Simanaitis Says

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THE FIRST 1.5-LITER COOPER, AN EARLY BEETLE AND OL’ SHEL TOPS THE HILL

I’LL NEVER LACK for automotive reading material, what with a closet full of old magazines. R&T October 1956 is a perfect example.

This and other images from R&T, October 1956. The cover car is an AC Aceca.

Formula 1 was at the height of its 2.5-liter era in 1956, but a Cooper shown in the British Grand Prix report pointed to the future, in more ways than one. The original Volkswagen received modest improvement. A young race driver wearing bib overalls drove a recent Grand Prix Ferrari up a hill in eastern Pennsylvania. And an even younger enthusiast from Cleveland was there—just this close to him and the car.

The new Cooper dominated its Formula 2 race accompanying the Grand Prix held at the Silverstone circuit. Roy Salvadori drove this 1.5-liter race car that, like its 500-cc motorcycle-engined Formula 3 sibling, had its powerplant behind the driver, not ahead of him. The Cooper T41’s Climax FWD produced 100 hp, but this was enough because the car weighed only 720 lb.

Cooper T41, Silverstone, July 14, 1956.

By the way, Coventry Climax’s FW single-overhead-cam inline-four engines began life as portable pumps for firefighting, with more than 150,000 going into service. An original FW produced 38 hp, however the design was a sound one and FW offspring were potent indeed during the 1.5-liter Formula 1 era, 1961–1965. And, in time, all Grand Prix 1 engines were aft of the drivers; even traditionalist Indy gave in.

The 1956 Bugatti Type 251 Formula 1 car also had a mid-engine, transversely mounted to boot. Alas, fat lot of good it did it.

Bugatti Type 251, Reims, July 1, 1956.

Driver Maurice Trintignant was offered a choice of two Type 251s for the 1956 French Grand Prix held at the Reims circuit: the prototype and a barely completed update with fewer than 32 miles of break-in. He qualified the latter 18th on a 20-car grid, though Bernard Cahier reported that, by the end of the first lap, the Bugatti was 13th amidst the Gordinis. Trintignant and the Type 251 retired at the 18th lap of the race’s 61.

An ocean and continent away, R&T said of the Volkswagen that “There is no longer any doubt about it—enough figures are in to confirm that Dr. Ferdinand Porsche’s little ‘people’s car’ has done what no other vehicle manufactured outside the U.S.A. has ever been able to do: It has gained an unmistakable wheelhold in the garages and hearts of the American car-buying public.”

“Limit of adhesion: the VW sticks to the road remarkably well up to this point, but once the rear end breaks loose…”

The Beetle’s wheelhold may have been unmistakable, but so was behavior of its rear swing axle. A similar design on Chevrolet’s Corvair was the first chapter in Ralph Nader’s 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed.

Noted by R&T in 1956 were the VW’s being “cheap to buy and run, small and compact, light and maneuverable yet solidly constructed, and perhaps above all, utterly dependable and trouble-free.”

I owned one in the 1970s while living on St. Thomas. The car’s stump-pulling low gear bested any of the island’s steep driveways. Otherwise accepted was its modest performance; and it was modest indeed.

Back in the 1950s, I spent some time each summer in eastern Pennsylvania, not far from Wilkes-Barre and its annual Giants Despair Hillclimb. For several years running and several days each year, my dad, rest his soul, would drive the 40 miles from Shenandoah to Wilkes-Barre and drop me off at Laurel Run, home of Giants Despair.

A Formula 3 car is flagged off at the bottom of the hill.

Neither my enthusiasm nor the drivers’ was hampered by intermittent rain at Giants Despair in 1956. The paddock at the bottom of the hill was open to all and I recall helping to push-start a Formula 3 car. Heady stuff indeed.

Bob Bucher drove his Cadillac-engine Allard to second-best-time up the hill.

The hill has mild twisties at first followed by the Esses and Devil’s Hairpin, six turns in a rise of about 650 feet. Its length of one mile made the “magic minute,” i.e., a 60-mph average, the big deal in 1956.

Carroll Shelby and his 4.5-liter Ferrari Grand Prix car broke the “magic minute” with a 0:58.768.

Carroll Shelby was campaigning sportsman John Edgar’s cars throughout the country. Shelby came suitably equipped for Giants Despair with Edgar’s 4.5-liter Ferrari Grand Prix car, as raced in Europe under the 1950–1953 Formula One regulations for 1.5-liter supercharged/4.5-liter naturally aspirated engines.

Years later, I had the pleasure of interacting with Ol’ Shel (it was he who taught me that “dumsumbitch” was one word). We laughed about how close I came to shaking his hand in 1956. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017

4 comments on “THE FIRST 1.5-LITER COOPER, AN EARLY BEETLE AND OL’ SHEL TOPS THE HILL

  1. Stewart
    April 4, 2017

    Thanks again for a fun article. Cheers

  2. Skip
    April 4, 2017

    The Coventry Climax is worthy of a write-up of its own. Walt Hassan, ably assisted by Harry Mundy, left Jaguar when he figured William Haynes was “the” man and wasn’t moving up or out. So Hassan to his skills over to water pump engines, but not for long. Such a jewel those two guys conceived.

  3. lawrence romanosky
    April 5, 2017

    It’s a great story, I have the book somewhere, something like ‘Climax in Coventry’.. Be careful searching for it though!

    I had an early Land Rover with a Brockhouse Trailer and in it, a Coventry Climax Firepump engine.. Very cool.

    • simanaitissays
      April 6, 2017

      I agree! Cool indeed. Keep Calm and Put Out That Blaze! And thanks for your kind words.

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