MICHAEL COOPER BIOGRAPHY
LONG LONG AGO
is difficult to imagine today,that talent, enthusiasm and hard
work were reasons enough to succeed in that different world of
long ago and far away......
Yet it was so.....
Nowadays, in stark
contrast to that Golden era of racing, we have a bureaucratic,
over-regulated and politically driven power base, fuelled by
media money and corporate sponsorship, which characterises latter
day professional motor sport and all its peripheral activities.
This then is the story of an era that transformed not only motor
racing but also the very fabric of every day life.
The career of Michael Cooper captured the dying moments of the
front engined grand prix car and saw the transition into the
commercially sponsored world of Formula One.
He was born on the ides-the-15th-of-March, his father George,
hailing from Scotland and his mother Alice from the prosperous
area of Wanstead in East London.
His early educational days were spent at Rowan House private
school, thereafter he attended a local state school at Hounslow,
but with his ambivalent attitude towards scholarly pursuits,
he left at fifteen to confront the mediocrity of post-war Britain.
(Michael at fifteen absorbing the wisdom
in John Bolster’s racing book “Motoring is my Business”)
He had expected to join his father who ran a small advertising
agency in Holborn, London, but this had not happened, so his
local employment office had pushed him in the direction of a
job that they promised was a way into the world of advertising.
In fact he found himself working for Coltman Displays, a company
that provided the front of house stills for motion pictures.
This not surprisingly provided little scope for the ability
of a bright and keen mind whilst a second attempt at employment,
this time as a messenger for a Savile Row firm, resulted in
rejection. Thanks to the resilience of youth, the young Michael
had soon moved on to Coleman, Prentice and Varley, an advertising
agency. Here he advanced to the role of progress chaser, making
sure that the work undertaken was on time and within budget.
Thus, even this early on, the seeds of a photographic career
were sown in fertile ground.
This embryonic state was further encouraged when the company
sold him an old Boots camera, enabling his first work to be
published in the house magazine. At this time of course, in
the mid-fifties, national service was still compulsory, and
Michael's photographic talent was to be put to good use.
Colman, Prentice and Varley were the advertising agency for
the War Office and so Michael found himself joining a photographic
unit at the Ministry of Defence. (Strangely this mirrored his
father's wartime role working for the MoD in Army Intelligence
and being involved in the Normandy landings.)
After a brief interlude at Portsmouth he was ordered to report
to a General Short at Whitehall, but his attempts at entering
by the front door were robustly rebuffed by the guarding soldiery.
Instead he had to use the tradesmen's entrance at the back!
To begin with he worked in the training school that was situated
in an anonymous office block near the Army and Navy store and
Victoria station undertaking forays into local markets.
Here he surreptitiously took photographs of street traders and
passers-by to practice his trade. On completion he moved to
Northumberland Avenue that housed the Joint Intelligence Bureau
which, as the name implies, was staffed by representatives of
the Army, Navy and Air Force. There he became familiar with
names and faces of various spies and undesirables, as well as
the legendary miniature Minox camera.
All this of course necessitated signing the Official Secrets
Act, so enough said. The advantage of his
privileged almost civilian status was the total absence of orthodox
military training and all the associated horrors of institutionalised
Michael as part of the photographic
unit at the Ministry of Defence for the obligatory National
Service Here he is demonstration his inventiveness with the
However a uniform had to be worn once a week to collect his
wages, which invariably provoked the order, 'Get your hair cut'.
It is perhaps not surprising that the various incumbents of
this military sponsored activity were all moonlighting as wedding
photographers and such like courtesy of their official equipment,
which was put to far more use privately than it ever was for
Two years were so spent and the now twenty-year-old emerged
to begin the rest of his life unharmed and much the wiser for
Meanwhile Cooper senior who had, rather late in life at his
son's suggestion, learnt to drive took to visiting Goodwood
for the BARC Members meetings with Michael, the mode of transport
being a Hillman Minx. Exposure to racing cars and the very real
glamour and mystique that motor racing then enjoyed had a decisive
effect on the young photographer; his comments about how exciting
the Jensen 541 was had an unexpected result.
Arriving at a lunch appointment with his father he was astounded
to be greeted by George in a gleaming white Jensen 541!
By now the family had moved to rural Surrey (where Michael Cooper
still lives) and the Jensen was, driven fast and furiously to
and from Goodwood and elsewhere without let or hindrance.
Such driving style was very much of the time overtaking other
vehicles and going fast, whilst generally frowned upon, were
not regarded as the deadly sins they are now.
Generously Cooper senior allowed Michael to drive the Jensen,
and inevitably an accident ensued which was to be the final
catalyst in the long chain of circumstances that made the man.
Sure of his abilities as only the young can be and accompanied
by his sister and father sitting in the back. Michael had wound
the Jensen up to over 1OOmph when the car some distance in front
indicated to turn right. Thinking to cut things finely he misjudged
the closing speed and tardiness of the other vehicle. In attempting
to brake hard whilst on lock he lost control, spinning down
the road, hitting the kerb, which tore off a rear wheel before
assaulting a telegraph pole and finally stopping.
Fortunately only pride and the Jensen suffered and a call was
made from a nearby house to the local garage to come and sweep
up the bits.
This turned out to be the emporium of a certain John Coombs,
already a familiar name in the annals of motor sport, who would
sell Michael his first car, a souped up Ford Anglia, registration
number 2 N PJ. Upon arrival at the garage, the somewhat down
cast budding ace was thrilled to see an Ecurie Ecosse Jaguar
D type that was due to be driven by Ron Flockhart in the forthcoming
1959 Goodwood Tourist Trophy.
Somehow John Coombs was persuaded to provide a pass for the
race, but this did not in fact materialise.
Undismayed Michael turned up at Goodwood and John Coombs gave
him his entrant's pass that proved sufficient to gain access
to trackside (if only it were so simple today!).
Amazingly Michael still has this first
pass given to him by Coombs and as you can see from the text
on the back.....How times have changed!
He later found out, by judicious folding of the entrant’s armband
it bore a fairly close resemblance to an official photographer’s
By now he was working as an assistant for a fashion photographer
at No.1 Park Lane, London, and had borrowed a Hasselblad portrait
camera without a prism, which meant that all he could see were
Nevertheless the pictures he took were outstanding and his first
experience of being so close to the action had made a big impression.
A fortunate chance in time, as another
photographer unwittingly captures Michael Cooper about to take
one of his most famous photographs, standing in amongst the
action for "Jim Clark's 'Le Mans' start at the 1962 TT". He
is the photographer on the far right who is fully visible and
wearing his arm band, behind car 7
A particular memory for Michael was watching Moss drift the
DBR1 Aston around Woodcote and the way that the cars seemed
to be aimed straight at you at Madgwick.
Even early on Michael had realised that motor racing was financially
prohibitive without your own private gold mine. However the
thrill of standing right next to Moss, Brooks, Shelby, Brabham,
Clark, Hill etc. as they did their absolute worst was almost
an adequate substitute for not racing oneself.
Michael seen here in dark overalls
camara at the ready
During 1959 Michael joined the famous Steering Wheel Club in
Mayfair and Thursday was the night most frequented by the drivers
of the day, when he could show his work to the assembled racers.
Sometimes he would be given a lift home, usually accomplished
at breakneck speed, by Roy Salvadori or another famous 'name'.
Meanwhile his first motor racing pictures were published in
the BARC journal and Good Motoring Magazine, whilst his real
career had advanced considerably working from studios in the
extremely prestigious Park Lane. It is a measure of how relaxed
things were in those days that the motor racing photography
was often achieved with borrowed cameras from a shop in the
Burlington Arcade, usually a Voightlander and the idiosyncratic
Periflex with its strange viewfinder.
So, with the swinging sixties just over the horizon and the
world of motor racing about to change for ever, Michael Cooper
was set to capture some of the most evocative images of the
Fortuitously, because he was a professional photographer who
made his living from other images and subjects,
Michael's work is so much more than just racing cars.
As Michael’s name gradually became more synonymous with the
racing image it allowed him to go further afield and he took
on more national and international races. Michael often traveled
with Geoff Goddard and Michael Turner, both talented in their
own fields. It really was a golden age of racing with very few
restrictions on photographers.
During the years of his peripatetic existence in and around
Europe Michael Cooper had enjoyed the freedom of being independent
and taking pictures of whom he pleased, when he pleased.
Combined with his other existence as a commercial photographer
it had been at times very hard work, but above all else it had
been fun. The life was unpredictable and spontaneous and he
knew many of the drivers personally and enjoyed their hospitality.
However, the growing professionalism and commercial pressures
that were taking over had begun to alter the raison d'etre of
It's a shame it came to this!
The dangers of letting marketing men take control!
The arrival of Mark McCormack's International Management Group
with Jackie Stewart as his first F1 client radically altered
the relationship between drivers and everybody else. Suddenly
they were no longer accessible publicly without recourse to
a cheque book. Additionally with sponsors now controlling budgets
and often who drove what, drivers themselves were under more
pressure. It had all become much more serious and a lot less
enjoyable. One direct consequence was the gradual loss of English
speaking and British drivers from F1 post Stewart. Although
Watson and Hunt carried the flag for Britain thereafter, grids
were largely filled by South American and Italian drivers, with
a smattering of other nationalities. With little money to spare
in overtaxed Britain, an almost total absence of British sponsors
and no consistent or informed media coverage of motor sport,
British drivers were simply not marketable regardless of their
abilities. Those who did manage to break through found themselves
driving uncompetitive cars that quickly destroyed their F1 careers.
Circuits too had changed, inevitably given the huge increases
in speed, and some of the classic venues did not survive. As
part of the drive towards more perceived safety, track access
had become strictly controlled and limited even for photographers.
No longer was it possible for Michael to stand in line with
an approaching car as it had been at Silverstone, Goodwood or
at most continental circuits.
Instead long focal length lenses became necessary and the resulting
images were lacking perspective, the magnification causing depth
of field problems and the loss of all movement in the image.
In time nearly all circuits bar Monaco would look the same through
a 400mm lens, car, track, run off area, armco and sponsor's
Additionally the cars themselves had become less and less aesthetically
pleasing, and the drivers barely visible.
Michael did continue his activities working for Yardley, Gulf,
Marlboro, BMW, Mercedes Benz, Peugeot, Michelin, Page & Moy
and many others over the years.
He developed a very close relationship with Chris Rogers who
handled public relations for Michelin, which led to work on
the Michelin Guide and extensive coverage of rallying of the
A sample of Michaels work for Michelin
They had a lot of fun together and Michael's professional vistas
expanded considerably, with shoots all over Europe. Later, when
Chris Rogers took over a similar role for Honda, Michael maintained
their working partnership that had taken him to Japan and many
other far flung places and continues to this day. During 1970
he photographed extensively on the set of the Steve McQueen
film ‘Le Mans’ and covered some Grand Prix’s for Yardley whom
he remembers were very nice to work for.
Tragically this was to prove another annus horribilis with McLaren,
Courage and Rindt all dying in accidents.
Ultimately he finally realised that he no longer enjoyed the
F1 scene during a shoot that featured a BRM emerging from a
giant Marlboro cigarette packet at Paul Ricard. Nevertheless
he worked for Marlboro for over two years and was still photographing
F1 occasionally up to the early 1980s.
As late as 1981 he was nearly run down by a crashing Nelson
Piquet in a Brabham at Silverstone, a piece of which he keeps
in his study.
The signed piece of Piquet's car
(right) Michael about to be blasted
around Goodwood by Bruce McLaren
He had been driven around Goodwood by Bruce McLaren in a Can-Am
McLaren, by Innes Ireland in a GT 40 and Jackie Epstein in a
Lola T70 at Silverstone. There had been escapades to Montlhery
with 'Steady' Barker in a baby Peugeot, rides with the Hon.
Patrick Lindsay in supercharged Alfa Romeos and much more besides.
Rallying had not escaped his attention either. In 1968 he had
accompanied the testing of the Hillman Hunter at the tank testing
grounds in Chobham with Andrew Cowan, Jenny Birrell, Colin Malkin,
Brian Coyle and Des O'Dell for the London to Sydney Marathon.
His suggestions for action shots of the car in the air comprehensively
wrecked it, causing the engine to move four inches forward!
A year later he attended the RAC Rally and in the early 1980s
he covered the Manx Rally, Scottish Rally, Circuit of Ireland,
the RAC Rally again several times and many others. Truck racing,
the British motorcycle Grand Prix, World Sports Car Champion-
ship at Donington and Brands Hatch and rallycross were also
on the agenda.
Michael still does photographic assignments these include commissions
for Honda that take him all over the globe, but it is fitting
that this celebration of his work should return full circle
to Goodwood for the inaugural Revival Meeting in 1998, over
40 years after it all began .
to the future, Michael returns to Goodwood for the inaugural
Revival Meeting in 1998, where it all started over 40 years
ago. He captures Moss in the Aston Martin DBR1/300 dicing with
Martin Brundle in John Coombs's yellow Jaguar D type as they
lap another D type at the chicane.
Michael was back the following year 1999 at the Festival of
Speed at Goowood House, where he meets his old friend and renouned
motor racing photographer Rainer Schlegelmilch.
Now, decades later, Michael’s evocative racing images capture
a moment in the history of racing never to be repeated. Recently
Michael has displayed these images at galleries and race functions.
pictures of Michael's good friend, Stirling Moss. Right, at
a recent exhibition and left signing Michael's original prints
Such is the growing interest in this era that Michael decided
to choose a hundred or more of his favorite photographs from
this period and release them as limited edition prints. Amazingly
he still holds the rights to his own photographs and still has
all his own original negatives.
Michael married Liz in 1971 and in 1973 they moved to their
current address in deepest rural Surrey from which Michael still
ventures forth on photographic assignments.
Michael's enthusiasm has rubbed off on his family. He and his
wife Liz used to go to the race meetings together, she already
being a motor racing fan when they met and the two (now grown
up) children were no strangers to the race track!
Michael with his Wife Liz and two
children Jo and Ben at a recent exhibition of his work
"I hope that my prints will give pleasure and, hopefully,
an appreciating asset to buyers for years to come."
Quote "Michael Cooper"
Text By Paul Parker Courtesy of Palawan
Press edited and added to by Greg Terry-Short
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