James Garner didn’t just act in “Grand Prix”, he drove F1 cars at race speed in it too. Now 71, he was brought to Monza just to be pictured with one of the cars from the film, but as Andrew Frankel witnessed, Garner had other ideas
It has been 33 years since James Gamer last walked on Monza’s soil. Then, as Pete Aron, he walked slowly through the final frames of John Frankenheimer’s epic Formula One film Grand Prix. Now he walks slowly as himself, basking in the low November sunlight. Gamer has changed, but not as much as the track. His hair now is greyer and thinner, his waistline somewhat thicker. His skin bears the markings of a man never keen on the stay home option and it is no secret his 55-year romance with cigarettes has taken its toll on his arteries. James Gamer, whether you know him best as Aron, Maverick or Rockford, is 71 years old.
He walks slowly today because his knees give him hell and the fact irks him. During two days he never once gave the impression of a man at ease with being old. We were there at the invitation of BAR, keen to promote its Honda engine deal and therefore to film the meeting of their man Villeneuve with Gamer, the last man from North America to be seen in a Honda-powered Grand Prix car. The link is tenuous as not only do Villeneuve and Gamer originate from different countries on the continent and have different languages as their native tongue, Honda wouldn’t allow its name to be used in the film, so Gamer actually drove for the fictitious Yamura team.
No matter, Gamer fits the scene perfectly, as does the car BAR has brought for him to pose with. On the screen, or from 200 yards, it looks like a BRM H16. In fact it actually starred in the film and below its battered and bogus bodywork is a Lotus 22, bought by Frankenheimer from Jim Russell’s racing school.
And while this Lotus/BRM-alike is a runner, Gamer is only to sit in it. His insurance is already off the scale for this trip and it certainly did not provide for septuagenarian superstars who have not so much as sat in a racing car for nearly 30 years climbing aboard a single-seater and trying their luck around Monza.
Garner, however, has other ideas. He sits in the car as planned, just for the photograph, just for old time’s sake. He is not allowed to flick on the fuel pump, then the ignition switch. And he is certainly forbidden from hitting the starter, selecting first, dropping the clutch and howling off towards the Curva Grande. Problem was, by the time they realised what he was doing, Gamer had gone.
They chased him for a while but soon realised the pursuit was pointless. Apparently it is watching him slide the Lotus out of the chicanes which suggests he is probably in no mood to be caught. He’s back soon, a naughty grin washing decades away from his face. “Circuit changed much?” I ventured as he clambered from the car. Wide-eyed, he looked back at me and spoke in mock shock tones. “I knew there was a chicane at the end of the straight. No-one told me there were two.” A colleague standing by took my arm and muttered “Hard to imagine Kevin bloody Costner doing that…” In a recent issue, the American People magazine devoted their cover to Gamer and published it complete with the line: “James Gamer, the Last Real Man.” And regardless as to whether you consider this a statement of absolute truth or simply an exploitative, ultimately meaningless headline, you can see what they were driving at. It’s the little things you notice first: the fried eggs and bacon for breakfast and the way he keeps on disappearing behind buildings with photographer Yeadon for cigarettes; there is no script and no-one is going to tell Gamer how to behave.
More than anything though, Gamer is an automobile man, becoming hooked through frequent weekends in the 1950s watching the emergent American stock car racing scene. It was Grand Prix that finally snared him, however.
“It was a film I wasn’t meant to do. They asked Steve McQueen but when they saw the abuse he was giving his body and mind, they asked me. I spent over two months with Bob Bondurant being taught how to drive race cars because I was damned WI was going to just sit there and let doubles have all the fun.
“The film took six months to make, twice as long as a normal movie, but I had the time of my life making it. We went to Brands Hatch and Monaco, Monza, Zandvoort and Spa and spent weeks at Clermont-Ferrand filming sequences meant to take place on non-European tracks like Mexico. The cars were a real mixture: real Formula One cars and Formula Juniors tricked up to look like Fl cars. I drove ’em all…”
What, then, of his co-stars. Did they all take to the cockpit with such gusto?
“Hell no,” remembers a now visibly smirking Garner. “Brian Bedford went up to Jim Russell’s place and, on the second day, said ‘Enough. I can’t do this.’ Yves Montand was little better and had to have a speedlimiter fitted to his car and was told to stay in third gear. You could always tell when he was on the track: you could hear this duh-duh-duh-duh-duh as his car drove around on the limiter. And the poor man who played his team-mate drove out of the Monaco pit-lane, spun into the first corner, came back and said ‘I’m not doing that again.”
How then, did the real F1 hotshots greet the Hollywood star? “Those guys were not like they are today. When! turned up there was some trepidation and who can blame them. They were being asked to go driving with an actor who, for all they knew, had no idea how to drive. But I made it clear I didn’t think I knew best and had no desire to kill either them or myself. After a while they were just great. But there were moments: I was on the banking here at Monza doing a sequence with Phil Hill and we’d be driving at 130-140mph and Phil’s car kept on slowing and then getting faster. When we got to the pits I asked him to keep a steady speed and he said, ‘it wasn’t me changing speed, it was you slip-streaming me.’ I’d never heard of slip-streaming until then…”
Garner has many prized memories of the film and remembers Monaco as the circuit he loved best But his eyebrows rise furthest when reminded of filming a sequence at Spa in appalling weather. “There were a whole bunch of us going down the straight near flat out in just the worst weather. Afterwards the drivers came up to me and said ‘Well done, it’s not easy to drive here at 140mph in that weather.’! was so glad there wasn’t a speedo in the car.”
Watch the film now and you’ll still not see how much driving Gamer did; often he’d be drafted into the regular squad of F1 drivers who made up the grids in the film. “If you know where to look, you can find a shot of me driving and then a shot of my car being followed by another which I’m also driving!” He even caught fire for his trade. “We were meant to do this scene where my car goes up in flames at Brands and the stuntman wasn’t around. We were running out of time so I said, ‘Show me what to do.’ We had the car rigged with Butane bottles and all I had to do was drive, open the tap and the car would catch fire; then I’d close it and it would stop. It caught fire in controlled kind of way, I closed the tap, coasted to a halt but there must have been this ball of butane accumulated in the car because when! stopped it just went whumph. Never got out of a car so fast in all my life.”
And I can’t see Kevin bloody Costner doing that either. Meet James Garner and you’ll know this is not conveniently air-brushed exaggeration. He is just a man with nothing to prove, telling a story because that’s how it was. If it seems fanciful, unbelievable even now, that tells you much more about the world we live in today than it does about James Gamer.
And, if things go as planned, you will be able to meet him. I suggested he might make an appearance at the Goodwood Festival of Speed next year. “Well,” he said slowly, thoughtfully, “Gotta make sure the health is OK but, sure, I’d love to do it” And! know from the look this idea is not news to him. Goodwood, I know too, would love to have him there. So will he hang around the paddock, signing autographs, being a superstar or will he climb aboard something low and open-wheeled and take a crack at the hill? His insurers would tell you one thing. Ask Gamer and! expect the reply will be rather different.