Most enthusiasts of my generation revere Steve McQueen as the iconic Hollywood car guy. Nothing against Frank Bullitt/Michael Delaney/Doc McCoy, but for me, that guy actually was James Garner, probably because of his performance as Pete Aron in John Frankenheimer’s “Grand Prix,” released in 1966. It was two years before “Bullitt,” and five years before “Le Mans.”
I was rapt with attention as Garner’s Aron campaigned his British Racing Green Jordan-BRM through the streets of Monte Carlo, in glorious Cinerama. Even at the tender age of 7 or 8, it was easy to appreciate the sardonic, world-weary tone of Garner’s voiceover as he wheeled the BRM through Lowes Corner and described all the necessary gear shifting. Garner’s Aron collides with teammate Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford) at the race, and BRM fires Aron, who later lands at the Japanese team Yamura. Bedford reputedly had to learn how to drive a manual before shooting began. He wears a balaclava in most of his racing scenes to hide the fact that it’s really Jackie Stewart behind the wheel.
Aron, the lead character, wears no balaclavas under his open-faced helmet, though Garner told Motor Trend in June 1969 that he had to learn how to drive a racecar before he began work on the film.
“I had Bob Bondurant as an instructor but Phil Hill gave me my first ride in a race car … he scared the hell out of me at Riverside Raceway – the first time out, we tore around the course in a Cobra, along with a couple of ‘Grand Prix’ camera cars on the track at the same time.”
Unlike, say, Paul Newman after the 1969 Indianapolis 500 movie “Winning,” Garner’s interest in the sport didn’t begin with the racing movie.
“His interest in auto racing sports goes all the way back to childhood days in Norman, Oklahoma, he and his buddies played a game called ‘ditch ’em’ in country fields, riding motorcycles,” MT reported.
A Los Angeles native I know says Garner was the only guy in town in the mid- to late ’60s to be seen driving a Mini Cooper S. In late ’67, Garner bought into the American International Racing Team, which he described in the June ’69 MT feature as an agency that connects drivers with manufacturers, which results in its drivers running Lolas at Sebring and Corvettes at the 24 Hours of Daytona. In 1968, AIR director Garner subbed for AIR president John Crean to co-drive a Porsche-powered Manx in the Mexican 1000 off-road race with Scooter Patrick.
In subsequent years, Garner campaigned late incarnations of the “Hairy Olds,” a twin-engine, 4x4 Oldsmobile 442. I’ll never forget the black-and-white photo MT ran in the early ’70s MT of a dejected Garner, sitting in a puddle of muddy water in Baja near his broken ’69 Olds.
Garner continued to do movies, of course, but unlike McQueen (with whom he starred in the wide-screen 1963 World War II epic, “The Great Escape”) his acting career took a serious turn toward television in 1974 with the premiere of “The Rockford Files.” The show was one of the best of its era, with Garner almost typecast in the role of a hard-boiled private detective in the mold of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. And, of course, there was his gold Pontiac Firebird Esprit (no self-respecting shamus would sneak around in something as garish as a Trans Am, let alone one with a screaming chicken on the hood). Topping this all was his J-turn, which forever will be known as The Rockford.
[Frank Markus and I tried some Rockfords in 2009, in a Mitsubishi Evolution X and Subaru WRX STI, but we had it easy: We were driving on ice. Even then, it’s not as easy as Garner, who did his own driving, made it look.]
None of this is to detract from McQueen’s car guy credentials. The big difference for me is that McQueen was the King of Cool (see the 2000 movie “The Tao of Steve”) while Garner was the sardonic, self-deprecating car guy with a much better sense of humor, an attitude that seeps out even when his character was competing for the Formula 1 World Championship. Whether in his element behind the wheel of an F1 car, racing in the Mexican/Baja 1000, or performing perfect Rockfords from behind the wheel of a ’74 Pontiac Firebird, Garner will forever be, to me, the king of the Hollywood car guys.