This 1959 Cooper-Maserati T51 Is A Survivor Of Early Privateer Formula 1
Lorenzo Bandini established himself as an experienced racing driver by the end of the 1950s, having gapped the considerable distance from race mechanic to grand prix driver. He took part in many competitions of the era in between, and was already an old-hand at the most significant European circuits of the time, viewing them from multiple perspectives over the years.
Born in Libya in 1935 to Italian parents, and later relocating to Italy at the age of three, Bandini had a budding passion for and a developed deep understanding of the tools of motorsport that manifested in a career as a mechanic.
An association with cars from Fiat, Volpini, and Stanguellini during this time spurred a desire to become a works driver—undoubtably a desire of many a young car enthusiast. It was ambitious to say the least, but Bandini would lean on his determination, and, race by race, car by car, he built up the skill set of his new career. Though not always the fastest qualifier nor hoister of the biggest trophy, he was often among the first few across the line—a consistent name on the top half of the timing sheet.
People with budgets and eyes for talent began to take notice, and in 1960 the Modenese privateer team, Scuderia Centro Sud, contacted Bandini to conduct some preliminary tests, sending him out for some hot laps in a Maserati 250F. Having sufficiently demonstrated his talent, this step would pave the way for his first grand prix drives.
Bandini and his teammates began racing with Cooper-Maserati T51s in 1960, with rear-mounted 1500cc engines like the one pictured here. A sort of “race school” car of the era driven by a huge cast of names during the early 1960s, it became a sort of measuring stick by which to observe their skills and weaknesses on something resembling a level playing field. In 1959, a Cooper-Climax T51 helped Jack Brabham secure the championship, but it was also used by plenty of privateers in one guise or another in the following years.
“In 1959 the Scuderia Centro Sud purchased two Maserati engines and two chassis to build two cars, and this is one of those,” the current owner of this example explains. He proudly holds the invoice of that purchase among the historical documents of his Cooper-Maserati. “The cars were numbered 12 and 13, and 13 is mine. They are different, however, apart from the number.” This T51 was constructed with a 2.5L engine, and it is thought to be the one raced by Maurice Trintignant bearing the number 44 at the 1960 edition of the Monaco Grand Prix.
It’s hard to trace the provenance of these privateer cars that were often repainted and shuffled between teams season to season, and this car also had its share of alterations. Lorenzo Bandini made his grand prix debut in 1961, a season which saw the new 1500cc engines demanded by the new rulebook. As such, soon after it was built, the car pictured here was modified to hold the 1500cc motor, and the main coolant pipe from the front mounted radiator was also re-routed to run outside of the cockpit, on the right-hand side of the driver, to the rear-mounted inline-four.
Later on, the car was reunited with a 2500cc motor, developing an impressive 238 naturally-aspirated horsepower. According to the current owner and driver, it is capable of reaching speeds of around 180mph in this configuration. “The car is totally conserved, and its four-cylinder engine still has a magneto ignition system,” he underlines soon after telling this speed figure. Perhaps something I’ll take his word for rather than request proof of.
If you are wondering about the dents that are visible near the gear lever in the photo above, the story is that the wall of the right-side fuel tank was unsubtly reshaped with a hammer in the period in order to enlarge the space between it and the gear knob. This enabled the driver to select reverse gear, should it become necessary. “Four gears plus reverse are too many for the chicanes in today’s circuits,” the owner goes on to tell me, “at Monaco I never use fourth, that was for tracks like Monza or the longer straights if you did a good job exiting the last corner.”
He also reveals that, surprise to no one, it’s difficult to feel 100% confident with this 60-year-old Cooper-Maserati. Apart from a few special outings, he really only uses it at the Monaco Historic Grand Prix, and that’s just for a few laps every two years. His results are not that bad either: he’s raced the T51 four times in Monaco between 2008 to 2014, where he finished in the midfield on each occasion, fitting for this relatively democratic race car. In 2009 he also finished third in Pau, in the Pyrenees Mountains, on a rare instance of driving the car elsewhere: “There were only four of us left running at end!”
This passionate classic car lover found this addition to his collection in 2000 when it was taking up residence in another Italian garage. The T51 hasn’t changed hands too many times in the course of its history all things considered, and it shows in the preserved marks of its history amid the sympathetic bits of restoration. A few weeks ago, it crossed through historical center of Florence with a police escort creating a surreal scene as the rather ancient but arresting machine passed by in front of a row of tourists. It had one police car ahead and one following behind, as obviously the Cooper-Maserati is in no way street legal. The parade was part of the Firenze-Fiesole, a fascinating gathering organized by the Scuderia Biondetti, which recreates a Tuscan Road Race each year that originated in 1948.
It’s impressive to think that about a decade after that period, this car was on track among drivers like Stirling Moss and Jim Clark. Lorenzo Bandini soon moved on from his stint in this T51 after a few months and switched over to a Lotus Junior that the Scuderia Centro-Sud bought after the 1961 Belgian GP. He would go on to win the Four Hours of Pescara road race in the same year with Giorgio Scarlatti in a Ferrari 250 TR. After this success, Enzo arranged a meeting and changed his life forever. Getting a factory ride at Ferrari wasn’t the direct outcome of his time in the T51, but it played a part.