100 years of the Indianapolis 500: The British invasion

03 August 2011
imports_CCGB_indy_68716.jpg 100 years of the Indianapolis 500: The British invasion
Richard Ayling celebrates the British invasion at the Indy 500 - the cars racing from 1911 to 1965 and the white metal, resin and diecast kits and models built to reflect the ‘real’ stars of the 500-mile race. ...


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Indianapolis 500 Centenary 1911-2011


The Indianapolis 500-Mile Race, also known as the Indy 500, is held annually over the Memorial Day weekend at the end of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indiana, USA. The event lends its name to the IndyCar class, or formula, of open-wheel race cars that have competed there since 1911.

British drivers have competed since the early years and won in 1916 and 1946. The main British invasion of drivers and teams started with the Cooper Car Company and Jack Brabham in 1961. The period we are covering in part 1 is to 1965 while part 2 will look at the dominance of the event by British manufacturers who, with Italian company Dallara, have seen only one victory by a car built in the USA since 1982.

Early British drivers

1916 race
Dario Resta – Peugeot (winner)

Two British drivers enjoyed success at the Indy 500 before the arrival of the British teams in 1961. The first was Dario Resta who was born in Italy but became a British citizen when moving to the UK at the age of two. After racing in Europe he raced at the Indy 500, winning in 1916.

1946 race
George Robson – Adams-Sparks Special (winner)

George Robson was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne before moving to Canada where he pursued his motor racing career. He first competed at the Indy 500 in 1940, but it was on his third and final time in 1946 that he won in the Adams-Sparks Special. He led for 138 of the 200 laps.

The model – Peugeot 1916

Resta’s winning Peugeot is available as a white metal model in 1/43 scale by MA Scale Models for $170 on its website.

John Day Models released a Peugeot Indy racer (Ref No 173), also from the 1916 event, in the 1970s. If this obsolete kit can be located at a swapmeet, only an adjustment to the tail is necessary to produce the first-ever British winner’s car. As yet, I have not been able to locate any model of Robson’s Adams-Sparks Special.

British teams arrive

1961 race
Cooper Car Company driver – Jack Brabham

The Cooper Car Company was founded in 1947 by Charles Cooper and his son, John. It began building race cars in Charles’ small garage in Tolworth, Surrey. Cooper’s had supported rear-engined cars throughout all formulae for many years. This culminated in two back-to-back world titles for Jack Brabham in 1959 and 1960.

Since 1911, front-engined cars had dominated the racing at the famous speedway. Cooper decided to run its low-line T53 Formula 1 car in a test to see how competitive it might be. The results were encouraging enough for wealthy enthusiast Jim Kimberly to sponsor a specially built car for the 1961 race. The Type 54 was designed and constructed in less than four months. Dubbed the 'funny little car from Europe’, it had been mocked by the other teams with their giant front-engined roadsters.

At qualifying, the car made 13th, only 2mph from pole. After an eventful race, Brabham was forced to make three long pit stops. He finished 9th, running as high as 3rd.

It would take three more years for the ‘rear engine revolution’ to be complete, but the sole Cooper T54 was the death-knell of the traditional front-engine, rigid-axle cars that had ruled the Indy 500 in the previous 50 years.

The model – Cooper T54
Scale Model Technical Services (SMTS) in the UK has produced a white metal kit (Ref No RL47) and a built model in 1/43 scale of the ‘one-off’ Cooper T54. The decals leading up to the race were added to on a daily basis as deals were struck. The model represents the car as raced by Brabham...

*This is an excerpt of the article 'Indianapolis 500 Centenary 1911-2011' first published in Diecast Collector's September issue. To see which issues of Diecast Collector are available to buy online, click here

*Diecast Collector is a monthly magazine which focuses on all types of diecast models from Dinky Toys to Oxford Diecast