Ken Miles: Ford vs. Ferrari's Unsung Hero
Ken Miles was the enigmatic British race car driver turned car designer portrayed by Christian Bale in the 2019 film “Ford vs. Ferrari”. He was known by his colleagues as “Teddy Teabag” because of his incessant tea-drinking and “Sidebite” because he often spoke out of the side of his mouth. He was best known for being a key factor along with Carroll Shelby, to build a racecar for Ford Motor Company from scratch to not just compete with, but to ultimately beat the undisputed leader in the industry: Ferrari. Most notably, the Shelby/Cobra race team won the grueling Le Mans 24 hour race in 1966 when nobody else thought they had a chance. To give a layman an idea of how much of an underdog the Ford team was, this can be compared to almost the same level of upset in sports as the “Miracle on Ice” in 1980, when the American National Hockey team defeated the juggernaut Soviet Union team to capture the gold medal. Normally, you’d think a daunting task like this would be over the course of many years of painstaking research and development, but Miles and the rest of the Ford team only had a fraction of the time to accomplish this.
The very fact that Ford was able to build the iconic GT40, let alone actually defeat Enzo Ferrari’s machines in the race, is a testament to how big of a contribution that Miles brought to the table and his level of talent. He was also a gifted race car driver that lived, breathed, and slept cars, which made his untimely death in 1966, just 2 months after winning Le Mans, all the more tragic. Historically, Miles hasn’t received the same level of acclaim and popularity that Carroll Shelby has had, however “Ford vs. Ferrari” has brought Ken some much-deserved recognition in the importance of his role in American racecar history, albeit posthumously. Christian Bale absolutely transformed himself into the role of Ken Miles (which he seemingly does in every film) and did justice to Miles’ legacy. To understand the level of impact that Miles had in the industry, we need to dive into his background first.
KEN MILES’ BACKGROUND AND EARLY LIFE
Ken Miles was born on November 1st, 1918 in the British town of Sutton Coldfield; the largest city nearby was Birmingham. An interesting tidbit about Birmingham was that it was a city renowned for car manufacturing, which may explain why Miles was drawn to the industry due to how close in proximity it was. By all accounts, Miles had an affinity for automobiles from a very early age and anything with wheels on it. In fact, he started racing competitively when he was just 11 years old, on a 350cc Triumph motorcycle. After unsuccessfully attempting to run away from home at an early age (a sign that he was an unruly individual from the onset just like in his adult life), he left school when he was 15 to work as an apprentice at Wolseley Motors. Wolseley saw the innate talent that Miles possessed and as a result sent him to a technical school so he can absorb as much knowledge regarding vehicle design and engineering as possible.
However, everything changed shortly after the arrival of World War II. Miles served his Queen and country admirably, rising up to the rank of Staff Sergeant in the British Territorial Army, serving from 1939 to 1945. Miles learned much during his time in the military, as he was working on machinery the majority of his time in the Army. He also took part in the Normandy Landings in 1944 as a member of a tank unit.
EARLY RACING CAREER
After World War II, Miles was finally able to pursue his passion for racing and engineering racecars. He joined the Vintage Sports Car Club and raced Alvises, Bugattis, and Alfa Romeos. After not achieving the level of success that he had hoped to achieve, Miles moved to Los Angeles, California in 1952 after landing a job as a Service Manager for the Southern California division of MG Distribution. It was during this time that he started to make a name for himself by winning 14 straight races in SCCA in 1953, racing in a custom-built car based on an MG design. A well-known quote from Miles illustrates the passion for engineering and driving that he had:
“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.”
Miles’ reputation as a talented driver and engineer drew the attention of one of the sport’s biggest names: Carroll Shelby. For those of you who are too young to remember, Shelby was the Michael Jordan of American Racing in that era. He won Le Mans in 1959 and was an avid businessman and entrepreneur. He had an eccentric personality that earned him the adoration of many people. Shelby and Miles got along very well despite Miles’ dry-humor and cynical disposition that reportedly rubbed many other people the wrong way and may have alienated him from other opportunities. Nevertheless, Shelby appreciated his straightforwardness and their chemistry in building and testing cars for the years to come was unmatched.
LE MANS: HISTORY OF FORD VS. FERRARI
Ken Miles joined the Shelby/Cobra race team in the early 1960s, lending his expertise and innovative thinking to the team that hoped to capture Le Mans from the Ferrari racing dynasty. In order to understand the complete situation, we need to set the stage. Ford wasn’t originally thinking to compete with Ferrari. In fact, Ford was planning to purchase Ferrari outright.
Enzo Ferrari, quite possibly one of the most obsessed but stubborn men to have ever lived, insisted on focusing the majority of his attention on building the perfect racecar at the expense of everything else, including profits. The only reason he built street-legal versions of his race cars was to fund the racing division of his company, which was consistently hemorrhaging money. As a result, Ferrari was searching for suitors to purchase his company, and Ford was in negotiations with them for quite some time, but it seemed like there would be an imminent agreement.
That is until Ferrari learned that a section in the agreement would have given Ford complete control over Ferrari’s racing division. Balking at the prospect that an American company would have control of his most prized possession, Ferrari backed out of the deal at the eleventh hour. Henry Ford II (the grandson of founder Henry Ford) had Ferrari firmly set in his sights to defeat and humiliate the famed Italian car company by winning its most prestigious racing title. Ford II then used the full financial might of The Ford Motor Company to build a race program and car to do just that. As he and his team soon found out, it was definitely easier said than done, and Ford Advanced Vehicles Ltd. did not end up winning in the first few years of the costly endeavor.
The year was 1965, and this was the point that Ford II brought on Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles. Before this, Miles and Shelby had tremendous success with “Ken Miles’ Baby”, the GT350. This led to the creation of the famous GT40, which in its first iteration showed unlimited potential but ultimately wasn’t a success; the car didn’t even finish Le Mans that year. Coming into the 1966 season, Miles, Shelby, Ford, and the rest of the team were absolutely determined to crush Ferrari and they felt like they had learned enough in the previous years to do just that. The team was able to improve upon the design and function by drastically improving the aerodynamics and handling of the car, which they felt gave them the needed edge to win.
The stage was finally set for the showdown in Le Mans 1966. Ford vs. Ferrari. Anticlimactically, however, the race was not even close. In fact, it was an outright dominant performance by Ford, with the top 2 spots in the race going to the GT40s driven by Ken Miles and Bruce McLaren. Ford even coordinated it so that both GT40s would finish at the same time and set up the perfect photo opportunity. Miles was told to slow down his lap times by ten seconds in order to accomplish that, which he begrudgingly agreed to. Thinking that he would win the race, it was later determined that because McLaren had started eight meters behind Miles and they finished at the same time, the victory would go to McLaren due to that technicality. Miles was extremely disappointed since he would have been the first and only driver to win three major endurance racing events in the same year.
Regardless, Miles and the rest of the team at Ford had done it: they’d beaten Ferrari at their own game. Miles was determined to improve on his already impressive performance by making the 1967 season even better.
KEN MILES’ DEATH AND IMPACT
Shortly after the 1966 season, Ken Miles was on a mission to improve in every aspect. Being a self-proclaimed mechanic first and a driver second, he set out to improve on the design of the GT40 with the new Ford J-Car. However, the Ford J-Car was being tested in Le Mans and Walt Hansgen, was killed while test driving it. This led to the decision by Ford to hold the development of the J-Car and focus instead on improving the GT40 for the rest of the 1966 season. It wasn’t until August of that same year that Shelby American decided to continue testing the J-Car, with Ken Miles being the primary test driver.
It was at Riverside International Raceway in California that Ken Miles was killed. He was going 200+ miles per hour when he was going through the downhill back straight when the car lost control, flipped, and crashed into many pieces. Miles was ejected from the car and was killed instantly. The racing world was shocked and mourned the loss of one of its icons. Miles embodied the passion for cars that only a few people possessed. His death was not in vain, however, as Ford instituted stricter measures in the design and construction of the car, which ultimately saved the life of Mario Andretti, who survived a violent crash in Le Mans 1967, most likely due to the newly-implemented steel roll cage.
Perhaps no other person except for Miles’ family members felt the loss more than Carroll Shelby who said about Miles:
"We have nobody to take his place. Nobody. He was our baseline, our guiding point. He was the backbone of our program. There will never be another Ken Miles."
Miles is interred at the Abbey of the Psalms Mausoleum of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, California and in 2001 and was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America posthumously.