From motorcycle races and commanding WWII tanks to leading Ford to victory over Ferrari at 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966, Ken Miles lived and died in the fast lane.
Ken Miles already had a well-respected career in the auto racing world, but leading Ford to defeat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966 made him a star. Although that glory was short-lived for Miles, who died behind the wheel soon after, he is still considered one of racing’s great American heroes with his feat inspiring the recent film Ford v Ferrari.
Ken Miles’ Early Life And Racing Career
Born November 1, 1918, in Sutton Coldfield, England, not much is known about Miles’ early life. From what is known, he got his start racing motorcycles and continued doing so during his time in the British Army.
During WWII, he served as a tank commander, and the experience is said to have fueled a new love in Miles for high-performance engineering.
After the war was over, Miles moved to California in 1952 to pursue auto racing full-time.
Working as a service manager for an MG ignition system distributor, he got involved in local road races and quickly started to make a name for himself.
Although Miles had no experience in an Indy 500 and never raced in a Formula 1, he still beat some of the most experienced drivers in the industry. However, his first race was a bust.
Driving a stock MG TD at the Pebble Beach road race, Miles was disqualified for reckless driving after his brakes failed. Not the best start to his racing career, but the experience fueled his competitive fire.
The following year, Miles clinched 14 straight victories driving a tube-frame MG special racing car. He eventually sold the car and used the money to building something better: his famed 1954 MG R2 Flying Shingle.
That car’s success on the road led to more opportunities for Miles. In 1956, a local Porsche franchise gave him a Porsche 550 Spyder to drive for the season. Next season, he made modifications to include the body of a Cooper Bobtail. The “Pooper” was born.
Despite the car’s performance, which included beating the factory model Porsche in a road race, Porsche reportedly made arrangements to halt its further promotion in favor of another car model.
While doing testing work for Rootes on the Alpine and helping to develop a Dolphin Formula Junior racing car, Miles’ work caught the attention of auto legend Carroll Shelby.
Developing The Shelby Cobra And Ford Mustang GT40
Even during his most active years as a racer, Miles had money issues. He opened a tuning shop at the height of his dominance on the road that he eventually shuttered in 1963.
It was at this point that Shelby offered Miles a position on Shelby American’s Cobra development team, and due in part to his money troubles, Ken Miles decided to join Shelby American.
Miles joined the team strictly as a test driver at first. Then he worked his way through several titles, including competition manager. Still, Shelby was the American hero on the Shelby American team and Miles mostly stayed out of the spotlight until Le Mans 1966.
After Ford performed poorly at Le Mans 1964, with no cars finishing the race in 1965, the company reportedly invested $10 million to beat Ferrari’s winning streak. They hired a roster of Hall of Fame drivers and turned its GT40 car program over to Shelby for improvements.
In developing the GT40, Miles is rumored to have heavily influenced its success. He is also credited for the success of the Shelby Cobra models.
This seems likely because of Miles’ position on the Shelby American team as a test driver and developer. While, historically, Shelby usually gets the glory for the Le Mans 1966 win, Miles was instrumental in the development of both the Mustang GT40 and the Shelby Cobra.
“I should like to drive a Formula 1 machine — not for the grand prize, but just to see what it is like. I should think it would be jolly good fun!” Miles once said.
For the good of Ford and the Shelby American team, Miles’ continued to be an unsung hero until 1965. Unable to watch another driver compete in the car he helped build, Miles jumped in the driver seat and clinched a victory for Ford at the 1965 Daytona Continental 2,000 KM race.
The win was the first in 40 years for an American manufacturer in international competition, and it proved Miles’ prowess behind the wheel. Although Ford did not win Le Mans that year, Miles played a crucial role in their victory next year.
24 Hours of Le Mans 1966: The True Story Behind Ford v. Ferrari
At Le Mans 1966, Ferrari entered the race with a five-year winning streak. As a result, the car brand only entered two cars in anticipation of another win.
Still, it wasn’t enough to just beat Ferrari. In Ford’s eyes, the win needed to look good, too.
With three Ford GT40s in the lead, it was clear Ford was going to win the race. Miles and Denny Hulme carried first place. Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon were in second place, and Ronnie Bucknum and Dick Hutcherson were 12 laps behind in third.
At that moment, Shelby instructed the two leading cars to slowdown so the third car could catch up. Fords’ PR team wanted all the cars to cross the finish line side-by-side at the finish line. A great image for Ford, but a tough move for Miles to make.
The two Ferraris ultimately did not even finish the race.
Ken Miles, The Unsung Hero Of Le Mans 1966, Gets A Dig In At Ford
Not only did he develop the GT40, he also won the Daytona and Sebring 24-hour races driving a Ford in 1966. A first-place win at Le Mans would top off his endurance racing record.
However, if the three Ford cars crossed the finish line at the same time, the victory would go to McLaren and Amon. According to racing officials, the drivers technically covered more ground because they started eight meters behind Miles.
The drivers let the third car catch up with the order to slowdown. However, Miles dropped further back and the three cars crossed in formation instead of at the same time.
The move was considered a slight against Ford from Miles over their interference in the race. Although Ford didn’t get their perfect photo op, they still won. The drivers were heroes.
“You know, I’d rather die in a racing car than get eaten up by cancer”
The fame for Ken Miles after Ford’s victory over Ferrari at Le Mans 1966 was short lived. Two months later, he was killed test driving a Ford J-car at a California raceway. The car broke into pieces and burst into flames upon impact. Miles was 47.
Still, even in death, Ken Miles was an unsung racing hero. Ford intended the J-car to be a follow up to the Ford GT Mk. As a direct result of Miles’ death, the car was renamed the Ford Mk IV and outfitted with a steel rollover cage. When driver Mario Andretti crashed the car at Le Mans 1967, the cage is believed to have saved his life.
Other than a conspiracy theory about Miles somehow surviving the crash and living a quiet life in Wisconsin, Ken Miles’ death is considered one of the greatest tragedies of auto racing. Moreover, his larger legacy is an inspiring reminder of what people can accomplish when they follow their dreams.
Now that you’ve read about racing legend Ken Miles, check out the story of Carroll Shelby, who worked with Miles to build the Ford Mustang GT40 and Shelby Cobra, or about Eddie Rickenbacker, the World War I fighter pilot and Indy 500 star.