Super Cooper This Monaco was driven by Jack Brabham, Bruce McLaren and Roy Salvadori in its heyday Today we take it for a spin… on the road Words Ivan Ostroff. Photography Glenn Lindberg.
Super Cooper Taking to the road in the ankle-high ex-Brabham Cooper Monaco…
The Jack Brabham Cooper Monaco driven… …on the road!
The Cooper Monaco I’m about to drive is hardly short on provenance. It was owned by Jack Brabham at the time when he was the number one works driver for Cooper, and campaigned by him during his irst World Championship year of 1959. It was also driven by Bruce McLaren and Roy Salvadori; John Cooper himself owned the car too, as did John Coombs. Brabham raced the car in Denmark, Sweden, the Bahamas and Cuba as well as the UK, so it has a great international history.
Other owners included Peter Hannen, Alan de Cadenet and Thomas Boscher. At one point it was sold in America where it also raced for many years.
After being robbed of a drive three years ago by damage it sustained in a crash at Goodwood just days beforehand, at last I stand before the repaired Cooper with key in palm. I spend a moment taking in the three iconic names written on the lank – Jack Brabham, Bruce McLaren and Roy Salvadori. The car has been returned to the specification it ran when Brabham and McLaren drove it at the 1959 Goodwood Tourist Trophy, complete with painted knock-of wire wheels and access holes in the bodywork for oil and water top-ups. John Cooper’s signature is scrawled across the bonnet too.
‘The coolant pipes pass through the cockpit to my left; I don’t need a gauge to tell me when it’s up to temperature’ To open the door I have to release a slotted aluminium catch from the top of the wraparound perspex windscreen, which in turn requires a twist of the Raydot racing mirror fixed to the catch. I then lean in and pull the cord on the inside of the door; the door falls open downwards like an inverted gullwing. Now it’s a balancing act as I take great care not to step on the door itself, nor put any weight on that long rear clamshell. The aluminium is so thin it would damage instantly.
I survey the dash. A tachometer dead ahead, rotated in typical Fifties competition-car style through 100 degrees, reads to 8000rpm with a redline at 7000. There is no speedometer. A fuel pressure gauge sits below and to the left, an ammeter below right, and above and to right of that is an oil pressure gauge, then a water temp gauge. Now, where is the oil temperature? Ah OK, it’s there on the right hidden behind the rim of the leather-trimmed aluminium steering wheel. The arrangement wouldn’t win a design prize but who cares.
What I do care about is that there’s a big black button to the right marked ‘horn’ because, you guessed it, this purebred racer is road-legal. For a minute, I think about about the greats that have driven this car, then I get my head back to 2018, twist the red battery master key, lick on the fuel pump and the ignition, and finally press the starter button. The 2.0-litre Coventry Climax barks into life and I keep it ticking over at 2000rpm while it warms. The coolant pipes pass through the cockpit to my left; I don’t need a gauge to tell me when it’s up to temperature.
The gearlever is a stubby, spindly affair crowned by an aluminium ball with a lattened top. I pull the Willans five-point harness down a tad tighter, dip the clutch and slide the lever forward into first. As 5000rpm comes up, I snick it back into second. The road opens up, so I slot the lever across the wide gate to get into third. The Monaco is good for 175mph at full chat, so on a public road I will not have any possibility of exploring the car’s performance in top. Acceleration even in third is terrific and presses my back hard against the seat as the deep rasp from the single rear exhaust pipe blasts my ears.
Slowing to a trickle as I approach a town, the car is easy to manage and the FBF Climax does not complain or hunt at low speeds so long as I keep it revving. If I accelerate without dropping a gear though, it isn’t too happy of the cam. But that is expected, so approaching the National Speed Limit sign I double-declutch down from third to second and then floor it. The rev counter spins through 4000rpm, the car taking on a completely different persona. Past 5000 things start to happen very fast; the gruff yowl increases in pitch and I instinctively back of. Without the luxury of a speedo it soon becomes difficult to judge how fast I’m going, until I come upon one of those illuminated roadside sensors displaying my excess velocity on the approach to the next town.
I make a mental note of the rpm and slow accordingly.
The Monaco’s clutch is switch-like but not too heavily sprung, so is easy to manage. The Cooper’s Ersa gearbox has four forward speeds; there’s little longitudinal movement between first and second or third and fourth, but there’s a large gap across the gate. Once I get my head around that, and the need to double-declutch up and down the box because of the lack of synchromesh, it’s fairly easy for me to swap cogs quickly.
Weighing just 500kg and sporting disc brakes all round, the Monaco sheds speed impressively. But I quickly learn that this is not a car to trail-brake into a corner, it doesn’t feel right. It’s vital to brake in a straight line and get the attitude of the car set up to slide through while being balanced on the throttle. To avoid terminal understeer, the product of narrower front tyres, I have to avoid loading up the front end when turning in; I get the power on early so that the back is pinned down.
The Monaco is beautifully balanced – water and oil radiators sit in the nose, while the fuel tank is mounted in front of the scuttle on the left side to counter the driver’s weight. And that poise is to be exploited. As the weight shifts to the back and the car slides through the corner on power, I find myself sawing away on the steering wheel busily. The steering is light, direct, and keeps me well informed about what the two wheels up front are up to.
Once on the power it’s important not to lift of on the way through – lose commitment at full revs while the car is sliding and the back will go light and lose grip immediately. The Cooper will slide progressively and predictably, but being a short, mid-engined car, if things do go too far, it will swap ends quickly. It is skittish and more difficult to handle than a lot of other racers, but offers an engaging drive and really rewards you when you get it right.
The suspension – double wishbone at the front and transverse leaf spring at the rear – is predictably firm, so the car corners flat without much roll. However, it does move around a lot on its historic crossplies; a new set of rubber would be most welcome. Just like Cooper’s Grand Prix cars, the suspension layout was fully adjustable, with Terry’s dampers fore and Armstrongs aft.
Out in the country through a fast double apex bend, I set up early in third then feed in more and more power. The Monaco keeps on pushing around. I resist the urge to grab fourth too early; I know it’ll take me out if I do, so I hold of then click the lever back when things straighten up on the last part of the exit.
Lower-speed manouvres can be just as challenging. This car might be road-registered but racing cars have notoriously large turning circles and the Monaco’s is a whopping 40 feet. Furthermore, in 1959, racing sports car regulations did not require either a handbrake nor a reverse gear. When I’m required to turn the car around during my test drive, I fail to find a large enough empty car park. I have to resort to swinging into the nearest driveway, getting out to cautiously push it back into the road, then climbing back on board. It’s a little inconvenient I suppose, but then 500 kilos is easy enough to push single-handedly.
That was hardly a main concern when this Monaco was built specially for Jack Brabham. Brabham had considerable success in the car during 1959, including coming sixth overall on May 3 at Silverstone and third overall at Aintree on July 19.
Cooper built a similar car for Stirling Moss, but that example was fitted with the 2.5-litre Coventry Climax engine in full Grand Prix spec. Moss said the Monaco was virtually a Formula 1 car clothed in a two-seat body; indeed it shared the same wheelbase and track, along with many of the components including the suspension. Even the front/rear weight balance was the same. Moss found it ‘very quick and chuckable’, but vague at high speed. Years later, he realized that was probably down to aerodynamic lift from the all-enveloping bodywork.
Today, current owner Paul says the Cooper is reliable and competitive. He’d like to run it with the larger engine that it was fitted with for certain events in period, but the rules for the series he currently competes in will not allow him to race it in 2.5-litre form. ‘It’s a shame because it would go like stink and gobble up everything, but of course that’s the reason they wont allow it!’
True that may be, but I can’t say I’ve found the 2.0-litre’s 180bhp insufficient today, particularly on public roads. It’s hardly a daily driver, but driving such a historied machine in such a relatable environment has arguably made the experience all the more special – especially when I take one final glance at the names emblazoned on the door.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1959 Cooper Monaco
Engine Coventry Climax FBF 1960cc in-line four cylinder dohc, twin Weber 48DCO3 carburettors, dry-sump oil system, oil cooler
Max Power 180bhp @ 6500rpm
Max Torque 190 lb ft @ 5000rpm
Transmission Four-speed Cooper Ersa gearbox, cam and pawl limited-slip diferential, rear-wheel drive Steering Rack and pinion
Suspension Front: double wishbone, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar.
Rear: wishbone, transverse leaf spring, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes 10¼-inch discs with two-piston calipers all round
Weight 500kg (1102lb)
Performance 0-60mph: 4.5sec; Top speed: 175mph
Cost new £2950
Despite its age, the Cooper still makes for a wieldy B-road weapon – providing you respect its cornering preferences.
Instruments are haphazardly placed Monacos were equipped with either 2.0- or 2.5-litre versions of the Climax; this is the smaller.
Owning a Cooper Monaco
Paul Griffin bought his Cooper Monaco in 2011, ‘It had been based with its previous owner in Spain for some time, so I went over there to see it with Sid Hoole. Shipping it back required quite a bit of form-filling but it a was fairly straightforward process.
‘There were no real problems when it arrived from Spain, but Sid did notice something awry with one of the magnesium rear wheels the car had when I bought it. The suspension geometry on that corner was out too; we came to the conclusion that the previous owner had probably clipped a curb while hill climbing on Spanish street circuits. Sid corrected the suspension and replaced the wheel.
‘At the 73rd Goodwood Members’ Meeting, a D-type dropped its oil at St Mary’s; I was following close behind and immediately became a passenger, drifting across the grass into the tyre wall. The Cooper ended up with body damage to three of the four corners, but the chassis and the mechanicals were left unscathed. I took the opportunity to have it repainted in colours it ran at Goodwood in 1959.
‘I use it for tours as well as racing; Sid has been familiar with the car for around 35 years so he know the car extremely well. He always prepares a box of spares to take along but it is very reliable and robust – up to now they have never been required. It’s a delightful car to drive on the circuit but is also a reasonable road car.’