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Car of the Month - September 2009

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Piper_P2_1972

Piper P2 - GT body - manufactured in 1972

Those interested in racing and performance parts may know the Piper name from the special camshafts and exhausts the company produces and offers for a wide range of cars. Far less known is that the company has also offered complete cars for a brief period. The road cars attracted a fair amount of attention in their day, backed up by an actual racing car programme, and derived sort of a dream-car status for a short while. This however didn't stretch much further than the United Kingdom, the rest of the world remained practically oblivious of these attractive British sports cars.

Piper was the company formed by George Henrotte and Bob Gayler in 1966 and named after the trade mark of the garage they started out in. Henrotte was a former racing driver and Gayler an experienced engine tuner and together they set out preparing race engines and offering performance parts which soon evolved in producing self developed tuning components. An ambition of the two men was constructing a racing car and together with artist and designer Tony Hilder, who had worked on the McLaren M1A previously, a prototype sports racing car was created. This open Alfa Romeo powered car appeared on the racing track in the same year the company had started and featured unusual transparent sides. It proved to be competitive and the company received orders to produce some more of these cars with various engines. Over the following years it was developed into a closed GT coupe which ultimately culminated into the 1969 Piper GTR, a Group 6 sports racer with very futuristic looks and innovative lightweight construction by Tony Hilder. One of these was entered in the 1969 Le Mans 24 hours race, powered by a small 1300 cc Lotus engine, and though it didn't survive the qualifications due to technical problems its striking sleek looks made a lasting impression.
The racing exploits of Piper also attracted the attention of a group of club racers who wanted a lightweight GT based on Austin Healey Sprite components. Tony Hilder designed an elegant streamlined coupe following this request which was presented in 1967. While the demand of the club racers had vanished due to a change of rules the car, simply called the Piper GT, found a favorable reception which lead to a number of orders. Production of the GT started on a very limited scale, featuring a tubular backbone frame fitted with a fibreglass body and powered by either a Sprite, a Hillman Imp or a Ford engine. When Brian Sherwood, who raced one of the open Piper sportscars, saw the GT he thought it had potential for a more commercial production. Up to then it was more or less a kit-car needed to be finished by the buyer. Sherwood became involved in the development of the GT into a proper factory produced road car powered by a Piper tuned Ford engine.
Ultimately the original Piper premises became too small for both the parts and the car production and the company was split-up in 1968: Sherwood took over the production of the Piper racing and GT cars and moved it into a larger workshop while Henrotte en Gayler continued the production of Piper performance parts. The modified Piper GT was fitted with the Ford Cortina GT engine as standard, tuned with Piper cylinder heads and camshafts and was renamed into the GTT, the GT Two. Optionally any degree of tuning was available, executed by the performance parts section of the company. Placed well back in the frame the 1600 cc Ford engine delivered enough power to give the lightweight car a racy performance, enhanced by a firm ride from the competition style chassis. These qualities attracted a steady stream of customers for the built-to-order GTT.
Fortunes changed when Sherwood was killed in a traffic accident late in 1969. This event immediately ended the racing activities of Piper, which formed a financial burden for the small company though also attracted the necessary publicity, but the production of the GTT was continued until money ran out in 1971. This looked like the end for Piper cars but another chapter was added by Bill Atkinson and Tony Waller, the works manager and company secretary of Piper. They formed Emmbrook Engineering and restarted the production of the Piper GTT that same year. The car was thoroughly revised and renamed to Piper P2, meaning phase two. Most noticeable differences were the strengthened chassis, an increase in length by 15 cm in front of the cockpit and a low profile sun roof, resulting in more room in the interior.
Further revisions were made the following years improving the ride, comfort and safety of the car and turning the P2 into a serious and attractive road car. In 1972 the headlight arrangement was changed from units behind transparent screens into pop-up headlights to comply with height regulations, as a bonus this made the car look more modern. Developing a replacement for the P2 proved to be too expensive due to crash testing requirements and an increase in taxes and fuel prices made the sales of the P2 dwindle. As a result the last Piper cars were made in 1974.

In total about 100 Piper cars were made, which makes them very rare. In addition hardly any of these has left the United Kingdom which makes them very obscure in the rest of the world. On the other hand they have a strong enthusiast following in the UK and they are rarely for sale, resulting in relatively high values. The Piper P2 is the best offer of the road cars, well built and fully developed, while the GTT can be rather crude and unrefined. Most impressive Piper is the GTR racing car of which a handful is built; a new version of this model is offered by Tony Claydon as Piper GTR Le Mans Replica.
More info about the remarkable Piper cars can be found at the site of the Piper Sports and Racing Car Club.

© André Ritzinger, Amsterdam, Holland

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