Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There is no need to stretch facts in order to shower the legendary Cooper T45/51 with admiration. The little Climax-engined Grand Prix racer wasn’t the first mid-engined car to win on a race track — not even close.
Right from the outset, cars were either rear-engined (the 1886 Benz Patent Wagen notably) or even mid-engined. In fact, in those early days of motoring’s dawn, it was the front-engined and rear-wheel-driven layout, which we take for granted today, that seemed novel back then.
If we’re talking race cars, as we should be since this is the legendarising of the Cooper T45, then the 1923 Benz Tropfenwagen designed by a certain Ferdinand Porsche is the first true mid-engined racer — ‘tropfen’ meaning ‘dropped’ in German, so perhaps Porsche had a hot-rodding streak in him and built himself a lowboy.
This early breakthrough in racing balance was only a modest foundation for what Porsche’s genius mind conjured up next: Auto Union’s freakishly powerful supercharged, V16 monsters, sleek, silver, and long, housing their enormous fire-belching powerplants behind the driver and turning the rear axle with spindly tyres.
Germany’s mid-engined Silver Arrows decimated everything in their path and won every race there was to win in the Thirties, often reaching speeds of up to 320kph.
Mid-engined was clearly the future.
But the Second World War had other ideas and when the Formula 1 championship began in 1950 all that teams had left to race were outdated front-engined dinosaurs.
But this is F1, and these purposeful machines were still the fastest of their day, until the Cooper Car Company, founded by Charles Cooper and his son John Cooper, broke new ground in 1958 by, yes, winding back the clock some 30 or 40 years.
Cooper’s little mid-engined racer was already well established in the lower single-seater series, but a tiny 2.5-litre engine for the Grand Prix level of competition gave the T45 a distinct power disadvantage. Once Cooper Cars overcame the complexities of a transaxle gearbox, the lightweight and perfectly balanced Cooper flew right past the six-cylinder Ferraris and Maserati 250Fs. Well, so long as the circuit was slow and twisty. Which Monaco certainly was, as Jack Brabham gave the mid-engined Cooper its first win in May of 1958 and set the ball rolling for a racecar layout that still lives on today.
In fact, we’re actually marking the Cooper’s first real win almost to the day, since it was in January 1958 that a T45 first won a Grand Prix, although an unofficial one in Argentina with Stirling Moss at the wheel.