January 11th, 2013 by mcowner | 1 Comment | Filed in Features |

The other French

It’s fair to say Rusty French is somewhat of an enigma. Even the authoritative The Great Race bible had French’s debut at Mount Panorama as being 1977 when, in fact, it was almost a decade earlier under the name of ‘W French’.

Not to be confused with Queenslander John French (no relation), Rusty has featured relatively little in the motorsport press for a man who has held a CAMS general competition licence for 45 years. And has a top 10 finish in the Le Mans 24 Hour to his name.

What has been printed has normally centred on his perceived wealth. He’s been painted as something of a flamboyant playboy wannabe race driver. A more accurate summation is of an experienced gentleman racer that the sport’s historians have largely overlooked.

Perhaps he was pigeon-holed by his early career in production sports cars and 1970s Group C touring cars – from an XC Falcon Hardtop to an XE Falcon – which was a time of unreliable vehicles and poor finishes.
The flipside are two top 10 finishes at Bathurst in Holden Commodores, winning the Australian GT Championship in a Porsche 935 and piloting a fearsome Porsche 956 at Le Sarthe.

French has always treated his racing as a hobby, yet the wealthy farmer and sand mining entrepreneur from Melbourne had the means to race the best equipment available to a privateer. And that is the rub. He was never out there to take on the professionals, happy to compete and give it his best.

French is still competing today, racing in this year’s Porsche Carrera Cup Championship and in his beloved Porsche 935 in the odd local and US historic race meetings.

AMC’s chat with French reveals a somewhat elusive man with a great love of the sport and a detailed knowledge of the cars he raced. Incidently, all of them were painted his trademark black, many of which he still owns and cherishes to this day.

As to what the ‘W’ stands for? You’ll have to read on.

The now 68-year-old reflects on his proudest moments in the sport, the stellar line-up of cars he drove, and Bathurst campaigns both disastrous and fruitful.

Army surplus special

Rusty French, like many of his generation, including Peter Brock, started his driving ‘career’ as a youngster in a Austin Seven-based machine.

“I competed in speed events with the Austin Seven Club when I was only 15 year old,” French explains. “Then I did a three-year apprenticeship in the army as a motor mechanic. In ‘civvy street’ [ED: an apprentice in civilian life] you sweep the floor in the first year, get lunches, and don’t do much mechanical work. It was different in the army. I was there purely to do the course. While I was in there I raced in speedway at the Brisbane Exhibition Ground in hot-rods and stock cars. Wherever I was based – in NSW and Queensland – I used to do speedway racing, much to the army’s disgust!

“I didn’t start on the black track until 1966 when I first got my CAMS licence.”

That first foray onto the “black track” came following his time in the military in a two-door Chevrolet Impala.
“The reason I chose the Impala was that it was on the used car lot at Eiffeltower Motors in Melbourne, where I worked in the truck sales department, and it was the only car with a laminated windscreen. I used that to get off my ‘three stripes”, essentially the CAMS probationary licence of the day, and ran in improved touring car events at Victorian venues like Hume Weir and Sandown for a couple of years. The Impala had a two-speed auto transmission! It wasn’t the easiest thing to drive.”

His next step up the racing ladder would involve racing Eiffeltower Motors-entered Hillmans and Valiants and proved to be something of a false dawn.

Pantera punterFrench took a break from racing in the early 1970s and moved to Sydney to run a prestige car dealership on Parramatta Road.

“I was running Falcon GTs and GT-HOs for a while and only doing the odd club event. Around 1973 or ’74, I started importing a few vehicles from England and America. I quite enjoyed that, seeing the world and bringing back good cars, such as Mustangs and Corvettes, Ferraris and Jaguars.”

It was at this time French cast his eye over the CAMS Production Sports Car class’s eligibility list until he came to the Italian supercar, the De Tomaso Pantera.

“It was different,” he emphasises. “It was simple. It had a mid-mounted Ford Cleveland 351 engine in it and there wasn’t one here (in Australia). I decided to jump on a plane to Italy and look at them. The factory had a Group 4 car. And I bought that back here in 1975.”

This wasn’t just any Pantera, but an ex-works race car raced by such luminaries as former Ferrrari Formula One drivers Clay Regazzoni and Mike Parkes, in the 1973 European GT Championship.

As delivered, the Pantera’s Cleveland 351ci engine sported four twin downdraught Weber carburettors and a semi dry sump. This was soon changed to a full dry sump and an Australian developed McGee mechanical fuel injection system. Other modifications included repositioning the fuel tank to the front of the car and a weight reduction program.

The Pantera competed in the Australian Production Sports Car Championship between 1976 and 1981 against a succession of Porsche 934s driven by the likes of Ian Geoghegan, Alan Hamilton and Allan Moffat, but with little success.

“The Pantera’s reliability was probably a bit spasmodic. To get the horsepower out of it to run with the turbo Porsches, it was hard to keep them reliable. We were always breaking rockers or valve springs, though at least the bottom end was okay with Carillo rods.”

At the end of 1981, the Australian Production Sports Car Championship was no more. The following season saw the revival of the GT championship (last run in 1963), combining with the Sports Sedans. In a classic case of ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’, French bought the 1981 championship-winning Porsche 935 of John Latham to run in the new-look series.

Recipe for successLike its predecessor, the GT championship was a Porsche-fest. F1 world champion Alan Jones swept the series in an Alan Hamilton, Porsche Cars Australia-entered Porsche 935, with French finishing a distant second in his John Sands-sponsored 935.

For 1983, French bought the ’82 winning 935 from Hamilton and set up a two-car team with Alan Browne, owner of Re-Car, driving the second car. Jim Richards in the JPS-sponsored BMW 318i Turbo got the jump on French in the first two rounds of the AGTC, before the series was turned on its head at the third round at Adelaide International Raceway.

Many of the field’s frontrunners were caught up in one of the most expensive accidents witnessed on an Australian race track. Peter Brock, in Bob Jane’s Chevrolet Monza, snapped a drive-shaft and veered into Richard’s BMW, destroying it and severely damaging another five cars, including Browne’s 935. French was one of the few frontrunners not to be caught up in the melee and won the race. It was the start of his run to the 1983 Australian GT Championship, winning two of the six rounds and scoring twice as many points as the next best.
The reigning champ only competed at the opening round at Lakeside in 1984, where he tangled with Tony Edmondson on the last corner of the last lap while fighting for second place. By that time French had taken the phone call from Weissach, Germany. His title had brought him to the attention of Porsche’s competition chiefs. He was being considered for a drive by a Porsche-backed team at a little sports car shindig held each year in France.

French in France

In early 1984 French received a call from Stuttgart that would have a profound effect on his racing career.

“After winning the Australian GT Championship, I was invited by Porsche to a prize-giving ceremony in Germany where I was introduced to the Kremer people through Jurgen Barth and Klaus Bischoff of the Porsche racing department. Then in May, the Kremer team contacted me to say they had a drive available in the 1984 Le Mans 24 Hour in one of their team 956Bs.”

That was the event with a distinct Australian flavour. The Aussie assault was led by the high-profile Bob Jane-sponsored, John Fitzpatrick-entered Porsche 956B of Peter Brock and Larry Perkins. Also present was Allan Grice in a privateer 956B and the strong combination of ’83 winner Vern Schuppan, Alan Jones and Jean Pierre Jarier in another Kremer 956.

Thus, Rusty French’s presence at Le Mans went all but unnoticed. He was teamed with the experienced British racers David Sutherland and soon-to-be television personality Tiff Needell.

In the race French acquitted himself well in the 370km/h Porsche, sharing the Kremer 956B in two hour stints with the regular drivers. Needell went off in the middle of the night with the 956 sustaining minor damage. The car gradually came back through the field and finished an excellent ninth outright, with French being the second Australian home behind Kremer teammates Schuppan and Jones, in fifth.

French was invited to join the Kremer team again for the first ever Australian round of the World Endurance Championship at Sandown in late 1984. He was teamed with the mercurial German F1 driver Manfred Winkelhock for a 1000km race.

French remembers Winkelhock as a “hell of a driver” and the pair finished fifth behind the factory Porsches. French was the first Aussie home. Sadly, Winkelhock would perish the following year in a Kremer Porsche 956 at Mosport in Canada.

Bathurst by the decades


The record books may say ‘W. French’, but Rusty French’s first Bathurst was the 1968 Hardie Ferodo 500 in a Hillman Gazelle with Alton Boddenberg. At the time French was working as a sales manager selling Dodge trucks for Jack Nougher’s Eiffeltower Motors and landed the Bathurst drive. In 1968 Class B saw the advent of the new Datsun 1600 and they dominated the class. French and Boddenberg did well to finish fourth in class among a sea of Datsuns.

French competed during this era in other events of this era – from hillclimbs to the 1969 Surfers Paradise 12 Hour – in Gazelles and Valiants. However, it would be almost a decade before he ventured back to Mount Panorama with his own cars, which he ran spasmotically during the regular tin-top season, but invariably made the pilgrimage with each October.


French returned to Mt Panorama in 1977 with a brand new XC Falcon Hardtop built for him by ex-Moffat man Dale Sudholz. Partnered by experienced Kiwi Leo Leonard, the team debuted the Falcon in the Sandown 500 where it ran a wheel-bearing. At Bathurst the Falcon broke a gearbox mount. It was replaced in a lengthy pitstop and which meant, although they were running at the finish, the car was unclassified due to insufficient laps. For 1978 French teamed up with the John Goss operation, even repainting the Falcon in ‘Goss Blue’ to honour a sponsor commitment. This was the only ever departure from the ubiquitous black that features on all of French’s own cars to this day. Graham Moore was the co-driver in ’78 and again in ’79, when the Falcon returned to its familiar black livery. The Falcon completed 90 laps in ’78 after numerous problems and was again unclassified. Things got worse when the engine blew after a mere nine laps the following year.


French missed the 1980 race, but came back in ’81 with his self- prepared XD Falcon. Preparation included a number of that year’s touring car rounds. While French didn’t get to greet the chequered flag due to the shortened race, after the infamous McPhillamy Park pile up, he and Leo Leonard were classified 22nd. They were 20 laps behind the winning Falcon of Dick Johnson and John French.

For 1982 French teamed up with Ford stalwart Murray Carter in his new XE Falcon. It was a disaster, with the motor detonating after 25 laps.

“I don’t even think I got in it,” French recalls.

French’s time in Fords highlighted the difficulty Falcon privateers had getting their cars to finish, in contrast to their Holden equivalents.

A change of direction was needed for 1983 and a tie up with Re-Car owner and Commodore privateer Alan Browne provided the answer. Part of the deal where Browne drove French’s second Porsche 935 at GT rounds saw French join Browne in the ex-Grice VH Commodore at Sandown and Bathurst. As fate would have it, Browne never did get to race with French. Instead he relinquished his seat to former Bathurst winner Bob Morris, who just happened to be at the mountain, helmet in hand but without a drive. Morris acclimatised to the Commodore quickly getting it into the Hardies Heroes top 10 and started the car started ninth. Early in the race Morris was up to an amazing second until a spin down the escape road pushed him down the field. Unfortunately, Morris suffered from motion sickness, a legacy of an inner ear injury suffered in the ’81 Bathurst crash.

“He vomited into his helmet,” French recalls, “so I ended up having to do two-thirds of the race.”
Despite the setback, the pair finished an excellent 8th outright, French finally greeting the chequered flag at Bathurst.

In 1984 French was teamed up with Queensland driver Geoff Russell, father of current Fujitsu V8 Supercar Series and Bathurst co-driver David. With French’s budget consumed by racing mega -dollar Porsche 956s in endurance races, the ’84 Bathurst campaign was a modest affair, with the car being prepared by Commodore guru Les Small.

An awful qualifying session saw French down the field with the minnows and he came close to not proceeding past the first corner.

“Walkinshaw was stationary at the start in the Jaguar and with all the dust I almost ran into him. I jinked right and took to the grass almost scrapping the concrete wall as I went past.”

A long pitstop early on – and high oil consumption throughout the race – meant French and Russell gradually worked their way up the field. By lunchtime they had broken into the top 10 and went on to finish an impressive sixth outright, four laps behind the next placegetter, on 154 laps.

With the advent of Group A, French looked at bringing out an Eggenberger-prepared Ford Sierra XR4 Ti for Bathurst in 1986.

“We looked at doing Group A and leasing a Sierra with Klaus Niedwiedz. John Sands was going to sponsor the car and then when we were putting the deal together the numbers changed and they pulled the pin on it. Niedwiedz didn’t come out that year, but he did the following year, when was disqualified from second in the Eggenberger Sierra in the World Touring Car Championship round at Bathurst.
French would not return to race at Mt Panorama for another 13 years.

Renaissance man

The vagaries of sports car championships in the 1980s is a story in itself. Suffice to say that the change from production sports cars to GT cars, with sports sedans thrown in, and then to prototype sports cars did not offer any stability to series competitors. French had Jim Hardman build up a third lightweight Porsche 935 from a spare shell that Alan Hamilton had lying around. But sensing that it would no longer be competitive against the prototype sports cars, he looked overseas for opportunities to race his thoroughbred Porsche.

“We took one of the Porsche 935s to Shah Alam in Malaysia and ran in the Rothmans Series there,” French outlines. “I think that was 1985. Then in 1989 we took the 935 now in [Kremer] K3 specification to England to run in their Masterscreen-sponsored Porsche GT Challenge which we won outright. We raced on all the classic British tracks there.”

French never really stopped racing the 935s, but more modern Porsches would fill the void into the 1990s, including 993 and 996 model 911 RSRs and RSCS models in events like Targa Tasmania.

In 1997 he scored a win in the Porsche Cup Challenge at the Gold Coast IndyCarnival. At the end of the year French had a triple heart by-pass which put him on the sidelines for some time.

In the ‘noughties’ French bought a Dodge Viper ACR to run in the Nations Cup, before switching to a Porsche 996 GT3 in 2003, the last year of the series. For 2005 the Australian GT Championship was reinstated and French found himself in a Lamborghini Diablo GTR.

“That was Paul Stokell’s old car. I was invited to drive that by Andrew Smith of Lamborghini Racing Australia.

We didn’t have to repaint that one, it was already black…”

In 2005 French logged his three Porsche 935s as historic race cars and has been enjoying winding back the clock and racing them against contemporary rivals. He has been a fixture at the prestigious Phillip Island Classic and has even ventured overseas again, winning the Japanese Le Mans Classic in 2005 and winning the IMSA class in the Monterey Classic at Laguna Classic over three consecutive years, 2008 to 2010.

This year also sees French’s return to an Australian national series, the reborn Porsche Carrera Cup.

“I’ve run Carrera Cup in 2003 and 2006 in Asia with Geoff Morgan and Peter Boylan. Including this year’s car, I own five Carrera Cup Porsches. I intend to compete in all seven rounds of this year’s Carrera Cup championship in the Elite Class against the likes of Nathan Tinkler and Peter Hill. We’re all doing similar laptimes and I’m happy to be out there as a midfield runner. I enjoy driving good cars as quickly as I can get them around the track.”


AMC: Where did the name Rusty come from?

RF: I’ve always had Rusty as a nickname since I was 10 years old because I had red hair and freckles, I suppose. ‘W French’ was my given name, but because my father was ‘W French’ everyone used Rusty because they couldn’t have two Walters in the same household. My CAMS licence must have been in the name W French. I think they took the details off your road licence back then.

AMC: Notwithstanding your love of Porsches, I believe that deep down you are a Ford man?

RF: I’ve long had a love of Ford V8s. Prior to the Falcons, most of my speedway cars were Ford-powered. I had a bit of a soft spot for Fords I guess. Except when I worked for a Chrysler dealer, I always had them in my early days. There was a 1932 Model B, Customlines, even a Star model that I had in the Army, then a succession of Falcon GTs and GT-HOs.

AMC: With a few notable exceptions, you have always raced black cars. Why is that?

RF: I’ve always been a lover of black cars since my Customline days. I’ve been black before a lot of well-known cars, like the JPS BMWs. Even my road cars are black. Not always a good colour to have, to keep clean.

AMC: Your main backer for many years was John Sands and then it Skye Sands. But they were two very different sponsors, weren’t they?

RF: I knew John Sands’ managing director through another contact. He was a bit of a car nut, and we started out in the XD Falcon days and they went on to the Porsche and Commodore. Apart from greeting cards, they were promoting other things like Corgi toys and Sega games. They were owned by Textron at the time and then were sold off; the name no longer exists. Skye Sands is my own sand mining and quarrying operation that I started in Skye, in the Mornington Peninsula, back in 1973 and have since branched out into landfill operations, a transfer station and waste recycling.

AMC: What do you consider your career highlights?

RF: Winning the 1983 Australian GT Championship and then being invited to run at Le Mans. This was an opportunity to do something a bit out of my depth. We qualified ninth at Le Mans and that is where we finished. We all did our two-hour stints. I would’ve done eight hours of race and during the night Tiff had an off and lost a bit of time. I did half of the Sandown endurance race with Winkelhock – a great driver killed the following year. Any endurance race it’s the team, the combination. Like V8s racing today, it’s all very close, it can be won and lost in the pits.

AMC: I understand that you received facial burns in a light plane accident?

RF: Yes, that was back in 1992. I suffered serious burns to my face and hands. I still have ongoing limitations, for example I don’t have full use of my right hand. I’ve had many skin grafts and it was a long time before I recovered enough to even drive, let alone race.

AMC: It must have made you think of your own mortality?

RF: It makes you realise that I was fortunate to step out of that, as not many do from those accidents. It does make you aware. I’m a late father. I’ve got an obligation to my wife and five-year-old daughter, so you do your racing with that in your mind. I may have been a better driver before the accident, but I’m happy to be still able to race now. I recently visited a young man in the burns unit of the Royal Alfred Hospital where I was treated.
He is the 22-year-old son of friends I know and they wanted me to have a talk to him so he can see what someone looks like after having suffered from similar burns to what he has now. His mother latter told me that he had thought that his world had come to an end, but he was inspired by my recovery and the fact I have a beautiful family and there is life after an accident. I am very fortunate.

AMC: What do you think of today’s racing? Do you follow the V8 Supercars?

RF: Well, Rod Nash is a neighbour and friend and he runs his Bottle-O team out of the FPR stable. He’s carting our Cup car in his transporter for the V8 rounds. As for today’s racing, well I think there is too much racing in Australia. For example, the Clipsal 500 clashes with the Phillip Island Classic, while the Monterrey Classic in California clashes with the Winton Historics.

AMC: Have you any intentions to race some of your old racing cars, such as the Pantera and the Group C cars that you have in your collection?

RF: No, I just restore them. You can bring them to the historic events but I’m not so interested in running those cars, they’re too slow. I like to run something quicker!

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