From SoCal small-car specialist to lining up at Le Mans - Ken Miles' racing journey

Hall of Fame

Ken Miles is a nominee for this year's Motor Sport Hall of Fame. Paul Fearnley details his extraordinary rise from small beginnings to Le Mans legend

Ken Miles, Daytona 24 Hours 1965

Ken Miles, the unlikely man behind Ford's Le Mans triumph

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

Ken Miles is a nominee for this year’s Motor Sport Hall of Fame Awards, which are decided by readers.

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It takes one to beat one: Enzo Ferrari was an ‘agitator’ of men’ and so, too, was Ken Miles. The controversial Englishman – a naturalised American from 1959 – who was never of short of an opinion on any subject and never shy of proffering them, was the vital spark of Shelby American’s successes with AC Cobra and Ford GT.

It was he who put the kick in the ‘Kick Ferrari’s butt!’

His ‘reward’ was a sucker punch that denied him endurance racing’s Triple Crown in 1966.

This former Wolseley apprentice, who had driven up a Normandy beach and on into Germany, emigrated in 1951 and swiftly became the hub of SoCal’s burgeoning sports car racing scene. He ran the local club in a manner befitting a seasoned ex-staff sergeant – and cleaned up on the track in a couple of self-designed MG specials and a sequence of Porsches for West Coast importers.

From the archive

He set up on his own in North Hollywood in 1960 and made Sunbeam Alpines go faster than they ought before knocking out the Tiger prototype. Work thinned – he had a generous streak and gave too much gear away – and Miles was unemployed and at a low ebb when he got the call from Carroll Shelby in early 1963.

Joining initially as his competitions manager – Miles was 44 already – Shelby needed Miles’ renowned chassis-sorting skills most of all, but ultimately could not deny him a race seat.

The wins continued to flow aboard Cobras – Miles had been an advocate of American muscle in a British frame since mating Mercury V8 flathead to chain-drive Frazer Nash in the late 1940s! – and the tag of small-car specialist was dropped. He could extract the max from any car – even one at the cutting edge of technology.

Ken Miles, Le Mans 1966

Miles at the wheel of the GT40 at Le Mans

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

It was Miles and his small, dedicated crew who gradually drew the performance from the to-date-disappointing mid-engine GT. And it was Miles who suggested fitting a 7-litre NASCAR lump for Le Mans. A late decision, it cost him in 1965 – but his was a long-term plan.

Having won the Daytona 24 Hours and Sebring 12 Hours – the former in Scuderia Ferrari’s absence and the latter at luckless team-mate Dan Gurney’s expense – he arrived at Le Mans in 1966 as favourite, and with a new co-driver in Denny Hulme; regular partner Lloyd Ruby had been injured in a plane crash. Miles was unfazed by the hoo-ha. His moment in the big time had been earned the hard way; he knew his car inside out; he was fit; he was ready.

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What he was unprepared for was the politics: Shelby American versus Holman-Moody; Firestone versus Goodyear; and Shelby American versus Shelby American, come to that. All played out before an attendant army of yes-men and hangers-on. In the past Miles had shrugged such matters aside with a sarcastic remark, issued in trademark ‘Sidebite’ style from the corner of his mouth. But FoMoCo was an immovable object – and the big men behind ‘Detroit Iron’ were not big on iron-y.

Ford got its photo – a staged 1-2-3 finish – but missed the opportunity. Theories abound as to why Miles finished second – and he is a wronged man in the majority of them. A PR disaster that refuses to fade and which has illuminated the big screen.

It was difficult to see how Ford could have put matters right even had it wished to. Not that it got the chance to. Miles was killed two months later during a test of its revolutionary J-Car. The crash occurred at the end of a typically arduous day – Miles was perpetual motion on such occasions – when the braking system likely malfunctioned.

Motor sport had lost one of its more unlikely – and for too long underappreciated – heroes. A keen talent with a sharp tongue, Miles was not everyone’s cup of char – but Shelby knew that ‘Teddy Teabag’ was irreplaceable.