Ask anyone “Who is John Cooper?” and they’re sure to answer, “He’s the guy who makes the MINI John Cooper Works!”
Wrong answer. Or mostly wrong
John Cooper was born on July 17, 1923. His father, Charles, owned a race car maintenance and repair shop. When John was 15, he quit school to join the British forces fighting in World War II. When he came home, he went back to working with his dad. In 1946, they started making small, inexpensive race cars equipped with motorcycle engines.
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One day, it occurred to the two men to install the engine behind the driver instead of in front. Why? John would later explain that it was more practical like that, because the motorcycle engine powered the wheels by way of a chain. Driven by their associate Eric Brandon, their rear-engine Cooper 500 won Britain’s first post-war race on July 13, 1947, at the Gransden Lodge military airport just a few kilometres from Cambridge.
Catching the attention of Formula 1
The Coopers had just started a revolution on the small automobile racing scene. By placing the engine in back, they created a car that was more dextrous and had better handling. Before long, Formula 1 became curious about this set-up. And since Formula 1 was essentially English back then, the Cooper name quickly became well-known. In 1958, Stirling Moss won the Formula 1 championship driving a Cooper T43. The following year, Jack Brabham won the driver’s and manufacturer’s races in a Cooper T51, which also featured a rear-engine.
The Celebrated Monte-Carlo Rally
In 1961, the Mini and Cooper names were united for the first time. John Cooper and Alec Issigonis, the man behind the Mini Minor, were good friends. John already had plans to send the Mini into competition, but Issigonis had his reservations. By adding disc brakes up front and increasing the engine’s displacement from 848 to 997 cc and power from 34 to 55 horsepower, Cooper was determined to make it into a race-worthy machine. Not long after, they came out with the S version that would truly make a name for the Mini Cooper by winning the Monte-Carlo Rally three times (1964, 1965 and 1967).
The JCW era
In 2001, an all-new MINI came out. Decidedly modern and built under the careful watch of its new owner, BMW, this MINI (whose name is now branded with capital letters) may be bigger than its ancestor, but it still manages to be mini, even with German mechanical parts.
Once again, it wasn’t long before John Cooper’s name resurfaced. First it was to designate a sport package to enhance the tiny vehicle’s feisty character. Then, in 2008, the John Cooper Works name was assigned to a distinct model featuring largely redesigned parts that made it into a MINI bombshell.
We recently tested the latest iteration of this sport thoroughbred. Read what we had to say.
As for John Cooper the man, he passed away on December 24, 2000, at the age of 77. His father had lived until October 1964. When you get behind the wheel of a MINI JCW today, you can’t help but be thankful for what these two men left behind!