Maverick The Car Thief - Part 1
Mark Cole on actor/racer James Garner and the making of the the iconic motor racing movie - Grand Prix
Hollywood actor James Garner had always been one of my boyhood heroes through his Maverick TV series, then later as Pete Aron, the 1966 F1 world champion in John Frankenheimer’s classic movie Grand Prix.
But when I eventually got to meet him, more than 30 years later at the 1999 Japanese Grand Prix, the first thing I did was to accuse him of stealing my car. He looked startled. I explained that in 1966 I had just started as a student at the Jim Russell Racing Drivers’ School at Snetterton, and after my initial test in a Lotus 31, I returned two months later for my first lesson, only to find all the Formula 3 cars had been sold to Frankenheimer for the film.
Instead, we were given single-seaters with Ford Cortina engines in the back, something called Formula Ford, about which we were not at all happy. He apologised, and asked if I had carried that grudge against him for 36 years. ‘No,’ I replied, ‘but I would like to think that it might have been “my” car which won you the world championship…’
Like fellow Hollywood star Paul Newman, Garner came to motorsport late. Both made successful racing movies – Winning in Newman’s case - which kindled their passion for the sport.
Above: Warners Brothers 1959 cowboy stars, James Garner in black stetson
Garner never made quite as big an impact on the sport as did Newman and Steve McQueen – who were to finish 2nd at Le Mans and Sebring respectively – but he became world champion on celluloid, and as a result brought Formula 1 to millions who otherwise might never have seen a Grand Prix car.
Born James Bumgarner in Denver, Colorado in 1928, Garner had an unhappy childhood after his mother died when he was five, and had a number of step-mothers, one of whom forced him to wear a dress in public at the age of 14 as a punishment for some misdemeanour! She eventually left after he fought with her.
He moved to Los Angeles in 1946, where he was voted “Most Popular Student” at Hollywood High School, where he played football. He never graduated, but enlisted with the California National Guard, with whom he did time in the Korean War. He was twice wounded – once by mortar fire, the second time by friendly fire from US jets - earning two Purple Hearts. ‘I wouldn’t have gotten the second normally, as I was hit in the butt by our own people, but we were attacking a Chinese strongpoint at the time.’
Returning to Hollywood, his rugged good looks earned him stage roles, where he was able to understudy Henry Fonda, which he always said helped develop his screen persona. TV commercials followed, appealing to housewives, but then in the 1950s he was chosen to play Maverick, a gun-slinging gambler.
Above: Author Mark Cole in his Jim Russell Lotus 31, Snetterton 1966, ...which he claims James Garner stole from him for Grand Prix
In one episode he had a fist-fight with a vicious gunslinger played by Clint Eastwood. The programme ran for three seasons, but he eventually fell out with Warner Bros, and was replaced by Roger Moore, later to become a James Bond.
In the 1960s he started to get screen roles from everywhere except Warners, making movies with some of Hollywood’s greatest stars - Doris Day, Julie Andrews, Shirley MacLaine and Charles Bronson. It was at this time he changed his name to just plain Garner.
This period culminated in United Artists’ The Great Escape, in which he co-starred with Steve McQueen. Although a box-office success, it was derided by critics as there were no Americans in the real life 1943 break-out from Stalag Luft III, but UA insisted it needed them for US audiences.
While filming together in Britain, Garner and McQueen were both captivated by Mini-Coopers. McQueen had already had some Mini races at Brands Hatch, before both bought the S road versions to take back to Hollywood Hills.
At 2 metres tall, even without his cowboy boots, Garner somehow still managed to fit into the little saloon car, which would gain even more fame five years later in The Italian Job. Back home, he and McQueen – who was already well known to the California Highway Patrol - would race up and down the canyon roads, ‘in their British-built backroad bandits, hammering along the empty blacktops with reckless abandon,’ as Variety put it. ‘I had many cars,’ said Jim in later life, ‘but the one I most regretted selling, was my blue Mini Cooper S.’
Garner had been an auto racing fan since childhood, and would discuss the sport with Steve - who had also played screen cowboy roles - on the The Great Escape set, but didn’t actually race himself until he was cast in the lead of Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix. It was a role originally offered to McQueen, who turned it down as he was already planning a motor racing movie with rival Warner Brothers.
To prepare for the part, he was sent first to Willow Springs, California where Bob Bondurant taught him the basics of race car driving, then to the Jim Russell Racing Drivers’ School at Snetterton, in the UK, where the cars he would drive in the film were now being prepared.
In January 1966, Russell had been approached by Carroll Shelby, Aston Martin’s 1959 Le Mans winner, who had been tasked by Frankenheimer with getting together cars to replicate the Formula 1 Lotuses, Ferraris, BRMs, McLarens and Eagles of the coming grand prix season
Above: Garner tries Cole’s Lotus ‘BRM’ for size in the Jim Russell workshops, as Yves Montand looks on
“You’re the only one with a big enough fleet of racing cars, and the expertise to train up the actors,’ said Shelby. ‘And by the way, you have just nine weeks to do it.’
Russell replied, ‘To do that I’d have to close down the school tomorrow and sell the cars to MGM’. MGM promptly put down a deposit cheque for £10,000 to secure the school’s 18 F3 Lotus 31s.
These were then dressed up with F1 bodywork fabricated by Williams & Pritchard in London: exhaust pipes and widened wheels, then painted to match the 1966 season cars which Frankenheimer would be filming that year. Engines were 1000cc Ford Cosworth or Holbay units, highly-tuned ‘screamers’, giving around 105 bhp at up to 10,000 rpm. For the movie cars, revs were limited to 6000 by using a modified rotor arm in the distributor.
The work was overseen by Russell’s chief mechanic Rudy Gates, with his assistant Ralph Firman – who would go on to found Van Diemen Cars, while his son Ralph Jr would become the 2002 Japanese Formula Nippon and 2006 Super GT champion with Honda; he also had an F1 season with Jordan in 2003.
The script had been written around Lotus with Garner as its star driver, but then Colin Chapman refused to let Russell see his new 1966 F3 cars, despite Jim placing an order for 18 of them. In retaliation, Russell persuaded Frankenheimer to change the lead movie team to BRM, so Garner became ‘Pete Aron’, a BRM driver, teamed with actor Brian Bedford, a Jim Clark look-alike, playing ‘Scott Stoddart’, and Yves Montand as Ferrari driver ‘Jean-Pierre Sarti’.
In the meantime, Garner (who adopted Chris Amon’s helmet colours) and his co-stars were put through the JRRDS course to hone their single-seater skills, with doubles such as Tony Lanfranchi, Jo Schlesser, Paul Frère and Teddy Pillette with Bob Bondurant himself in attendance at Snetterton, a bleak, windswept WW2 airfield in the flat Norfolk countryside.
They also had seat fittings in the F1 mock-ups at the Jim Russell workshops in nearby Downham Market, but for Garner’s 6ft 2in (1.9m) frame it was a tight fit. ‘They were either going to have to make the cockpit longer, or cut off my feet,’ he quipped. ‘It was sorted by having no seat and a higher rollover bar. My backside was on a sheet of aluminium just 10cms off the ground going round Monaco and Monza!”
Time was now of the essence, as everything – cars, drivers and even Japanese students trained up as F1 mechanics! - had to be at the MGM studios in Nice by May 2nd, as filming would start with the Monaco Grand Prix. Phil Hill was taken on to drive the camera car, a Ford GT40, which should have no problem keeping up with the F3 ‘grand prix’ cars.
There was, however, a dark cloud on the horizon – Warner Bros had commissioned a rival F1 film called The Day of the Champion for their star Steve McQueen, with Stirling Moss as special advisor. It was based on the German GP on the Nordschleife, and during 1965 McQueen had himself filmed many hours of on-board footage at the wheel of a camera-carrying Lotus 30 sports racer.
Read Maverick The Car Thief - Part 2 here