16/08/2018Former Cooper Car Company Works Honoured with English Heritage Blue Plaque
- Iconic car manufacturer celebrated
- Vintage Cooper cars rally in support at unveiling
The Cooper Car Company, car manufacturer and winner of two Formula One World Championships, has today (16 August) been commemorated with an English Heritage blue plaque. The plaque was unveiled in Surbiton at the former Cooper Car Company works of the company’s golden years of the 1950s and 1960s, surrounded by vintage Cooper cars.
Long before the Cooper make became known as Michael Caine’s getaway car of choice, the name was first associated with innovative and successful racing cars which saw the company win two consecutive Formula One World Championships in 1959 and 1960 and play a key part in the development of the modern Formula One car. It was from the improbable surroundings of Hollyfield Road in Surbiton that Charles Cooper, alongside his son John, created a company whose legacy as a leader in British motoring design would guarantee it a place in motoring history.
At its peak, Cooper was the world’s largest production racing car manufacturer. The Australian-born Jack Brabham was at the wheel when the company won both the drivers’ and the constructors’ Formula One World Championships in 1959 and 1960, In 1958, Stirling Moss had won the Argentine Grand Prix in another Cooper car, and other famous drivers of Cooper racing models include Mike Hawthorn and Jackie Stewart.
It was the swinging sixties that saw the launch of the Mini-Cooper, one of the most iconic British cars to this day. This collaboration between the Cooper Car Company and the mass market British Motor Corporation (BMC) saw this sporty, higher powered version of the Mini made at large BMC factories. However, the early rally driving Mini-Coopers were prototyped in Surbiton in the late 1950s, and racing Mini-Coopers went on to win the Monte Carlo rally three times. As an offering for the consumer market, the Mini-Cooper was launched in 1961 and quickly became ‘the first economy car to be an object of universal desire’; a firm favourite among celebrities such as George Harrison, Mick Jagger and even the great Italian driver and brand founder Enzo Ferrari. The famous getaway scene in The Italian Job (1969), which saw several Mini-Cooper cars speeding through the streets of Turin in Italy, further cemented the vehicle as a symbol of 1960s British popular culture.
Mike Cooper, son of John Cooper, said: “The Cooper family are very proud that the Cooper Car Company’s old works in Surbiton has received a blue plaque. The amazing racing cars that were designed and manufactured there by my father, John Cooper, went on to conquer the world of motor sport.
“At its heart it was very much a family firm, I remember my dad telling me the story of how during a really cold spell the mechanics at the works asked my granddad if the workshop could have central heating. My granddad with my father promptly went downstairs to the workshop and, with two lengths of tubing, picked up the coke burning stove which was placed along one wall and placed it in the centre of the workshop, my granddad saying ‘There you go, central heating!’”
Howard Spencer, Senior Historian for English Heritage Blue Plaques, said: “The Cooper Car Company works is a hugely important building to the history of the British car industry. With a small staff that never exceeded 35, the works in Surbiton achieved great success, and it was from this factory that the F1 rear engine layout that became standard was successfully pioneered. We’re pleased to be able to recognise this beacon of innovative motoring design with a blue plaque and it’s a testament to the continuing resonance of its legacy that we have so many vintage Coopers and their owners here today to show their support.”
Beginning his career as a car mechanic, Charles Cooper (1893-1964) ran a garage in Surbiton, Surrey in the early 1920s until he formed the Cooper Car Company in 1947 with his son, John (1923-2000). The early Cooper cars were essentially four-wheeled motorcycles, and dominated the Formula Three category in the early 1950s, winning sixty-one races out of seventy-eight. The company then stepped up to Formulas Two and One, winning the world championships in 1959 and 1960, with a car featuring a revolutionary rear-mounted engine design that soon became the racing standard, and a tubular chassis that consisted entirely of curves.
Despite the success of the racing Coopers and the Mini-Cooper, Charles Cooper was unwilling to invest and expand; a notoriously brusque man, his typical business phone conversations have been characterised as running along the lines of ‘Allo! NO!’ (SLAM). But after the death of his father in 1964, John Cooper found it hard to keep the business going and sold out the Chipstead Motor Group soon after. The Cooper business moved to Byfleet, Surrey over the winter of 1965/66 – though the Surbiton premises continued to be used as a showroom for a while – and its operations ceased in 1969. The last Mini-Cooper made in Britain rolled off the BMC production line two years later, though the name has since been revived by BMW.
The English Heritage blue plaque commemorating the former works of the Cooper Car Company is at Hollyfield Road in Surbiton, Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames. The works building is a rare surviving purpose-built, architect-designed, 1950s motor workshop and the unusual curved frontage, renowned amongst motor racing and Cooper aficionados, is a striking example of ‘Thunderbirds’ architecture. It mirrors the curved design of the Cooper racing cars – perhaps, it has been suggested, as an intentional homage. This is quite possible, since the architect was Richard Maddock, father of the Cooper chief designer (and renowned jazz sousaphone player) Owen ‘The Beard’ Maddock (d. 2000).
Other people and places prominent in the history of motoring and motor sport recognised under the London Blue Plaques Scheme include Charles Rolls of Rolls-Royce (Mayfair); racing driver and world speed record holder Sir Henry Segrave (Marylebone); the land and water speed record holders Sir Malcolm and Donald Campbell (Kingston), and the racing driver Graham Hill (Mill Hill).
The Cooper cars which attended the unveiling were:
1. 1955 Cooper T39 Bobtail (nicknamed because of its cut off tail), driven in the mid-1950s America in the blossoming East coast Sports car scene, re-imported to the UK in 1995 to be restored and driven at Goodwood, and raced in the 50’s Sports Cars series, owned by Bob Searles. The owner’s father, Ron Searles, was Works Manager of Cooper’s, and lost his life during a world record attempt at Monza in 1957 driving a Cooper Bobtail.
2. Formula One racing car from 1959, owned by Rod Jolley
3. Replica Mini van, painted in Cooper livery, owned by Ian Legg
4. Blue and white Mini-Cooper police van; the Mini was incredibly popular as a police car, and a nuts and bolts restoration by Alex Lee, the current owner, has included all its police kit of two-tone horns, blue light and illuminated signage
The English Heritage London Blue Plaques scheme is generously supported by David Pearl and members of the public.