“Enzo was very nice to me. He never said thank you, but you knew that he knew” David Piper pipes up. The British privateer who has been racing Ferraris for five decades. David Piper lived a gypsy life as the top Ferrari privateer of his day, and often beat the works cars. He tells Simon Taylor some of his stories. Photography James Mann/LAT.
Over the past half-century no British racing driver has flown the Ferrari flag for longer, and with more consistent results, than David Piper. Although he did race for Scuderia Ferrari itself, and Maranello Concessionaires and Filipinetti, too, Piper was always the quintessential privateer. He made his living out of racing his own cars around the world, and managed to gather enough funds by the end of each season to buy the latest Ferrari for the next. Then he’d paint it his trademark shade of green, and work it hard wherever he could find a race that paid good start money.
And he was always a front-runner. He scored five victories on the trot in the Kyalami Nine Hours, he won the Angola and Swedish Grands Prix, and he posted strong finishes and class wins in most of the classic sports-car races from Finland to Sicily, from Canada to South Africa.
Piper had already been competing around Europe for a decade in Lotuses before he bought his first Ferrari. But his love for the Prancing Horse started earlier than that: “I was doing the Targa Florio in 1956 in Danny Margulies’ Jaguar C-type. The C was no slouch in a straight line, but along the road into Collesano I saw a red Ferrari in my mirror. It was Peter Collins in a works 375MM. As he roared past he gave a cheery wave and a fanfare on his Fiamm horns, leaving me with the echo of his four megaphone exhausts. I thought, ‘I’ll probably never manage it, but I’d love to have one of those one day’.”
But six years later he did manage it. After spending his winters wheeling and dealing, including a nice line in importing second-hand Lancia Aurelia GTs from Italy, he had saved enough money to think about buying a 250GT Short Wheelbase. “Then Mike Parkes brought one of the first GTOs to Goodwood,” he recalls. “As soon as I saw it, I had to have one.
“In 1962 a new GTO was £6000. [At that time an Aston DB4 was £4000, and an E-type £2200.] I persuaded BP to give me some sponsorship if I painted the car in their shade of green.
“Colonel Ronnie Hoare ran Maranello Concessionaires, the official Ferrari importer, from his Ford dealership in Bournemouth. The Colonel was very kind to me, put in my order and said that I didn’t have to give him the full amount until I could afford it. I went down to the factory, picked up GTO chassis number 3767 and drove it home across France, stopping at a few good restaurants on the way.
“The first big international I did was the Tour de France. It was an amazing event, ideal for the GTO: 3000 miles on the road, seven hillclimbs and five circuits, Spa, Le Mans, Pau, Albi and Reims, all virtually non-stop. Danny was my co-driver, and his job was to pour cold water over my head to keep me awake. We finished fourth.
“Next I shipped the car to Cape Town and drove it 1000 miles to Kyalami, across the endless semi-desert of the Karoo, dodging the wild animals. That was the first time that I did the Nine Hours, with Bruce Johnstone as my co-driver, and we won that. Then I put it on a boat carrying cork up the coast to Angola, came third in the Grand Prix there. Amazing circuit around the streets of Luanda, just the odd straw bale against the occasional lamp post. My hotel was on one of the corners, with a couple of sandbags to stop cars ending up in the foyer.
I looked out of my bedroom window on race day and saw the soldiers who did the marshalling welding up the manhole covers in the road to stop them popping up during the race.
“After Angola I got the GTO home, put it on the QE2 and shipped it to New York. Then I drove it down south through Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia to Florida, and did Daytona and Sebring.” Always on the lookout for a deal, Piper found a wealthy American to buy his now high-mileage GTO so he could order a new one: “The new owner, Ed Cantrell, was a good racer. He brought it over to Europe and we did the Nürburgring 1000km together. We finished sixth in that one.
“On my second GTO, 4491, we did a lot of work to make it more competitive. We chopped seven inches out of the windscreen and lowered the roof, took a lot of weight off it, put the back wheels on the front and made new 10in rims for the back. It would be sacrilege now, but the rules allowed it then. With its current owner the car is back to standard, of course.
“I took that car across the Atlantic for the Canadian Grand Prix, which was for sports cars, then to South Africa for Kyalami which we won again, and then back to the USA for Daytona. I was second there with Lucien Bianchi. Then I did Sebring with Pedro Rodríguez in a Chinetti GTO and we won our class. The GTO was quite a simple car, tube frame, solid back axle, just a logical development going right back to the 250 Europa and the Tour de France. But it was beautifully made, and very reliable. I owned six GTOs at different times. Once they’d become obsolete nobody wanted them, and you could buy them for £2000 or so.”
The heavy schedule of races and strong results continued, but now the factory had produced the mid-engined 250LM: “I got my first LM, 5897, in ’1964. It was virtually a 330P with a roof, and the shape was good, so it was very quick in a straight line. By then I had a flat in Modena, and I was living there when I wasn’t on the road, to be near the factory. I was accepted there, not just because I was buying cars, but because we were getting results for Ferrari all over the world. To prepare my cars I rented half a small workshop behind the pits at the Modena Autodromo.
“I got to know the Old Man [Enzo Ferrari] pretty well. He was very nice to me. I used to bring him bottles of Scotch from England. He never said thank you, and he never acknowledged my results, but you knew that he knew. He’d take me to lunch at that place he liked up the hill, the Gatto Verde [Green Cat]. We could chat because my Italian was pretty reasonable by then. His chauffeur Peppino always drove us up there: he’d been Enzo’s riding mechanic in his racing days in the 1920s. The Old Man also ate in the Cavallino, the restaurant over the road from the factory. He had his own room at the back.
“I got friendly with Sergio Scaglietti, the body man, and I used to go shooting with him. Scaglietti was the Old Man’s eyes and ears, told him everything that was going on around Maranello and Modena, so it was always worth keeping in with Sergio.
“I had a big crash in the LM in the Three Hours at Snetterton. I was leading, and Graham Hill was chasing me in the Colonel’s 300P. It was foggy on the Norwich Straight and I was coming out of the fog just in time to brake for the hairpin. But I didn’t realise the wind was blowing the fog closer to the corner, and suddenly I couldn’t get it slowed up in time. I managed to spin the car to go in tail first, but it broke my back. I was soon racing again, wearing a sort of corset until it healed, but the car needed a total rebuild and I had no car for Kyalami. I wanted to keep up my record for the Nine Hours so the Colonel, bless him, lent me the Maranello 250LM, and I won again with Tony Maggs.
“For 1965 I had a P2, 0836, which developed into a P2/3 with the later bodywork when the regulations changed. That had the single-cam 4.4-litre engine. It did good service for me for a number of years: two more Kyalami Nine Hour wins, plus I won Angola that year, and the Trophée d’Auvergne at Clermont Ferrand. And in Canada I was second to Surtees in the Can-Am race at St-Jovite. I was still racing the LM, too. “Then I bought Maranello’s P3, 0854, from the Colonel. We won Kyalami again, and we won the Swedish Grand Prix and Norisring, too.
We had a lot of good races with that car. The P3 had bodywork just like the P4 but a bit narrower, and a two-valve engine on carburettors rather than the P4’s three valves and fuel injection. Ferrari made just two P4s, and then a third for Can-Am. David McKay in Australia bought that together with enough spares – engine, gearbox, all the running gear – to make a fourth.
“He sold it all to Paul Hawkins and when Paul was killed I bought the lot. All I needed was a chassis, so I went to Ferrari and asked the Old Man if he’d make me the fourth P4 chassis: ‘Per il nostro Piper, si certo!’ [Of course, for our Piper.] “I did Le Mans eight times. The first was in 1963, with Masten Gregory in a Chinetti 250LMB. Masten put it in the sand at Mulsanne, spent ages digging it out. When I took over, in the cockpit it was like driving through a sandstorm. But we kept on, and finished sixth.
“I drove for the Scuderia, too. I was in the works 312P with Pedro Rodríguez in the 1969 Spa 1000km and at Le Mans. The 312P was absolutely fabulous, really an F1 car with a sports body. Flat out on the Masta Straight, you’d go through the kink and see the revs climbing, twelve-five, twelve-six, twelve-seven. I was nothing like as quick as Pedro, but I did my best, and we finished second, splitting the Porsches with only Jo Siffert/Brian Redman ahead of us.
“Pedro was fabulous. He was a tiger in the car, gentle and polite out of it. He drove from race to race in his old Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn, which he loved. He’d carry a jar of chilli peppers and offer them round, and they’d blow your head off.
“At Kyalami in 1967 we were going for our sixth win, but, just after I’d handed over to Richard Attwood, as he accelerated down the pitlane, somebody stepped in front of the car. It stoved in the front and the man landed on the roof, and we spent so long patching up the bodywork we could only finish sixth.”
After seven years Piper’s sponsorship deal with BP came to an end. But because race organisers everywhere knew him as the man with the Ferraris that were “Piper green” he kept the colour. By then he was also racing Porsches, including his own 917, and Lola T70s. In the 917, he scored a remarkable sixth Kyalami Nine Hours win. He was very much involved with Steve McQueen’s film Le Mans, supplying Lola T70s dressed up with Ferrari 512 bodies that were shot from a launcher to make realistic accidents for the cameras. But then, driving a 917 camera car for high-speed car-to-car shots, a tyre punctured and he had a dreadful accident. The Porsche was cut in two, and as a result of his injuries his right leg had to be amputated.
Meeting David, though, you’d never know. And that wasn’t the end of his racing career. He retained several of the Ferraris – the 250LM, the P2/3, the P3 and the P4 – and became active in historic racing, winning the 1990 European Historic Championship.
He doesn’t know how many races he has done since his first outings in a little MG in 1952. Stored in an old deep-freeze alongside the Ferraris in his garage are his racing diaries, in which he recorded every race, every qualifying time, every gear ratio, every tyre pressure.
“I’ll have to go through them all one day,” he says, “and count up how many races I actually did. We used to race up to 30 weekends a year, so it was a lot. And most of them were in Ferraris. “Buying my first GTO was the best thing I ever did, and all those Ferraris have been very good to me over the years. That day in 1956 when Peter Collins came past me in Sicily with a wave and a blast on his Fiamms, you could say that it changed my life.”
‘FLAT OUT THROUGH THE MASTA KINK, YOU’D SEE THE REVS CLIMBING TO TWELVE-SEVEN’