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The True Story of Ken Miles From Ford V Ferrari, Explained


The True Story of Ken Miles From Ford V Ferrari, Explained


Summary

  • Ford v Ferrari realistically recreates intense racing rivalry between Carroll Shelby and Enzo Ferrari in 1950s and 1960s with dramatic flair.
  • Despite some creative liberties, movie accurately depicts Ken Miles’ contributions and sacrifices in lifting Ford to prominence in racing history.
  • Ken Miles, although tragically killed, left a lasting legacy with Ford’s dominance at Le Mans and induction into Motorsports Hall of Fame.



Released in 2019 to critical acclaim, Ford v Ferrari tracks the intense racing rivalry between automakers Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) in the 1950s and 1960s. Although a few story elements were made up to increase the dramatic stakes, the movie recreates many real-life auto races with stunning authenticity and historical accuracy. To help defeat Ferrari, Carroll forms an unlikely partnership with Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a hot-headed yet talented British car racer, mechanic, and engineer who goes to heroic lengths to lift Ford to prominence.


Despite remaining as faithful to Miles’ story as possible, director James Mangold fudged a few facts, omitted some details, and fabricated parts of the movie that did not occur in real life. To help clarify the heroic sacrifices made by Ken Miles during his decorated racing career, it’s worth explaining the true story of how Miles came to prominence and what led to his tragic fate in August 1966.


Who is Ken Miles?

Ken Miles sits in a Ford in 1965
Motor Sports


Played by Christian Bale in Ford v Ferrari, Ken Miles is a race car designer, driver, and mechanical engineer born in Birmingham, England in 1918. Miles dropped out of school when he was 15 and became an apprentice for Wolseley Motors (via Motor Sport). As an adult, he joined the British Army, serving in World War II and becoming a driving instructor. During his service, Miles climbed the ranks to become Staff Sgt. and a tank commander praised for his engineering skills.

Following military discharge in 1946, Miles moved to Los Angeles and began his racing career in 1952. In 1953, Miles won 14 consecutive races in the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) competition. In all 14 victories, Miles drove a car that he designed and built himself. Then, in 1955, Miles modified the vehicle, which became known as “The Flying Shingle” for its speed. While this is not detailed in the movie, Miles defeated legendary actor James Dean with “The Flying Shingle” in a 1955 drag race. Although Miles was disqualified on a technicality, the race caught the attention of several auto industry professionals.


Following the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1959, American automaker Carroll Shelby recruited Miles to work with Ford to defeat team Scuderia Ferrari. Miles agreed and by 1963 was named the chief test driver for Shelby American Inc. One year later, as seen in the movie, Miles and Shelby began designing the Ford GT40 MK I. As shown in the film, Miles was angry about the “bloody awful” race car and demanded to design a new model. However, the MK I tested fast enough to instill fear and paranoia in Enzo Ferrari as a potential rival. As such, Henry Ford II commissioned Miles to work on the upgraded Ford GT40 MK II in 1965.

Although the Ford GT40 MK II boasted a more powerful 427 V8 engine, the car suffered from gearbox issues and was forced to retire from the 1965 Le Mans race before completion. In the movie, the gearbox problems were depicted during Miles’ test drive of the MK II rather than his real-life Le Mans race. This was changed for the James Mangold movie because, in 1965, Miles was racing on behalf of Chevy. It wasn’t until the 1966 Le Mans that Miles officially raced the MK II for Ford/Shelby.


Ken Miles at Le Mans 1966

The climax in Ford v Ferrari takes place at Le Mans 1966. Despite driving the race car he designed and leading team Ferrari toward the end of the race, Ford VP Don Bebee (Josh Lucas) orders Miles to lose the race on purpose. For Bebee, winning the race was less important than a three-way photo finish shared among three Ford racers, including Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon. Despite his superior racing skills, Miles agreed to let the two other Ford racers catch up to him and share a three-way victory. Alas, McLaren was declared the victor because his car started further back in the starting position and traveled further than Miles. Even after sacrificing the good of the team, Miles lost the race and came in second place.


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Although Miles was cheated out of his 1966 Le Mans victory, the movie depicts him as having no hard feelings. He tells Shelby, “You promised me the drive, not the win.” For Miles, winning was never more important than the thrill of racing itself, a personality trait downplayed in the movie. To create a combative relationship between Miles and Shelby before forming a partnership, the movie exaggerates Miles’ hot temper. In reality, Miles was known for his courtesy while racing and had a playful sense of sarcastic humor that is overlooked in the movie. Moreover, he was not as competitive as the other racers, describing himself as:


“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 One machine, not for the grand prize, but just to see what it is like. I should think it would be jolly good fun!” (
via Go Like Hell
)

Ken Miles’ Tragic Fate in 1966

The most realistic aspect of Ford v Ferrari tragically occurred in reality. Two months after having his 1966 Le Mans victory robbed by McLaren, Miles suffered a fatal car crash on August 17th. As seen in the thrilling racing movie, Miles was test-driving the Ford J-Car designed to succeed the Ford GT40 MK II. The test took place at Riverside International Speedway in California. The fatal crash took place near the end of the track during a one-mile downhill portion. Upon reaching roughly 200 miles per hour, the J-Car abruptly flipped, crashed, and burst into flames. The car shattered into several pieces, fatally ejecting Miles. He was just 47 when he passed away.


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While Miles’ tragic death is respectfully honored in the movie, Ford v Ferrari ends with Shelby visiting Miles’ son, Peter (Noah Jupe). The two discuss Miles before Shelby gives Peter a wrench that Miles threw at Shelby during their first meeting. This meeting never occurred nor did Miles hurl a wrench at Shelby when they met. The final meeting between Shelby and Peter underscores how much Ken Miles meant to Carroll Shelby despite their personal and professional arguments, and how proud Peter is of his father.


Fortunately, the movie ends by honoring Miles’ legacy in the final text epilogue, which states that Ford continued to dominate Le Mans from 1967 to 1969, while Miles was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2001. Without Miles’ invaluable contributions and heroic sacrifices to advance the reputation and performance of Ford’s race cars in the 1960s, there’s no telling where the automaker would be in 2024. He gave his life to help an American company do what he loved the most: to drive as fast as possible on a racetrack.

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