less agricultural job.
What is now a recognisable design shape wasn’t down to any sort of eureka moment within the Cooper Car Company. Cooper’s designer, Owen Maddock (pictured), had a big black beard (hence the nickname ‘Whiskers’) and there were several brainstorming sessions when Charlie Cooper would wander into Maddock’s design office in Hollyfield Road, Surbiton, to see what he was doing. ‘Nah-nah, Whiskers, we don’t want it like that,’ he would say. So poor Owen would draw something different, followed by Charlie coming back in. ‘No Whiskers, you’ve got to do better than that…’ Eventually, out of sheer exasperation, Maddock drew a frame in which there was not one single straight tube, and all the tubes followed the external shape of the bodywork. It was at that point that Charlie Cooper wandered in again. He looked at it and, to Maddock’s total surprise, said, ‘That’s it! That’s it, Whiskers! Now, that’s exactly what we want.’ So, what started out as an exasperated joke became the Cooper Bristol.
WILL NUTH ALL:
Will has been driving Mary Grant’s ex-Horace Gould car while she’s been sidelined with injury. Here are his driving impressions.
‘The Cooper Bristol Mkll is a very good introduction into historic motoring. It’s a very forgiving car and doesn’t bite you if you throw it about – it will help you if you try too hard. It is a most enjoyable car to drive and inspires the driver with confidence.
‘It’s not overly powerful, but has sufficient to make a good showing in the mixed fields in which it runs today. In period, it was designed to be racing against similarly powered F2 cars, whereas now it’s often racing against much more powerful machines due to the nature of the current historic grids. But it has adequate power to make anybody smile.
Compared to modern car figures, on paper it might seem underpowered, but it is certainly well quick enough. In reality it works and the power- to-weight ratio is pretty good, especially considering the Dunlop R-section tyres that the regulations decree; with much more power it would become considerably more difficult to control.
What’s it like compared to the earlier Mkl ladder chassis car? Well, its character is very similar to this later car with the tubular chassis, but the tubular-chassis car feels slightly stiffer and also lighter.’
|Car||1953 Cooper Bristol MkII 3/53|
1971cc straight-six. ohv. three Solex 32BI carburetors
155bhp @ 6000rpm
135lb ft @ 6000rpm
Front and rear: transverse leaf spring, lower wishbone, adjustable telescopic dampers
Rack and pinion
Lockheed drums front and rear
|Wheels||4 1/2Jx15in alloys, Tyres Dunlop Historic. Front: 500×15: rear: 550×15|