John Cooper, the man who turned the modest Mini into a cult Sixties car, dies

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The Independent Online
John Cooper, the man who took a moderately successful car, the Mini, and turned it into the coolest vehicle of the Sixties, died on Christmas Eve aged 77.</p>While Sir Alec Issigonis became famous for sketching out the original Mini on the back of a cigarette packet, it was the former racing driver, Cooper, who turned the car into the icon of Swinging Sixties London. His souped-up version featured in dozens of fashion shoots and starred alongside Michael Caine in the classic 1969 film The Italian Job</i>.</p>"It was the cult car of the Sixties - an icon," said Doug Nye, a friend of Cooper and a motor racing writer. "If the Mini was cool then the Mini Cooper was cool with knobs on. In fact the Mini would not have lasted as long as it has without the Cooper version because it gave the car a hip image and motor racing pedigree. Without that it would have been just another baby car, like the Fiat 500."</p>Mr Nye, who led the tributes to his friend, said Cooper, who lived in Worthing, West Sussex, had been ill with cancer for some time. "He was that great rarity in the motor racing world, a man with no enemies," he said. "He was universally liked and respected and of course his achievements in the sport were enormous."</p>Sir Stirling Moss said Cooper was a "hands-on engineer" and that his death was a sad loss for motor racing. "He built rear-engine cars and made a great contribution to the sport of motor racing. He put England back on top.</p>"It is thanks to John Cooper that I was able to get into the sport as his racing cars were relatively cheap."</p>The Cooper Car Company was the first British motor racing manufacturer to win the Formula One constructors' championship, which it achieved two years running. But the Mini Cooper was his most impressive legacy.</p>Sir Alec's Mini first rolled off the production line in 1959 at a cost of £496 and his friend, John Cooper, was among the first to take it for a spin. Impressed by its extraordinary handling and road-holding, Cooper told Sir Alec there was a racing car inside dying to get out.</p>Sir Alec was initially reluctant fearing that it would not sell but the manufacturers were immediately keen. The Mini was desperately in need of something to make it hip and shift it from the garage forecourts. Two years later the two-tone Mini Cooper was launched with a top speed of 87mph. The Cooper S followed, which was capable of 100mph and suddenly the little car was in Vogue. Literally.</p>It won the Monte Carlo rally three times and was featured in numerous fashion shoots. Peter Sellers, Margot Fonteyn and Ringo Starr all drove Mini Coopers and 10 years later it was immortalised in The Italian Job, in which Michael Caine led a gang of thieves who performed a daring escape with a huge stash of gold bullion.</p>The famous car chase through the grand Italian streets, down stairs and through pipes showed off its versatily and road handling to perfection and helped sales along still further.</p>In spite of this it was phased out, although the original Mini continued to be a success. In 1990 it was re-introduced and once again sales soared.</p>Even as the production of the old shape Mini wound down this year, amid the uncertainty of Rover's future, sales of Mini Coopers accounted for half of all Minis - about 10,000 a year. It is one of the most popular cars sold in Japan.</p>"He was so proud that the Cooper name was going to continue onto the new Mini, which is being launched by BMW next summer," said his son, Michael, yesterday.</p>"I've got one of the new Minis outside my house now and I took it round to my father the other day but he wasn't well enough to get up and have a look at it. Unfortunately it arrived just a bit too late."</p>