Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cooper, Garrie Clifford (1935–1982)

by Peter Strawhan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Garrie Clifford Cooper (1935-1982), racing car designer, manufacturer and driver, was born on 22 December 1935 at Glenelg, Adelaide, only child of South Australian-born parents Edwin Henry Clifford Cooper, motor-body builder, and his wife Phyllis Gerder, née Taylor. Educated at St Leonards Public and Goodwood Boys’ Technical High schools, Garrie acquired skills in mechanical drawing and metalwork and became passionately interested in motor-racing. Using Austin 7 and A30 components, he designed, built and raced a Cooper-Austin `special’. In 1958 his father gave him control of the family business, Cooper Motor Bodies, at Edwardstown. On 21 November next year at Trinity Methodist Church, Glenelg, he married Lorraine Joy Chynoweth, a clerk. Shortly after, he produced a small batch of a model named Streamliner, based on the British-made Lotus Eleven.

Renaming the firm Elfin Sports Cars Pty Ltd, Cooper manufactured more Streamliners and a string of other models, including the Clubman, and established his reputation as a designer and manufacturer. Although he lacked professional qualifications, his solid technical background, manual expertise, dedication and enthusiasm, together with a small but highly skilled work team and the backing of his father, ensured a steady flow of sports or racing cars that compared favourably with imported models. The Elfin Mono, introduced at the 1964 Melbourne Racing Car Show, was particularly competitive.

Success on the track, however, did not translate into sales. Ever resilient, Cooper designed the space-framed Type 600 and in April drove it to victory at the Singapore Grand Prix. The resultant publicity and prize money of $5000 revived Elfin’s fortunes, which were further consolidated when Cooper jointly won the Australian Formula 2 Championship with Max Stewart. The 600 proved to be a world-class car, and a Formula Ford variant provided aspiring young drivers with the opportunity to compete overseas.

In 1971 Cooper was fitted with an artificial valve to correct a congenital heart condition. Next year Ansett Transport Industries Ltd became the Elfin team’s sponsor. In 1978 Cooper was awarded the Confederation of Australian Motor Sport’s membership of honour. Competing later that year in the Australian Grand Prix at the Sandown International Motor Racing Circuit, Melbourne, he was severely injured when, due to mechanical failure, his Elfin Formula 5000 car crashed at high speed. After battling CAMS medical advisers he renewed his competition licence and finished seventh in the 1980 AGP. He completed manufacture of a new model, the MR9, before the loss of Ansett’s support in mid-1981 threatened Elfin’s financial viability and Cooper’s driving opportunities. Turning his attention to building a clubman road car, he scaled down his racing activities.

Tall, quietly spoken, unassuming, and habitually dressed in faded jeans and a checked shirt, Cooper could be stubborn but was never arrogant. Survived by his wife and their son and daughter, he died of a ruptured aortic aneurysm on 25 April 1982 in Adelaide and was cremated. Elfin Sports Cars had produced over 240 cars since 1959 and was considered the most successful racing car constructor in the Southern hemisphere. Cooper’s family and friends remembered his optimism in the face of adversity, and especially the perennial end-of-season promise to his wife, `next year will be the year, Lor’.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Blanden and B. Catford, Australia’s Elfin Sports and Racing Cars (1997)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 27 Apr 1982, p 10
  • personal knowledge.

Citation details

Peter Strawhan, 'Cooper, Garrie Clifford (1935–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cooper-garrie-clifford-12351/text22191, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 21 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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