His mother eventually sent him to a Roman Catholic boarding school in Scotland, where he found his love for cars and speed, especially after getting a ride in a friend’s Jaguar.
Though he excelled at languages — he spoke several fluently, including Italian — and passed his university entrance exams, he skipped college to go into racing. He supported himself with a series of workaday jobs, including as a Yorkshire representative for the Campbell Soup Company.
In between jobs he traveled around Europe, working as an unpaid mechanic in pit crews on some of the continent’s smaller racing circuits. He raced as well, on occasion, but with little success.
Instead, he found he had a knack for the business side of the sport. As he moved around Europe, he bought and sold parts, brokering the flow of spark plugs and tires among scores of racing teams and building up a small pile of money to start his own team.
He founded Frank Williams Racing Cars in 1966, with Piers Courage as his driver, competing in Formula Two races. Three years later they had risen to Formula One, auto racing’s elite level, and Mr. Courage, the wealthy, dashing heir to a brewing fortune, was suddenly one of Britain’s most recognized sports figures.
Though Mr. Williams said he never considered quitting the sport in the wake of his friend’s death, it clearly had an impact on him, and on his team. Unable to find a winning driver, he was soon deep in debt, dodging debt collectors and working out of a phone booth after he stopped paying his phone bills.
His wife, Virginia, whom he had married in 1974, kept him afloat, juggling bills and lending him money her parents sent her. He spent it freely on his obsession; once, when she gave him eight pounds for groceries, he spent it on spark plugs instead.