New Zealand Classic Car
LUNCH WITH … BILL GAVIN, “THE MAN WITH THE INTERESTING LIFE” — PART TWO
“THE MAN WITH THE INTERESTING LIFE” MOVES ON TO TEAM MANAGEMENT, BAND MANAGEMENT, AND TO MOVIE MOGUL
Non-championship Formula 1 (F1) races were commonplace in the 1960s. Indeed, in 1960, the year Bill arrived from New Zealand, there were five in England alone. That year, 10 races counted to the world championship and some entrants only occasionally attempted to get a car into a Grand Prix (GP). One such patron was American Louise Bryden-brown. Her family was a major shareholder in the Aluminium Company of America (Alcoa). She was a society figure with a magnificent house in Montpelier Square in central London, where young artists and sculptors congregated. She also had a fondness for motor racing and ran a Lotus 18 for Dan Gurney in 1961, at which time he was a works Porsche driver, and also Tony Maggs. In 1966 it became London’s headquarters for Playboy, and it was where Bill met his first wife, in 1964.
“Louise wasn’t up to running a Grand Prix car any longer, but she offered me a room on the fifth floor while I edited Autocourse,” recalls Bill. “Robert Carrier, one of the original celebrity chefs, often visited, so the dinner parties were fairly spectacular. Louise now owned Autocourse. I changed the direction of it to make it more of a glossy publication. She threw a party for advertisers and there were also models there. I noticed this beautiful girl and asked her who she worked for. She said, ‘Autocourse’, and then she noticed my badge that said I was the editor. She responded with, ‘Oh, well that’s not going to work’. Her name was Jane Dawson
and she modelled for Mary Quant, Pierre Cardin, and Worth, among others — she was right up there.”
Bill and Jane married two months later, three weeks after their first date.
Motor noter to feature writer
By 1964, Bill was covering motor racing for Autoweek, and then, late in 1965, he was approached by American magazine
Car and Driver to be its European editor, but these titles fade into the background compared with the invitation to become a feature writer for the Sunday Times: “I got a phone call from Max Boyd sometime in 1964 — he was their motoring correspondent — and he told me they were looking for someone ‘to do stuff’ and that ‘I’ve given them your name’.” Bill’s columns typically had a motoring bent, including a story on offroad vehicles and another entitled ‘A Mug’s Guide to Parking’. “It was when parking meters were first introduced,” he says.
It was at the US GP at Watkins Glen in October 1964 that Bill first met
John Frankenheimer who was planning a movie based on F1.
“We met up again at Mexico and he invited me to work on the film right from day one. He was a lovely man, very bright,” Bill says.
By now Bill was married and extremely busy: “As the film was being made during 1966, I was writing the [Jim] Clark book and was still European editor for Car and Driver. I flew out to Los Angeles to interview Frankenheimer and he showed me segments of the film.”
Bill noticed some anomalies. “I told him, but if the hero doesn’t win there and there, then he won’t win the championship … He said, ‘We need you here’. Initially, I’d had been engaged to write the narration that ran over the racing sequences but eventually my role became much more significant.”
Feature writer to screenwriter
Did Bill expect the movie to be a success? “I think we did. It was one of the biggest budgets ever, not far off the Cleopatra film — not that that means it will be successful. I always hoped it would be successful simply because everyone was working so hard.”
Bill’s role was working with the editors, including ensuring the sound was accurate. “Two of those editors I worked with got Oscars, as did the sound editor,” he says.
Frankenheimer must have been impressed because another offer came Bill’s way.
“He wanted me to work as a screenwriter. I tried, but honestly, what did I know about screenwriting?”
After so many years of working all hours, Bill took 1967 off. “For the first time in my life, I was financially ahead of the game. Jane had left me, temporarily, and so I went to Tunisia where the sun shone and living was cheap. I was trying to write treatments for Frankenheimer, which essentially meant breaking down a novel to establish if it had potential for making it into a film. I found it all very difficult and eventually decided that it wasn’t something I really wanted to do,” he tells me.
This meant that, after attending every F1 race since the start of his writing career, Bill only went to one GP in 1967: “After travelling so much with Denny [Hulme] in 1960, it was a shame that I saw so little of his championship season, but I was so chuffed
“He wanted me to work as a screenwriter. I tried, but honestly, what did I know about screenwriting?”
when he won the title and I phoned him at the end of the season.”
After reuniting with Jane, Bill started making plans for 1968. “I really was missing motor racing. We had Innes [Ireland, the Scot who had given Team Lotus its first F1 win in 1961] around for dinner one night. He was sports editor for Autocar at the time, and asked if I could cover the Formula 2 race at Hockenheim for him,” says Bill.
It was the fateful meeting that claimed the life of Jim Clark. “Of all my driver friends who were killed, Jimmy’s was the only funeral I went to. I suppose that might say something about me, but gosh it was a tough time.”
Shortly afterwards Bill was a feature writer for a new weekly called Speedworld International.
In addition to his punchy ‘Billboard’ column in each issue, Bill also started a series entitled ‘A New Look at Old Faces’: “I reviewed the careers of the existing drivers and I suppose there were times when what I wrote wasn’t all that complimentary. There was certainly a bit of iciness from Chris [Amon] afterwards. Although he never said anything, I was pretty sure he’d read my column.”
Screenwriter to team manager
But any concern that Bill might have had of an issue between the two of them vanished when Chris approached Bill at the 1969 Spanish GP with an extraordinary offer. “Out of the blue, Chris asked me, ‘Are you doing the Can-am series?’ followed by, ‘Would you like to be team manager?’” It is important at this point to highlight that the team in question happened to be Ferrari. “What a mess. There was no money and, for most of the season, I was financing the team off my Diners card.” So how did Bill end up running a racing campaign — for Scuderia Ferrari, no less — without any previous experience of team management? “I assume Chris needed someone he could trust,” Bill responds. “Ferrari had very little to do with it, really. They built the car and sent it to America, but that was really about where their interest ended, although they did continue to service their unreliable engines. We didn’t even have cars for us all to get around. I had to pull in some favours with some old friends at Ford.”
The team didn’t even have a base. “We moved to Pine Lake, about 20 minutes north
of Detroit and set up home with Jane and one-year-old Gavin. Part of the reason we chose Detroit was because that was where the Mclaren Can-am team were based. They were mates and they would be able point us in the right direction for a number of things,” he says.
Bill nods in agreement when I relay what Chris told me about the 1969 Can-am Ferrari: fantastic chassis, overweight, and no power. “Absolutely,” he says, “and Chris was driving beautifully. He really was one of those drivers who shone with lots of horsepower. With a Chev in the back, it would have been great.”
Mclaren won all eleven rounds of the Can-am championship in 1969. The title went to Bruce on 165 points from Denny on 160. The other Kiwi, the one in the red car, had a second and two thirds. Chris even managed to lead the Mclarens occasionally but in Bill’s view, “that had probably more to do with Bruce and Denny than anything else”.
Too high a price
“Out of the blue, Chris asked me, ‘Are you doing the Can-am series?’ followed by, ‘Would you like to be team manager?’” It is important at this point to highlight that the team in question happened to be Ferrari
At the end of 1969, the Gavins returned to London and Bill was now writing for Autosport when the bombshell hit, on 2 June, that Bruce Mclaren had been killed. Bill had first met Bruce in New Zealand before he’d left for England in early 1960 and had travelled to races with him.
“I can still remember his mechanics Cary Taylor and Jimmy Stone were boarding a plane with us in Michigan only a few weeks later and it was still almost impossible to even speak about, it was so unbelievable. I was in and out of Mclaren all the time, and we’d arranged that Cary and Jimmy would board with us. Bruce, like Jimmy, was someone you never thought would die racing; he was just so accurate and always seem to drive within himself. I have to acknowledge that I might not have had a career in racing except that first year he really was so kind. He introduced me to drivers, team managers; he made a point of doing it,” he says.
Bruce’s death caused Bill to seriously question his friendships with drivers: “By then I was really getting disaffected with racing relationships, given the number of close friends who had died.” A new rising star on the F1 scene in 1970 was the Swede Ronnie Peterson. “I really liked Ronnie, and he so wanted to be my friend — so I began questioning if motor racing was now dictating how I behaved.” In delving a little deeper, he explains: “I had a feeling that Ronnie would die in a racing car. I’d left motor racing well behind me when Ronnie was killed in 1978 and, although it was a freak accident, it was another body blow.”
In 1970, Amon had left Ferrari for March and, with the experience of the 1969 campaign, Bill was engaged to run the
March Can-am team, “but the Amon– March relationship was already strained,” he says, “so I wrote a letter to Chris resigning.”
By the end of 1970, Bill had found himself starting to fall out of love with motor racing. “I suppose I’d become burnt out and so I began to wonder what I’d do next. I had a young family to support, so I was writing for Car and Driver again covering all the Canam races right through to the end of 1971.”
By 1972, Bill was so broke that he started driving a mini-cab. “My last story would have been in 1972 for Autocourse on Emerson Fittipaldi.”
Not so sweet
Bill ended up with a regular gig collecting one Laurence Myers from his home and delivering him to his office. “Laurence was an accountant who represented The Rolling Stones and The Beatles amongst other big names of the time. He ended up as an entertainment impresario and recording executive. He suggested I should work for him but what did I know about the music industry?”
Myers assigned Bill to be The New Seekers’ tour manager: “They were huge — 26 dates in the month of May; it made running a racing team look easy.”
Having proven himself at the pop/folk end of the music world, Myers then introduced Bill to The Sweet — “The four most unlikeable people I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet”. The Sweet evolved into a mid-’70s glam-rock band. They had 13 Top 20 hits in the UK charts during the ’70s but, despite the success and a few good stories, Bill has little in the way of positive recollections.
He’d done his best to distance himself from motor racing but the pain of the sport at that time returned in June 1972. “I was at home and news came through that Jo Bonnier had been killed at Le Mans. Jane turned to me and said, ‘Do you realize that everyone who has ever stayed with us has gone?’ This list included Jimmy [Clark], Pedro Rodríguez, Carel de Beaufort and now Bonnier. “Jo was such a lovely man — so intelligent and such a careful driver,” says Bill.
Myers soon had other plans for him: “Laurence planned a series of movies to promote the company’s glam-rock acts.” There was immediate success. “In 1974 we launched a Gary Glitter documentary called Remember Me This Way. He had three number-one hits while we were making the movie. Soon afterwards, we moved into distribution, including the British release of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and the original version of Swept Away.”
Having proven himself at the pop/folk end of the music world, Myers then introduced Bill to The Sweet — “The four most unlikeable people I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet”
Motoring writer to movie mogul
In 1978, Bill was lured to Australia by 20th Century Fox, to become general manager of its Australian subsidiary, Hoyts Theatres. “I headed their entry into distribution, and we also financed the occasional local film, starting with nuclear thriller Chain Reaction.” Among the titles were Apocalypse Now, The Boys from Brazil and a movie version of Don Giovanni, featuring Kiri Te Kanawa. Bill’s success in distributing the first Muppet Movie caught the eye of legendary mogul Lew Grade, who invited him to join the sales team at ITC Films back in London: “Lew’s name opened a lot of doors, and I began selling a range of films to distributors across the globe, in the process learning much about the ‘dark art’ of presales.”
Bill began selling movies through his company Gavin Film. “One of the titles we represented was financed by Goldcrest Films, founded by Canadian Jake Eberts, who invited me to be head of sales — officially ‘director of distribution and marketing’. They gave me a seat on the board, and I travelled the world selling Goldcrest’s catalogue, which quickly grew to more than 20 titles, including pre-selling a substantial part of the budget of The Killing Fields.” Bill is too modest to mention this was an acclaimed BAFTA Best Film winner.
In 1984, Bill returned to his own company and set about pre-selling and financing mostly British independent movies. Along the way he worked with stars such as Sigourney Weaver, Michael Caine, and Dennis Hopper. In the early 1990s, Bill came home — three-plus decades after heading off in pursuit of a dream to earn a living writing about racing cars. Here, he initially “secured funding and cast members for The Last Tattoo and co-produced it. Then I spent a couple of years on the development committee of the New Zealand Film Commission.”
In 1999 he produced and helped develop New Zealand’s first film sequel, What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?, the follow-up to Once Were Warriors.
Bill then had a two-year stint as head of features at South Pacific Pictures and invited director Niki Caro to write an adaption of Whale Rider, and won $4M’ worth of European financing and presales on the strength of her script.
“Yes, the music and film stuff is what I ended up doing, but motor racing will always be where my passion is.”
So after careers in motor racing, the music business, and both film distribution and production, what about a book?
Love, Life and Death in Formula 1 is promoted on some websites but remains incomplete. “I really must finish it. Yes, the music and film stuff is what I ended up doing, but motor racing will always be where my passion is,” he says.