The Prototype Crocodile Dundee
Frank Gardner was one of the men you expected to last for ever…well,
beyond his 78 years, but it was cancer that claimed his life on August 29
after a no doubt courageous battle.
Frank was a jack of all trades, and master of most of them. Three times
British Touring Car Champion, twice the BRDC’s British champion, British
Formula 5000 champion in 1971, accomplished sports car racer, he was one
of the many Australians who came over to Britain in the 1960s to make his
fame, and along the way, win a huge legion of friends and fans. He was the
first driver in the world to chalk up 100 wins in international racing, in a wide
variety of machines.
The only regime in which Frank failed to score was in Formula One. He drove
John Willment’s Brabhams in the World Championship in 1964 and in 1965,
and Bernard White’s BRM P261 in 1968, but failed to score any points (best
result, 8th in the 1965 British Grand Prix in a BRM powered BT11). He had
more success in non-championship F1 events, though, finishing second in
the Australian Tasman GP in 1966 and 1972, third in the Mediterranean
Grand Prix in 1965 and third in the 1971 International Gold Cup.
Frank’s single-seater career was woven with the rise of Jack Brabham’s
career as a constructor. He contested the Tasman Series in Ron Tauranac
designed Brabhams from 1964 to 1967, and in the latter year finished runner-
up both in the Tasman Series in a BT16 and in the European Formula 2
Championship in a BT23.
The year 1967 was auspicious, for along with success in F2 Frank was the
outright winner of the British Touring Car Championship in an Alan Mann Ford
Falcon. And the following year he won a back-to-back British title in an Alan
Mann Ford Escort. Runner-up in the BTCC in 1970, his big effort was in the
newly established F5000 championship, in which he was third in 1970 driving
a Lola T192 Chevrolet, and champion in 1971.
Oh yes, Frank was a sports car driver too, a regular performer at Le Mans in
the 1960s. His best result was on his debut in 1962 in a Lotus Engineering
Elite, which he shared with David Hobbs. They finished eighth overall, won
the 1,300 cc class and the Index of Thermal Efficiency. The following year he
shared a Team Elite entry with John Coundley, but retired with a failed engine
on Sunday morning.
He returned to Le Mans in 1966 with John Whitmore in an Alan Mann Ford
Mk2 7-litre but went out with a clutch failure after six hours, but they had
some compensation by finishing second in the Spa 1,000 Kms. Frank’s last
appearance at Le Mans, in 1967, was disappointing too. He shared one of
the many Fords with Roger McCluskey, a Ford entry no less, but the
American crashed it out of 12th place at dawn.
Frank Gardner shared with David Piper the honour, if that is the right word, for
giving the then-notorious Porsche 917 its first race finish, at the Nürburgring
in 1969. The story goes, according to Piper, that since all the factory
contracted drivers declined to handle the beast in the ‘green hell’, and since
he, David, had already placed an order, would he care to drive at the
‘Ring…oh, and could he bring a friend?
David asked Frank, “who lived just round the corner” if he had a free weekend,
and a fee of £300 was on offer to drive this new Porsche. They turned up for
breakfast at the Sporthotel and realised that all the works drivers were
laughing at them, but a deal was a deal and they went out to practise.
“Christ, if you lost control of this thing you’d need a compass to find your way
back” was Frank’s first reaction. Their instructions, though, were to finish the
race, no matter how far down the order, and this they did.
After a very circumspect run they brought the 917 home in eighth place, and
Rico Steinemann, Porsche’s competitions manager, was so relieved that he
upped their fee to £500 apiece and sent each of them home with a Shell road
atlas! Referring after the event to the 917’s extraordinarily flexible chassis,
Frank told me “every time you go to change gear, the knob’s gone
That was Frank, master of the laconic quote. He was, in his youth, a
professional boxer, speedway rider, champion swimmer and surfboat racer,
and when he stripped off his tee-shirt on a hot day, he displayed a powerful
physique that made the ladies swoon. Not that he was aggressive, though,
far from it. He had a ready smile, a quick wit, and like Jack Brabham, was a
hands-on guy who was never happier than when rebuilding a gearbox or
tuning a suspension. Editor Brooksie got it in one when he remembered
Frank Gardner as “the prototype Crocodile Dundee”.
Frank will be longest remembered for his mastery of big, powerful cars. He
won the British Touring Car Championship once more in 1973 at the wheel of
the SCA European Road Services Chevrolet Camaro. He returned to live in
Australia in the mid-70s to race Holdens in the burgeoning touring car
championship, finishing second in the big Bathurst 1000 in 1975. In his final
season, 1977, he raced a highly modified Chevrolet Corvair to win the
Australian Sports Sedan Championship and then, at the age of 47, put his
helmet away and became a highly successful team owner.
Frank managed the Allan Grice touring car and sports sedan teams in the
late 70s, and was awarded the BMW contract in 1980, with the 318i, winning
the 1985 and 1987 Australian Touring Car Championships with Jim Richards.
With the contract expired Frank ran a privateer Ford Sierra for Tony
Longhurst and Tomas Mezeera, and against the odds they won the Bathurst
1000 in 1988. BMW awarded a new contract to Frank Gardner’s own team in
1991 winning three Australian Super Touring titles, with Longhurst in 1994
and with Paul Morris in 1995 and 1997.
When that programme ended Frank became involved in driver training,
starting a school which flourishes to this day. There are not so many people
in motor racing who deserve the accolade of ‘legendary’, but Frank Gardner is
foremost among those who do.
- Michael Cotton, September 2009