Talking to the man who wrote SA endurance racing history
A Franschhoek Motor Museum initiative
Nobody has ever had as big an effect on South African endurance racing, as David Piper. The Englishman won no less than seven out of the nine Kyalami 9 Hour races he started through the 1960s.
Piper wowed SA fans for many a decade
Among Piper’s most notable successes throughout his lengthy career, were right here in sunny South Africa. Later, despite sustaining a professional career-ending injury, Piper still perennially returned to race and wow South African fans for many a decade, well into the post-millennium era.
We cornered David in the middle of a logistical nightmare in the build-up to one of his many Zwartkops historic racing festivals back in ’05. His cars shipped from Britain, had only arrived in Cape Town the evening before and still needed to get to Pretoria.
He was in a pensive mood, but David’s face livened when he saw us. Why not airfreight the cars to Johannesburg, we asked? “We cannot because the cars must remain in their containers until cleared by customs,” David pointed out as he autographed another cap for a fan.
Drama was nothing new for David
That drama was nothing new for Piper, who was 74 at the time. “It’s not very different to when I brought my Ferrari 250 GTO down for one of our 9 Hour races at Kyalami back in ’64,” Piper explained.
“We’d entered the car for local men John Love and Peter de Klerk to race, but it was unnecessarily delayed by customs in Cape Town. “So, we had to drive it through the Karoo in the dead of night to make the race. “John and Peter had to wait for the car and only managed a brief session in the last hour of practice, but they still raced on to second.
“We often drove our racing cars around back then. “We’d drive the cars up to Kyalami, race the 9 Hour and then even head for Luanda in Angola to race it there and elsewhere. “It was how we did it!”
“I had a lucky break. We had to sell our estate”
Reflecting on his career, David Piper had an interest in motorcars from an early age. “My family owned a farm in Edgeware, in Middlesex England. “I had a lucky break. “We had to sell our estate at a handsome price to make way for the planned new M1 freeway.
“That allowed me to buy a Lotus 16 in 1959 and I entered it in scores of races. It was only when I switched to sports cars that I really made a name for myself. “I was fortunate enough to go on to become a successful Ferrari privateer.
“I had a very good relationship with Enzo Ferrari, so much so that the Old Man agreed to supply only me the necessary parts to build my fabulous Ferrari P4 with an unlimited capacity Le Mans V12 engine…
Piper became a Ferrari works driver at Le Mans
Piper’s success soon gained him a seat in the Ferrari factory World Sportscar team. He also drove for the works Gulf Ford GT 40 outfit at Le Mans. One of the highlights of David’s career was assisting to develop the great 917 for Porsche.
Hid Porsche links saw David invited to contribute to filming Steve McQueen’s quintessential Le Mans movie in 1970 in. It was an opportunity that enhanced Piper’s reputation, but tragedy struck when he suffered a terrible accident during a shoot. “I lost my leg in the crash and that effectively put an end to my professional racing career.”
His love for racing however soon saw David Piper continue in the sport he loved. First as team owner, when he brought his Porsche 917s back to Kyalami in ‘71. And later as the doyen of his famous historic racing circus that saw him and a band of like-minded enthusiast pals competing in classic International Sports Prototype races around the world.
Piper preferred racing Ferraris and Porsches
The English representative of Formula 1’s elite Club International Pilotes Anciennes, David prefers Ferraris and Porsches. Having hammered the hapless freight agent on the other side of the line, we ambled through the paddock. Despite his prosthetic limb, David showed little hint of a limp, rather a spring in his step and clear indication of a certain zest for life.
Back in the comfort of the Zwartkops pit hospitality, we asked if he found any difficulty driving race cars in anger at his advanced age. David drew deeply on his fresh lit pipe and puffed a wisp of smoke up toward the rafters. “No, not at all, I get along just fine,” he grinned.
“I’ve raced several times this year. “As you know, to keep your competition licence, one must pass stringent tests. “I’m also on a diet,” David hazarded. Wife Liz was quick to interject. “If you saw the size of the bowl of ice-cream he had last night, you’d never believe a thing he’s saying!”
Truly memorable days, but so long ago
“Talking about food, your grandfather had quite a bit to do with how I look,” Piper smiled. “I will never forget those grand lunches at Gigi’s long table.” John Love, who was sitting with us, smiled. “They truly were memorable days, but so long ago…”
“Are you aware that Gigi also had a significant part of my first 9 Hour win with Bruce Johnstone in my Ferrari GTO back in ‘62,” David quizzed. “We ran out of tyres and had the GTO running on rain rubber in the dry shortly before the final stop. “We thought we were not going to make the distance!
“Gigi heard that we were in trouble and had his guys strip his similar knock-off Borrani wheels and almost new Pirelli tyres off his road-going Ferrari parked behind the pits. “They rolled them into my garage and my guys set the race pressures. “We changed wheels when I handed over to Bruce and refuelled, and he went on to take the flag and a huge win for us.”
Piper rated the locals as top class drivers
We asked why David preferred local co-drivers in those early 9 Hours. “Well, the Southern Africans were all top class drivers. “We also never had to fly someone out and the locals did the job very well. “I drove with local F1 driver Bruce Johnstone to win the ’62 race and then shared the GTO with works Cooper Climax F1 driver Tony Maggs when we won again in ’63.
“Maggs and I also shared my brand new Ferrari 275 LM to win the 7th 9-Hour in 1964. “That year we also entered two local aces, John Love and Peter de Klerk in a a second car with the GTO. “We came home first and second.” Piper went on to win following two 9 Hours with compatriot Dickie Attwood, in a 365 P2 in ’65 and again in a P2/3 in 1966.”
Two barren years followed with the 365 P4, before David returned with his Porsche 917 and won his final Kyalami 9 Hour alongside Richard Attwood in ’69. He lost his leg the following year, but returned as team owner with a pair of Porsche 917s in 1971.
David Piper and his magnificent historic racing circus
David often visited South Africa in the following years, but it was not until 1988 when he made a habit of coming out with his magnificent historic racing circus. That soon had an annual home at the newly rebuilt Zwartkops Raceway at the end of January every year, and a week later at Killarney.
The David Piper Races continued for many a year, and David has regularly been a special guest at the Passion for Speed events that have subsequently become the mainstay of Zwartkops’ international historic weekends.
“Our cars became a huge attraction with the growth and popularity of historical racing worldwide,” David Piper concluded. “Taking our racing circus to thrill the crowds at Zwartkops, Killarney and the world over helped grow historic racing to what it is today
What it’s all about: The memories!”
“Those circuit owners organised such easy-going events to evoke a flood of memories of those great 9 Hour and Springbok Series years, and the early days of Grand Central, Killarney and Kyalami every time.
“That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? “The memories!”
This Auto Classic Feature is a Franschhoek Motor Museum Initiative
The Franschhoek Motor Museum has a regular display of significant cars, articles, and memorabilia on display including several of South Africa’s significant Formula 1, Formula Atlantic and indeed the Formula South Africa eras. Visit www.fmm.co.za to learn more and plan your next visit.