Motor Racing’s Renegade: Our Conversation With David Piper
Photography by Ted Gushue
Editor’s Note: Thank you to our good friend and automotive expert Jarrah Venebles for making the introduction to David Piper and spending the day with us outside of London.
There are few people in the motor racing world as beguiling as David Piper. In an era where sex was safe and racing dangerous (has this phrase become cliché yet?) David was an outsider on the inside. A privateer in a world of factory teams, a skilled wheelman who could also wrench through the night. He’s controversial in the way that many from that era are not, which he will be the first to admit: “Being on my own meant that I could tell anyone I liked where to stick it if I didn’t agree.” Close examination of the racing careers of his peers will reveal careful politicians playing by the rules. Not David. He started painting his cars BP Green when Esso ran out of money to sponsor his efforts just to spite them.
He shipped a container full of his cars over to Steve McQueen’s Le Mans film set only to lose right his leg from the knee down during a crash while filming. Not that that slowed him down much anyway. He became embroiled in a lawsuit with motoring journalist Mark Hales in 2013 after the engine in his 917 blew at Goodwood, causing massive backlash amongst the classic car community (There are two sides to the story, he claims). He is in every sense of the word an iconoclast, and a fascinating conversationalist. Anecdotes that allude to an entire book’s worth of material are woven into every sentence he speaks. To say I was transfixed by this octogenarian is to put it mildly.
I hope you enjoy reading my conversation with him as much as I enjoyed having it.
TG: What kind of racer would you say that you were, David? Someone who was turning a large fortune into a small one, or someone who was putting it together every weekend by your bootstraps?
DP: I was a very small person, and I was independent. I wasn’t driving for anybody else, I was just driving for myself. But the thing is that back then it was very easy to meet all the right people very quickly. They were all wonderful people, great characters of the day. They were all my heroes. The thing is, when I started I bought my first Lotus 11 in kit form for 1250 pounds, and you bought them in kit form to save purchase tax. It was a lot of money back then. I bought it with a friend of mine 50/50, we both raced it for a bit and then I bought him out. We used to get starting money, 75 pounds here and there, not a lot of money, but we could just about get by. We had no real responsibilities to speak of.
TG: So you were scrapping it together every weekend.
DP: Yes. And I had a friend named Danny Margillies. He was in London, and he had all sorts of cars, one being a C-Type Jaguar. OVC 915, it was a disc brake, Weber car. A very nice car, it was one of Duncan Hamilton’s old ones, and he used to drive it with Graham Hill, and they did Agadir in Dakar with it in one or two races. And then Graham went to work for Lotus. I was quite a good mechanic at that point so Danny said to me, “Would you like to look after my C-Type, and drive it with me?” So I did. And I ended up joining all the other C-Type boys, like Bill Smith and Max Trimble, Archie Scott Brown, and there was a nice bunch of C-Types, and Cooper Jags, and things like that, you know. And I enjoyed that, it was great driving a C-Type. We did the Targa Florio together. We drove it down to Genoa together.
TG: You speak about doing the Targa Florio as if it was something that you just happened to pop into along the way.
DP: Well it was a big adventure. I met Vincenzo Florio, who was one of the people who started the Targa Florio. And W.F. Bradley, who was a very respected journalist in those days, and it was quite an adventure. And we did quite well. We survived the race and came back again [laughs]. Yeah, that was good fun.
TG: Was the Targa Florio a race you had to pay to enter?
DP: No, no. No entry fees. They paid you. You see, these towns all over Europe, anyone could have a motor race anywhere they liked. And if a town felt that they’d like to have a race and there were a few people who thought it was a good idea, that it would bring a lot of people to that town and the restaurants and the hotels, they would then go and find the drivers and the cars to do the race. So you’d lie to them and tell them who you were and how many races you’d done and won, and they’d offer you some money to go and do it.
And then Colin Chapman introduced me to Reg Tanner of ESSO, saying, “You want to go and see Reg, he’ll give you free fuel and free oil, and if you win races, they can advertise, they’ll pay you bonuses.” And so that was a start. Getting free fuel and free oil. That was quite a consideration. And then I used to go to Dunlop’s on Albany Street. I used to give him a backhand of cash, and I could borrow secondhand tires from him you know which kept me going. And then we got to the stage where Dunlop would give us free tires and bonuses on race results. Mintex would give us free brake pads and bonuses on race results too. Champion would give us free spark plugs, and so on. So it was all beginning to come together. And then, Mike Hawthorn had introduced me to Lancia through a used Lancia dealer in Normandy, so I started buying old Lancias and bringing them back to the UK, marking them up and selling them to fund the racing. All the wealthy Italian industrials said, “Buy a Lancia that’s right-hand drive. Run them for two or three years and then sell them.” They were beautiful cars. They were better than Ferraris frankly. Anyway, that’s how I made enough money to buy my first GTO Ferrari.
TG: How much was the original GTO sold for?
DP: 6,000 pounds. And then, the year after that you could buy them secondhand for 2,000 pounds. My house here was 7,500 pounds. So I was down in Maranello picking up the GTO. I’d ordered it in my green, with gold interior, and black corduroy upholstery, and the left-hand filler cap on the back of the fuel tank. And I asked Denny Hulme, “What’s the best thing to do on the way back from Italy?” “What you want to do is the Tour de France, it’s best car for the race.” And I said “I’ve never done a rally in my life!” And he said “Oh, don’t worry about that.” And we didn’t; I finished 4th, which wasn’t too bad. He said, “The best part of doing the Tour de France is everyone will see the green GTO. Ferrari will notice, they’ll know that you’re winning races in it, and so on.”
I had told Ferrari I was going to do it, and they said “For 300,000 lire, we’ll give you works support.” So the Tour de France, you move 5,000 kilometers on the road. You do seven hill climbs, and five two-hour races on all the important bits of Europe, all those race tracks. After the race Enzo Ferrari took notice and we started getting help from the factory. The factory was selling these cars to wealthy people who didn’t have any driving experience whatsoever, and I guess they took interest in what we were up to.
TG: Where did the green come from? Why green?
DP: When the Suez fuel crisis came, Reg Tanner of ESSO said “I’m sorry, David, we can’t support you anymore at this time.” So I went to BP, and I liked the color. When I was working on the farm, we used to paint all our cars orange, so people could see them in the field from their tractors and that sort of thing. I liked picking a color and sticking with it. But the old man—I fell out with my father and left home with no money at—that’s why I went to work for Stirling’s father, Alfred Moss, at the service station. I had 20 quid in my pocket and my Lotus Mk VI.
TG: How were you paying for food along the way?
DP: With great difficulty! I used to sneak in and out of the tube stations to be able to get to work in the beginning, let alone to race.
TG: How did you rationalize your rather hungry day-to-day life with the life that you were living on the weekends, racing around the UK and Europe?
DP: Well don’t make it out to sound too glamorous. Once we’d figured out how to pay for fuel and whatnot in the beginning you’d find a lot of us sleeping in hay bales the night before a race. We’d nick food where we could or take handouts from hosts. And when we were racing, we’d be sleeping in the bales at night. I remember one weekend when I was racing Formula Junior and I woke up to the smell of scrambled egg and bacon. I opened my eyes and there was Jo Siffert cooking on a portable stove out the back of his estate car and trailer, and he’d woken up just before I did on the other side of the hay bale. None of us had any money to speak of really. It was glorious, wonderful. None of us had any responsibilities.
It sounds a bit dark but it was this same casual attitude about living that made it possible to race at a time when heaps of us were dying every year. If you went into a hedge at the Nürburgring and didn’t come out that’s just too bad. I mean, lots of people did that. All sorts of dramas. I mean, it’s ridiculous. When you’re young, you think it’s never going to happen to you though.
TG: When did your career take a turning point to where you felt like it was more sustainable?
DP: After we had done the Tour de France in the GTO, Ken Gregory, Stirling Moss’s manager, said “Look, we had a GTO and we’ve sold it to an Austrian actor. We were supposed to race it in South Africa and now we can’t, so you can have our entry for your GTO in South Africa for 10% of the starting money.” Well, there was no starting money of course, but I decided to go anyways.
I shipped the car out from Southampton on a Union Castle Boat to Cape Town. And I drove it from Cape Town to Johannesburg, 1,000 miles. Entered the nine hours, won it with Bruce Johnson, a South African. And then drove it Cape Town. Then I shipped it to Angola and did the Grand Prix of Angola. Then shipped it back to England. Then, I shipped it on the QE2 to New York at which point I drove it down through the Carolinas, did Daytona, did the NASCAR race at Daytona as well, sold the car to a chap called Ed Cantrell who had an airfield and who said “I’d like you to stay with me. I’ll teach you to fly. We’ll do Sebring together.” He taught me to fly, and we did Sebring.
Then Ed said he wanted to do Monza with me in the car, So he shipped the car back to England. I went and bought another GTO, a new one, we did Monza together, then Nürburgring, and he was very happy with the results. Then he asked me if I knew a company called AGIP, which I did, and so I took him to them, at which point he bought a Learjet from them. That’s the last I saw of him. I later on read that he had done quite a bit of driving with AJ Foyt in America with my old car and I carried on racing in my second GTO. I made it really light, took a lot of weight off it. I chopped several inches off the windscreen, lowered the roof right onto the tail.
Then Bandini saw the car at Brands Hatch at which point he proclaimed it the “Fastest GTO in the world.” Forgheri agreed because we had taken so much weight off it and fitted wider wheels all around. I sold that one to Peter Sutcliffe.
Then Luigi Chinetti gave me a drive at Le Mans with Masten Gregory in a fabulous GTO LMB, which was just the most glorious car. So Masten started, and on the second lap, he lifts his brake and ends up in the sand trap, and he spends about half an hour digging it up. Then he came back into the pits and handed it over to me with a bent the steering arm.
Anyhow, I carried on. It was like driving through the desert storm. There’s sand blowing everywhere. I got my gloves on. This was a coupe, you know. And anyhow, to cut a long story short, we finished 6th, which wasn’t too bad. After a while, the car was going like it had never had a bad accident. And it was a fabulous car. They only made a few 330 LMBs, which had four-liter engines. After that race I started driving for Chinetti which was quite good.
You weren’t paid a lot of money back then racing for Chinetti. But I mean, you always had a brand new, very good car for driving in this or that race. You’d go to talk to Chinetti after a race for your starting money, and one of his people would explain that he’d just boarded a flight for New York. So it was typically the case that you would get your money from the previous race at the start of the next race. He was perpetually cash strapped, which was rather endearing because he would provide you with the cars, but then stiff you for a couple of hundred pounds. “Oh, Mr. Chinetti isn’t very well, he’s taken ill,” his assistant might tell you. You’d be staying at the most dreadful hotel by the railway station, but you were having the time of your life racing for Chinetti. His cars were so good, and he was the greatest character.
Masten Gregory was interesting to race with at the time as well. Incredibly smart chap, good fun to race with. Kept assuming he would die before he would run out of money.
TG: So in all, how many GTOs have you had over the years?
DP: I believe I’ve had five factory-ordered cars and three secondhand ones as well. But they were cheap then, you know. I would have kept my last one. I bought it back for 75,000 pounds and I sold it again for about 90,000 pounds. But I would have kept it. I could have afforded to keep it, but my wife didn’t like it because she said it was noisy, and smelly, and she didn’t like it, so it had to go. I’ve always been very low-key about these things though. At the moment I’m going through the pain of passing the cars on to my children, but we’re going through quite a bit of work of making sure that we don’t end up giving them away to HMRC [Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs]. Trusts and bonds and whatnot.
TG: That which was not expensive has now become…very, very expensive.
DP: Well, the 917K for instance was still very expensive at the time. It was twice the price of any Ferrari. Something like 14,000 pounds sterling. So you could buy that, or you could have bought two of my houses. Of course today the 917K is worth quite a bit more than my home.
TG: Of all the cars that you’ve driven in the past, or of all the cars that you’ve owned, what’s one car that you wish you still owned?
DP: The P4 I think. The P3 or the P4. I bought the P3 from Maranello Concessionaires. I drove it with Richard Atwood in the B.O.A.C 1000KM. It was rather disappointing. But my P2, which was a very good car, was getting a bit long in the tooth. We had to modify it as regulations changed. We had to make it carry two suitcases, all kinds of things. You had to fit a different windscreen on it to comply with the regulations. And now, if you wanted to sell that car the people who would buy it and send it back to the factory for Classiche servicing and they would remove all of the modifications to return it to the way it left the factory. Then they would trot it back out as an investment vehicle in its earliest, ugliest, and least functional form. Which to me is just lunacy.
Now there are a few exceptional people in the world who are purists, and they appreciate the car for what it is and what it’s done and the modifications that were made in period to comply with regulations. These are the people who buy these cars and appreciate their history and run them in historic races and so on. Most of the people who buy these cars at this point however are speculators, they sock them away and wait for them to go up in value so they can sell it.
The P4 was a lovely car to drive though. It had a beautiful engine, a very nice gearbox, and it handled beautifully. I mean, it was like a 908/2. You could chuck it about and it would just go. The 512s have a bit more power, but they had a horrible gearbox, a monster of a ‘box. Horrible gear change. The 312P was excellent, as was the PB. Lovely cars. I drove the Spider with Pedro Rodríguez at Spa, and I drove one of them at Le Mans. I was going to drive a Matra, but funny enough I was walking past the Matra pits and I saw Graham Hill sitting next to a dry cleaner who was there to dry clean the driver’s overalls when they got out of the car, keep them nice and fresh. So I said “Hi Graham! Looks like Matra is taking you to the cleaners!” and he turns to me and says “Quite the contrary, I’m taking them!”
In hindsight I wish I had driven the Matra that race. Fabulous car.
TG: Speaking of Le Mans, how did you get involved with Steve McQueen’s production?
DP: Well, I knew Steve quite well at that point. We had nearly gotten involved in a production in Monaco but Frankenheimer beat him to it obviously. People forget that Steve really wanted to do Monaco, both as a race and as a film. I remember going to London with Jo Bonnier and meeting Frankenheimer, and talking about it all. Because I was The Sports Car Rep of the Grand Prix Driver’s Club. And in those days, all the Formula One drivers are just as happy driving Formula One as they were driving sports cars—that’s before Graham was killed and Bonnier died. Nobody wanted the job of running the GPDA, which is why they gave it to Bernie on a plate and said “You can do what you like with it.” Which he did at the expense of every other form of racing in the world, turning F1 into Ascot mixed with Wimbledon.
Back to Le Mans, I knew Steve quite well from racing in the States at that point. He’d also done some racing in the UK driving Minis and things with John Whitmore who was a good friend of mine.
TG: So at what point does Steve ring up and say “Hey, I’m doing the movie, it’s about Le Mans. I’d love for you to be involved.”
DP: About a year before. He called me, and said, “I want a couple of cars for a film I’m doing, two Ferraris. Would you send them down to Alan Mann’s Garage in Bournemouth or somewhere on the South Coast and get them painted red? And when they’re painted red, would you bring them over to France?” So I put them in my truck, and I was halfway across the channel on the boat, and they said “There’s a telegram for you.” And it was Steve McQueen saying the film has been canceled. Bring them back to England. And that’s when he was starting the whole thing, it took him a while to recover and get it done the way he did.
TG: What was the production like once you got involved?
DP: Very impressive. The Solar Village was fabulous. The whole thing was over the top. Incredible catering, full support from Porsche and the Porsche Museum. There were incredible cars just littered about, 917s here and there. Quite a sight. We used to drive there from the Solar Garage every morning, and convoy into Arnage and park the cars. And the nun who had the ambulance there would always be there with the ambulance in case anything happened.
TG: Did you expect to be driving in it, or did you just originally agree to supply cars to the production?
DP: Well, I supplied quite a lot of Lolas, T-70s, to have Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512 bodies fitted.
TG: Why did they do that with the Lolas?
DP: To radio control them. It was much cheaper to radio control a Lola with a 917 body on it and crash it than it was to crash a real 917. The American special effects people were really, really very good. We were on set for six months, well I was on set for six months till my mishap.
TG: Was the camera rolling on that crash?
DP: No, they missed it unfortunately! I lost my leg below the knee. Would have been a nice authentic touch I suppose.
TG: How did the accident happen?
DP: We had been to the Solar Village for lunch, and went back to the track to keep shooting. We’d done the run in the morning with Porsche leading, and the Ferrari second, with Mike Parkes following in a 512. Then, in the afternoon, I was going into Maison Blanche, and of course everything had to be done at racing speeds. And I had a tire give out, left rear tire. I think that the mechanics hadn’t checked the pressure accurately before we went out after lunch because the car had been just fine in the morning.
TG: You don’t really walk with a limp or anything, I have to say.
DP: Very kind of you to say!
TG: Did it take you a long time to adjust to getting back to racing without the leg?
DP: Well, actually, funny enough as soon as I got out of the hospital, I was sort of up and running hopping around on one leg. But as soon as I got the prosthesis, you know, I got used to it. It took me about six months to decide to go racing again. I bought a ’70 Cobra out of Road and Track in America, a 427. Bought it sight unseen, and it shipped over to England, and it was absolutely fabulous. It was perfect. And I took it up to Silverstone and did a race with it, finished second with the leg. And I thought well, I’m going to enjoy this then. So I started racing again. But I couldn’t bring my cars into England because they all stay with friends of mine on the continent in garages, in Holland, in Paris, and Italy. I couldn’t bring them in for legal reasons. But when we finally joined the common market, which we’re now fleeing, I was able to bring them in without any sort of fees!
TG: At least you got the cars out. Who did you enjoy racing with the most over the years?
DP: Pedro Rodríguez was great fun. Walt Hansgen treated me like a son in America. There are some very nice people in motor racing you know, you’ve got people like Roger Penske in America. I quite like racing in America actually. But I think after a month or two, when you’ve done Daytona and Sebring you’re ready to come back to Europe because it’s a bit more sophisticated. But the Americans are very nice. The Americans love the British. I mean, if you can’t make it over here, you don’t have any trouble making it in the states.
TG: Do you prefer Daytona or Sebring?
DP: I like them both actually. Reggie Smith was the champ who ran Sebring. He came from Birmingham. He was a little glummy, you know. Lovely chap. And it was great fun. Rough old track. Terribly rough back then. And when it rains at Sebring, which it always does, you can aquaplane on the straight. You have a job hugging a straight line on the straightaway. But great fun. The Americans are fun. I learned to fly over there. But I never even thought about flying in Europe. The weather is too bad, you know. I used to fly down to Modena with Mike Parkes and his Beech Baron. I had a workshop there, would push the cars across the road and test them. It was the place to be with a Ferrari. I used to live in the workshop. I’d still be living there if I hadn’t gotten married and decided to raise the children in the UK properly.
PORSCHE 917 K
TG: Tell me about this 917.
DP: I had one of the first 917s, 0100, and we first raced it, Richard Atwood and Kurt Ahrens drove it in Austria, they finished third. It was entered by me. Then I was third at the Hockenheimring with it, the first race I did with it. Then we shipped it to South Africa and won the nine-hour race with it. And we did Watkins Glen too, then Brian Redman drove with me at Buenos Aires—he put it on the pole—we were leading the race comfortably and Brian was passing a chap called Jack Wray in a Lola down the main straight and Jack Wray just pulled across in front of him and headed him off the road. So we had to retire the car.
But then it ran at Daytona with Peter Gregg; he stole it out of the airport at Miami, he had no business to take it. I arrived in Florida to drive the 312 for Chinetti and found the Porsche going around the circuit. I said, “What are you doing with my car?” He said “I thought you would be glad to see it running here!” He had blown the engine up by that point. And you know what it cost then to rebuild a Porsche engine. So I ended up covering all the costs to rebuild the 917’s engine. About two years later he sent me a check for 350 dollars and then he shot himself.
He just wasn’t happy. He had an accident driving to Le Mans from Paris in a Porsche, did something to his eyesight, and he wasn’t well enough to drive, the medical people wouldn’t let him race, and he was so desperately disappointed that when he went back to America he committed suicide. He was a very nice chap, actually. I first met him, he was my gopher at Daytona in 1962, he was one of the Ivy League boys, he was a nice looking guy. It was a shame.
FERRARI 250 LM
TG: Tell me about the 250 LM.
DP: I bought the first LM from Maranello Concessionaires in ’64 and it hadn’t been homologated at that point, so we had to run it as a prototype. We had to take as much weight off it as possible, and do as many mods as we could to make it competitive. We had to wait two years before it was homologated to run as a GT car.
I really enjoyed this car though. A lot of people didn’t like driving the LM because it was unusual sitting so far forward with so much engine behind you. I remember Roy Salvadori saying that he found it a little bit difficult to get used to, but he still drove it very well.
It’s been a car that was forgotten for quite a while. Everyone was crazy about GTOs and they couldn’t think of anything else, but suddenly they’ve discovered the LM now, and that’s beginning to become more collectable and more valuable. They made 25 of them. They made 27 GTOs.
TG: Where did you race this one in period?
DP: I first raced it in England mainly. I raced it at Castle Combe. I raced it at Silverstone, Crystal Palace, Snetterton, Brands Hatch a lot, and I did a lot abroad with it too, like Reims. We finished third at Sebring with Tony Maggs driving with me. The Chaparral won. It shouldn’t have been in the race, but Bruce McLaren was second in the GT40, and we were third in the LM.
Then suddenly, the Chaparral seemed to be accepted. They used the damn thing at Brands Hatch. They used it everywhere. I can’t imagine. It just shows you, the regulations that the FIA make don’t mean a thing, you know. What actually happened was Jim Hall rang Carroll Shelby one day and said, “Do you mind the Chaparral running at Sebring?” Shelby owed Jim a favor anyway, and he said, “Well, it doesn’t matter to me. It’s not going to affect the Cobra winning the class.” The Chaparral ran at Sebring, so we were relegated from second to third because of it.
Back to the LM though. When it was finally homologated, we did all sorts of things, the Tour de France for instance, and almost any event really, because it’s a very drivable car. This one’s road-registered anyway.
TG: The P2. Did you order this from the factory or just through concessionaires?
DP: I ordered it from the factory through Maranello Concessionaires and it’s 0836. First race was at Brands Hatch, Mike Parkes had one too, he was 6th and I was 7th in this car. Then we did Daytona and Sebring and finished well. It was second in the Reims 12 Hours race, and there were heaps of over races that it performed very well in. It’s one of the best Ferraris I’ve ever had actually. It’s still going very well.
TG: You mentioned with the 250LM that you’ve modified it with some of these cars. Have you modified this one?
DP: Not really. We’ve made the nose detachable though. Nowadays, most of the racing cars have detachable noses but in the days of the LM and the P2, they weren’t so common. We made the nose detachable to make it more accessible to work on and save wage.
TG: So you were just saying that this is one of the few cars you own that’s almost exactly as it left the factory.
DP: Yes. I bought this one from Paul Hawkins with a whole lot of parts, everything to make another P4. We have spare parts, engine, gear box, all four corners, wheels, steering, everything except the chassis. I went to see Mr. Ferrari at Maranello and I asked him if I could have a chassis to build up this car. He said “Da Nostra Piper, va bene.” He called Cavallino Giberti and asked if they had enough steel to make a chassis for the P4. Giberti said yes. So they commissioned a chassis to be built and Paul Hawkins kept an eye on it as it was being built.
Manicardi built the chassis. Then Drogo completed the central body work. We found the original nose and tail that we had six of. We managed to buy one of the intended cars and here they go now. Original engine, gear box, four corners and major body work. When the car was finished, I asked Mr. Ferrari if I could borrow Didier Pironi to drive it at He said, “Yes by all means,” which would be a bit like me asking if I could borrow Sebastian Vettel for the weekend to go test a car at Silverstone. It just shows you how much things have changed in 40-50 years.