NEW ZEALAND CLASSIC CAR MOTORMAN Words and Photos DONN ANDERSON
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.
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.