AT present it is safely being kept under lock and key at a house in Medstead, but the car that bears the registration Cooper 1 – making it the first Cooper to be made – has had a long journey since Jerry Woodrow bought it 59 years ago for £125 from a garage in Kingston.
Jerry, aged 19, was to take his test in the car. “And as I did my reversing around corners the exhaust let out a cloud of smoke, covering the instructor, which caused a laugh when we got back to the centre, but I passed first time.”
It was two years before he and his wife Jean – the couple new live at Frensham – married and the then open-top, cream-coloured, two-seater with its long exhaust pipe running along the passenger door became the family runaround.
“We lived at Tolworth then not far from the Cooper works, and it was fun to drive. We used to wear crash helmets and macs when it rained and we went everywhere in it,” said Jerry.
When Jean and Jerry delved into the car’s history they found it had been built by Charles Cooper for his son John, then 15, to race at the famous Brooklands track at Weybridge, but he was too young to compete.
John went on to build the Mini Cooper cars and set up the John Cooper Works Mini Racing Team. It isn’t clear who he eventually sold the car to or what happened to it during the Second World War.
Jerry had to part with his beloved Cooper when Jean found she was pregnant with daughter Lesley and no longer able to climb into the narrow seats. “I got £35 for it in part-exchange for an Austin A30,” he said.
Later, Jerry’s job as an engineer was to take him to Bracknell, Berkshire, where the family settled and the couple, who met at Petersham Tennis Club, went on to have three more children. “But,” said Jean, “we always talked about the Cooper and it was still part of the family although we didn’t know what happened to it.”
It was to take a bit of detective work on by their son, Stephen, who owns the TVR 1O1 Garage at Bentley to find out the car, with its number plate FPB-322,was now owned by someone in Barnet, Hertfordshire.
Daughter Lesley, her partner Andy North and Stephen had always had the idea of buying the car so it could part of the family again, but it wasn’t until a few years later that Stephen saw a poster advertising the Goodwood Revival last September and found Cooper 1 was in an auction of vintage and classic cars. The family agreed that if they could buy the car it would be a nice way to surprise Jerry – on his birthday – and Jean, who hadn’t seen the car for more than 50 years.
Stephen said: “I phoned Andy and Lesley at their home and told them I was going to the Revival and would put in a bid for the car.”
He was disappointed when his top bid was overtaken. “And I just wrote the whole thing off as I couldn’t go higher and then Andy, who I didn’t know had come to the auction, started to bid and he got it.”
With loving care Cooper 1 was brought to Stephen’s garage to be given a final check over and polish.
On the day it was brought over to Medstead, Lesley said they had to make sure Jean and Jerry and all the family were outside at the end of the drive.
“Then,” said Andy, “we had taken the car a little way down the road and then Lesley and Stephen, wearing flat caps as John Cooper had done in the 1930s, drove it back past the house and the waiting family.”
Jean was “gobsmacked”. “It was so lovely to see it again,” she said.
And Jerry admitted it was certainly a “birthday surprise”.
The couple, who were East Hampshire veteran tennis champions for three years, then got the chance to sit in the car which when built was fitted with a 500cc aircraft engine, has a standard four-gear change, no starting key, two small glass windscreens that can be lowered, and leather-bound red seats with petrol tanks and a small space for luggage.
It brought back a lot of memories like the time Jerry was on the Kingston bypass in pouring rain and the car next to him was a Mercedes driven by Stirling Moss. “And he looked over at me and I thought, as I was getting very wet, ‘it’s all right for you in that posh car’.”
And Jean recalled the time they went to a party on a cold December night at a time when thick smog was a winter hazard.
“We came out and the smog was so thick I had to lean out of the car, as we went slowly along, and touch the pavement to see if we were still on the road,” she laughed.
Now the car has come home to the family the couple, who have been married for 57 years, can see it at anytime, and now and again they climb in and get behind the wheel and remember those early days of courtship and marriage when they drove a number one classic.