“We want Gumball to be the next Virgin”

Maximillion Cooper is exploiting the offbeat celebrities’ rally to create a global brand for computer games and clothing, he tells Andrew Murray-Watson.In his Gucci loafers and open-necked pink shirt -complete with frilly bits -Maximillion Cooper does not look like your typical petrolhead. And at first glance it is hard to picture the 32-year-old, who has a relaxed and slightly louche demeanour, as much of a hard-nosed entrepreneur either.

But later this year, Cooper is hoping that his love for supercharged sports cars coupled with a nose for a business opportunity will make him one of the wealthiest and best known names in motorsport.

Cooper holds the commercial rights to the Gumball 3000 Rally – a madcap race across Europe’s roads that puts models, Hollywood actors and other celebrities behind the wheels of the fastest road cars ever created. It is the real world parallel to Hollywood’s fictional Cannonball Run.

Drivers this year include the supermodels Jodie Kidd and Caprice, the actor Johnny Knoxsville and the Celebrity Big Brother winner Bez Ryder, the Happy Mondays performer.

The 2005 Gumball will leave London on May 14 and cover 3,000 miles, taking in 13 countries and stopping off in Prague, Budapest, Dubrovnik, Rome and Florence before finishing in Monaco a week later just in time for the Formula 1 Grand Prix.

Each of the 115 drivers has coughed up £10,000 to take part, although Cooper says the event will cost his company £2.5m to stage. The £1.3m shortfall will be made up in licensing and sponsorship deals.

Cars on parade will include Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Aston Martins and a host of Porsches, Corvettes, Lotuses and even the odd Rolls-Royce. The General Lee, the orange car that starred in the cult TV show The Dukes of Hazard, will also make an appearance.

In true Wacky Races style, there will not be a prize for coming first. Apparently, taking part in the coolest and most laid back race in the world is reward enough.

Cooper, who studied fashion under John Galliano at St Martin’s College in London, where his peers included Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney, has always been obsessed with motor racing.

By the age of 25 he had competed in racing franchises across Europe and had found enough financial backers to make an audacious bid to buy the Tyrrell F1 team for £12.5m in 1998.

As a teenager, Cooper played soccer for England schoolboys and was also an accomplished BMX rider and skateboarder. But cars were always his prime obsession.

“I pretty much knew that I was never going to be the next world champion. But I continued working my way up the ranks, and the constant search for sponsorship got me increasingly involved with the business world.‿

Cooper went from fashion at St Martin’s to a law degree at Sussex University. During that period he decided to work in the business side of motor sport.

“I actually found the racing environment, right up to F1, quite boring and corporate, aside from the actual driving. Sponsors did not get much for their money in many respects.

“With the other influences in my life – the music and fashion industry – I thought I could create a cooler image in the racing world that would appeal to people in the creative industries.‿

Although he was outbid for Tyrrell, Cooper refused to let go of the idea of creating a motor racing brand. In the summer of 1999 he brought together about 50 of his friends from the worlds of fashion, design and motor sport to a private party – the first Gumball.

Billy Zane, the actor who appeared in Titanic, was among those who took part. Jason Priestly, another actor, accompanied Cooper.

The success of the first rally persuaded Cooper that Gumball could become something much bigger.

“It appeared that my route to owning an F1 team was through Gumball,‿ he says. “At the end of 1999 it appeared that people were interested in Gumball, with hundreds wanting me to organise another rally and companies wanting to sponsor it.‿

Six years later, Cooper has signed 14 licensing deals for the Gumball name, including some for computer games, clothing and Top Trumps, the children’s card game.

He has also agreed to a movie based on the Gumball. The project has already secured $100m (£52m) in financing and will be in cinemas in 18 months.

Gumball’s agents in Hollywood, CAA, also count Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt as clients. And Cooper is co-producing the film with Adrian Brody, the Oscar-winning actor whose film credits include The Piano.

“We have got one of Hollywood’s truly great directors to be behind it. It opens the doors to turning Gumball into a mini business empire in the same mould as Virgin,‿ Cooper claims.

He also insists that the rally has remained true to its funky, alternative origins while increasingly becoming a major commercial powerhouse. “It’s one of the only brands in the world that appeals to the kid on the skateboard as well as the boss of a bank. Those that can afford the cars like it as well as the kids who aspire to owning them.

“Every other kid at a skate park has a Gumball sticker on his board and members of the Ferrari Owners’ club have them on their cars. The brand is unique like that.‿

Cooper expects Gumball’s turnover to be about £25m this year. A clothing range called G3K is set to appear in Selfridges later this year and other ideas include selling customised supercars with interiors designed by the likes of Gucci.

Gumbull also sold millions of supercar “Gumball Rally‿ Top Trumps last year, as well as more than 1m DVDs and T-shirts. A chain of Gumball hotels is another idea in the pipeline.

So is participation in F1 still the goal for Cooper?

“Not really. I think that’s a piece of what I would like to achieve, but my vision and fascination with the whole thing – even studying fashion in college – is about brands. How do you create a Virgin or a Nike that people buy into?

“By the time the movie comes out in 18 months, I want Gumball to be a recognised brand around the world.‿

Copyright 2005 The Telegraph

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