NEW ZEALAND CLASSIC CAR MOTORMAN Words and Photos DONN ANDERSON
Matich and Mclaren
For his New Zealand debut, Matich campaigned both the 19B and the Brabham at the Mount Maunganui road race meeting in December 1963, easily winning the sports car event. He also looked set to take out the Bay of Plenty feature race on the same day, after notching up a lap record, when a loose bolt in the Brabham’s accelerator pedal forced him out of the lead.
In 1966, driving an Elfin 400 Oldsmobile, Frank won the first of four Australian Tourist Trophies for sports cars. His own Can-am– like Matich SR3 Olds took out the title in 1967 and was repowered with a Repco V8 the following year. The handsome-looking SR4 that powered him to victory in the 1969 Australian sports car championship is still regarded as one of the best cars ever built in Australia.
Frank was in unison with Bruce Mclaren right from their first meeting, and the Australian was asked to become involved in the development of the Ford GT40. However, this would have meant moving from Sydney to the Northern Hemisphere. During his subsequent trips to Britain, Matich stayed with Bruce and Pat Mclaren at their Surbiton flat in Surrey and with the Mclaren family on his visits to Auckland. Their engineering backgrounds were in alignment, and Frank encouraged Bruce to build his own cars. By coincidence, Matich rang the Mclaren factory the day Bruce was killed at Goodwood — and both Frank and Joan travelled to Auckland for the funeral the following week.
The move to F5000 was logical, and Matich wisely chose a Mclaren M10A, which carried him to second overall in the 1970 Tasman Cup series. In typical Matich fashion, he made the Pukekohe Grand Prix win a family affair, with two of his four children joining him on the victor’s podium to the applause of the crowd. Clocking an official 261kph on the back straight, Frank made the race win look easy.
Matich finished third at Levin the week before, but he won the Lady Wigram Trophy in Christchurch and was fourth at Surfers Paradise. The following season, Frank again finished runner-up in the Tasman Cup with the M10A and took the Mclaren to North America, where he campaigned the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) L&M F5000 Championship, taking sixth place in the series.
When Rothmans Team Matich arrived in New Zealand for the 1971 Tasman series, it was a big show indeed. There were two Mclaren M10AS for Frank and fellow Aussie Don O’sullivan, with backing from Goodyear and Repco, which provided the modified Holden V8 engines. The team included a dozen members, two spare motors, and a travelling workshop.
Despite his great form, victories just seemed to elude Frank in 1971 when he was second at Pukekohe, Wigram, and Teretonga, while his engine failed at Warwick Farm. He was third at Sandown Park, but would have been a comfortable second had his car not run out of fuel on the last lap. There was redemption at Surfers Paradise where he won, leaving him just four points behind championship victor Graham Mcrae.
Frank had built a strong rapport with Repco, and it was now claiming 336kw (450hp) from its power units compared with around 354kw (475bhp) for the Chevrolet, and 373kw (500bhp) for the Ford V8s. Although still down on power, the Repco engine was lighter and featured extensive use of magnesium and alloy castings. The motor design team included Phil Irving, who had been associated with development of the F1 Repco engines in 1966. Although the Holden iron crankshaft was retained, engine capacity was brought down from 5.7 litres (350ci) to 4.9 litres (302ci) by reducing the stroke. No fewer than 400 special parts were required for each Lucas fuelinjected engine.
Frank was a pioneer in running Repco V8s and realistic enough to believe rival American bent eights may have been slightly stronger at the top end while the Repco was superior in the mid range.
By the time I visited Repco’s engine development centre in Melbourne in 1973, no fewer than eight Australasian F5000 competitors had forsaken Chevrolet and Ford power for the Australian motors. By then, power had increased to 373kw at 7500rpm for a motor that was unique in using cast-alloy pistons in preference to forged ones.
The Matich F5000
Matich was always on the hunt for improvements, reckoning that if eight out of 10 modifications made no difference, you were still two changes ahead. While other Mclaren M10AS ran 15-inch-diameter wheels all round, Frank fitted 13-inch rims at the front and fabricated bespoke cooling ducts to cool the front disc brakes.
His chassis experiments and innovation were uppermost and, after the success of his sports car, came the challenge to build his own single-seater, which eventually emerged in the shape of the Matich A50 Repco.
This car took him to fourth in the 1972 Tasman Cup. The A50 boasted a longer wheelbase than the M10A and parallel bottom links for the rear suspension replacing the usual Mclaren wishbone arrangement. Frank made — or had made — the suspension, steering rack, shock absorbers, and accessories for the A50 and engineered the car for ease of maintenance. An engine change required a mere two hours — onequarter the time needed for the Mclaren.
A blown motor put him out of the 1972
After a 16-year career, Frank retired from racing in 1974 but never lost his passion for the sport. He had built two highly successful sports cars and seven F5000 open-wheelers, of which three or four are still in existence. Significantly, while Matich never drove in Formula 1, he was made a member of the Grand Prix Drivers Association, most likely on the recommendation of members of this exclusive inner circle, including Jim Clark and Stirling Moss. Early in 1974, Frank’s racing faltered when he suffered a severe electrical shock and burns to his hands while working on a marine engine.
Fitted with a new flat-plane– crank engine, his A53 never appeared in New Zealand that summer but he raced it at Sandown Park in Melbourne only weeks before his retirement. Matich led for 15 laps before a water-pump failure forced the car into the pits with an overheating engine. In Frank’s final race at Adelaide, he was again running second when he spun on oil, restarted in seventh place, and worked his way back to second before an engine misfire relegated him to an eventual fourth. He hung up his hat in May that year, and Repco withdrew from the sport at the same time, ending two decades of involvement that had started with the Maybach Special Stan Jones drove to victory in the first NZGP at Ardmore in 1954.
While not always recognized, Frank Matich stands alongside Australian motor sport greats Jack Brabham, Alan Jones, and Peter Brock.
Occasionally, motoring journalists are unable to see eye-to-eye with racing drivers, but I had no such problem with Frank, who told things as they were and was always easy to work with. When he invited me to a Tasman race party at his harbourside home on Sydney’s North Shore in the early ’70s, it wasn’t hard to see why he had decided to live and race in this part of the world rather than accept invitations to compete on the world stage. Frank and Joan were delightful hosts, and, strolling out along their private jetty, it was easy to believe all was right with the world.
In his own words, Frank was happy to be “a big croc in a small puddle” — he’d chosen well.
Frank, seen here in the 2.5-litre Brabham BT7, was a master at Warwick Farm