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Tasman Legends: Frank Matich

Always a very quick driver who often outqualified the overseas competitors in the ’60s , especially at Warwick Farm. He also competed in Formula 5000s, first in a McLaren and then in a Matich, a car he built and designed himself. A winner of the Australian Drivers Gold Star and twice winner of the Australian Grand Prix.

Here is a story about Matich by Ray Bell

“Anyone who followed racing in the sixties and early seventies knew the name of the best driver in Australia. Frank Matich. Undisputed, even though at times he was restricted to sports cars. Everyone knew that if he had an open wheeler he’d better everyone else.

It wasn’t always so, of course. Matich started out in an MG TC that was also his road car. He spent many a race day and other days at Mount Druitt’s airstrip circuit with wife to be Joan in this car, but just as they eventually got married, so the MG was replaced by an Austin Healey 100/4.

His racing successes in this weren’t notable, but he was able to use it as a springboard to get into a D-type Jaguar owned by Leaton Motors. This took him to fourth place in the Australian Tourist Trophy at Bathurst in 1958 and gradually closer to the pointy end of the field.

Leatons were a big help to Matich. In 1960 they bought a Lotus 15 for him and he was on his way to the top. Despite the frailty of this car, which matched a 2.5-litre Coventry Climax engine with an Austin A35 differential. It introduced Frank to the lightweight specialty cars that were becoming the winners in that era and led the way to the Lotus 19.

In this car he leapt to prominence. While he didn’t always win with the 19, he only ever lost to the Cooper Monaco of Bib Stillwell when it came to a straight fight. Despite this, he never won the Australian title in the car.

But he won backing for advancement that led to the top of the tree in Australian racing. Two backers were to take over from Leaton Motors – Total Oil’s Australian branch and Laurie O’Neill, a wealthy businessman who became a major patron over many years.

In addition to this, the fledgling Elfin Sports Cars put cars into his hands as ‘works’ entries in no fewer than three classes, enhancing his experience and adding greatly to his CV in 1962.

The Lotus 19 was written off by mechanic Bruce Richardson while Frank was testing one of the Elfins, Bruce being assigned the job of bedding in the Lotus’ brakes at the Warwick Farm short circuit. A new car was built, the 19B, and alongside it there was a new Brabham 2.5 for Gold Star and International series participation. Total owned the Brabham, Laurie O’Neill funded the Lotus, while Total had representation on all five cars in the stable.

Racing was bursting out everywhere at the time. 1960 had seen Warwick Farm open, then came Catalina Park and the rough and ready first edition of Oran Park. All in or around Sydney, they were Matich’s playground, Mt Druitt having died in 1957 and Bathurst being restricted to two meetings a year – and just one from 1963.

Similarly, new circuits were coming on stream in other states. Lakeside in Brisbane, Sandown Park in Melbourne, then Calder, while Longford was being improved all the time in Tasmania.

One Catalina Park meeting saw Frank dominate proceedings, winning the Formula Junior championship in an Elfin 1100, taking his class win in an Elfin Clubman, then the 1500cc openwheeler had its wins and the 19 still more. The outright lap record at this circuit was his for most of its life.

But it was Warwick Farm which saw his greatest efforts come to fruition. I first saw him in the 19 and the 1500 Elfin there in October, 1962. He won easily in the Lotus and then filled third place in the Elfin after a battle with Chris Amon in a 2.5 Cooper. Clearly it was time for his graduation to the Brabham, but that was still a year away.

At the Warwick Farm International meeting he stunned many by qualifying the Elfin 1500 (this was powered by a pushrod Ford engine) fifth on the grid alongside David McKay’s Brabham 2.5 and ahead of Chris Amon in the McKay’s 2.5 Cooper, Graham Hill in the 2.5 Ferguson, Lex Davison’s 2.7 Cooper many others. There were three 1.5 cars in the field, thirteen 2.5 and over.

When the Brabham arrived it was to stun even more. Despite a run of mechanical outs, the car grabbed early leads in races, in both New Zealand and Australia in the inaugural Tasman Cup series, beat many international drivers in practice sessions and showed Frank was a front line driver in any company.

While Tasman placings were an object of the exercise, Total were keen to wrest the Australian Drivers’ Championship away from BP. Bib Stillwell was the leading contender and a BP driver, Frank was to take the battle to him. Unfortunately, the reliability he and his men had found in the Lotus couldn’t be transferred to the Brabham.

1965 saw more of the same – Tasman flashes of brilliance and disappointment. All along, however, the Lotus was performing well. It had taken the Tourist Trophy at Longford in 1964 and thus put the Matich name on the serious Australian Championship winners for the first time.

But the 19B was to meet its end prematurely in June, 1965. Practising for a minor race at Lakeside, the throttle stuck open and Frank rode it into the fence behind the paddock area. Fire broke out and he was burned. Total then abandoned him, selling off the Brabham.

But Laurie O’Neill was still behind Frank and funded the building of the prototype Elfin 400 with an Oldsmobile 4.5-litre engine. Australia thus got its first ‘big’ sports car in the sixties style and spectators flocked to see it perform. Even if it was only tearing away into the distance with no opposition.

Lap records fell by the dozen – for the short time this car ran. It was sold to Niel Allen within a year and Frank got cracking on building his own car with construction done by Bob Britton of Rennmax fame. The Matich SR3 came first with the same Oldsmobile power, a later car had a Repco 4.4 V8. Lap records continued falling to Matich, Allen provided competition, then came the quad-cam Repco 5-litre powered Matich SR4, which continued the domination.

The ‘Gold Star’ series had languished without Matich since 1964. Lesser drivers, if one could call Kevin Bartlett and Leo Geoghegan drivers in any way ‘lesser,’ were battling that out in the 2.5 cars that were in vogue as the sixties closed. But 1969 saw a new type of car on the horizon of the seventies.

The coming of F5000 – five litre V8-powered racing cars – seemed made to suit Matich. His connections with McLaren rapidly led to a car coming to Australia for him to drive, followed by another when the M10B came on stream. In this Frank was to win the Australian Grand Prix at his beloved Warwick Farm in 1970. By the same time the following year he’d built the Matich A50, construction this time entrusted largely to John Joyce at Bowin Designs, and it won him his second AGP, again at the Farm.

Competition intensified too, but still the Matich/Matich combination were difficult to match. Though Niel Allen beat him for the NZGP win of 1971, when the A50 finished it was most often in front. The Gold Star finally fell to Frank in 1972, but the Tasman Cup was to elude him.

He also took cars to America, running in Can-Am and F5000 races there, winning one round of the L&M Series in the McLaren M10.

Early in 1973 he took the A50 to New Zealand and put it on pole position for the NZ GP. A clipped kerb early in the race damaged the suspension and the Matich was retired. Levin brought a second place, Wigram fourth, Teretonga brought a retirement. Back in Australia he took a win at Surfers Paradise but in the rain at Warwick Farm he only managed second – despite a stirring drive and rounding up Graham McRae round the outside of Paddock Bend. Sandown brought two spins after leading from the start and Adelaide saw another failure after taking pole position.

This series had seen a number of driving errors for Frank. But then he had been facing challenges from drivers two racing generations on from himself. Bartlett was there, and McRae, while young chargers like Warwick Brown and John Walker were mixing it with Max Stewarts and Bob Muirs. Niel Allen had already retired from the sport.

Was it time for Frank to hang up his helmet?

With the Goodyear Racing Tyre agency, he was doing enormous mileages testing tyres for the Akron company. His lap times were among the very best, but there were chinks appearing in his racing. But this didn’t dissuade him.

In fact, he went to America again with an A51 for the L&M series. But he was not a force in a series that saw Brian Redman leap to prominence. Back in Australia for the Gold Star he took pole at Surfers Paradise and was leading by half a lap when the battery collapsed. An illness in the family kept him from the second round at Adelaide, then kept him from returning to Phillip Island for the first time since he’d set the outright sports car record there in 1960.

Joan was in hospital and Frank put her first, but was still developing the car and the A52 and A53 were still to come. Despite announcing that he’d be contesting the Tasman Cup of 1974, the A53 was present only for the final three rounds, a third at Surfers being the best result.
That was the end of the Matich story, however. Joan’s health was no doubt a major contributor to his retirement, along with Repco’s withdrawal from racing and other pressures. Suddenly the Matich saga ended.”

Ray Bell Via: Tasman-Series.com

Images: AussieRoadRacing, AutosportForums, MyFormula5000

3 Responses to “Tasman Legends: Frank Matich”

  1. Vierect says:

    Are there other versions of this available that I’m able to purchase?

  2. David Scott says:

    Frank is one of the greats of Australian Motor Sport (when it really was motor sport). I have very fond memories of Frank leading the pack through Creek Corner on many occasions. The SR4 is still the best car ever built in Australia, it still stirs my heart when I se it at a revivial meeting.

  3. JOHN M JONES oam says:

    I first met Frank when we were punting our MG TC’s up hills around 1956. We are still communicating some 57 years later. He is a legend of motor sports and one of the very few that built the car and drove it to success.

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