Paul Fearnley fulfils a long-standing ambition to meet a man whose achievements bely his legendary status
Jeez, you know me better than I do.” Frank Gardner is a bit vague over facts and figures. He’s every right to be. He has been involved in motorsport for over 40 years as a mechanic, a driver, an engineer and a team manager. Only now he is throttling back, although his idea of ‘Dunworkin’, Bournemouth is to run a performance driving centre on his own private track.
And there’s more. Gardner is the Aussie archetype of a sporting all-rounder: an amateur boxing champion who turned pro – six fights, six wins – speedway ace, wannabe professional golfer – “My father wouldn’t let me. The Australian Open was worth £90 at the time and he said, ‘How are you going to survive on that? Finish your engineering degree – a crack shot and a champion swimmer and surfboat racer.
This rich tapestry is an unquenchable source of memorable stories for which the New South Wales man is perhaps more famous than for his undoubted skill behind the wheel: from Formula Junior to Ford Escorts to ‘big banger’ CanAm cars, Gardner was a tough man to beat, if you wanted a prototype sorted out, the straight talking Aussie was the man to call: if you wanted a quote to spark up a flagging report or feature, Gardner was the man to sidle up to armed with notepad and pen.
Aston Martin, Jim Russell, Jack Brabham, Ian Walker, John Willment, Alan Mann, Ford, Porsche, Lola, Chevrolet and BMW have all benefited from his skills, and acerbic wit, at one time or another. And I’ve always wanted to meet him.
This is a strange desire for someone who saw him race only once. I was just six at the time just being the operative word, for my trip to the 1973 British Grand Prix was a birthday treat and Frank’s roaring Chevrolet Camaro left an indelible impression. I do remember vaguely asking my father, ‘Where have all the cars gone?’ in the immediate aftermath of Jody Scheckte ‘s McLaren indiscretion, but it was that seven-litre touring car which grabbed my attention. As a consequence, all of my Corgi-based GP recreations resounded to its basso beat as Frank now ensconced in a Tyrrell (replacing Jackie Stewart, no less), mopped up. The Lotus 72 might have been a match for him, had not Corgi seen fit to put Emerson Fittipaldi in the car instead of Ronnie Peterson, my second favourite driver of that time!
Now we meet, and it’s clear that Gardner finds my mental ‘file’ on him a little disconcerting. When he was 28, he was mechanicking for Aston Martin’s World Sportscar Championship squad, not delving into the past. Nor does he now. Sentimentality comes low on his list of emotions; this is the man, remember, who has run the gauntlet of the rampant Holden and Ford zealotry by fielding BMWs Down Under from the late ’80s onwards. “I had been around enough to know that the sun doesn’t just rise and set over Australia,” grins Gardner.
For almost 20 years he was based in the UK, sharing a Twickenham flat with the likes of Denny HuIme and Jimmy Clark in the early days. And in these times of teenaged racers, it seems incongruous that Gardner was almost 30 when he eventually put his foot onto the first rung of the UK’s burgeoning motorsport business.
He had made his motor racing name in Australia with a string of victories to win the New South Wales Championship 1956-57. His all-conquering Jaguar C-Type was salvaged from a ravine “it had killed a couple of Italians in the process” and Gardner happily labels it a ‘shitbox!’ “The whole scene was a bit disorganised. These were the days when Conrod Straight [at Bathurst] was all-gravel,” remembers Gardner with a smile. “The pit straight was paved, but this was so that the officials and timekeepers didn’t get their suits dusty!” He’s warming up now. The dates are still hazy, but the irreverence has been uncorked.
Such ‘fame’ carried no weight with the racing fraternity here, and Gardner had to muck in at David Brown’s behest in Feltham. Here he crossed the path of the patrician David Wyer. This extremely able but deadpan and somewhat militaristic team manager was quickly christened ‘Deathray’ by the garrulous Gardner. Aston Martin felt the rough side of his tongue, too.
“The guy [his name handily forgotten] who designed the cars couldn’t drive: he had a propensity for hitting things and didn’t have a licence. Hence the ergonomics of the car were all over the place. And we could never get the gearbox to work; it was okay for a tractor, but not a race car. We used a Maserati gearbox when Roy Salvador’ and Carroll Shelby won Le Mans.”
Le Mans. Another sacred cow. “That’s a race between the French and a bunch of other mugs,” says Gardner, still with undiminished feeling. “They were always changing the rules especially when Ford were winning.
“I shared a pukka Holman & Moody car with Roger McCluskey there one year. He was having a crashing contest with Lloyd Ruby. I think Lloyd was leading five-four when Roger walked into the pits. ‘Sorry FG, I’ve had a little off at The Esses.’ Renowned for his ability to bring a car home he once built a makeshift bridge to retrieve an AC Cobra Bob Olthoff had launched over a ditch and into a field Gardner set off to see what he could salvage. “The first thing I saw was the radiator . . . it was still steaming, perched high in a tree! We obviously had different ideas about what constituted ‘a little off!’ “
Gardner was heavily involved in Ford’s J-Car programme in the aftermath of Ken Miles’s fatal Bridgehampton shunt. “This was the first car that used a form of ‘black box’,” he recalls.
“Of course, a computer in those days stretched from here to there [illustrated by a long sweep of the arm], could only think in two dimensions and needed a dozen fellas to tell you things that you already knew, but it was interesting to be in on the tentative first steps.”
Interesting maybe, but Gardner was happier with a more hands-on approach. This was an era coloured by a swathe of talented driver-engineers hailing from the Dominions. Led by Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren, it also included Denny Hulme, Chris Amon and Gardner. After a brief spell welding up bent chassis at Jim Russell’s ground-breaking racing driver school “the Lotus’ were okay, but the Coopers were terrible. Every tube on them was bent and, when you cut into them, they used to stress relieve themselves.” Gardner joined Brabham’s fledgling team. The pair knew each other from their speedway days back home, and the twice World Champion called upon his friend’s services as he was preparing to end his successful relationship with Cooper.
“Cooper had an inkling that Jack was about to leave. He asked me and Peter Wilkins to build his first car, a Formula Junior while he was still with them. But there was too much work involved and we needed a pencilman, which is when Ron Tauranac came on the scene. Mind you, after he finished triangulating his first design we couldn’t get the engine to fit! Me and Peter locked him out of the workshop for a couple of days while we cut a few tubes out here and there!”
His work with Brabham allowed Gardner to demonstrate his driving talents once more. But, snowed under with work, he turned down Brabham’s offer of a full-time drive, a decision that gave Hulme his big break. Four years later the quiet New Zealander was crowned World Champion, yet Gardner has no regrets.
“I was working flat-out on the cars and I knew that Jack wouldn’t get anybody to replace me on that side of affairs, so I would’ve been in no fit state to drive the cars. Denny was a mechanic for Jack at the time, and I told Jack that he could do a good job for him in F3.” Hulme was a good friend, but this was not a purely philanthropic decision. “I could make more money out of driving a sports car or touring car [he enjoyed prolific success with Ian Walker’s and John Willment’s teams during this period] than I could in a GP.” It was for the same reason that Gardner turned down a season of Formula Two with Ferrari – that offer was worth only £600! ”Formula One wasn’t such a big thing then unless you were world champion. I was good, but I wasn’t world champion material, so I had to decide where my priorities lay.
“There was no suggestion that the Brabham-Repco would be so good that year ,’ admits Gardner, “and I had a far more lucrative deal with Ford. Denny kept asking me to get him a drive there. I said to him, ‘Look, this is a real good opportunity … How right he was.
Gardner and the ambitious Willment team dabbled with F1 in 1965, but their Brabham-BRM was uncompetitive and Frank felt he had made a fool of himself. . . He hadn’t but, barring a practice outing in the 1968 British Grand Prix, he gave F1 a wide berth thereafter.
To work for Brabham was both a demanding and rewarding experience. “They broke the mould with Jack. He could survive on very little sleep and he would be insisting that we should go testing when everybody else just wanted to fall into the sack.
“One time Esso was backing Jack in Formula Two and they wanted a third car to run in their colours. Jack told me I could have the car. ‘There it is,’ he said pointing to a load of tubing hanging on the wall, ‘build it yourself.’ “
Gardner acted as his foreman, coordinating the increasing amount of work that was being tendered to the Byfleet concern by Willment Racing. This included one of America’s sacred cows of racing, the Shelby Cobra.
Gardner: “I’ve just read the book about that car: it’s very good, but I think they’ve played down the role played by Willment. Shelby saw the V8-engined car first at Jack’s place. It was an Australian thing to put a big engine into a small Sports car. AC at Thames Ditton were making three-wheelers, so they didn’t have much knowledge of how to make a car go fast, and Carroll had nothing to offer but his shrewd business sense. The Americans put all the finishing touches to the car, the chrome and so on, but all the hard work was done by Willment in Britain!”
And while we are on the subject of American racing’s sacred cows: the Indy 500. Gardner tended to Brabham’s Cooper-Climax when the reigning World Champion broke the Watson-Oily roadsters Brickyard stranglehold in 1961. The little car was initially the subject of much mirth down Gasoline Alley, but earned the local’s respect by finishing ninth. It could have been much better, according to its mechanic: “I reckon we’d have won if we hadn’t used Dunlop tyres. They just weren’t up to the demands of the track.”
The Ford contract that Hulme was so jealous of led Gardner into partnership with Alan Mann, a team manager ahead of his time. Although this Partnership eventually ended in acrimony over the ill-fated Ford F3L sports car project, it was immensely successful: before that most beautiful of failures, Gardner had rung up innumerable victories and a hatful of titles, including two of his three British Touring his three Car Championships, in Ford’s Lotus Cortina, Falcon, Escort and GT40.
“I was very lucky to drive for Alan Mann,” he stresses. “I learned a lot from him. He knew what it took: to be organised, to take the team away from all the politics, to have a short chain of command, to prepare the cars well. It’s one of my regrets that I fell out with him over the F3L. That was a wrong turn, and we lost Alan to the sport because of that.
‘That car was all wrong: its wheelbase was too short and it had no downforce. Alan did a lot of work to keep the GT40 competitive, and Ford was still reaping the benefits of that when the F3L was sat in the pits. The only car I drove that was more difficult to make go quickly than the F3L was the early Porsche 917…
“One day the phone rang. ‘Hello Frank, this is Huschke [von Hanstein. Porsche’s motor sport boss] We would like you to drive our new car at the Nurburgring.’ I said that I was busy and recommended Brian Redman. ‘Brian Redman has had a crash and is in hospital,’ came the reply. Jo Siffert was my next helpful suggestion.
‘Jo has had a crash and is in hospital. I said, ‘What the bloody hell’s going on over there?’ Huschke replied, ‘Our new car is not easy to drive!’ He wasn’t kidding.”
In actuality, Zuffenhausen’s contracted drivers just plain refused to drive this unsorted car – Siffert and Redman won the race in a Porsche 908.
“I went over with David Piper. He did one lap, came in and said that he was too young to die! It had no power below 5000 rpm, but over the next 1500 rpm you found another 350 bhp. I drove it like that throughout the Nurburgring 1000 Kilometres. It poured down all the way through the race, and it was snapping sideways and aquaplaning all over the place. It was bloody dangerous. I guess it was one of the few times that I was really scared.”
He had good reason to be, for this was perhaps the most gladiatorial of motor racing times. The seeds of Jackie Stewart’s safety crusade had only just been sown, the cars were fast but fragile and the circuits fast and unforgiving.
Gardner’s long career was remarkably free from accidents. He held no truck with fruitless, all-or-nothing pursuits of the God-given talents of Jim Clark: his boxing had given him a useful insight into his pain threshold, whilst injuries sustained in an injudicious surfboat crash he was playing to the cameras at the time taught him a useful lesson in concentration and risk-taking. Vitally, he had gone through this process before he climbed into a racing car. This maybe held him back from a stellar career, but it ensured him a long one.
“I was pretty good. I was over the middle of the road in that sense, but I knew my limitations. Some guy could come barrelling past you into a corner because he might be willing to take more risks than you, but usually I could wait until they ran out of concentration, tyres, brakes, or all three. There were exceptions to the rule. But not many.
They really were the bad old, good old days,” he concedes. “You’d be sat between two fuel tanks. These were convex and not concave, so if you hit anything they would crush and you’d be toast. Not only that but you had tank under your arse and a reserve tank over your crown jewels. We lost a lot of good guys who could have been saved with a little more thought.”
A big friend of Professor Sid Watkins, Gardner was one of the first onto the scene of Mika Hakkinen’s Adelaide crash in the 1995 Australian Grand Prix. The guy was dead. They punched a hole in his throat and jump-started him. In my day there would have been none of that. And because there was no way of getting the news around the world quickly, nobody would have really cared.
“Quite often in the ’60s, your first mistake would be your last. Pete Ryan was the fastest guy I’ve ever seen in a car. He was a young Canadian, a former downhill skier, and he was sensationally quick. He beat Stirling Moss to win the first big race at Mosport. He had everything and was willing to learn, but his Lotus got tangled up with a Gemini in a Formula Junior race at Reims and he was thrown out.
“Tim Mayer was another fast guy, although he was a bit more balls and eyesight. He reckoned he could take the jump at Longford [in Tasmania] flat out… ‘Former ‘bike champion Gary Hocking, ‘Socks’ as we called him, was also a bit special. He had all the right attributes too, but he didn’t survive his first lesson. Usually, I found that ‘bike racers were too brave for their own good. Look at the Rodriguez brothers, they were brave to the point of suicidal. John Surtees had a few near-misses in his early car races, but survived them to become one of the best. Geoff Duke didn’t seem to have that problem, but he never really got on with four wheels. He tried out at Aston Martin a few times, but they didn’t seem to want him there and he never got a good car.”
Gardner, however, reckoned his speedway experience to be of great help when it came to cars. His pet theory is of a crucial ability to make the tyres ‘float’, and points to Michael Schumacher’s memorable Spanish Grand Prix win this June as the most recent example of this.
“Not everybody learns how to do this. Once you get that balance, and it’s harder to do in the dry than the wet, you are on your way. Some get close, but if there’s any interruption in the flow, even the smallest thing, it’s gone.
‘Jimmy Clark was the best at it. For me, he is the best. Full stop. He was out of this world. I followed him lots of times and you could be doing everything absolutely spot-on yet still be losing a yard here, a yard there even if you had a better car than him. He genuinely couldn’t understand why the other guys couldn’t do the same. It just came naturally to him, and it didn’t matter where he was or what he was in. Look at what he did at Indy: the first time he went there the car wasn’t that good, yet he was on the pace right away. He understood the track and what he needed to do immediately.
“His assimilation of information was tremendous. If you watch Jackie Stewart shoot, you can see that he can take in a lot of information very quickly, but he still wasn’t as good as Jimmy. Jimmy could close his eyes and drive for ages on the information that was stored in his memory.”
Although Gardner shied away from Formula One, he would regularly mix it with the likes Clark, Stewart, Graham Hill, Jochen Rindt and Chris Amon in the Tasman series. He also met with much single-seater success in F5000, working closely with Eric Broadley on that formula’s benchmark chassis, the wedge-shaped Lola T300. He began the 1971 European F5000 Championship in a T192, but this was no match for Surtees and McLaren rivals. . .
“After one race I rang Eric [Broadley] and said that the car wasn’t good enough to win the championship and that we needed a new car. He said, ‘Fine. We’ll start tomorrow morning!’ We built it in a fortnight. I raced it at Thruxton without testing it, set a new lap record and won the race. He was the man to beat thereafter and clinched the title with an Oulton Park success.
Another of that year’s F5000 victories was achieved at Hockenheim, where he beat Emerson Fittipaldi’s Lotus 56B turbine car, contest the supporting touring car and sportscar race and then drove the team’s truck home. Times have changed…
This is the man who repaired his Formula Junior car on a Rhine barge as he travelled between races at Zandvoort and Avus. He even found time to balance the boat’s propshaft! This is the man who spent five days travelling from East London, South Africa to New Zealand (the last leg of the trip was by flying boat), arriving Friday, practising Saturday and racing Sunday. This is the man who qualified his troublesome Motor Racing Partnership F2 Lola on the front row at Albi, only for an over-eager mechanic to stick it in a ditch and fix the damage without telling him. This is the man who sent Patrick Head and John Barnard for sandwiches or a “bucket of volts” as they learned their craft at Lola. This is the man who was almost killed by a Maori warrior. . .
“We were racing at Wigram. It was a Royal airbase and so it was always spick and span you wouldn’t believe – immaculate lawns and whitewashed rocks everywhere. Because of this they were very strict about us making any mess.
“We did an engine change in one of the hangars, and we carefully carried the waste oil in a tray to the latrines. These were temporary army-type affairs, just a ditch in the ground with a wooden bench over the top of it and hessian screens for a modicum of privacy.
“I was with a mechanic nicknamed ‘Mumble’ for the obvious reason. And just as I tipped the oil in, he decided to a cigarette. There was a huge explosion, jus sort of ‘woof’ noise that was enough to give you fright. A huge, 18-stone Maori, with tackle any body would be proud jumped straight out the cubicle at the far end. I thought he was going to kill us, ‘Mumble’ just shouted as clear as you like’ ‘Hey, you haven’t wiped your arse!’ He shuffled back into his cubicle and we scarpered.”
The date? No idea.