Cooper racing workshop recognised with English Heritage 'blue plaque'

Jeremy Taylor
A blue plaque has been installed at the former home of the Cooper Car Company 

A ceremony to commemorate a key moment in motorsport history was held in the slightly unlikely surroundings of Hollyfield Road, Surbiton, today.

The small gathering of local dignitaries and enthusiasts will meet on August 16 outside Ivey House, at the junction with Ewell Road – a location that was once home to the Cooper Car Company.

Cooper became famous for the rear-engined revolution that changed motor racing for good. It helped Britain become a centre of motorsport excellence and made Cooper a winning team.

Now English Heritage has recognised the importance of the building and awarded the former garage workshops blue plaque status. Guest of honour at the unveiling ceremony in August will be Mike Cooper, the son of the late racing legend John.

He said: “The Cooper family is very proud that the company’s old works in Surbiton has received a blue plaque. The amazing racing cars that were designed and manufactured there by my father went on to conquer the world of motorsport.”

Mike’s grandfather Charles Cooper established his company in 1946. With him at the grubby garage was his son John and friend, Eric Brandon. However, it was their designer Owen Maddock who first dreamt up the idea of placing the engine behind the driver for improved weight distribution.

A relative unknown, Maddock was nicknamed “the beard” and wore an open-necked shirt with a woolly jumper in the drivers’ paddock. He began at Cooper in 1948 as a fitter.

If walls could talk | 'blue plaque' facts

Despite suffering from a terrible stutter, jazz-loving Maddock became a popular figure around the workshop. Sir Stirling Moss drove a Cooper-Climax designed by Maddock to success in Argentina in 1958 – it was the first time a car with a rear-mounted engine had won a grand prix and the first win for a privateer team.

Maddock had taken many drawings of his new car designs to Charlie Cooper, who turned them down flat. Maddock later said: “Finally, I got so fed up I sketched a frame in which every tube was bent, meant just as a joke. I showed it to Charlie and to my astonishment he grabbed it and said ‘That’s it!’”

Cooper won the Formula One world championship in 1959 and 1960 with Maddock’s “bent tube” design – it became a standing joke that his drawings comprised nothing but curves.

Cooper went on to dominate rallying too. Within years, every Formula One team was building rear-engined machines – cars that all stemmed from a design originally penned at the workshops on Hollyfield Road.

John Cooper with son Mike next to one of the F2 Coopers in 1959

John Cooper sold the Cooper Formula One team after the death of his father in 1965. It relocated to Byfleet, before the Surbiton works were leased to the Metropolitan Police three years later. It was used as a traffic division station monitoring the Kingston bypass for 25 years.

English Heritage historian, Howard Spencer said: “We were first approached about the building eight years ago. It was only when the current owners moved in and understood the historic significance of the garage that blue plaque status seemed possible.”

The Cooper workshop was later redesigned by Maddock’s father, Richard, an architect under Sir Herbert Baker. Baker was responsible for the rebuilding of the Bank of England – Maddock himself worked on that project for 16 years.

Maddock was brought in to draw up plans for the new-look Surbiton garage and opted for a radical approach that still stands today. Much to the delight of his son’s work colleagues, the frontage design was curved. It convinced them that curves must be in the Maddock blood.

The garage in 1959, with three Esso pumps and a prototype Monaco visible, as well as the F1 and F2 machines

“What makes this blue plaque so interesting is that it is in London, a part of the country not normally associated with motorsport or vehicle production. Thankfully, the building has recently been designated as Listed too, so it seems sure to survive for years to come,” said Spencer.

English Heritage receives about 70 nominations from the public for official blue plaque status in London each year. Researchers reduce the list to 25, which then go before a panel of experts who decide on the 12 successful sites.

Spencer said: “We have to be dispassionate about our judgement and decide every case on its merit. The plaque has to commemorate a public figure who has been dead for at least 20 years, to ensure a sufficient degree of hindsight. There also has to be a very strong connection with London.”

Councils across the country have established similar schemes. London now has more than 930 – each ceramic plaque costs English Heritage £1,200 to cast and can cost a similar amount to install.  

http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/

LONDON’S MOTORSPORT PLAQUES

English Heritage has a number of blue plaques in the capital related to motoring. However, there may be others put up by individual local authorities…

Sir Malcolm and Donald Campbell

Sir Malcolm Campbell moved to Canbury, Kingston Hill, Kingston-upon-Thames in 1919. His son Donald was born two years later. Between them they set ten land speed records and 11 on the water. The two-storey detached house is now a school.

Graham Hill

32 Parkside, Mill Hill, was owned by the motor racing ace for 12 years from 1960. It was also the childhood home of his son, world champion Damon. Hill remains the only driver in history to win the ‘triple crown’ of Le Mans, Indianapolis and Formula One.

Sir Harry Ricardo

An eminent mechanical engineer, Sir Harry was born at 13 Bedford Square, Bloomsbury. He contributed to the development of the internal combustion engine, especially the development of the sleeve valve design used in many pre-Second World War cars.

Sir Henry Segrave

A racing driver and world speed record holder, Sir Henry won four grand prix and was the first person to hold the land and water records simultaneously. After he was demobbed from the Royal Flying Corps, he lived a 6 St Andrew’s Mansions, Marylebone and made his first visit to Brookalnds motor racing circuit.

Charles Rolls

Born in Mayfair in 1877, Rolls was the fourth man in England to own a motor car. However, his blue plaque at 14 Conduit Street, Mayfair, the address associated with Rolls-Royce as a showroom and headquarters for most of the 20th century.

For tips and advice, visit our Advice section, or sign up to our newsletter here

A-Z Car Finder