The True Story Behind Steve McQueen’s Cooper T56 Formula Junior
Ah, Steve McQueen. Doesn’t every man wish he could be the infamous King of Cool? For instance, after finishing his TV series Wanted: Dead or Alive, McQueen was about to race at Laguna Seca when his bosses from Hollywood found out and gave him an ultimatum: either be a racecar driver or be a movie star. McQueen chose movies and over the next few years, he would star in such classics as The Great Escape, The Sand Pebbles, The Thomas Crown Affair, and Bullitt. Unfortunately, that choice to go into movies meant that McQueen would have to give up his 1961 Cooper T56 MK II Formula Junior.
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Only two Works cars campaigned for Team Tyrell for Cooper in 1961. Under the hands of South African driver Tony Maggs, the Cooper T56 Formula Junior won eight races (Goodwood, Magny-Cours, Monza, Kalskoga, Rouen, Zandvoort, Oulton Park, and Montihery), made it to the podium in several other races, won the European Formula Junior Championship, and led Maggs to tie with Jo Siffert for the championship.
At the end of 1961, Team Tyrell returned the car to Cooper, who then sold it to Steve McQueen. McQueen took the Cooper T56 and a Mini-Cooper back to California with him after attending Cooper’s race school. McQueen claimed a few victories with the T56, including the Santa Barbara street races. When his movie career started taking off, McQueen’s mechanic, Stanley Peterson, sold the Cooper to Al “Buster” Brizzard, who claimed some championships himself, including three SCCA Championships. In the early 2000s, British garage Hardy Hall Restorations acquired the car and fully restored it, returning it to race-ready condition.
It’s no wonder that McQueen would be enchanted by the Cooper T56. The racecar boasted 105 horsepower from its 1,098 cc OHV four-cylinder engine. The motor featured twin SU carburetors and a five-speed Citroen-ERSA transaxle with independent suspension. Up front, coil springs took on any bumps while transverse leaf springs did the same in the back. Four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes took on any stopping required. If you’re interested in following in McQueen’s footsteps, his 1961 Cooper T56 Mark II Formula Junior Racing Car sold just 10 years ago for $198,000.