“I’d rather live my life accepting that I’m not perfect, than spending my whole life pretending to be.”
By now, I am sure everyone in the car world has heard that James Garner, star of television’s Maverick and The Rockford Files has died at age 86. Garner was also well known for his movie roles, starring in iconic films like Grand Prix, Support Your Local Gunfighter, The Americanization of Emily and The Great Escape. His film work provided some of the best glimpses into the real world of racing, and his documentary, The Racing Scene was an gritty look into his ownership and management of a professional racing team.
His movie, Grand Prix was filmed in something called Cinerama, where, when shown in theatres, the film used three projectors simultaneously projecting onto three screens that were curved to take up your peripheral vision. The effect was so real, it caused motion sickness for some viewers during the racing scenes.
But Garner was so much more than just a good actor. Garner was a real American, joining the Merchant Marines, National Guard, and then the regular Army, where he was awarded the Purple Heart twice for his wounds received in combat in Korea. Garner also helped to organize Martin Luther King’s March on Washington civil rights demonstration, four years before he went to Vietnam. He was also a personal friend and student of Bruce Lee, mastering “jeet kune do,” and once owned a vineyard producing a Chardonnay called “Chateau Jimbeax.”
Garner was also a true gear head. In 1966, when he starred in the movie Grand Prix, he was the only actor in the cast that could actually drive. He performed all of his own driving and stunts, something that he would continue to do in all his television appearances. His love of driving and cars made it natural for him to get involved in racing. Garner became an owner of the American International Racers (AIR) team, which competed in Le Mans, Daytona and Sebring endurance racing events. His racing teams for those events included two Lola T70, Mark 3 versions with a 5000 cc Traco Chevrolet engine.
Unfortunately, being a movie and television star left him with certain insurance restrictions, and he was not allowed to race himself. However, Garner found a loophole and moved on to drive in off road events like the Baja 500, located in Mexico’s Baja California peninsula. Garner raced a series of AMC SC/Ramblers and trucks in the events, as well as a specially customized Oldsmobile 442.
His love of racing also made him a regular spectator at events around the world, especially Indianapolis, where drove the pace car for the Indy 500 three times. Garner also owned his own Chevrolet dealership, giving him access to the latest Corvettes, a favorite of his, as well as his longtime love of GMC vehicles. Garner also was the pitchman for several car companies, such as AMC and Mazda.
In every interview, Garner always admitted to a love of cars. He learned to drive at the age of 10, and his favorite game early on was called “Ditch ‘Em” where he and his friends would line up six to eight cars, and the first guy to take off would try to lose the rest. He was known in his small Oklahoma town for getting into trouble with cars, and even admits to “lifting” gas and cars for high speed joy rides.
Garner bought his first car, a 1952 Dodge coupe with money he gained from mustering out of the Army, plus some cash he had won playing poker. Later in life, his early success in television still left him cash strapped, and it was a while before he bought his first “reward” car, a Pontiac Firebird. During his time on the series Maverick, he was paid the contract rate of a few hundred dollars per week. One night he and his wife attended the premier of West Side Story and he was so ashamed of his own car, he borrowed Natalie Wood’s Cadillac.
Garners favorite car was a 1966 Mini Cooper S, customized by Radford. Both he and Steve McQueen brought Minis home from the shooting of The Great Escape. He and McQueen were neighbors in Hollywood and they used to race them up and down their street. It was the only car he said he regretted selling. One of his other favorite cars was the Pontiac Firebird. He owned several of varying years, all similar to his character Jim Rockford’s gold Pontiac Firebird Esprit. It was a car that became almost as much of a celebrity as Garner had.
Garners legacy includes his television and film work, his contributions to various groups and charities, as well as his dedication and commitment as a soldier. He also leaves a lengthy list of achievements and contributions to racing history. For me, he will forever be remembered for his trick, dubbed the Rockford. The move, which is essentially a J-turn, was performed so many times on his series The Rockford Files, it became synonymous with the show.