NEW ZEALAND CLAS­SIC CAR MO­TOR­MAN Words and Pho­tos DONN AN­DER­SON

New Zealand Classic Car - - Motorman -

1970 New Zealand Grand Prix (NZGP) at Pukekohe. He was 35 and rated the achieve­ment as his most im­por­tant vic­tory. But five years ear­lier, the Syd­ney driver had wowed Queens­lan­ders on the tight Lake­side cir­cuit north of Bris­bane, bat­tling wheel to wheel with world cham­pion Jim Clark. This was per­haps Frank’s finest drive on the same track. The pre­vi­ous year, on the same track he had crashed heav­ily and been hos­pi­tal­ized for sev­eral months.

He suf­fered burns and in­juries when he thun­dered into a bar­rier while prac­tis­ing in his Lotus 19B sports car. Matich had doubts about the fragility of Lotus cars — af­ter all, the light­weight 19B was pow­ered by a 2.5-litre Coven­try Cli­max and used a mod­est Austin A35 dif­fer­en­tial. This same en­gine pow­ered the Brab­ham BT7 Tas­man For­mula open-wheeler Matich pur­chased from Jack Brab­ham for the 1965 sea­son.

In spite of lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence with the BT7, Frank scrapped with Clark at the Lake­side in­ter­na­tional meet­ing, time af­ter time swap­ping the lead with the bril­liant Scot un­til a bro­ken dis­trib­u­tor ro­tor forced the Aus­tralian into the pits. Clark con­tin­ued on in the lead, but, when Matich re­joined the race, Clark waited and waved Frank ahead. Jimmy later de­scribed the tus­sle as the best dice of his ca­reer and was so im­pressed with his ri­val that he in­sisted Matich join him in the pa­rade car for the vic­tory lap.

In re­tire­ment, Frank re­mained im­pressed by the per­fec­tion of Clark’s driv­ing and his amaz­ing car bal­ance. He re­flected on the changes in sin­gle-seater rac­ing, reck­on­ing that driver in­put in the more ba­sic cars of yes­ter­year was higher than to­day.

Early mo­tor­ing

Frank had cars in his blood right from child­hood days on the fam­ily farm, when he set about im­prov­ing the per­for­mance of a Model A Ford. Later, when he needed elec­tri­cal parts for his MG TC, chat­ting up Joan — the Lu­cas re­cep­tion­ist — seemed the log­i­cal move, since Lu­cas of­fered a hefty dis­count to its em­ploy­ees. He not only got the parts but the girl as well — they got mar­ried, and Joan was a great sup­port to Frank who, in turn, cared for her later in life when she was ill, nurs­ing her back to health af­ter spinal surgery. Joan Matich died of lung can­cer in 2001.

Frank up­graded from the MG to an Austin-healey 100/4 be­fore putting a toe in the wa­ter with a Jaguar C-type in 1958, but mo­tor sport be­came more se­ri­ous for the Aussie in 1961 when he cam­paigned a Jaguar D-type, win­ning the Aus­tralian GT Cham­pi­onship. A year later, he had an­other cham­pi­onship to his credit, this time in an Elfin For­mula Ju­nior, and he also raced a Lotus 15. He raced a Re­nault R8 at Bathurst in 1963, and, in the fol­low­ing year’s event, set a class lap record in a Mini Cooper S be­fore los­ing a wheel.

Mean­while, the tran­si­tion from the Lotus 19B, which won him the Aus­tralian Tourist Tro­phy in 1964, to the Brab­ham BT7 posed no prob­lem. In his first Tas­man race with the car, he sat along­side Bruce Mclaren and Jack Brab­ham on the front row of the grid, and he was in pole po­si­tion for his se­cond race. Not a bad start in ma­jor-league open-wheel­ers.

Rather than seek­ing cham­pi­onships, Matich con­cen­trated his ef­forts on each race. His son Kris, who raced For­mula Fords in the ’80s, re­mem­bered his dad as an en­gi­neer first and a driver se­cond — rather like Bruce Mclaren. Trained as an aero­nau­ti­cal and me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer, Frank loved test­ing and de­vel­op­ing cars and had a spe­cial abil­ity de­vel­op­ing tyres. He dis­played great in­ge­nu­ity and in­no­va­tion.

Oth­ers soon saw Frank’s abil­i­ties. Lotus boss Colin Chapman was clearly im­pressed when Matich made im­prove­ments to the air­flow on his Lotus 19B. Chapman ap­proached Frank at Pukekohe af­ter he won the sports car tro­phy race at the 1964 NZGP meet­ing, of­fer­ing him a drive in Europe. Both Mclaren and Brab­ham would also have wel­comed Matich into their re­spec­tive North­ern Hemi­sphere teams, but Frank was his own man, and, years later, ques­tioned whether he could ac­tu­ally have worked for any­one.

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