COOPERS IN CEYLON
Ceylon might seem an unlikely place to have air-cooled Coopers but, as we have written in the case of darkest Africa (see www.loosefillings.com/1387 ), they were there too. Recent correspondence from Vincent owner John Farrington, who worked there 1978-81, has added to the little that we already knew about life and racing in what has been Sri Lanka since its independence in 1972.
It’s long been known that one of the first of the production Coopers, later known as the Mk2 type, left London in late 1948 or early 1949 bound for Colombo. There it found itself in the hands of SG ‘Bill’ Bilton, manager of the British Car Company, who were Nuffield agents and AE Filby an engineer for Messrs Rowlands who were Rootes agents.
Both are reported as driving the car but the ownership is strangely uncertain. It seems most likely it was owned by one of the two companies mentioned above because, in a long article in Motor Sport, November 1949, p457, an anonymous author describes persuading his managing director to buy the Cooper. There is a blow by blow description of the car’s acquisition. There is a photo of the author (presumably), the Cooper and trophies that have been won and here it is from Motor Sport.
The author also describes his first outing in the Cooper-JAP at a Ratmalala airfield race on 3 April 1949 where the JAP seized; this was followed by ftd at the St James Estate hillclimb on Easter Sunday, 17 April 1949. There are frequent references to a friend ‘Phil’ who is overseas on six months leave and who is going to use the car when the writer is on his home leave. My best guess is that the author and first driver is Bilton because the cars in the background are Nuffield models and ‘Phil’ is Filby.
In both pairs of hands the car was most successful, winning hillclimbs at St James, Oodoowerre, Mahagastotte and Karanapolando with racing on the WW2 airfields at Ratmalana and later Katukarunda. There were other places too that were used for (mainly) motorcycle racing such as at Kandy and Nuwara Eliza and the Cooper certainly competed at the latter.
I have a little more information from my English friend David Stevenson who was posted there in 1951 along with several motorcycles which he road and raced with some success (right). He returned to England in 1952 with a nomination as the third member of the Ceylon ‘team’ for the Isle of Man TT that year. He didn’t have a suitable bike but a sponsor supplied one and a Junior replica was earned for finishing well. Following that he rode the bike, an AJS 7R, all the way to Spa to race in the Belgian Grand Prix and then back to London! He can’t remember where he finished but recalled it was well up with the privateers.
The following are some of David’s pictures from Ceylon 1950-51, showing road racing at Kandy and the 500 Cooper at one of the airfields:
That gets us to the letter from John Farrington who wrote to Loose Fillings recently about the Vincent ‘White Shadow’ engine which he has and which came out of a Cooper in Ceylon. Here again there are a few mysteries. What is known is that the engine number, 1A/1458, is recorded in the Vincent works records as being supplied to JP Fergusson in early 1949. Fergusson first competed in a Cooper Vincent, presumably with this engine, at Shelsley Walsh in June 1949. Then, in 1950 Fergusson was JV Green’s entrant a few times at Goodwood in a Mk4, serial number 10-44-50 and here he is on 27 May 1950:
Vincent records have the Vincent engine being overhauled for Green in 1950 with the note ‘ex Fergusson’. Curious? How is it that Fergusson had a car and engine in 1949, but the engine ended up in a new car of Green’s in 1950? We can only assume that Fergusson sold his car sans engine, maybe to someone who didn’t want a big Vincent and sold or lent the Vincent to Green who put it in a new car. Maybe.
The car is known to have been sold to Eric Thompson some time later in 1950 and he used it a few times but advertised it for sale in Autosport in November that year. It is believed he did not sell it and he competed in it a few times in 1951. Then it was advertised again and it is believed to have been sold to Ceylon. John Farrington, who worked in Sri Lanka in 1978-81 wrote as follows:
The first mention of this Cooper was in a Ceylon Daily News article on 8 February 1952 saying that it had recently been imported. The owner was reported as being one Cedric Seneviratne. Subsequent reports gave the names of drivers as Brown and MI Rouff. The car was plagued with problems of overheating. A large scoop was added to the nearside to direct air onto the engine. The oil filter housing was cut off to aid airflow to the magneto, and the car was run without an engine cowling. It was also fitted with a clutch from an ex-WD Harley.
Gamini de Zoysa acquired the car from Seneviratne in the late 1950s. He holed the 13:1 pistons. Following advice from the Vincent club he stuck to a lower compression ratio and began a winning streak. He also had a high-speed engine seizure which caused the drive-side mainshaft to turn in the flywheels. I’m not sure whether the seizure happened at the same time as the holed pistons, or subsequently. He scrapped the 1A engine and sold the remains to me (minus conrods and TT carbs). With a Black Shadow engine as replacement, he continued a winning streak, but some years later left the car deteriorating in a makeshift garage when he emigrated to Canada.
John says that a lot of this information came from John Mocket who worked in Ceylon in the early 1950s, about the same time as my friend David Stevenson; David left Columbo about the time the Cooper-Vincent arrived so he has no knowledge of it.
The black and white picture below from John is of Gamini de Zoysa in full flight at Katakurunda race track:
The colour picture below is of the remnants of the car, with what looks like a replacement nose, sometime later. Unfortunately nothing is known about the later years of the Ceylon Coopers and neither seem to have survived. At least the engine has and some of the history.