Piper GTR

Thirty inches (76.2 cm) is hard to imagine, isn't it?

I'm not sure what I expected, but a quick query for "what is 30 inches" using Google Web Search resulted (SFW) in photos of bar tables, massive chrome rims, and TV screens. That's not helpful, nor is saying that the measure can also describe a decent-sized fish. I'll try again.

Let's say you're in an average house, with an average kitchen. Your kitchen countertop would be 36-inches (91.4 cm) from the floor, six inches (15 cm) taller than the Piper GTR. Better yet: If one of the four such race cars extant drove into your kitchen, its roof could be damaged from opening your average oven's door.

I'm sure most of you are aware that the Ford GT40 was so named for its height in inches, which puts it into the clouds compared to this short-lived Le Mans special.

The Piper GTR is the work of Tony Hilder, who had previously helped to design early McLaren race cars. Piper, an engine tuning and tune-up parts supplier, had established a side business spent developing quick and affordable fibreglass sports and racing cars aimed at keen privateer racers.

For a small outfit like Piper, competing at Le Mans would be a chance to showcase its engineering talents to the world—and because this is likely the first you're hearing of the company, odds are it didn't make much of an impact, right?

That's a shame, because nose to tail this is one innovative design.

Using his employer's wind tunnel, Hilder honed the shape of the GTR, adding an incredibly low nose and airfoil that stretched across the nose of the car. The design added downforce and reduced drag, in an era where aerodynamics were still very much one of the dark arts. Measured with a coefficient of drag at just 0.28, the Piper GTR is just as slippery as the Nissan Leaf.

To package the mechanical components and driver inside such a tiny car meant designing a composite chassis that used polyester-reinforced balsa wood panels for strength. Its body panels were fibreglass, which helped keep its weight down to 600 kg (1,323 lbs). 

Power came courtesy of a mid-mounted twincam 1.3-litre Lotus-Ford 4-cylinder engine, which was accompanied at the back by a rear-mounted radiator and oil cooler. The setup was good for almost 270 km/h (170 mph).

Le Mans has hosted many of motorsport's most strange moments, and sadly the fate of the Piper GTR is among them. During practice, the completely untested car began to have overheating issues. After opening up holes to help with cooling, the rear bodywork was torn off on the Mulsanne Straight after being adversely affected by the modification. The team's engine hadn't been properly inspected, so scrutineers held up the approval process and, after seeing the on-track incident that left the team without a lap time in practice, decided to disqualify the team.

To add insult to injury—or as an unfortunate example of miscommunication—the team wasn't notified of their disqualification until after it had pulled an all-nighter to fix the car and appease the engine scrutineers.

Some say the mix-ups may have occurred because the tiny car attracted the attention of many celebrities, including Steve McQueen. Some also say that the Renault-Alpine entries were up to 10 seconds per lap slower than the Piper GTR from a standing start. Modern examples in vintage racing have been known to finish well ahead of even the mighty Ford GT40.

It may have been small and unconventional, but for the few fleeting laps it operated at its best, the Piper GTR was hard to beat. As just one model in a range of cars, you may want to check out the most excellent Piper Club.