John Cooper was one of the great British short circuit riders. Winner of the greatest Race of the Year ever when he beat Giacomo Agostini and the mighty MV; winner of the Ontario Classic when he took on the Americans at their own game; and countless British championships.
His helmet, carrying those distinctive mooneyes, became his trademark. His lanky frame, bespectacled features and broad Derbyshire accent made him a distinctive figure. Never short of an opinion, he was perfectly capable of rubbing people up the wrong way, particularly some of his competitors.
But they also knew him as a kind and generous individual who remains popular to this day and is a regular attendee at motorcycle events of all sorts.
Then, as now, racing was taken seriously, but to a man with a great capacity for fun it was the enjoyment that counted equally. Cooper’s magic moments include borrowing bikes and then telling the owners afterwards, but an incident involving a Japanese sauna is one he remembers best:
“We were riding in the Japanese Grand Prix and I said to Jack Findlay after practice one day, ‘Let’s get something to eat’. So we were looking around for a restaurant when we came across this sauna bath. I said, ‘Let’s get in here’. So we went in and I went in one container and Jack went in another.
“This girl came and stripped me off, put me in this box and closed the lid round my neck. I had nothing on and she then switched the steam on while at the same time taking all her clothes off. By this time my glasses has started to steam up - I had forgotten to take them off! But I was in a no-win because if I had taken them off I couldn’t have seen her and with them on I couldn’t see her either. Eventually she let me out but by that time she had put her clothes back on again. So I never did get a look!
“There was another time at the Dutch TT - not about saunas this time although we did pay the occasional visit to Amsterdam on the way - and Mike Hailwood said he had come out without any money and could I lend him twenty quid (guilders, presumably - Ed). So I gave him some and as the season went on he kept saying, ‘I haven’t forgotten, I’ll pay you back’. It came to the Race of the Year at Mallory Park, Mike was riding the MV and in the 500 race it went on to three cylinders so I went round him and a couple of others riders at the hairpin and won the race. When we got back to the paddock he said, ‘You know that twenty quid I owe, should we call it quits ’cos I baulked those riders and let you win’. So I never did get my twenty quid!
“We used to have good parties in the paddock. I remember one year we we at Imola we had been drinking and generally having fun when Peter Williams decided he had to go into the town. So he jumped into his Thames van and set off forgetting his had his two bikes, a 350 Arter AJS and 500 Arter Matchless, tied to the back. We were all shouting and after about 200 yards of ploughing through the
gravel he stopped. Peter could be a bit forgetful.”