Ken Miles: The Man Behind the Movie
The 2019 movie Ford vs Ferrari starring Christian Bale was something of a slow burner at the box office but it’s really starting to build and capture the public’s imagination. It follows on from the success of the film Rush which highlighted the Formula One battle between James Hunt and Niki Lauda in 1976.
Fast cars and the silver screen have always been a good match and Ford vs Ferrari is the latest in the genre. The title is a clue to its content but in this article we want to look at Bale’s character - the legendary Ken Miles - who is an important, but often overlooked figure in the world of motorsport.
The Man Himself
Ken Miles was a British-born racing driver who eventually would make his name in the United States. As the name of the movie suggests, he was a pivotal figure in the quest by the Ford Motor Company to develop a car that could ultimately rival Ferrari who were dominant in many disciplines.
Miles would go on to record many achievements but before it all began, he led an unremarkable childhood following his birth in 1918 in the English West Midlands. Following his education, Ken did enter the vehicle industry but not as a driver. Miles was an apprentice at the Wolseley Motor Company where he learned all about the mechanics behind the construction industry.
It’s said that Miles used to race motorcycles at an amateur level but any progression towards a racing career was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. After serving in the British Territorial Army, he returned following the conflict and resumed his career in vehicle construction but this time the racing started to take on a more serious side.
Ken Miles resumed his racing exploits after World War II but this time he had moved up from two wheels to four. Ahead of a move to the USA, he was racing Bugattis, Alvises and Alfa Romeos via the Vintage Sports Club while continuing his career as an engineer.
It was around this time that Miles looked to define the direction in which he thought he was going.
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!
The focus on engineering remained but in 1952, Ken Miles moved from the United Kingdom to Los Angeles and the switch would transform his life. His dual career continued but his exploits now started to reach a far more serious level.
By the early 1960s, Miles had joined the Shelby / Cobra race team and, while his talents as a mechanic were pivotal to the unit, he became their official test driver in 1963. Shelby / Cobra were a force in US motor racing so this was something of a serious breakthrough.
An Incredible Year
By 1966, the battle between Ford and Ferrari, the one that was to be featured in the 2019 movie, had started to reach an intensity. While the Italian giants would continue to dominate the scene in formula one, the development of the Ford GT40 had helped the American company to gain a foothold in other motorsport disciplines.
Accordingly, Ken Miles would be the successful pilot as Ford recorded a win in the 24 hours of Daytona while finishing in second place in the 12 hours of Sebring. Endurance races were clearly the big focus point for the Ford driver and from here, Miles moved on to the biggest test of all - the Le Mans 24 hour race of 1966.
Miles had tackled this event a year previously and in 1965, he shared with Bruce McLaren as the pair drove a Ford GT Mk II. Things started promisingly but the two men had to eventually retire when the vehicle developed gearbox trouble and couldn’t continue.
Le Mans 1966 would prove to be markedly different even though the race would have something of a bizarre ending. With Denny Hulme as his co-driver this time round, Miles was leading the race but in a misguided show of team solidarity and superiority, Ford’s executive Leo Beebe decided that he would like all three of the team cars to cross the finish line together. The intention was to construct a significant publicity photo and while there is no evidence to suggest that Beebe wanted to send a message to Ferrari, it wouldn’t be too hard to make this deduction.
The three Ford cars duly crossed the finish line together but the officials weren’t happy. Initially, they had agreed to the team’s decision and it seemed as though they would uphold the dead heat but they later went back on this conclusion. Ford were given the 1-2-3 but Miles and Hulme were relegated, leaving Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon as the winners.
Despite this setback, it seemed as though Ken Miles would return stronger in 1967 but sadly, the fates were to conspire against him.
End of the Road
Like many stories around this era, the tale of Ken Miles was to end in tragedy. 1966 had been a remarkable year in terms of competition but as he returned to testing, a fatal accident brought a premature end to his career.
On the 17th of August of that year, Miles was testing the new Ford J car at the Riverside International Raceway in Southern California. In searing heat, and at a speed in excess of 200 mph, the car flipped and caught fire. The vehicle broke into pieces, Miles was ejected and is said to have died instantly.
Ken Miles’ tale was, therefore, short but it was a remarkable career and he was a ground breaker in many ways. Now, thanks to the powers that be in Hollywood, his legacy will become better known to legions of film and motorsport fans.