In the battle between Ford and Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966, there are a lot of icons from the world of cars: Enzo Ferrari, Henry Ford II, Lee Iacocca, and Carroll Shelby. But director James Mangold focused on an unlikely and somewhat unsung protagonist for his newest film Ford v. Ferrari (or Le Mans ‘66, for those of you across the pond): British racing driver Ken Miles.
While Shelby does play a significant role in the film, initial reviews have said its title could easily have been The Untold Story of Ken Miles. It’s an interesting choice, considering he isn’t the household name that you’d anticipate. So who was Ken Miles?
There are reasons he’s not as famous as the other figures in this tale. Miles was a very private person and had no interest in the spotlight. He rarely gave interviews, so it can be tough to actually track down any hard facts today. And, well, a significant amount of the work that contributed to his success was done behind the scenes. He doesn’t have a repertoire of one-liners and clever quips the way Carroll Shelby did. In fact, the only direct quotes I was able to find came from the book Go Like Hell by A.J. Baime.
But given how much as we love the story of Le Mans ’66, it may be time to give Miles more of his due.
Miles was born in Birmingham, England in 1918, where he grew up racing motorcycles before serving as a tank commander in the British Army in World War II, as recounted by Motor Sport Magazine. But his heart was set on other racing; he’d tried to run away once while he was young, failed, and returned to apprentice at early British automaker Wolseley Motors. When attempts at racing professionally in the UK left Miles and his family—at the time, his wife and infant son—destitute, he accepted a job offer in California and set out to pursue the American Dream, or at least a steady living.
A skilled racer, test driver, general mechanic, and engineer, Miles quickly appeared on Carroll Shelby’s radar. By 1964, the two were working together, and Miles was serving as competition director and test driver for Shelby American.
That made Miles the perfect driver for the Le Mans project that Ford was funneling money into. Shelby figured if anyone was going to kick Ferrari’s ass, it would probably be this guy. When it came time to take the Ford GT MkII out to the races in 1966, Miles was in hot demand.
That year, he won both the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring—at the time, arguably two of the biggest endurance races outside of Le Mans. With those skills under his belt, he was a favorite to take home the victory at Le Mans.
Now at this point, we’re about to hit some pretty significant movie plot points, so if you don’t want to be spoiled regarding this historical event that happened over five decades ago and has also been the subject of countless documentaries and books, you can probably stop here.
Ford did indeed kick ass at Le Mans that year. Miles, alongside co-driver Denny Hulme, had dominated the lead of the race. The Fords of Ronnie Bucknam/Dick Hutcherson and Bruce McLaren/Chris Amon were pulling up second and third.
Then came an infamous call from Ford’s management: it wanted all three drivers to cross the finish line at the same time. The sanctioning body presiding over Le Mans supposedly promised that they would honor the running order, thus ensuring Miles and Hulme would win the race.
That’s not what happened. Instead, the win was given to Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon. Because they had started further down the grid than Miles and Hulme, they had technically covered more distance in the race. They were declared the winners. Miles and Hulme came second. McLaren, for his own part, said it was honestly likely that he’d accelerated right at the end and crossed the finish line first, as recounted in Go Like Hell.
Whatever the case, Miles got the short end of the stick. Immediately after the race, Miles reportedly summed up the whole situation very precisely: “I think I’ve been fucked.”
But that didn’t mean Miles was ready to shirk his duties to Ford. In an interview about the Le Mans fiasco, he was said to have pleaded to Los Angeles Times reporter Bob Thomas, “Please be careful in how you report what I have said. I work for these people. They have been awfully good to me.” He was frank, but he wasn’t the kind of person to let one bad call sour a longstanding relationship.
What made things all the more poignant was Miles’ death in August of that same year. Miles was behind the wheel of the ‘J-Car’ project at Riverside, Ford’s next evolution of its winning GT40. However, the car flipped and rolled multiple times at over 200 mph, throwing Miles out of it on the third revolution before lighting on fire. Investigations revealed a mechanical failure had caused the accident. Miles was 47 years old.
If you’re wondering why you haven’t ever heard much about Miles, it’s because there was never really a chance to learn. Much of his career had been spent on the sidelines, with a focus on engineering and testing cars and organizing race teams. His one opportunity to step out into the spotlight was overshadowed by, depending on the version of the story, bad management or overeager teammates. And he died before he was able to try for that elusive win in 1967.
No matter the plot of the movie, it’s admittedly great to finally give Miles his chance to gain the recognition he deserves for being a significant driving force behind Ford’s winning GT40 project. It’s hard to imagine Le Mans 1966 being as legendary as it was without Miles’s brainpower and on-track skills driving the Ford’s project to success.
Ford v. Ferrari hits theaters across America this Friday, November 15.