Motor sport legend and raconteur Frank Gardner never aimed to be the fastest racing driver of all time. He just wanted to be the oldest.
After an international driving career blazing the circuits of Europe and Australia, surviving the most exciting yet dangerous era in the history of the sport, Gardner largely achieved his ambition and eventually retired happily with his wife Gloria on the Gold Coast, where he has died after a long illness, aged 78.
The multi-talented Gardner was one of Australia’s greatest motor sport exports, winning more than 100 international races and numerous European titles as a driver, heading development programs for major manufacturers as an engineer, and taking out Australia’s biggest races as a team owner.
Long-time friend, employer and rival Sir Jack Brabham said Gardner “could drive anything”, and British ace Vic Elford – who vies with Gardner for the title of the world’s best all-round driver – said after a race in identical cars that the Australian had given him “an hour’s masterclass in how to keep an aggressive driver behind”.
Gardner, a gifted athlete, represented his native NSW in swimming, won national surf lifesaving titles, and was a handy if reluctant boxer. He earned enough from seven professional bouts to open his own garage. He also taught Brabham how to dive and sail, and maintained a single-figure golf handicap well into his senior years.
In his autobiography, The Sir Jack Brabham Story, Brabham described his old friend as “one of motor racing’s born characters”, whose colorful turns of phrase would have audiences in hysterics. “Although much of his language was completely unprintable, I’d defy anyone not to laugh. He could be hilarious.”
The laconic Gardner’s humour often masked a direct, no-compromise approach to life. One can only wonder what the rather stiff engineers at the German car manufacturer Porsche made of Gardner’s assessment after racing their startling new 917 sports racer over the frightening 187-turn Nurburgring circuit in Germany.
The 917 eventually became a great car, but in 1969 Porsche’s regular test drivers refused to drive the wayward machine. Gardner only took the assignment with the lure of a bucketful of Deutschmarks.
“I got caught between greed and common sense,” he later admitted.
“It was a bloody awful thing. The chassis flexed so much they filled the (frame) tubes with helium and rigged up a gauge so that if the gauge dropped you knew the chassis had cracked. They said if the gauge went down, I was to drive it back to the pits. Bugger that, I said; if the gauge drops, I park it.”
Gardner “frightened myself fartless” in the Porsche 917, which he reckoned had too much power for its narrow tyres: “The computer said they would be man enough for the job, but the bloody computer wasn’t strapped into the hot seat guiding this thing around the Eifel mountains.”
Fate led Gardner to race: he was 12 years old when his father was hit by a car and killed. He moved in with his uncle, a noted racer in Sydney, who later provided an old MG for his nephew’s first car race, which he duly won.
After numerous sports car wins in Jaguars that he had rebuilt, Gardner decided to try his luck and followed Brabham to Britain. He leased out his garage and “decided to give it five years” – but ended up staying two decades.
Formula one success eluded him – he made eight World Championship starts in 1964-65 driving an underfunded Brabham Team racing car, with a best of eighth in the British Grand Prix – but Gardner won in almost everything else.
He also played a central role in the development of cars for Ford and British constructor Lola.
Between 1967 and 1973, he won three British Touring Car Championships, the European Formula 5000 Championship, and finished runner-up in the European Formula Two Championship. He even became the first Australian to contest a NASCAR stock car race in the United States.
But after attending too many of his colleagues’ funerals, Gardner and his famous white towelling hat returned to Australia in 1975. He built a radical rear-engined Chevrolet Corvair that he drove to 41 wins from 49 starts, taking out the Australian Sports Sedan Championship before finally hanging up his helmet at the end of 1977.
Gardner turned to team management, initially turning colourful Sydney driver Allan Grice’s fortunes around with two more titles in the Corvair and a second place at Bathurst in a Torana. He then established an association with BMW that resulted in the creation of a driver training centre in Queensland and netted the 1985 and 1987 Australian Touring Car Championships for Jim Richards, and three Super Touring titles in the 1990s for Tony Longhurst and Paul Morris.
In between, he guided Longhurst and Tomas Mezera to victory in Australia’s premier race, the Bathurst 1000, driving a Ford Sierra. He ruffled a few feathers along the way, but was a much-loved figure in motor sport around the world.
Gardner, a winner all his life, may not have been perfect but he was always perfectly Frank. He is survived by his wife Gloria, and children Steven and Kristin.
By David Hassall