James Garner, Actor and Car Guy dies aged 86

The star of The Rockford Files and Grand Prix passed away in Los Angeles. We remember Garner the car guy

By Shahzad Sheikh

James Garner

James Garner, born James Bumgarner in Oklahoma in 1928, passed away yesterday at his home in Los Angeles aged 86. A true Hollywood superstar he acted in over 50 movies as well as television serials and is best known for playing Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files, Bret Maverick in Maverick and to us car enthusiasts, Pete Aron in the classic 1966 movie, Grand Prix – and if you haven’t seen this brilliant motor racing film, go and rectify that at once!

James Garner

So at MME, we remembering not just a great actor, but a proper car guy. Take The Rockford Files in which his character drove a gold-coloured Pontiac Firebird models ranging in years from 1974 to 1978. Garner himself chose the car and specification for the character he played in the series and modified the suspension. He also did most of his own driving stunts including the signature J-turn evasive manoeuvre, which became known as the ‘Rockford’ move. Garner is regarded as one of the three most talented actors ever to have sat behind the wheel of a car, the others being Paul Newman and of course Steve McQueen.

James Garner

This was underlined in the movie Grand Prix where Garner proved way better than any of the other actors – most of the driving for them was doubled by real Formula One drivers such as Phil Hill, Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart. However Garner, who would have been 38 at the time, was so good behind the wheel of the race cars (actually Formula 3 cars mocked up to look like F1 cars) that no less than Graham Hill and Jack Brabham reportedly told Garner that he could be a successful Grand Prix driver for real.

James Garner

Following on from the movie he got into the world of motor racing with greater commitment and owned ‘American International Racers’ (AIR) racing team from 1967 to 1969 running L88 1969 Chevrolet Corvettes; filmed a documentary ‘The Racing Scene’ in 1969; and fielded cars in Le Mans, Daytona and Sebring, as well as off-roading events.

James Garner

After AIR he signed up with American Motors Corporation (AMC) and prepared 10 1969 SC/Ramblers for the Baja 500, out of which seven finished placing in the top five of the sedan class. Garner didn’t manage to drive himself due to filming commitments. But he campaigned a full rally-prepared 1970 Oldsmobile 442 at off-road events in 1969 and 1970 and he raced the Baja 1000 several times. He also drove the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 race in 1975, 77 and 85.

James Garner

But there’s more. There’s the James Garner Special – a FOUR-SEAT Indy car for Garner to take his celebrity friends out in and scare the heck out of them! Not too much is known about the car, but it was built around 1974 by Mike Haas of Concord California. It’s an Indy race car chassis stretched to accommodate the extra seats fitted with a small block Chevy V8, clothed in a very retro-futuristic Battlestar Galactica-style white bodywork with sporting stripe graphics.

James Garner

Interestingly enough his favourite car that he cited in an interview with Car And Driver magazine recently was a pale-blue 1966 Mini Cooper which he bought along with Steve McQueen in Germany after wrapping up The Great Escape, which would make them amongst the first Minis to reach the States. He related that he and McQueen, his neighbour at the time, would race up and down the street in them!

We salute you James Garner, actor and car guy 1928-2014, RIP.

James Garner

For more on Garner and cars check out the book, James Garner’s Motoring Life: Grand Prix the movie, Baja, The Rockford Files and more.

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