Historic Car Brands
‘There’s something stirring in a Lincs village – at 120 mph’, ran the story line of an article in the Lincolnshire Echo, dated 12 November 1973, concerning developments at Emmbrook Engineering, of South Willingham.
Bill Atkinson and Tony Waller introduced production of the Piper Sports Car to South Willingham in June 1973. The sleek sports car sported a fibreglass body shell, mounted on a square-section tubular steel chassis. Components were largely from the Ford parts bin and the Phase Two iteration of the Piper line could be bought for around Stg£2200.
Production of Piper Sports Cars began in the south of England, in 1968 and the first Piper GT road model, designed by Tony Hilder, was introduced at the January 1967 Racing Car Show. Immediately afterwards the Piper entered production as a body/chassis unit for home completion.
These early cars were produced by Campbells Garage and were based on BMC A Series components. Problems with the first few cars produced caused further production to be delayed until the following year, when, under the now-ownership of Brian Sherwood, Piper Cars introduced a substantially better developed version which became known as the GTT. There was a GTR pure competition version as well.
A Lotus-Ford powered GTR was entered in the 1969 Le Mans 24-hour race, but arrived at the track only just in time for qualifying and without pre-race testing in the UK. It suffered problems during practice, including overheating and a loss of the rear bodywork on the Mulsanne straight, and didn’t make it to the start line.
Bill Atkinson kindly provided further background to Historic Vehicles, with more information about Piper Sports Cars and how they came to be produced at South Willingham:
“Involvement with the Piper project started with my being as a customer, “ Bill told HV.
“Towards the end of 1968, I went down to Wokingham in Berkshire from my home in the northeast, to look at a Piper GTT and also met Tony, who was the company secretary.
“Subsequently, I placed an order and collected my car in early-1969.”
At this time, Piper was producing GTTs and GTR race cars. Ford engines, with modified heads and Piper cams, provided the motive power for the cars.
After taking delivery of his car, Bill made what he believed to be a few improvements. Brian Sherwood was suitably impressed and, in September 1969, offered him the job of factory manager. Tragically, Brian Sherwood was killed in a road accident about three months after Bill started working for Piper.
Bill-Atkinson and Tony Waller with the Piper P2 sports car
Following the death of the company owner, Bill Atkinson and Tony Waller stepped in and began focusing on improving the road-going version of the Piper Sports Car. Bill and Tony managed to keep the company going, but the original Piper Car Company name died with Brian and the new company became Emmbrook Engineering – a name taken from the town district.
In 1971, a revised model called the Piper P2 (Phase Two) began production, incorporating many improvements to the chassis, body and interior design. A six-inch (150mm) increase in overall length; twin round headlamps; modified taillights; modifications to the rear suspension and a slightly wider track were among the improvements introduced in the P2.
This two-seat coupé was an ultra-low sports car with GRP shell and tubular chassis. Front suspension came from the Triumph Herald or Vitesse and all were powered by Ford ‘Kent’ engines and transmissions. Capacities were 997cc, 1297cc, or 1599cc and some had a Lotus twin-cam head. The Piper P2 was the design Bill and Tony brought to South Willingham.
The move to South Willingham was precipitated by a belief that the premises in Wokingham were due to be developed and real estate in Berkshire was not cheap. The possibility of a move to Lincolnshire had occurred around Easter 1971.
“Tony and I were travelling up the A1 to deliver a Piper,” recalled Bill Atkinson.
“Near Grantham, I remarked to Tony that the area looked very pleasant and that it might be a good place to live and work.
“As it happened, an aunt of Tony’s lived in the area and she later sent down some local newspapers for us to browse.
“We made contact with a chap who was involved with rural development and he put us onto an old mill at Dogdyke near Coningsby, but the deal fell through.
“Then a local real estate agent showed us some properties in the area, including the building we occupy today.”
So, Bill and Tony moved Piper Car manufacture to South Willingham in June 1973, beginning production almost immediately. Three production staff accompanied the pair to South Willingham but, for a variety of reasons, didn’t stay very long.
At the time the article appeared in the Lincolnshire Echo, Emmbrook Engineering was said to have a four-month waiting list for its cars. However, changes in UK purchase tax and the 1973 Oil Shock fuel crisis led to a premature end to car manufacture in South Willingham. Even before the last Piper Sports Car left the factory, Bill and Tony had begun diversifying in order to survive:
“A chap called Martin Knowles and an associate of his had read the article in the Lincolnshire Echo, Said Bill Atkinson
“They had been developing a fibreglass ‘corner’ bath and, reading that we were producing car bodies in fibreglass, came to see us.
“This resulted in us beginning to produce corner baths, which turned out to be very fortunate for us, given the crisis with Piper car production.
“We also began making model boats for the well-known firm of model-makers, Keil Kraft and, in conjunction with Martin Knowles, we produced sailing and rowing dinghies,” said Bill.
However, car production never recovered and of the few cars that were produced, most had already been started down at Wokingham and a bare handful left the Emmbrook factory. Sadly, it was all over for Piper by mid-1975.
Estimates of total Piper production vary from around 80 – according to the Piper Sports and Racing Car Club – to somewhere over 100.
Piper Down Under
At least one Piper made it to Australia, because HV’s Jim Gibson saw an ad for it in the Sydney Morning Herald classifieds, on June 14, 1986. He followed up the ad and visited the owner, on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. However, by the time Gibbo got there the owner had got ‘cold feet’ and decided not to sell.
“He was planning to put a 289 Ford V8 in it, he reckoned,” said a disappointed Gibbo.
The car was intact, but not in running condition and jammed into a rented shed, with a pile of rubbish surrounding it and stacked on the bonnet.
Jim followed up the Piper situation much later, after a bushfire raged through the area, but it’s not known if the car had been moved before this catastrophe. We certainly hope so.