By Eli Solomon
Last updated with additional images on 5 November 2023.
Peter Jackson, Chairman of the Cooper Car Club, informs me that this is not actually Cooper’s first Formula One race win.
Stirling Moss won the Argentine Grand Prix in 1958 driving Rob Walker’s T43-Climax and this is generally held to be the first of Cooper Cars many Formula One race victories.
That honour goes to one Bill Ferguson who, on 5th August 1951, won the ‘3rd Johore Grand Prix’ for Formula One cars driving his 1-litre MkIII Cooper-JAP.
The race was organised by the Singapore Motor Club and run over 25 laps of a closed public roads circuit in Johor, a short distance to the causeway linking Peninsula Malaysia with the island of Singapore. For a short history of the Singapore Motor Club see: CLUBBING IN SOUTH EAST ASIA
Bill Ferguson and his MkIII 996cc Cooper JAP at the Mount Erksine Hillclimb in Penang on 8 November 1953. The car made its Malayan debut at the 29 April 1951 Lornie Kilo Standing Start Sprint in Kuala Lumpur (where it won its class). Bill then won the 5-lap Racing Cars race on 13 May 1951 at the Ashby Road Circuit race (in Perak). It first raced in Singapore (towed down from Ipoh) at the Gap Hill Climb on 27 May 1951 (running the JAP single-cylinder 500cc motor). By July 1951, the V-Twin had replaced the 500cc motor.
A photo in the 1953 Johore Grand Prix program showing Bill Ferguson and his Cooper-JAP on the way to a fine win in 1951. Bill’s Cooper was tuned by Stan Moore of Wearne Brothers in Kuala Lumpur and his on the job mechanic was 20-year-old Perak lad, Choy Yee Ming.
First off, let’s look at the origins of the Formula 1 World Championship. The first F1 race was the 1946 Turin Grand Prix. A World Drivers’ Championship was established in 1947. The first World Championship season was in 1950. But what about non-Championship races, Grand Prix events that didn’t count towards the Championship but which were for Formula One cars?
Out in the British colonies in Asia, post-war Grand Prix racing began in 1949 with the Johore Grand Prix [see JOHORE GRAND PRIX – PART 1: 1949-1953]. The main event for cars was run to general competition rules of the F.I.A., the R.A.C. (of Britain and the British Empire) and the A.C.U.
Bill Ferguson receives his laurels from Jean Falconer (wife of John Falconer, British Resident Commissioner to Johore between March 1949 and July 1952). Jimmy Barr (with Marshal’s armband) looks on from the right while Singapore Motor Club President, Paul Gibbs-Pancheri, applauds the victor. Barr, a Borneo Motors man, took over the post of President of the SMC from Pancheri in 1952, following Pancheri’s posting to Malaysia.
Take a look at the 1949 Johore Grand Prix race program and you’ll notice that the main race was run to international rules established by the F.I.A. – in other words, the main Grand Prix was for cars with supercharged engines not over 1.5-litres or unsupercharged engines not over 4.5-litres. There was even an R.A.C. Steward for the event – Sqd-Ldr. Oliver Bertram [Major Oliver Bertram was then stationed in Singapore as a Squadron Leader (barrister) with Tanglin G.H.Q. F.A.R.E.L.F. (the British Army’s Far East Land Force).] Get to the Supplementary Regs and the entry list and things start to get interesting: Event No.4 “Johore Grand Prix” For Formula 1 Cars 1,500cc and under S – 4,500cc and under U/S.
Bill Ferguson at speed in is 1-litre V-Twin Cooper JAP in 1951.
We’ll leave 1949 and 1950’s race winners for another post (see MG WINS FORMULA 1 RACE) but for 1951 (also run to the same Formula One rules), the winner was Perak-based planter James George Milne Ferguson (a.k.a. Bill Ferguson) in a…996cc MkIII Cooper-JAP. Hold that though for moment.
COOPER WINS FORMULA ONE race in 1951!
1951 was a pivotal year in Asian motor sports. The Cooper rear-engine race car had finally arrived. In Johor, it was the smallest car on the grid but it was also the first racing car to arrive in Malaya after the war.
Bill Ferguson brought in this 996cc V-Twin JAP-engined Cooper MkIII, chassis number 10/13/49. The car arrived with two motors – the 500cc “single” and the 996cc V-Twin. Bill, a member of the Selangor Motor Sports Club, faced a formidable grid of larger cars, five of which were very fast Jaguar XK120s, one of them driven by his brother Freddie (who had finished second in the previous year’s race). For more colour on the Fergusons and their early interests in motoring in Malaya, see TA 0930 – THE LOST MG TA CREAM CRACKER
The starting grid for a 1951 Johore Grand Prix Support race #1 showing the Cooper-JAP to the extreme right of the photo. On the left, in the #21 car, is Mick Jennings in his Black Draught Mk2, an MG TC Special. The Black Draught Mk1 XPAG MG was the winner of the 1949 Johore Grand Prix, the first recorded Formula One victory for the MG marque. In the middle is Chia Eng Quee and his Airhen Jowett Special.
Bill Ferguson, on his was to victory in the 1951 Johore Grand Prix in his MkIII Cooper JAP. The car had a louvered rear end and an under-seat air scoop and had been run in Formula 3 events in the Continent prior to being acquired by Ferguson. Trailering the Cooper from Perak down to Johore during the height of the Malayan Emergency (with Commie bandits hiding behind every blade of grass) must have been fraught with difficulties.
Out of Zoo Corner in the Cooper JAP.
To cut a long story short, Bill romped home to a fine Grand Prix win in his MkIII Cooper-JAP that year, finishing ahead of a pair of Jaguar XK120s – Freddie Pope and his brother Fred Ferguson’s alloy XK120. Bill also set FTD – joint fastest with Brian Hawes in an Jaguar XK120 Monoposto [2:04 @ 59.68 mph], a full 9 seconds a lap faster than the previous year’s time of 2:13 (that was set by Fred Ferguson in the alloy XK120). Bill also won the Cars 1,500cc and under Unsupercharged & 1100cc Supercharged 15 lap Support race, beating Freddie Pope [FP23 “Taxi Cab” Special] and Lim Peng Han [L.A. MG-Special], setting fastest lap of 2:215 (@ 52.22 mph) in trying conditions. The Malayan-built Specials were just coming to the fore. For more information on these, see MONSTERS & MAVERICKS MALAYAN/SINGAPORE POST-WAR SPECIALS
As the 1949-1951 races were run for Formula One cars, this means that the MkIII Cooper-JAP must be the first Cooper to win a Formula One race, albeit a non-Championship race.
For additional colour on the history of this car see the following:
The Warrior Bristol in South East Asia: JUNGLE WARRIOR – The Warrior Bristol in South East Asia
Cooperholic Coup: COOPERHOLIC COUP
For more on the history of the Johore Grand Prix see the following:
1949-1951: JOHORE GRAND PRIX – PART 1: 1949-1953
1960-1963: JOHORE GRAND PRIX – PART 2: 1960-1963
1967-1968: JOHORE GRAND PRIX – PART 3: 1967-1968
With thanks to Peter Jackson and Richard Page for bringing this Cooper fact to my attention.