Ken Cooper's story and history - Part 1

As told exclusively to

Ken Cooper was first influenced by American culture when he had access to the former World War 2 American barracks in his home town of Sutton Coldfield which was bombed during the war. He decided to go into the motor trade aged 15. He worked on English and American cars and learned to drive. After discovering hot rods in a film he then found hot rodding magazines in Birmingham and bought his first car, a '37 Ford Coupe with a flathead V8 engine. He then built his first hot rod, a ‘33 Ford Cabriolet, which resulted in a change of job...

I was born 1937 and am now aged 85. I went to the Riland Bedford school, Sutton Coldfield, which was the empty American barracks; they'd been stationed there during the war. The school had been started but was unfinished, it was just a shell when the Americans moved in. They fitted it out as a barracks until they left in 1946, then it was put back to a school. I was one of the first to go in.

I had been influenced by Americans because they were stationed in the town plus the fact that they had this Donut Dugout which was a marvellous place, just like you saw on the American films with jukeboxes, booths, chrome stools, ice cream sodas, Coca Cola, all the hot dogs, hamburgers everything the Americans had. But we couldn’t go in obviously it was out of bounds; it was only for the troops. Of course, when they moved out, we all managed to get inside this wonderful place so influenced by the Americans.

Strange thing was I was terrified during the war as a youngster, I was always frightened the Germans were coming. There were no adult males around really because they’d all been conscripted into the war. Then when the American soldiers came in 1943, I felt secure. With them walking round town and in the pubs the war felt a little bit different. Before they came and having the air raids and being bombed, I was scared. The only males about then were either too old or those who failed a medical. My father didn’t go to war because he’d only got half a lung. Rationing went on for many years, food, petrol and tyres were very hard to come by. Unless you’d experienced it you had no idea what it was like. I wouldn't have missed it for the world, it’s really something to look back on.

This was where the heavy influence of all things American came from because it was all around me. They were mostly involved in the distribution of mail more than anything. My Dad was a lathe operator and engineer and did a lot of war work. He was also an ARP warden, fire watching at night on the roofs. A shining example of my being terrified was I used to lock the door. Mum would tell me not to be so daft there’ll be in tanks and just push the place down. That made it worse, I was even more terrified after she’d said that.

We’d stood at the back door watching Coventry getting bombed, it was only 11 miles away. By the time the airplanes had turned round they were over our house. We had a bomb land only about a mile away from the house and Sutton Coldfield was bombed, you couldn’t sleep at night for the noise it was just this continuing drone of bombers that’s why we would watch it from the back door.

Eastcroft Garage where Ken worked from 1952 - ‘65

When I went to the shops or anywhere else it always took me past this garage and it really got me interested in cars. The garage was full of Americans. These GIs in all their fatigues working on Chevy trucks, Jeeps and their own cars. I was only interested in cars when I left school at 15 and I decided to go into the motor trade. The garage was on my route so I just knocked on the door, are you looking for a hard-working young lad? and I got a job there. By now it was privately owned by a big company who had a Ford, BMC dealership in Birmingham. It was called Eastcroft Garage; I started in 1952 and spent my formative years there until 1965. When I started at the garage my weekly wage was £1.70 working from 8am to 7pm and till 5pm on Saturday’s.

Sutton Coldfield was quite affluent and people already had American cars, especially taxi drivers because they were cheap to buy and were big. I got to drive Packards, Hudsons and stuff like that, the most impressive car was a 1936 Ford Cabriolet. I thought that was lovely with the V8 engine. It was so smooth, powerful and nice to drive. You could get in and the pedals were nicely spaced. One day after I’d been working on it the customer took it away and about an hour later the phone rang, the breakdown lorry went out coming back half an hour later with this 1936 Cabriolet hanging on the crane. The front end was smashed in; he’d driven into something and crashed it. I was nearly in tears.

I worked on both English and American cars. The garage specialised in working on old vehicles, small trucks and commercials, also a few continental cars. Exotic stuff as well like Aston Martins, Facel Vegas with Chrysler V8 engines, I was in my element, so I had a very good background really.

I just liked working on cars. I was only at the new job for 3 days and I was out in my first car. My foreman took me out for a road test on a Wednesday in a Rover 14. We went down the lanes and we stopped. He got out and said come and sit here, he started it up and said, off you go then and that’s how I learnt to drive in 1952.

I passed my test about 6 years later. Petrol rationing came out due to the Suez crisis so the driving schools couldn’t operate because they couldn’t get petrol so they rescinded the L plate deal. You could learn to drive as long as you had someone with you but didn't have to put on L plates, you could drive as long as you had a provisional license. It was quite embarrassing when I went for my test because some of the cars we serviced at the garage were driving school cars.

When I went for my test the bloke who took my test was Mr Wilkins, a driving instructor, he’d left the driving school to become an examiner. It was so embarrassing, he looked at me and he knew I’d been driving for three or four years because I’d been driving his cars, road testing them. When I turned up he said Mr Cooper, I stood up and he looked at me quite strangely and hardly said anything for the whole time but I did pass my test. They all scoffed at the garage; no wonder you passed your test you had Ernie Wilkins.

The film that influenced Ken

The film ‘Born to Speed’ influenced me a lot about Hot Rodding. The opening scene was this guy who had a home-made 1932 roadster which was tearing round a field at a farm. When I looked at that I thought it looked like a racing car but you can see it isn't. You can see it’s basically a Ford car but he’s taken all the fenders and running boards off, with that lovely grill it looks like a racing car, we’d got nothing like that. What a great thing. Then it went on and he graduated into Midget racing and I’ve always loved American motorsport cars the fact that they were beautifully finished. The race numbers are beautifully sculpted and painted on, nice paint jobs not just stuck on numbers or a bit of shoe whitening.

Our roundy-round cars like BRMs and Vanwalls were just painted green and the number chalked on. The Americans were beautiful, this impressed me. Why haven't we got stuff like that. This was my first experience and connection to Hot Rodding, aged 13 or 14. I watched many other American films with Mickey Rooney. All the films had American cars which I really liked. It cheered you up a little bit because of the war, it was very depressing with rationing, black outs and all the rest. You were released by the cinema and most of the films were American and because they were made in Hollywood with street scenes you got to see the California car scene with the occasional hot rod.

It must have been 1953/54 when I really became interested in hot rodding because of a little book, Best Hot Rods, which is dated 1953. It was a gift from a guy who had been called up because there was still National Service. He wanted something to read while he was waiting for the train. He’d brought the book at the railway station of all places and read it. He came home one day and said to me you like American cars; you might find this interesting and gave it to me. Once I’d got this and read it, it sparked my interest and being in the motor trade I knew I could build something like this. I just wanted an American style hot rod basically. Bearing in mind there was no drag racing or drag strips in the country at that time.

Ken was given this 70 years ago, now looking tatty and well-read

Inside there was plenty to spark Ken’s interest

I used to get to drive into Birmingham a lot, fetching spares for the garage because all the big agencies were there, Ford, BMC and the Roots group. It was only seven miles and was less than a 15-minute trip in the van to nip into Birmingham and get the parts. Other mechanics used to go as well. One of the mechanics came back with some pornographic magazines he’d brought from an old bookshop apparently in Birmingham. As a 17-year-old lad I was very impressed and said where's this shop?

So next time I’m in town I’m going down Weamon Street looking for this shop. Sure enough there's this book shop on a levelled bomb site and inside was this seedy looking guy. I’m looking through these magazines and then I saw on the counter some American Hot Rod magazines, this was the holy grail. He’d also got Rod and Custom, Car Craft, Sports car Illustrated, Motor Trend all these American car magazines as well the pornographic stuff that came from France and just about every other subject, it was a treasure trove.

I forgot about the porno magazines and bought the hot rod ones instead. They were quite dilapidated and I found out they were called pulp magazines and what it was, when ships came over from America, they had to have ballast in to keep them low in the water when they were empty. So, the Americans collected up all the old magazines and strung them up into bales and used them in the hulls for ballast. When they came to this country they were fetched out and the cargo put in. A lot of them were still in pristine condition, the rest water damaged. So, a lot of the grubby book shops would buy these pulp magazines that were a couple of years or more out of date. I’ve still got one or two here that I’ve kept.

I had this thing about the V8 engine and there were still a lot of Ford V8 cars running around, mainly 1935, ‘36 and ‘37s and they were being brought in for repairs. They were cheap to buy because the road tax was £30 a year. They charged on the displacement and were classed as 30 horsepower so £30 to tax it and you’d get about 16 miles to the gallon so they went for next to nothing. Another thing I used to love was the throb of the exhaust, they had a very distinctive exhaust note. English cars were very different but you could tell a V8 100 yards down the road. They’ve got that syncopated beat as they’ve got two cylinders going down the one exhaust.

So, I thought my first car was going to be a Ford V8, I’d even got in my head what colour I was going to paint it, cream with a maroon stripe and people used to laugh at me with my thoughts. I have to say for some unknown reason all the mechanics in the garage where I worked, there were about seven in all, they were very anti-American. Because I liked American stuff and whether it was to put me down but they were always taking the mickey and ridiculing the Americans, making me feel small with it.

Then later on, when I started to build my first hot rod, a 1933 Ford Cabriolet, they said you're never going to get this finished, you're taking too long, you're too fussy, why are you painting the chassis red, why are you doing this, nobody is going to see that, are they? But of course, it was the American way. If you look at the Hot Rods all the axles are spotlessly clean, the chassis and everything, not the British way. I was trying to emulate that and they were all putting me down.

I’d got a 1932 grille for it and the classic thing to do was to shave it. This is what the Americans did, take the radiator cap and trim off and smooth it out. This is what I wanted to do and when I started to do it, again I got from the others why you are doing that? you'll never do that, you'll see where you've done it, you’ll see the hole where it was, blah, blah, blah... But I did it and it was probably the first shaved grille in Great Britain I should think. It’s commonplace now, you can buy them already finished.

I got even more sarcastic remarks when I started building my first Dragster. What the bloody hell is this? What you gonna do with that, you're never going to finish it. You just got derogatory comments all the time.

And honestly, I know it’s a bit egotistical, but I’d love to meet these blokes today, if they're still alive, and they can see how far drag racing and hot rodding has come since 1960 and see where I have arrived in the path of drag racing, I'm a known name, I made the British Drag Racing Hall of Fame you know. I’d love them to see that now, I was right, you were wrong. I know it's taken 60 years but it's true. I was right, it is gonna catch on. My very first car was a 1937 Ford Coupe, I think that was in 1958. It was of course black and I wanted it a colour. I ran it black for quite some time before I plucked up the courage to paint it. I decided I was going to paint it yellow which was quite interesting in those days as everyone had black cars or dark green. I went to the local paint suppliers, got the colour cards out to pick a colour. I found this chrome yellow which was beautiful. I went to buy the paint and I wanted about a gallon and a half.

Ken’s first car, a ‘37 Ford Coupe

Motorists and cyclists have never got on with each other, even in the fifties

Ken wanted to paint it yellow like the rods he'd seen in Rod & Custom

The bloke looked at me behind the counter and said, you're going to paint a car that colour? I said yep, he said we don't have that much paint, this is only a tinting colour for mixing paint, we don’t stock that much paint. He said all I’ve got are these little tinting tins and he went off and came back with a box full of little tins. He said I’ll have to order it. Nobody painted a car yellow but that was typical of the era. So, I got some to try it then he ordered me some more in.

Before I put the yellow on, I painted it pure white because you can't put yellow on top of primer else it goes green. I thought I’ll drive it for a couple of weeks and let it settle and everybody kept saying I love the colour of your car. It looks lovely in white I really like that. I said this isn’t the colour, well what you going to paint it? I said you'll find out.

About a fortnight later I painted it yellow. I would do all this work in the garage after I finished at six o’clock. The garage didn't shut till seven so I had that hour. My boss didn't mind me doing all this, he went home at six anyway.

I did a few other bits and pieces to it, lowered the front by reversing the front spring eyes and jacked the back up by fitting a block above the rear spring, giving it a California rake. Then I fitted 5.20 tyres on the front and 7.50s out back. I decided to put in a Mercury engine and once I’d got a Mercury block, I wanted to rebore it, so I went into Blunt Taylors who sold all engine parts and said, have you got a set of pistons for a Mercury? He looked it up in the catalogue and said yes, we keep those in stock. He disappeared and came back with a cardboard box. He started to make out the invoice, I looked at the box and said how many pistons there? he said four, I said I want eight, don't I? you want eight? yes, it’s an 8-cylinder engine. Blimey he said you like a bit of power don’t you, how big is it, going back to get another box of four. That was England in that era it was unheard of then to have a yellow car with eight cylinders.

Looking good in yellow

The 21-stud flathead had been replaced by a 24-stud '41 Merc mill with dual exhausts and motorcycle mufflers

It wasn’t yellow until 1960 and I must say it had its problems, at least two or three girls wouldn’t get in it. You’d think you’d be able to pick up the birds but when I turned up in it, they wouldn’t get in. One girl said it's a bloody stock car, I ain’t getting in that, so that was the date finished. Some got in of course as I did quite a bit of dating back then.

One of the reasons I left my job at the garage was because I’d got this lovely V8 powered yellow car and the MD had got a 6-cylinder Austin Westminster and it riled him. He got onto the manager and said can't he park that car somewhere else? so it ended up I had to move it to a different part of the garage.

Then he came in one day and saw it and said to the manager can't you move it over there under the trees or somewhere, why have we got a mechanic with a car like that? The manager was quite philosophical saying, we can't stop him having it, can we really. The MD said, well, can’t you get mechanics that haven't got cars like this? Once I was told about this, I moved out and got another job.

When I went for an interview for the new job, I went in my ‘33 Ford Cabriolet hot rod with the engine side panels off, chromed exhausts and V8 showing and I thought to myself you’re going to see what you're going to get from the beginning. I’m not going to turn up in something else. Anyway, I got the job, it was at a smaller independent garage at Mere Green Service station with two lifts and two mechanics. This is where I met Gerald Cookson because he came in to buy some rubber engine mounts which he wanted for the front end of his dragster. This was 1966, he only lived about a mile up the road. I had already run my dragster by this time.

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