The man who raced in green

Races

British motorsports legend David Piper is a man who has always lived life on his own terms – including piloting his Ferraris in a different colour to Rosso Corsa. Here’s his story
Words: Jason Barlow

The phrase, “they don’t make ’em like that anymore” could have been coined to describe David Piper. Where to begin with this extraordinary, indefatigable man, a figure who embodies the unique and unrepeatable esprit de corps that existed among racing drivers and privateers back in the day? 

 

Well, his Ferrari game is extremely strong for a start. Having wheeled and dealed and bought and sold used Lancias, he’d amassed enough money to buy his first Prancing Horse in the early Sixties.

 

He remembers seeing a 250 GTO at Goodwood’s celebrated Easter Monday meeting, in 1962. He sought out Ferrari’s UK importer, another larger-than-life character called Colonel Ronnie Hoare, and promptly placed an order. He picked up chassis no: 3767 from Maranello, and raced it at Brands Hatch, in the Goodwood TT, at Crystal Palace, and in the Tour de France (after which he garnered some factory support from Ferrari). 

Piper's unusual choice of green for his Prancing horses came after a sponsorship deal with Esso expired, leading him to accept a deal with BP and their livery. 'I liked picking a colour and sticking with it' he said

Piper also raced for Luigi Chinetti’s renowned NART at Le Mans, in 1963, co-driving with Masten Gregory in a 250 GTO LMB. Despite the latter’s excursion into some sand by the Mulsanne straight, they finished sixth overall, rounding out an all-Ferrari top six that year.  

Then came Piper’s second GTO, a car that he personally modified, chopping the windscreen, lowering the roof, and tweaking the Ferrari’s V12. Apparently, works Ferrari driver Lorenzo Bandini proclaimed it the fastest GTO in the world. Technical director, the late Mauro Forghieri, could only agree. 

Piper moved on and up to a 250 LM, by this point the Ferrari to have, and continued to compete in a bewildering number of races, also often behind the wheel of Ferrari’s 365 P2 and 330 P3/4. 

Piper, of course, was also notable for racing cars painted green. Just a colour, you might think, yet to see his 250 LM or 330 P3/4 in what became known as ‘Piper green’ is actually still a powerful assault on the senses. We’re just so accustomed to seeing Ferraris painted red… His signature colour came about when former sponsor Esso could no longer support him in the wake of the Suez Crisis – which amongst other things led to an oil shortage in the UK – so he switched to BP green. ‘I liked picking a colour and sticking with it,’ he notes. 

Piper was such a fan of the racing Ferraris of the early 1960s that he would order them from Italy, modify them himself and then race them to huge success. One Ferrari driver described Piper's 250 GTO as the fastest in the world

His is a tale of talent, self-belief and opportunism. A self-confessed failure in traditional education, Piper was a farm worker when he spotted an old MG in a garage on a client’s land and hustled his way into it. As with many great drivers in the Fifties, club racing successes soon got him noticed. He was spotted by future Ferrari Formula One world champion Mike Hawthorn after he’d won the Leinster Trophy in Ireland. 

And thus began a life of motor racing adventure so colourful it’s hard to believe it all really happened. Just one example was the French road race at Etienne in 1957. ‘The circuit went down one side of a dual carriageway and back up the other side. I was wheel to wheel with an Osca in the rain, and he pushed me over the central reservation. My car went upside down in the face of oncoming race traffic and caught fire. When I opened my eyes I was surrounded by hooded, black-robed figures and I thought I’d turned up on the other side, but I was in the local hospital being looked after by nuns. Adrian Conan Doyle, son of the Sherlock Holmes author, crashed his Ferrari in the race and was briefly in the same hospital, so he was able to return a pair of RAF Mk 8 goggles I’d lent him.’

Piper is seen here at Silverstone in 1967, driving his Ferrari 250 LM through the pack, headlights on and flashing to warn slower drivers and being pursued by a Ford GT40

Piper was badly injured while filming a sequence for Steve McQueen’s celebrated but complicated film 'Le Mans', in 1970. The lower part of his right leg was amputated as a result, but even that didn’t slow him down; he learned how to left-foot brake and was racing again six months later. He has owned, he reckons, five new GTOs over the years, and two used ones. On top of that, there have been at least six 250 LMs. He still owns one now at the age of 91, as well as a P2, and 330 P3. 

And yes, they’re all green.