Neville Cooper (above) nursing a painful shoulder in a Westfield, at Barbagallo Raceway, June 2008.
Images: TERRY WALKER and the NEVILLE COOPER COLLECTION.
“It’s always sad – perhaps even inevitable – to begin the New Year with the news that yet another great Western Australian racer has departed for a better place. My good mate Mike Flower reminded me that NEVILLE COOPER left us last month, at the age of 82 – AC.“
Gordon Stephenson (left) and Neville Cooper (right) on the roof of the Cecchele Motors Alfa after placing fourth outright in the 1966 Six Hour Race. (Apologies to the unnamed crew members). by TERRY WALKER
Born in 1942, Neville Cooper was 15-years-old when his older brothers took him to Caversham for the 1957 Australian Grand Prix. Neville vividly remembered the intense heat and the huge crowd – and the drinks sellers who ran out of soft drinks and were reduced to selling the ice-water from the big coolers to a thirsty public. He was hooked on motor racing from that moment, and longed to drive a Grand Prix car. (This dream was fulfilled in 1968 when his friend Gordon Stephenson let him do 20 or so laps of Caversham in the ex-Don O’Sullivan Cooper Climax. It was, Neville recalled, ‘an unforgettable experience!’).
The feisty FX Holden PK752 in its heyday at Caversham.
“Around the age of 20, Neville at last ventured into motorsport, having a dash in a Morgan sports car, and simultaneously taking out a pilot’s licence. The contest between flying and racing was won by racing, and he was able to buy Norm Beechey’s famous FX Holden, PK 752 (so known from the number plate). Beechey was extremely helpful and supplied Neville with details of all the mods and tricks, and Neville found some of his own. With the help of an aviation engineer friend, he found a way to reduce the risk of crankshaft breakage, always a problem with the Holden grey motor, thus allowing him a reliable 6,000 rpm.
The PK 752 in 1965, on the front row of the grid at Geraldton.
“Neville ran the Holden very successfully in Western Australia, before venturing east with a view to living in Melbourne and racing more professionally. Here he discovered there were a lot more tricks to learn, receiving generous, unstinting help from Norm Gown, Beechey and other top Holden drivers of the time.
The FX Holden at Calder. Just before Sandown!
“The car was easily the most powerful and fastest ‘humpy’ Holden in a straight line, but Neville couldn’t afford racing tyres and had to settle for radials, so the other guys could take him in the corners.
Eventually he crashed the car and destroyed it at Sandown!
“Out of hospital, and out of money, he came back to WA to rebuild his fortunes. By 1966 he was racing a fast HD Holden, and was recruited to co-drive the Cecchele Motors Alfa GTV in the Six Hour race, where they placed fourth outright behind Ron Thorp (Cobra), Ted Lisle (Cooper S), and Stan Starcevich (Holden EH). This was the beginning of a long association with the Alfa Romeo marque. In 1967 he was back at the Six Hour, this time sharing a new Fiat 125 with Max Fletcher. Towards the end of the race he rolled the Fiat, but got it back on its wheels. In the pits the windscreen was kicked out, and Max finished the race. Amazingly, despite the crash, they placed 5th outright.
A vigorous race at Wanneroo Park in the dented XU-1.
“When Wanneroo Park opened in 1968 he joined the Series Production circus with an XU-1, which being very nose heavy under-steered mightily until he worked out a cure. After that he was back in an Alfa, this time for Basil Ricciardello in the Alfa Romeo GTA formerly raced by Gordon Stephenson, now with bigger wheels and more development.
Early days at Wanneroo Park.
“After another crash in this much-crashed car, another Alfa was acquired – the ex-John French GTV with the Ford V8 engine, (which fitted in the engine bay with surprising ease). This was eventually sold to Peter Gillon, who raced it for two years, before being bought back by Basil Ricciardello and Neville in partnership, and it was driven by Neville to an outright win in the 1979 Wanneroo 300 km race. The GTV-Ford was a very fast car, and in the the Sports Sedan category in 1980 he fought many close battles with Wayne Negus. Unlike many drivers, Neville loved handicaps and reverse grid races, because he relished close combat. In the 1980 Australian Sports Sedan Championship round held in Perth, Neville was the fastest of the Western Australian contingent.
Neville Cooper would have driven the Ricciardello Alfetta GTV Chevy sports sedan when it appeared, but Neville was very tall, and the driving position in the car was very small. Brian Smith got that drive, and later of course Basil’s son Tony Ricciardello took over with enormous success (winning 10 Australian Sports Sedan Championships).
Neville Cooper (right) at the 2005 reunion of Caversham drivers, with Rod Style Jr.
By 1982 Neville had all but retired after just on 20 years of active and exciting racing. In more recent times he re-appeared in a Westfield clubman for sprints. But the laid-back, straight arm driving position aggravated an old shoulder injury, so it was soon replaced by a more comfortable Mazda MX-5.”
Gordon Mitchell: “Neville was well respected by his peers as a really good driver who got the most out of any car he raced. Apart from his prowess as a driver he was always a softly spoken true gentleman around the pits. He had connections with the late Frank Cecchele, co-driving a Fiat 125 sedan with Max Fletcher in a 6-Hour race at Caversham in the ’60s. One of them rolled the car, but managed to get it back to the pits for Frank to check it over. They finished the race with no front or rear windscreens. That was more of a feat than you might think, as that particular 6-Hour was held in pouring rain from start to finish. Needless to say they had to use goggles!”
John Hurney: “I do remember he was an excellent driver in a variety of cars. He would have raced quite a bit at Caversham – mainly in Holdens, I think. At Wanneroo he drove a variety of cars including a really fast HD Holden right at the start of Wanneroo, then a variety of mainly Italian cars for both Frank Cecchele and Basil Ricciardello. My own memories of Neville are of a courteous and pleasant gent who possessed the ability to drive any car faster than nearly anyone else!”
“Anyone with the slightest interest in motorsport should click on the wonderful and invaluable website of Terry Walker (pic circa ’75!). AC”
EDITED by AC