Monday, July 21, 2014

RIP James Garner 1928-2014

It is with some sadness that we report that noted actor, racer and all around nice guy James Garner passed away this weekend of natural causes at the age of 86.  Garner's first big break in the acting world was as the lead in the TV series Maverick, but as gearheads we will forever remember his breakout as the lead in the 1966 film Grand Prix.  Most of the other actors in the movies were only willing to drive the cars at low speeds or flat out refused to do anything other than towed shots, but Garner discovered he had a knack for high speed driving and he developed a fascination with racing that continued for many years.

Garner's interest in racing even landed him a sponsorship from AMC to prepare a number of SC/Ramblers for the 1969 Baja 500, but Garner was unable to participate in the race due to a conflicting film commitment.  However, as an automotive symbol of Garner's legacy there is nothing quite like the 1975 (and in later seasons 1977) Pontiac Firebird proudly displaying the 853OKG California blue plate as Jim Rockford clashed with bad guys from Malibu to Death Valley.

We published a Cars of the Rockford Files special feature back in January of 2013 that featured a number of the cars from the show, but yesterday we got a great suggestion from DT reader Andy L who wrote: To honor the life of James Garner, and his best-known role as James Rockford, maybe it would be proper to feature a Firebird Esprit.  Rockford's iconic ride throughout the Rockford Files series was a gold '77 model. 

After a little searching, I could not find the exact model and color.  This is no surprise, as gold was never an option on a 1977 Esprit.  It was for T/A's only.  Here is an example of a seemingly nice Esprit in Pender, NE.  It is a 1980 model. 

Like the main actor of the Rockford Files, the Esprit was classy and understated.  Engines available in the Esprit during this period were the 231ci V-6 with 105hp, a 301 with 145hp, and a 350 with 170hp. If you wanted the 400ci or 403ci engine, you would have to opt for the Formula or the "screaming chicken" T/A. We can assume that the Hollywood prop masters gave Jim Rockford a little something extra in his ride to keep the chase scenes exciting. 

The featured car has a bottom-of-the-line 231 in it, which is fine because anyone interested in making an Esprit of this era go fast will need to abandon the numbers-matching selling point regardless of the original mill.  We like the steelies and the fact that the A/C has been updated. 

If you can handle an interior in this shade and you aren't in a hurry to go anywhere, this might be the car you need to channel Jim Rockford's understated '70s style.  
Thanks for the great suggestion from Andy (as well as his excellent description republished above) and help us find the ultimate Rockford tribute Firebird. Comments below.

RIP James, keep the tires warm with Rockford turns in heaven while you wait for the rest of us.

Image credits; wikipedia, craigslist.


  1. RIP Mr. Garner.

    This looks like it would be a good starting point for a Rockford clone. Although the ask is a bit much:

    1977 Firebird Formula

  2. I believe reader Andy L may be jumping the gun a bit - what I recognize as Rockford's "iconic gold ride," and indeed, the car in your DT Special pic above, is a late '74 model, as distinguished by the much more attractive and (IMHO), well-integrated front end clip. This is the series James Garner is said to have preferred because "you could do things with it." Given his background, he would know.

    1. Actually, you are both correct, because the show used the old single headlamp 74-76 and the restyled 77-78 depending on the season. You can see pics of the cars here on

  3. Actually, the show's producers used this model to keep costs down and to convey that Rockford was more pragmatic than all smoky burnouts and generally ostentatious. At least that's what he said in a recent interview. He was always my favorite actor, whatever he was in I would watch regardless of whether I was actually interested in the story itself. Funny, but the line that immediately came to mind when I read of his passing was the last words spoken in "Murphy's Romance" when he's holding Sally Field in his arms, gazing down at her standing on the dirt driveway, illuminated by the near-dusk sunset and he says: "I'm sixty." I'm not sure why that particular line entered my mind...

  4. He also shared the screen with McQueen in The Great Escape. McQueen literally jumped off the screen when his 'character' jumped the fence on the Triumph, but Garner was the far more involved character as the scrounger who gently twisted the arm of the German guard for a single lens reflex camera and escorted the then blind Donald Pleasance through the tunnel and carefully reminded him to hold perfectly still when the engine on the plane the stole started, else he would have gotten a face full of prop. He finally met his demise as the only person in the movie who was trying to prevent another prisoner from being shot. Class act on the screen and in person. He made people proud to be from Norman Oklahoma, even if they didn't play football for OU!

  5. I saw JG on a talk show and he had e strange deal with the car provided on RF he said he had to pay for repairs and the car had been rebuilt like 3 times with the stunts they did on the show and he had to pay out of pocket for it was a lousy clause in his contract. JG was a racer too bad Paul Newman came to racing late in his career.

    1. Actors turned into racers is actually quite a long list. Probably because you can makeup some skill and late start with money, unlike something like Basketball where no matter how much money Patrick Dempsey would throw at it, he couldn't become a pro. I think it is a good thing for the sport because these actors bring with them new fans.


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