The new movie Ford v Ferrari takes a look at a real-life David and Goliath matchup that took place in the sport of auto racing in the 1960s. American automaker Ford got it in their heads that they were going to beat the esteemed Italian sports car brand Ferrari in the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France. To do so, the brand enlisted car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to come up with a car that could beat the Italians. Ford v Ferrari is getting rave reviews, but the story of what happened to the real Ken Miles is even more incredible — and tragic.
Ken Miles was born in 1918 in England, where he grew up with an interest in cars and mechanics. After serving in the British Army during World War II, Miles moved to California to further pursue his passion for auto racing. By the early 1950s, Miles had begun to make a name for himself both as a driver, thanks to winning numerous races, and as an engineer, by doing so in cars that he himself designed. Eventually, Miles drew the attention of Carroll Shelby, a now-legendary auto designer who is best known for creating the Shelby Cobra and Shelby Mustang — the latter of which's GT350 version was also worked on extensively by Miles, according to cjponyparts.com.
Miles and Shelby began working together in the early 1960s, but it wasn't until 1966 when their most well-known collaboration came to be. A few years earlier, Ford was in the process of buying Ferrari, but the talks broke down and the companies remained separate. This led to a personal feud between Henry Ford and Enzo Ferrari, one which would see Ford go to great lengths to defeat and humiliate lauded Ferrari at the most famous race in the world, Le Mans. Ford commissioned a race car known as the GT40 to do so, but in the Le Mans races of 1964 and 1965, the car grossly underperformed. That's where Shelby and Miles come in. The pair were brought in to work on the GT40, and they made significant changes to the car which greatly improved its performance, according to Motor Sport Magazine.
The adjustments paid off, and the Ford GT40 swept the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race, taking first, second, and third place. One of the cars was personally driven by Miles, who would have easily captured first place were he not ordered to slow down in order to let his two teammates to catch up, allowing for the iconic — but somewhat manufactured — photo of the three Ford GT40s crossing the finish line together.
Although Miles' success at Le Mans should have marked the start of even more big things to come for him as both a driver and a designer, his life and career were tragically cut short just two months later. While test-driving the planned next iteration of the GT40 at Riverside International Raceway in California, Miles lost control at 200mph and the car flipped over and burst into flames. He was killed instantly, at the age of 47.
No one knows just how much more Ken Miles would have accomplished in the world of auto racing had the accident not occurred, but he remains a legend thanks to all he managed to do while he was alive. The reputation of Miles is so great, in fact, there are even rumors that he survived his fatal crash and was living out his days in secret in Wisconsin, according to Car and Driver. Apparently, some just don't want to believe that Miles is really gone. But at the very least, his spirit lives on in Ford v Ferrari.