David Piper was one of the most successful privateers of the 1960s. His green cars stood out then – and he’s still racing them, in the same livery. Rob Widdows talks to him about his long career. The repeatable parts, that is
The man is a tidal wave of anecdotes spanning more than half a century of motor racing. Some consider him a lovely man. Some consider him an old rascal. Many consider him both. But one thing about David Ruff Piper is undisputed: he’s a survivor.
Born into a family of Hertfordshire landowners on December 2, 1930, he has mixed memories of a childhood which ought to have led him to a career in engineering.
“My father was an electrical engineer, and before I was nine we’d been to New Zealand – where he helped establish television – and back, via America, all by ship. War had broken out and father joined up and got involved in all sorts of secret stuff to do with radar. I was sent away to school and was useless at everything; I was only good for working on the family farm. But that’s where I discovered my love of machinery – and driving.”
The teenaged David spent his days, and some nights, ploughing the fields, messing around with motorcycles and hurting himself. Then a chance meeting with former ERA race mechanic Tom Ivens brought him to his first motorsport event, a Luton Hoo Speed Trial. The bug had bitten – and with the money from his contract farming, he acquired a supercharged MG J4 fitted with competition bodywork. He also attended the de Havilland-affiliated Hatfield Technical College, where he met talented young aerospace engineers Colin Chapman and Mike Costin.
David’s first race came at Silverstone in 1953. “I’d done a few speed trials and was competitive,” he smiles. “Now I wanted to do some real racing. I competed at Castle Combe and Goodwood, learning the ropes. I always loved Goodwood – lots of pretty girls in summer frocks.”
For 1955 David bought “a real racing car”, the Empire Special, a Lotus MkVI fitted with a supercharged 750cc MG engine. He took it to Ireland for the Leinster Trophy in County Wicklow – and scored his first victory.
“I won my class and [outright] on handicap,” he explains. “I met Mike Hawthorn there and he did a lap of the course in my Lotus, after which he bought me a Guinness – and poured it over my head. We later played touch rugger in the bar, caused a bit of mayhem, and then I went skinny-dipping in the Irish Sea with some girls.
“This race was the beginning of the end of the farming.”
David left home after relations with his father finally broke down. “Sad, really. Years later we met in Europe and he tried to repair the damage. But it was no good. My mother was proud of my racing, though.” A mournful look replaces the usual steely glint in David’s brown eyes.
All he had now was the Lotus, £25 and the promise from Alfred ‘Pa’ Moss of a job on his farm.
“We didn’t see much of Stirling, he was a big cheese by then. But his sister Pat kept her horses there and Alf Francis looked after the grey Maserati 250F that Stirling raced. One day Ken Gregory [Moss’s manager] and Jack Brabham came by to look at the Maser. Jack stayed in my digs. Nobody knew him from a bar of soap. He was just a speedway racer from Australia.”
A year later David bought a Lotus XI sports car from Chapman and went racing around Europe, sleeping rough in the straw bales that lined the tracks and getting by on the starting money. Another chance meeting, this time with dealer and racer Dan Margulies, led to a drive in the Targa Florio in the latter’s C-type Jaguar.
“We drove it down, took the cattle boat to Palermo, and ended our race on three Dunlops and a Pirelli because we’d had a puncture. I remember Peter Collins roaring past going through Collesano, the megaphones of his Ferrari blaring. He gave me a cheery wave and a blast on the air-horns, and I thought to myself ‘I must get a Ferrari one day’. ”
That wish still seemed very distant, though. Back home, David worked for Vauxhall Dealer Deliveries in Luton, ferrying cars to and from the docks, and for the Gas Board, delivering cookers in Harpenden.
“I was learning about being a private entrant,” he laughs. “I traded up to a newer Lotus XI, and made my first visit to Le Mans [in 1958], as third driver to John Young and Maurice Charles in their D-type Jaguar. An early crash put them out – but I was hooked on that race.”
More of Le Mans – David’s nemesis – later. Less well known are his forays into single-seater racing. He ran his Lotus 16 in 1.5-litre F2 form in 1959, making his GP debut with it at Aintree – he retired with a blown head gasket – and finishing second in the F2 Flugplatzrennen at Zeltweg. But he was using 2.5 litres of Coventry Climax when he finished runner-up to Brabham’s Cooper in the Lady Wigram Trophy in January 1960. That year he also used the 16 to finish 12th in the British GP at Silverstone.
But sports car racing throughout the 1960s was how and when David became one of the most prolific, successful and well-known privateer racers, mainly in a succession of unmistakeable bright green Ferraris.
“I’d always used Esso fuels and oils,” he says. “But they pulled the plug after the Suez Crisis. So I switched to BP, who stayed with me for years. I never did like British Racing Green – a dull colour – so I painted everything in BP green.”
‘Everything’ included his first Ferrari, a 250GTO from Maranello Concessionaires. In 1962 he took it to the Tour de France to get a feel for the car. “We did five races and seven hillclimbs in a week. It was absolutely knackering. I survived on black coffees and Armagnacs. But it was worth it. We [he shared the car with Margulies] came home fourth, which, I heard later, impressed Mr Ferrari. We [this time he shared the car with local talent Bruce Johnstone] also went to South Africa with the GTO and won the Kyalami Nine Hours [the first of five consecutive victories at that race]. That was the start of my love affair with the country. I still go to race there every year.”
David’s love of Ferraris led him to move to Modena in 1963, setting up a workshop and learning the language. By this time he was also in demand with some of the big players of sports car racing, sharing a NART-run Ferrari 250GTO LMB at Le Mans with Masten Gregory, finishing sixth, and a 250LM with Jochen Rindt the following year, when a failed oil seal caused them to become the race’s first retirement. Ironically, Rindt and Gregory would team up in 1965 to win the race in a NART 250LM. “That really pissed me off,” David laughs.
The Piper adventure, however, suffered a painful and abrupt interlude in 1970. While shooting for Steve McQueen’s film Le Mans, David lost control of his Porsche 917 at Maison Blanche and crashed heavily. He was lucky to get out alive.
“We’d been filming on and off for months and going to races in the downtime. This day at Le Mans we went out in the afternoon, me leading Steve round for another sequence. The back end broke away as I turned-in for the apex. I hit the guard rail on the right, bounced across the track, hit the barrier on the left and was launched into the air. The car broke in half when it landed. There was blood everywhere,” he winces. “I was sitting in the back half – but my right foot had been trapped among the pedals. I was still conscious and I could move my toes, but it hurt like hell and I could see that my foot was in a bit of a mess.”
McQueen summoned his private ’plane and had David flown to a hospital in Luton. But the senior surgeon David knew there was on holiday and so he was transferred to the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in London.
“It was like a First World War establishment. Didn’t fill me with confidence. And it was obvious that the French had not cleaned me up properly after the shunt. The medical team was three nuns and an ambulance, I recall. It hurt so much I got my mechanic Fax Dunn, who saved my bacon on many occasions, to remove the plaster with a hacksaw. The wound had gone septic. The surgeon seemed shocked, started cutting bits off and then said I’d have to have the leg off at the knee. But a doctor friend of mine advised saving the knee, so I took a risk and told the surgeon to go below it, gambling on there being no further septic damage.
“I thought my career was finished. It was a bad time. But Douglas Bader came to see me and dropped his trousers to show me his two false legs. That made me feel more positive. Steve McQueen came to see me a few times too, always on his bike. He used to cycle through the hospital, up and down the corridors. That gave us something to laugh about.”
As you might expect by now, David returned to the circuits – despite his comfortable early life, he’d become used to setbacks – and he expanded his own privateer team, exploiting the valuable collection – Porsche 917, Ferraris 250LM, 330P, 330P2, 330P4 and 365P, Matra MS650 and Ford F3L – he’d acquired over the years by hiring them out to an increasing number of wealthy drivers keen to have some serious fun. “Those cars have been my pension, my life insurance. I’ve never had life insurance,” he says.
He was still driving them too, becoming the FIA Champion d’Europe Historique in 1990.
“I just got on with it. I couldn’t heel-and-toe, but braking turned out to be the real problem. So I learnt to left-foot brake, and once I got the hang of that, it was much better.”
This year will be David’s 54th season of racing and he will share some of the drives with Richard Attwood, with whom he first co-drove in 1965.
“It’s amazing, really,” he says, patting his right leg and reaching for his pipe. “I’ve had a great life – and you haven’t heard the half of it yet.”
The other half, however, is full of anecdotes unsuitable for a family magazine such as this.