Ken Miles was an exceptionally talented race driver as well as a skilled mechanic and engineer. He was also one of Carroll Shelby’s closest associates during Miles’ too-short life. Ken Miles assisted in the design of some of Ford’s top performance cars of the ‘60s, including the Shelby GT350. In 1966, Miles should have earned the remarkable distinction of winning the endurance events at Sebring, Daytona, and Le Mans in a single year, but due to a strange turn of events was denied the win in Le Mans.
Two months after the ‘66 Le Mans, Miles was killed in an accident while working as the primary test driver for Shelby American during development work on the J-Car. Miles’ death was a devastating tragedy to the world of racing. Steel roll cages became standardized following Miles' accident, a safety improvement that has saved countless lives since, including the life of Mario Andretti who crashed in Le Mans during the 1967 race.
Ken Miles: Early Life
As a young man in England, Miles was always interested in mechanics. Following a failed attempt to run away to America, Miles returned to an apprenticeship at Wolseley Motors instead of a traditional education. Wolseley sent him to a technical school, where Miles prepared for a life of building cars. World War II interfered with Miles’ plans, and he spent the next seven years working in tank recovery, eventually ascending to the rank of Seargent.
The end of the war allowed Miles to return to his first love, building and racing fast cars. Trying to enter the British race scene left him destitute, but a friend offered Miles a job in California. He moved to the United States and started to build his own vehicles to race with. The Miles Special and the Flying Shingle were both outstanding vehicles that attracted the attention of many. Eventually, Miles drove for Porsche.
Miles quickly gained a reputation as a skilled driver in addition to being an adept mechanic, a valuable combination. By then, Miles had attracted the attention of someone who shared his love of fast cars and who appreciated the natural aptitude Miles had for racing: Carroll Shelby.
Shelby and The GT350
In 1964, Miles became the competition director and test driver for Shelby American. Eventually, he also became one of their most accomplished racers.
Shelby, in particular, appreciated how Miles’ mechanical and engineering prowess allowed him to create notes during his test drives that truly helped to improve the performance of vehicles. Though Miles’ sharp tongue and sardonic wit had alienated others, Shelby seemed to appreciate his straightforwardness and his curiosity. Miles had a mind that didn’t seem to turn off, and a genuine understanding of what tweaks could be made to make a car faster.
Though there was a team involved with the Shelby GT350, it was Miles’ “baby.” Not only did he work with the rest of the engineering team to improve the suspension and reduce the weight of the GT350, but Miles was also responsible for racing it.
In pictures of the races Miles competed in with the GT350, it’s not uncommon to see all four wheels off the ground, while Miles looks alternatingly gleeful and focused. Miles’ penchant for speed and aerial effects earned him the nickname “The Flyin’ Limey.”
Spectators commented on how effortless Miles’ shifts seemed. Having worked on every element of the GT350, he could anticipate it in a way few drivers could. The high center of gravity and stiffer steering didn’t throw off Miles.
The Mustang GT350 raced to its first victory on February 14, 1965, in Green Valley, Texas. Shelby was ecstatic, and Miles’ reputation as one of the best drivers in the world was cemented. The driver who took over racing the GT350 while Miles worked on the GT40, Jerry Titus, commented that Miles had “as much, if not more, road-racing savvy than any other man on this continent possesses.” After riding through a track test with Miles, Titus remarked that Miles “goes like hell in any kind of race car.”
Ford vs Ferrari
Few rivalries are as famous or as delightfully petty as the one between Ford and Ferrari. Essentially, Ford was prepared to buy Ferrari. Negotiations had lasted so long that both parties were exhausted, but it seemed to be a done deal.
Then, it all went south over one section that would have given Ford financial control over the racing department of Ferrari. Enzo Ferrari was irate, turning his back on Henry Ford who immediately began plotting. Ford wasn’t just upset about the deal going south, but actually felt personally insulted by Enzo (who by all accounts could have handled that situation much better).
Henry Ford did what anyone who owned one of the world’s largest car manufacturers would do: He began to throw all of his money and resources at the objective of destroying Enzo Ferrari. It wasn’t just important to Ford that they have a successful race department, Henry Ford wanted to show up to Le Mans and humiliate Enzo Ferrari.
Unfortunately, Ford’s first year at Le Mans didn’t go well. The GT40 wasn’t reliable and handled poorly. Ford didn’t even finish the race, and Ferrari took first, second, and third place.
In 1965, Henry Ford’s next step led him to Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles, who were already having great success with the GT350. Ken Miles tested the GT40 and began to address some of the issues. But at the last second, Ford changed out the engines, and once again, the GT40s failed to finish the race.
Despite Henry Ford’s commitment to destroying everything Enzo Ferrari loved and held dear, the first two years of Ford’s racing program had yielded nothing but a bunch of expensive failures. “Next year, Ferrari’s ass is mine,” Carroll Shelby
At the start of the 1966 season, it wasn’t just Henry Ford who wanted to see Ferrari knocked down a peg. Shelby and Miles were involved, and they were resolved to do whatever it took to destroy Ferrari.
Ken Miles and Phil Remington, another engineer at Shelby, took the GT40s out to the Willow Springs Raceway in California to experiment and see how the vehicles could be improved upon. Using primitive equipment to chart the movement of air in and out of the vehicle, they were able to establish that a loss of 76 horsepower was occurring because of poor air ducting.
The crew at Shelby American fixed the ducting and installed lighter wheels with grippier tires. Given the extra horsepower they’d freed up, they also installed some better brakes. Miles summarized the experience by saying they had an advantage over previous teams that worked on the GT40 because “if we decide we don’t like something, we can take a hacksaw and cut it off.”
The 1966 season prior to Le Mans indicated that this year might be different. Ken Miles’ victory at Daytona and Sebring made Ford seem like less of an underdog. Henry Ford seemed to think so anyway. Though he hadn’t in previous years, Ford came to see the race at Le Mans.
1966 24 Hours of Le Mans
The 1966 24 hours of Le Mans race has become a legend, and how you see the finale depends on which car you were following. Of the fifteen vehicles that Ford submitted, a whopping eight were accepted, and six of those were made by Shelby American.
Carroll Shelby himself ran three of the teams: Dan Gurney and Jerry Grant, Ken Miles and Denny Hulme (Miles’ usual partner Lloyd Ruby was still recovering from a plane accident) and Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon. Ford’s Nascar team managed the other three Ford teams, but all six teams were being funded and supported by Ford, and they all knew that the most important thing was a Ford victory. Henry Ford had cards delivered to several executives that simply said: “You better win.”
By the halfway mark of Le Mans, the eight Ford vehicles were in the top eight spots, but whose victory it would be was still very much up in the air. Ken Miles was making record-setting lap times, but he and Gurney were still vying back and forth for the number one position.
Gurney and Miles had a similar back and forth at Sebring, which caused Shelby to threaten the two drivers with a hammer till they backed off of each other. At Le Mans that became unnecessary. When Dan Gurney blew out a head gasket, it seemed like several impossible things were going to happen at once.
Ken Miles was all but assured the first place position, which would have made him the first and only driver to acquire a win in the three major endurance racing events in the same year, what has become known as the triple crown of endurance racing.
And it seemed Ford was going to win at Le Mans without a single Ferrari even finishing the race.
Things were going so well that Ford decided to push the envelope a little more and have a true photo finish with the two leading Fords, driven by Miles and McLaren, crossing the finish line at the same time. In order for that to work, Miles had to slow down. Though Miles wasn’t happy, he agreed to do what was best for the entire Ford team and accept a tie rather than his well-deserved win.
At one point, Ken Miles was told to reduce his lap times by ten seconds.
Ford’s plan worked, in that Miles and McLaren crossed the line at the same time, but when it came time for the cars to head to the winner’s circle, Miles’ car was directed away. What they hadn’t counted on was that at Le Mans in the event of a tie whichever car had traveled more distance was the winner, and technically McLaren’s car had started eight meters behind Miles’.
Despite being the fastest driver, Miles wasn’t the winner.
Whose fault it was is still a matter of some contention. Certainly, Shelby held himself accountable for the rest of his life, considering it among his chief regrets. Leo Beebe, Ford’s marketing executive, perhaps deserves significantly more blame though. The French officials told Beebe in advance that they refused to allow a tie and the win would go to McLaren. Beebe confirmed he didn’t tell anyone because he thought McLaren and Amon deserved to win because they did what was asked of them, as opposed to the more controversial Miles who had ignored orders to slow down in the Sebring race.
Ken Miles was devastated but resolved to do even better the following year.
Ken Miles’ Death and Legacy
Ken Miles didn’t waste any time returning to the track. Development on Ford’s J-Car had been paused during the endurance racing season, but now that the team had returned Ken Miles resumed test driving the J-Car, which featured new engineering improvements designed to make the car lighter.
Ken Miles was coming downhill at the Riverside course when the J car unexpectedly flipped and caught fire, killing Miles instantly.
“It broke my heart when we lost Ken,” Carroll Shelby
Shelby said very little about Ken Miles’ death, not because it didn’t matter to him, but because it clearly mattered so much. Those closest to him maintained that Shelby remained heartbroken over Ken Miles’ death, even forty years later. In Miles, he had found someone who loved cars, and who loved fast cars, the same way he did, and who could handle them with an innate skill that only a rare few possess. Shelby and Miles were true peers, and it’s unclear how much they could have accomplished if they’d continued to have the opportunity to work together.
Miles’ death was a large part of the driving force in installing additional safety precautions in vehicles, like steel cages. These safety precautions saved the life of Mario Andretti at the 1967 Le Mans, as well as countless others since then.
Ford, thanks to the contributions of Shelby American and Ken Miles, went on to victory at the ‘67, ‘68, and ‘69 Le Mans.
As for Miles, even after his loss at Le Mans, it was clear that he loved his team at Shelby American and appreciated the opportunity he’d been given. When a reporter pushed too hard to get Miles to go into detail about what had happened at Le Mans, Miles responded “Please be careful in how you report what I have said. I work for these people. They have been awfully good to me.” Only a month had passed since he had a lifetime achievement taken from him, but Miles still appreciated and cared for his team, demonstrating a skill that few talk about in association with this oft sardonic, very British, very talented man: His unique ability to be a true team player, even at great personal cost.
Ford V. Ferrari
It's taken decades for those outside the racing community to recognize the contributions and legacy of Ken Miles, but we're excited to say that a movie is set for release in November of 2019.
If you're interested in all of the major players in the epic battle of Ford vs Ferrari, check out our biographies on Carroll Shelby and Lee Iacocca as well, and be sure to watch the trailer.
Sources: Go Like Hell | Top Gear | Jalopnik | New York Times | 8 Meters