1961 Cooper-Climax "Kimberly Cooper Special"

In May 2011, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the British invasion of Indianapolis at Goodwood, England.
Since 1911 and for 50 years, the front-engine, Peugeot-derived racing cars dominated the racing at the famous speedway. When Jack Brabham and John Cooper appeared at Indy on May 5, 1961, they started a revolution that has proven the smart way to go for the next 54 years.
 

After winning their second Formula One World Championship in October 1960, encouraged by Roger Ward, John Cooper and Jack Brabham tested a Cooper-Climax T53 "Low Line" F1 car at the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The results were encouraging enough for wealthy enthusiast Jim Kimberly, thanks to Dr. Frank Faulkner's connections, to sponsor a specially built car for the 1961 race. Designed and constructed in less than 4 months, the new car appeared at the Brickyard May 5, 1961, and was quickly put into its paces. After a few modifications, Jack Brabham qualified the new car in 13th spot, at a speed only 2.3 mph slower than the year's pole position by Eddie Sachs.
After an eventful race in which Brabham was forced to make 3 long pit stops and had to drive at reduced cornering speeds due to excessive tire wear from inadequate Dunlop tires, he completed the 200 laps in 9th place, causing many to rethink their long-established beliefs about what a proper Indy car should be.
It would take three more years for the "Rear Engine Revolution" to be complete, but the Cooper-Climax T54 was the death knell of the traditional front-engine,
rigid-axle cars that had ruled the "Indy 500" since the very first race in 1911.
 

 


This Cooper, the sole model T54 ever built, was derived from the T53 "Low Line" F1 car, but built with a longer wheelbase and an offset chassis to address the specific needs of the famous Speedway. By 1965 the car had vanished, and it took a lucky break and a bit of publicity for all the remaining components to form once more what had been a glorious machine. After two years of hard labor and lots of detective work, the bits came together as a thing of beauty. Above, Jack is pictured prior to qualifying the car, still not adorned with all its race-day sponsors. The special 16" Dunlop wheels, an inch larger than that of the F1 cars, were made of a magnesium rim riveted to a steel center.
The story of the car's saga is fascinating and will soon be the subject of a new book.

 

 

Powered by an experimental 2.8-liter Coventry-Climax FPF engine, the car is credited for having started the rear-engine revolution that ensued at the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway, culminating in the win by Lotus and Jimmy Clark in 1965, and a dominance ever after of the more advanced design.

The car was donated to and is on display at the Marconi Automotive Museum for Kids in Tustin, California. Part of its fascinating history is briefly described below.

 

 

After the 1961 "Indy 500", Hap Sharp purchased the T53 backup car, that never turned a wheel at the Speedway during the month of May. It had been fitted with 15" centerlock wheels and standard Dunlop F1 tires, and after the proper T54 qualifying, with the practice and qualifying engine on lona. With it, Sharp proceeded to destroy the Road America lap record. By year's end, both this and the race engine were bolted to the works Cooper Monaco driven by Bruce McLaren, and that owned by Hap Sharp, driven by Jack Brabham. They won 1st and 2nd placing at the Times Grand Prix race in Riverside after a terrific battle. A week later at the Monterey Grand Prix, Roger Penske purchased one of the two engines from the Cooper team, with in mind to build himself a very special car.

At right, Brabham winning the Riverside race with Hap Sharp's Cooper Monaco
 

 

 

After acquiring the Coventry-Climax experimental "Indy" engine, Penske purchased a Cooper T53 F1 chassis from Briggs Cunningham, that Walt Hansgen had damaged at the 1960 US Grand Prix. Roger had carefully read the SCCA rule book and with Roy Gane's help, built a "sports car" that was little else but a widened F1 car. This was called "Zerex Duralite Spl." after Roger's sponsors. He proceeded to win lots of races, including the 1962 Times Grand Prix at Riverside, the world's richest sports car race. After several frustrated racers and car owners protested, the SCCA modified its rule book and forced a redesign of the cockpit to fit a passenger larger than a Chihuahua. Roger sold the car to oil magnate John Mecom, and went on winning more races in both the USA and the UK. and placing 2nd at the 1963 Times Grand Prix.

 

By now, the glorious engine had an incredible racing record, finishing in 9th place at the "Indy 500", winning the Times Grand Prix twice as well as finishing second and winning several other important races in 1962 and 1963. But this was to end ignominiously in 1963 in Pensacola, Florida. There, Hap Sharp, while sharing driving duties with Penske, comprehensively damaged the engine when missing a gear shift. Shortly after, the car was sold to Bruce McLaren, the Coventry-Climax engine removed, now sitting on a pallet inside one of John Mecom's warehouses in Houston.
In 1990, the damaged engine parts as well as spare parts came up for sale in Houston, as they had been auctioned at an unknown time along with several Cobra engines. Offered the remains after placing an advert in a magazine, Philippe de Lespinay acquired the lot after realizing what they were and their importance in Indy car history. But what of the car?

 

    After the 1961 race, the Cooper was briefly returned to the UK for a demonstration at Silverstone, then came back to the USA and was displayed at the older IMS museum though 1962, sans engine.
As a redundant racer, and since he had new cars being built by Mickey Thompson, it was sold by Kimberly to British Motors' distributor Kjell Kvale in San Francisco in early 1963. Originally planned to use, as suggested by crew chief Joe Huffaker, an Offy engine, with which it would have made the car a potentially winning machine, Kvale obtained a works Aston Martin engine. This heavy lump lacked power and torque and while the Cooper was still  the fastest cornering car, even bettering the Clark and Gurney Lotuses' speed, the modified machine failed to make the show due to its lack of top speed. 
Kvale returned the engine to Aston martin and sold the car to a club racer in San Jose, California.

 

After the 1963 Indy 500, the car simply disappeared from the public eye. It re-appeared in 1990 as a bad wreck, its main components having been the basis of a rear-engine sprint car. The remains of both were purchased by Philippe in partnership with Robert G. Arnold, and the car restored to original condition by Philippe, Thomas Beauchamp and Gene Crowe (of McKee and Cro-Sal fame), with a series of period photographs supplied by Dave Friedman.
 

 

 

 

A part of the remains of the glorious machine as found in Tacoma, WA after years of storage. Incredibly, the tube chassis had also survived, inside another car! It was retrieved and rebuilt thanks to extraordinary precise period photography by Dave Friedman, pictures which were instrumental in the rebirth of the old car.

 

    While most of the inner parts from the original race engine, as well as spare parts used on the Zerex-Cooper by Roger Penske, had been discovered and purchased by Philippe in Texas, the engine block had traveled further west to Colorado. A trade with the owner/collector/racer was negotiated and the engine block repaired and welded by famed Indy car builder Quincy Epperly. The engine was then rebuilt by Gene Crowe at Steve Jennings Racing Engines in Santa Ana.
As for the car's rebuild, attention was paid to use all the original components to preserve as much of the original car as possible.
Here, Sir Jack Brabham inspects the chassis during a visit in California in March 1991. Jack never believed that the car could be ready in time for the anniversary August date, but it was, thanks to a superhuman effort by all the parties involved.
Barely ready in time for the 1991 Monterey Historic races and driving duties shared by Sir Jack and Philippe de Lespinay, it won the prestigious Monterey Cup, the Phil Hill trophy.

 

 

15 years separate these pictures of the late Sir Jack Brabham, John Cooper and Philippe with the glorious machine, at the 1994 Goodwood Festival of Speed, and at the 2006 Monterey Historic Races.

 

  The Cooper T54 was the star of the Rolex display at the 2006 Monterey Historic races. It has since appeared at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, and was one of the 33 Indy cars selected to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500 at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2011.

2011 was also the 50th anniversary of the revolution it created at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

 

Pebble Beach 2010
 

In August, 2010, we were invited to show the Kimberly-Cooper Spl. to the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. The Cooper stood proud, near the Lotus-Ford Type 38 that ended the front-engine car domination in 1965.
 

 

  Left: It was a cold and damp day, but it did not matter as we had great fun! Here we perform our uppity-snob pose for a friend's camera...

Above: The wonderfully kind Alice Hanks, wife of the late Sam Hanks, winner of the 1957 Indy 500 and of the 1957 "Race of Two Worlds" at Monza, Italy, came to visit us as her husband's Bardhal Special was on display next to our car.

 

2011 Goodwood Festival of Speed (100th Anniversary of the first "Indy 500", 50th Anniversary of the Rear Engine Revolution)
 

 

 

 

 

 

Watch the video HERE!     Warming up the engine...
The beautiful old car behaved, but unfortunately one of its cylinder liner decided to have a fit after its 50-year service, so the car had to be parked for the Sunday climbs.
Once, we will take its old heart apart and offer it new liners and new pistons, as it has been running with the now very used parts that made Roger Penske famous and Jack Brabham a hero of the "500" forever.
The car has now achieved a level of patina that only 23 years of used can reflect, and we have no plans to change that. There are too many old cars out there that have lost all their original character because their owners decided to make them more perfect that they ever were, destroying their character.


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