Pistons at Dawn

20th January 2020

For motorsport fans, the new Hollywood film about the lead-up to 1966’s 24 Hours of Le Mans is a must-see. More than half a century on, the fierce rivalry it depicts between Ford and Ferrari remains a fascinating duel of wills – but what really happened at the end of the race?

Words by Peter Hall

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Directed by James Mangold and starring Christian Bale and Matt Damon, Le Mans ’66 is a thrilling evocation of Ford’s legendary battle with Ferrari at the world’s greatest motor race. Naturally the movie focuses on the American experience, albeit with a British-born hero, but the real story was rather more complicated.

It began in early 1963, when Henry Ford II was persuaded that his company could acquire sporting prestige by buying Ferrari. Enzo Ferrari was open to offers, but when he examined Ford’s $10 million proposal he spotted a clause that gave control of his precious racing division to the Americans. Unleashing a tirade of insults at Ford emissary Don Frey, he got up and walked out. 

Back in Michigan, Ford was not impressed: “All right, if that’s the way he wants it, we’ll go out and whip his ass.” Frey suggested building a mid-engined GT. It was a sign of things to come that Ford took five minutes to approve the car and 55 minutes on the marketing strategy. 

Seeking motorsport expertise, British-born engineer Roy Lunn was despatched to England, where he hired John Wyer, manager of the Aston Martin team that had won Le Mans in 1959. Wyer had been recommended by winning driver Carroll Shelby, a wily Texan who was also committed to beating Ferrari, developing the Ford V8- engined Cobra roadster and Daytona Coupe at his Los Angeles speed shop, Shelby American. 

Lunn then visited Lola Cars of Bromley, whose Mk6 GT had shown promise at Le Mans. Powered by a midmounted 4.2-litre Ford V8, it was just what he was looking for, so he purchased two and brought Lola boss Eric Broadley into the new Ford GT project based in Slough. While Ford set about modifying the Lola Mk6, Broadley struggled with its corporate approach. He left the project and, sure enough, in testing at Goodwood and Monza the car demonstrated both a tendency to lift at speed and chronic braking problems due to its weight. Nevertheless, now with a 4.7-litre engine, the Ford GT was unveiled in Slough on April 1 1964 before appearing at the New York Auto Show.

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Director James Mangold talks Le Mans '66 fact versus fiction

Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966. Miles was on course for the first triple crown in sports car racing until fate, and Ford, intervened.

Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966. Miles was on course for the first triple crown in sports car racing until fate, and Ford, intervened.

A few weeks later the GT crashed in trials for Le Mans. On its German race debut it retired, as did all three entries at Le Mans, where Ferrari enjoyed a seventh victory. A new nose helped the aerodynamics, but after two cars again failed to finish at Nassau in November they were packed off to Shelby American with orders to make winners of them, at any cost. 

Shelby’s chief asset was 46-year old engineer Ken Miles. The son of a Sutton Coldfield tea and coffee merchant, he drove tanks in World War II then took up motor racing before emigrating to California, where he found success in self-built sports cars. With his sardonic English wit he was the antithesis of Shelby’s West Coast hot-rodders, but he was central to the development of the Cobra, Daytona Coupe and Mustang GT350. Miles made the Ford GT work, winning at Daytona in February 1965. 

While Slough produced the MkI GT40 (as it was now called, referring to its height in inches) Shelby set about installing a 7.0-litre V8 engine. Two of these formidable 215mph “MkII” GT40s were entered for Le Mans, driven by Ken Miles/Bruce McLaren and Phil Hill/Chris Amon. European entries brought the number of GT40s up to six but all of them retired, handing yet another victory to Ferrari, live on US TV.

For 1966, it was win or bust. Encouragingly, Ken Miles won at Daytona and Sebring. For Le Mans, Ford entered 15 MkIIs, of which eight were accepted: three from Shelby American (for Ken Miles/Denny Hulme, Dan Gurney/ Jerry Grant and Bruce McLaren/Chris Amon), three from NASCAR race team Holman-Moody, and two Slough prepared cars run by Alan Mann Racing. Ever conscious of marketing angles, each car was painted in a different colour from the Mustang range. Six more GT40s were entered by customer teams.

Bruce put his head through the car door and said, ‘Go like hell!'

After qualifying, the race appeared to be Ford’s for the taking and, carrying a card from Henry Ford II with the message “You’d better win”, race-team manager Leo Beebe took no chances, allocating lap times to each car: Gurney/Grant would aim for 3m37s, Miles/Hulme 3m39s and McLaren/Amon 3m41s. 

It was spitting with rain as Henry Ford II himself dropped the Tricolour flag at 4pm and the drivers sprinted to their cars; Graham Hill was first away in one of the Alan Mann GT40s, followed by Gurney. As Miles jumped into his car he damaged the door, forcing a pit stop. Racing back to the front, he set a new lap record of 3m33s. McLaren and Amon fell behind, struggling with their Firestone tyres. Having switched to Goodyears, Amon recalled that “Bruce put his head through the car door and said, ‘Go like hell!’” 

Overnight rain favoured the Ferraris, but they didn’t last, and by daybreak Ford held the top six places. However, there were more retirements to come; the Shelby drivers were racing each other, and at 9am Gurney’s car overheated. With several hours remaining and three surviving Fords running 1-2-3, the leaders were told to slow down. Amon, by now almost a lap ahead, complied. Miles had other ideas and built a four-lap lead, although some of that was lost to brake problems when the McLaren/Amon crew used his spares.

Carroll Shelby (centre) with his Cobra drivers (left to right), Jo Schlesser, Ken Miles, Bruce McLaren and Phil Hill at 12 Hours of Sebring in 1965

Carroll Shelby (centre) with his Cobra drivers (left to right), Jo Schlesser, Ken Miles, Bruce McLaren and Phil Hill at 12 Hours of Sebring in 1965

Beebe now hatched an infamous plan. As Shelby recalled, “They came up to me and said, ‘Who do you think should win the race?’ I thought, ‘Well, hell, Ken’s been leading for all these hours – he should win.’ I looked at Leo Beebe and said, ‘What do you think ought to happen, Leo?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, I’d kind of like to see all three of them cross the line together.’ So I said, ‘Oh
hell, let’s do it that way then.’”

Receiving his orders at the final pit stop, Miles was furious: “So ends my contribution to this motor race.” Nevertheless he obeyed, slowing while McLaren and the Bucknum/Hutcherson Holman-Moody car caught up. They crossed the finish line side by side with McLaren easing ahead slightly at the chequered flag.

However, the regulations made a dead heat impossible. The McLaren/Amon car had started the race eight metres behind the Miles/Hulme machine and having covered a greater distance, it would be the winner.

Miles and Hulme were held back while a bemused McLaren and Amon joined Henry Ford II on the podium. “I think I’ve been f***ed,” declared Miles, bitterly. After all, he was Shelby’s lead driver, he had done the lion’s share of MkII development and, having won Daytona and Sebring, he could have entered the history books by taking the first “triple crown” of sports car racing.

As Carroll Shelby said, “The GT40s would never have reached the pinnacle they reached without Ken Miles”

Was Beebe really unaware of the distance rule? It’s often said that it was mentioned too late to change the team orders (in the absence of radios), although as they were a dozen laps ahead, the leaders could have been called in again. Alternatively, had McLaren been asked to slow down while Miles continued unhindered, the photo finish could have been staged with Miles one lap ahead. It has even been suggested that Miles was indeed ahead, but that the lap chart was altered. Miles’ remarks at the final pit stop, and his attempt to enter the winners’ circle, could sustain several theories. 

Beebe later confessed: “I had some real difficulties over that. But [Miles] was a daredevil… I held him back because I was afraid the drivers would knock one another off. All you need is one good accident and you lose allyour investment.” 

Sadly, Miles didn’t get another chance. In August he was killed testing Ford’s J-car, an all-American successor to the GT40 MkII with an unstable “breadvan”-shaped rear section and a bonded alloy chassis. 

For Ford, all was not lost; a redesign produced the GT40 MkIV that won Le Mans in 1967, prompting winner Dan Gurney to spray Henry Ford II with champagne. Mission accomplished, albeit at enormous cost (perhaps $500 million, and a man’s life), Ford cancelled its programme, although new engine rules permitted Le Mans victories for John Wyer’s lightweight MkI in 1968 and 1969. The Ford was now more famous than any Ferrari. 

Yet as Carroll Shelby said, “The GT40s would never have reached the pinnacle they reached without Ken Miles. He was not only a friend, he was a good engineer, he was a good test driver and as good a race driver as I ever knew… I can’t say what a void I felt when we lost him.”

This article was taken from the Winter 2019/2020 edition of the Goodwood Magazine.

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