Ken Miles: The True Story Of The Brummie Who Took On Ferrari
‘Le Mans ‘66’ or ‘Ford v Ferrari’ is a splendid film. It really is. You can read my review of it by clicking here. Whilst petrol-heads might have critiqued some parts of the racing sequences, calling it false and corny, we should take every penny of the film as it is a $100M-budgeted old-school racing film, something of which is gold-dust in today’s film industry.
However many of us would have cast our thoughts back to The Grand Tour episode James May did on talking about the 1966 edition of the greatest race in the world. But the best part of the film and story itself isn’t the racing, but the people.
Ken Miles At The 1966 24 Hours Of Le Mans
Ken Miles and Carrol Shelby were integral to what would be four years of consecutive domination for Ford at Le Mans, maybe not as much showed in the film, but alas. In this post I’m going to be focusing on the Brummie that managed to topple the Ferrari empire in World Enduring Racing: Ken Miles.
Miles was born on the first of November in 1918, ten days before the First World War ended just outside of Birmingham in the UK. According to multiple sources around the internet, Miles throughout his childhood wanted to run away to the United States so he could pursue a career as a mechanic in racing.
Instead of a tradition education, Miles enlisted in an apprenticeship at the age of fifteen in 1933 at a garage, from where he would help construct racing cars.
But as he started to show promise in his career of racing motorbikes, the Second World War came along. At the age of just twenty-one, Miles was enlisted into the British Army, working with the Tank infantry.
The Brit served for the whole six years in the War, and quickly rose in rank, becoming a Staff Sergeant in 1942 and a Sergeant in 1944 just before D-Day. By the end of the war he commanded his own take but as the war in Europe drew to a close in 1945, Miles had missed out on the potential chance of a lifetime.
He was now 27, with his chances of becoming a racing driver quickly diminishing.
After the war, he raced Bugattis, Alfa Romeos, and Alvises with the Vintage Sports Car Club. He then turned to a Ford V8 Frazer-Nash, but realised that there was no future in this, despite showing tremendous promise.
Move To The USA
In 1951 at the age thirty-two Miles moved to the West Coast of the United States. It is here when he would cross paths with Carrol Shelby that would ultimately change his life forever.
And in 1953, at the age of thirty-five, he got his racing career off to a flier. In 1953, he won 14 straight victories in SCCA racing in an MG-based special of his own design and construction. Miles raced in the West coast division of the SCCA, with the discipline slit up by location due to the fact that drivers and teams could not afford to travel to the other side of the country. It was a start, albeit small, but was already catching attention for his work as a mechanic, not just as a driver.
Without going into too much detail, Miles continued to happily race in this category for the next few years, however in 1955 he tried what was his first attempt at the 24 Hours Of Le Mans. Racing for MG, racing in the S 1.5 class, which was effectively the third tier. He finished fifth, a respectable result for a newbie at Le Mans.
Miles also drove Maserati, Ferrari, and Triumph cars along with his regular MG, but scored his biggest wins in Porsches – 24 wins in total.
In ‘57 he raced the Porsche 550 RS in the 12 Hours Of Sebring as he continued his move towards endurance racing. In the 1.5 class again, now the fourth tier category, he finished a strong second place, only one lap behind the eventual race winners, also in Porsche’s.
But before we continue with the story of Miles, with all roads leading to the infamous collaboration with Carrol Shelby at Le Mans, it should be mentioned Miles wasn’t solely focused on racing.
As put in the film perfectly, he owned a tuning shop in North Hollywood, and even more impressively was the President Of The California Sports Club. He’s credited with giving a lot of new drivers their start on the California scene, including future Ford teammate Dan Gurney. But Miles banged bumpers with the Sports Car Club of America sanctioning body, challenging its old boy system of dictating who could and couldn’t have membership (Miles himself was refused membership at one point).
Miles had a "reputation for courtesy on the track" and was sometimes called the "Stirling Moss of the West Coast", contrasting his “a sarcastic bastard who would race his grandmother to the breakfast table.”
However, as the film depicts, Miles has the attitude, whether intentional or not, or rubbing people the wrong way.
As Miles put it himself “I am a mechanic. That has been the direction of my entire vocational life. Driving is a hobby, a relaxation for me, like golfing is to others. I should like to drive a Formula 1 machine – not for the grand prize, but just to see what it is like. I should think it would be jolly good fun!”
And Miles almost did get to do that. Jumping ahead to the 1961 United States Grand Prix, Miles raced for Lotus-Climax, although withdrew from the race in the end. However we do know he did get to drive the car, which was all he wanted in the end.
Outside of motorsport, Miles enjoyed gardening, spending time with his family and wine. Just thought you'd like some insight on that.
But as the film correctly depicts, Miles's workshop was closed down by the IRS in the early sixties due to him, well, incorrectly filling his tax returns if you catch my drift. This was when unintentionally he was coerced into his working friendship with Carrol Shelby.
Miles Versus The Rest Of The World
Initially, Miles was just a test driver for Shelby's Cobras, but eventually when Ford courted Shelby to make a car that could beat Ferrari, Miles became involved once again with endurance racing.
There was only one problem: the car they wanted them to beat Ferrari with would be a Ford. Before the 1966 Le Mans, Ferrari won six consecutive editions of the race, not to mention that an American car had not won a European race for over fourty years.
However Miles was never meant to race at Le Mans. Now well into his fourties, and with motorsport on the rise around the world, who would have thought that this old dog would be bound for motorsport history?
“In the early to mid 1960s there was a new professional class of drivers emerging,” states George Levy. “Dan Gurney, Phil Hill, Jim Hall, Ronnie Bucknum. Most of these guys were – by design or coincidence – young, confident, media-savvy guys who any corporation would love to have represent them. Dan Gurney had everything a corporation could want in a representative. Ken was he opposite of that. He was an older guy, he didn’t not have the Hollywood glamour boy good looks, and he tended to be very plain spoken about his feelings – and sometimes that could embarrass a corporate sponsor. Ken might be someone a corporation didn’t want front and centre if they had a choice between him or a Dan Gurney.”
Carrol Shelby even later stated in interviews that he had only enlisted Miles as a development driver and a racer for his Cobra's, but the talent the Brit had was simply undeniable.
All accounts from people who worked on the Ford team for Le Mans would say that if you lined up all their drivers, including Dan Gurney, Bruce McLaren and Mario Andretti, all F1 race winners, that Miles was faster than them all.
Another thing that the film got right was that Miles looked after the cars like no other driver on the grid in the 1960s. He was gentle when needed, and knew when to push and not when to.
And despite all the supposed political controversy within the race program, Miles and co. were beginning to win races in 1965, including two Daytona's in a row, and Sebring.
Then the infamous race came and went in 1966. We all know the storyline by now. Miles, leading by over a lap, destined to take the win alongside future Formula One World Champion Denny Hulme, slowed down at his own will to cooperate with the team and have all three cars line-up and cross the finish line at the same time.
But the PR-stint cost Miles the win, as the officials stated that due to the dead heat, Bruce McLaren won the race because he started further down the grid than Miles, and therefore travelled more distance. Crazy.
But McLaren and Amon would tell a different side to the story. According to them, they had been leading the race prior to Ford’s decision and slowed down to the directed pace – but Ken Miles caught and passed them because he was ignoring the order. “They stuck the ‘SLOW’ sign out, because we were running one-two-three and they didn’t want us racing each other,” Chris Amon said, being interviewed by George Levy. “And dear old Ken Miles totally ignored that. Bruce slowed down three or four seconds a lap. Ken took no notice of [the sign] and took the lead, and at that point Bruce stuck his foot down again and they made the decision to have the dead heat, so that took away the incentive for us to race each other. I’ve always felt despite the controversy, on sheer speed we would’ve won comfortably. [The controversy] did sort of taint the thing a bit.”
It is still a bit in the dark despite the fact that over fifty years have elapsed since the infamous race, but one thing was for sure: It was a heck of a race for Ford, taking a 1-2-3, and would win the event for the next four years running.
However just two months after Le Mans '66, testing the next-gen Ford GT, there was an unknown failure on the car at over 200mph. The car spun out of control, and Miles was ejected from the car through the windscreen, apparently flying over an embankment. He instantly died from head injuries, and died what he loved doing.
Christian Bale As Ken Miles In Ford v Ferrari
I would love to know what you think about 'Ford v Ferrari' in the comments section, and if you haven't seen it, if you will.