The miracle of Bob Jane is he lived so long. His style was to run at things full-steam, head-down and never let the damage take the edge off his belief he was never wrong.
The racing legend, businessman and emotional brawler died on Saturday at the age of 88. His fight with prostate cancer was the last in a long line of protracted brawls, and one more final bitter loss. It took 21 years to kill him.
Growing up in working-class Brunswick in Depression-era Melbourne, he proved himself to be all heart and little sense when as a 13-year-old he threw himself between his mother and his routinely violent, drunk father.
Young Bob took a punch to the face, and might have taken more if his mother hadn’t come out swinging with a rolling pin.
From racing champion to mogul
As a racing car driver, he won more than 300 races, including the Armstrong 500s – what later became the Bathurst 1000 – four times in a row in the early 60s.
But his headstrong style nearly killed him. A 1961 crash into trees left him in a 10-day coma, with a cracked skull and his right hand almost severed. In 1967, he was temporarily paralysed below the waist after crashing at Sandown.
By then, though, he was building his business that would make him well-known to people who didn’t follow car racing. He and brother Bill, over the preceding 27 years, had opened nine car dealerships. But his real money came from tyres.
It was Phillip Adams, back in his guru days as an adman, who persuaded Jane to use his name and face to establish Bob Jane T-Marts. Over time he added Calder Park Raceway and an Adelaide race track to his empire.
By the mid-1990s, the business was grossing $220 million a years, and his personal fortune stood at $50 million, underwriting a sometimes gaudy lifestyle of luxury cars, a chopper, yacht and a love of the ladies.
Complicated family life
His family life was always complicated and eventually marred by tragedy. He’d been married twice and adopted three children who he no longer spoke with after the second marriage dissolved. His next partnership gave him a son, Rodney – from whom he became spectacularly estranged in 2010 – and a daughter Georgina who was killed in a car accident in 1991 at the age of 20.
By then, he’d married Laree Hope, 20, a legal secretary and the runner-up in the 1986 Miss Bathurst Quest. He was 58. Bob had been the VIP judge of the beauty contest. He literally flew off with her in his private plane.
They eventually had three children – and over time Bob Jane’s story moved from that of a heroic if ruthless battler, to a full-blown soap opera without end.
In a 2013 Good Weekend analysis of Bob Jane’s take-no-prisoners mentality and escalating troubles, Melissa Fyfe wrote:
“At a T-Marts franchisees convention in the early 1990s, Jane explained his ethos: ‘Marketing is war. There is no bloody quarter given. Your opposition are quite nice people, with wives and kids that need shoes.
“Our kids have bigger feet, our wives have bigger appetites and want prettier dresses, so kill! Go to the extreme!’ Jane spoke from experience. Few wives would have bigger appetites for luxury goods than his own, Laree Madonna Jane. By 2007, her jewellery alone was worth $4.1 million.”
At war with those who loved him
In 2006, however, Bob had filed a complaint with police that the well-baubled Laree had pulled a large, serrated knife and threatened to shoot him. The matter went sensationally to trial, Laree was acquitted, the couple split and she walked away with $25 million.
In 2010, they made up as friends. By then, Bob was in court against his son Rodney who had taken over the family business. Bob said he’d loaned Rodney $540,244 (Rodney said it was a gift), lent him $2.4 million to purchase the Bob Jane corporate headquarters, and wanted his loan account with the corporation reopened, alleging that it was misused during his period of ill health following a stroke.
The case dragged out for three years and the judge eventually ruled in Rodney’s favour on every count.
In 2016, Bob Jane’s was made bankrupt after failing to repay debts to a friend.
On Saturday, the three children he’d had with Laree issued a statement that said: “It was our privilege to have had him as our dad, whom we loved and cherished. We will miss him deeply and he will forever be in our hearts.”
He and Rodney never reconciled despite Rodney’s public appeal to that end.