THE PIPER SPORT
AS THE price of factory-produced cars rises, Britain’s component car makers are multiplying rapidly and apparently making money in the process. The days when the expression “kit-car” meant a tatty glass-fibre body over primitive internals have mainly passed away, though the sheer effort of constructing some of the cheaper kits is usually best left to the determined and resourceful enthusiast. At less than £300 the component cars appear mainly as a bare body-shell, though Marcos, Jem Developments and Davrian do offer various extra cost items to ease the building or cockpit trimming processes. In the over-£1,000 bracket the kits are in most cases exceptionally easy to assemble, with Marcos and Lotus offering a high standard of interior appointment and electric windows as standard items, leaving easily mastered jobs to the builder. The barren section of component car sales appears to be in the £500-£1,000 region, where the Lotus Seven at £795 and the Ginetta G15 selling for £849 are the only tested marques. There is now a new, and glass-fibre-bodied Lotus Seven series 4, but a retail price had not been announced when this was written, though we have heard it will cost at least £100 more than the Seven S3.
Last month we tried the Davrian Imp-powered Special in racing trim, and this month’s test is of another little-known car, the Piper Sport. Pipers are sold in three versions, all have modified Ford 1600 GT crossflow engines and gearboxes, unstressed glass-fibre body-shells and square-tube chassis.
The original rough design sketches were by Tony Hilder and these were then passed on to the Piper group of companies operating from Ashford in Kent. In 1967 this firm displayed a model of the design at the Autospeed exhibition. By 1968 Piper had constructed several cars which used Ford Cortina power units instead of the Sprite mechanicals originally proposed. Brian Sherwood, a club racing driver and proprietor of an engineering works at Wokingham, purchased one of the original Piper GTs and took it back to his works for further modifications. Soon afterwards Sherwood Holdings took on the rights to manufacture and sell the sleek but, at this stage, troublesome cars. Sherwood changed virtually everything on the Piper, making the chassis a lot stronger, among other things. Just before Christmas last year Brian Sherwood was killed whilst driving along the notorious three-lane stretch of the A20, close to Brands Hatch.
Now Bill Atkinson and Tony Waller see to the production and sales of these intriguing cars from the large Sherwood workshops at Reading Road on the outskirts of Wokingham. Most of the parts, including the 16-gauge steel tubing chassis, are made on site. During our visit to the workshop, or small factory would perhaps be a better description, we found that so far over 30 Pipers have been made. Current output is roughly a car per week: all of them sold by display on the main road forecourt.
In one corner we found two moulds for the body, the floor-pan being bonded to the superstructure. A large central transmission tunnel suggests that perhaps a “backbone Y-structure” chassis is used like the Elan’s, though in truth the construction is the simplest of steel frames extending to the rear and front in order to mount the suspension and engine components.
Front-end running gear is mainly from the Triumph Herald (without S-T where would the specialist car makers be?), using independent double-wishbone suspension parts, disc brakes and steering rack from this source. The Ford Corsair rear axle has a 3.7-to-1 final drive ratio and is located by radius-rods placed in front of the axle and angled outwards to the top of the axle casing. In addition semi-triangulated brackets mount from the steel frame to the bottom of the axle and these each carry a coil spring/shock-absorber unit.
The three models are coded GTT, GTS and Sport; in kit form the respective prices are £1,425, £1,540 and £1,700. This slots the Piper neatly between 1600 GT Ford-powered TVRs and the V6 Marcos. Standard equipment for the GTT comprises blue-tinted windows (none of which open on any of the models!), electric Kenlowe fan, 13 by 6 1/2 in. cast-alloy wheels, twin fuel tanks, electric windscreen washers, Ford’s heating and ventilating system, 12-in. leather-rim steering wheel, Cortina instruments (but lacking fuel gauge in all cases) and a mildly-modified engine with a re-jetted standard carburetter, gas-flowed and polished cylinder head. The camshaft timing is also altered in the cause of a small power increment. The GTS version features a more comprehensively modified engine utilising a pair of sidedraught double-choke Weber carburetters, enlarged cylinder-head porting and 2-in, bore exhaust system. In this form Piper claim around the 120 b.h.p. region for the push-rod-operated Ford.
The most expensive model is the Sport, which has the same power unit modifications as the GTS, plus a revised interior with leather trim and “maximum soundproofing”, according to the enthusiastic Mr. Atkinson.
We were able to borrow Atkinson’s personal Piper, a Sport registration XPA 8, for a couple of hours during the afternoon. Conditions were ideal for trying a car with no sun visors and unopenable windows, for the sky was clear and the winter sun surprisingly warm. The Piper is 3 ft. 4 in. high and weighs 11 cwt. Our photographer (in this case a trifling 6 ft. 3 1/2 in.) arrived inside the driving compartment some minutes after the small reporter, breathing heavily. However, once settled in, we were reminded strongly of the Marcos with reclined but comfortable seating. The leather-covered seats are in fact better than those in the Marcos for hot days. There was a sun-roof fitted to our car, which was rather crudely secured, and so we stuck to the blower fan. During our brief tenure of XPA 8 we could not find the heating control lever.
Setting off from the works we found the tiny gear-lever easy to use, though naturally there is a tendency to miss gears at first without the extra leverage found in a standard installation. Visibility out of the low-cut side windows is excellent, while through the rear the scene is distorted more grotesquely than it would be through a fairground “hall of horrors” mirror. After 10 minutes’ driving we adapted to this, but it is a shame that the generous area of rear glass should be thus wasted. TVR have overcome much the same problem in the Vixen, so it should be possible to rectify this point, which is an important one as the Piper attracts an enormous amount of attention and those with two endorsements on their licence may not wish to remain in ignorance of a following vehicle’s outline!
Up to this point we had not exceeded 55 m.p.h. and were therefore somewhat disconcerted to encounter a judder at an indicated 60 m.p.h. Subsequent investigation revealed that the wheels had not been correctly balanced and that some of the early castings (with which our car was fitted) ran out of true. Potential owners should check on this point carefully before buying as the vibration is bad enough to encourage one to investigate for the presence of a square wheel.
However, the handling on a smooth surface is invigorating, the converted engine pulling strongly so as to change the understeer to oversteer characteristics instantly at the driver’s direction. With so little weight the acceleration feels very similar to that of a Lotus Seven. We completed a couple of acceleration runs from a standstill to 60 m.p.h. indicated on the speedometer and recorded times of 8.1 and 8.4 seconds; the slower time being mainly due to the axle winding up as the clutch was released.
Travelling at 50-60 m.p.h. along a winding and bumpy main road was certainly an entertaining pursuit in XPA 8, which has been used as a mobile test bed for most of its life. The-cornering power is certainly very advanced, but the rear axle does not like its progress interrupted by bumps.
However, an unusual point, in the author’s experience, is that the ride is excellent in spite of this bump reaction so that the driver is quite relaxed while the steering relays messages of impending doom. Again one can get used to this and feel highly appreciative of at least being comfortable along country lanes in a light sports machine perhaps the ride could be retained while the rear suspension geometry is modified? . . . Come in, Mr. Chapman, just the man we wanted to see.
A few other points which impressed me about the Piper were the high quality way in which the doors fitted, the satisfactory manner in which the engine supplied power up to 6,500 r.p.m. without overheating in town use and, above all, its racing-car-on-the-road concept. Many people will buy the car just for its looks, but I hope MOTOR SPORT will in the meantime gain another chance to drive this attractive car.—J. W.