Ken Miles was key in Ford’s triumph at Le Mans in 1966, developing and racing the Ford GT40, as depicted in the film Le Mans ’66. He also developed the Shelby Cobra. But Miles is also known for missing out on the Le Mans win in 1966; he gave up a dominant lead in an effort to ensure a tied finish with the second-placed GT40, driven by Bruce McLaren, which went on to be awarded the victory.
Ken Miles was born Kenneth Henry J Miles on November 1, 1918 to Eric Miles and mother Clarice Jarvis in Sutton Coldfield, England.
In 1929, Miles began riding a 350cc Trials Special Triumph bike, resulting in a crash that broke his nose and the loss of three teeth, but Miles persevered and fixed up an 1100-cc Salmson motorcycle.
At the age of 15, in 1933, he met his future wife Mollie and purchased an Austin 7 Special that she painted in British Racing Green. It was this year when his engineering prowess was realised and he quit school to become an apprentice at Wolseley Motors.
When World War II dawned, Miles was posted to an anti-aircraft unit in the British Territorial Army with just eight weeks of his apprenticeship remaining, becoming a driving instructor at Blackpool a year later. He was promoted to staff-sergeant in 1942, and was a part of the D-Day landings as part of a tank unit in 1944.
While in the army, he wrote to Motor Sport and his letter was published in the August 1943 edition. He waxed lyrical about the “great promise” of American vehicles “from a sporting point of view”.
After the war, Miles was hired as an engineer at Morris Motors, and his son was born.
Miles’s racing career began in earnest after WW2 – first racing at Silverstone on April 23, 1949, when his name appeared in Motor Sport once more as the driver of a Mercury V8-powered Frazer Nash that he took to various hillclimbs and club races.
He found himself in the United States in 1951, working for Gough Industries, and entered races for the company in a stock MG-TD. In 1953, Miles won his first race in the United States, at Pebble Beach and won every race in the under-1500cc class that year.
The MG was later modified to carry a 1500cc engine and dubbed the “Flying Shingle”, which brought him success in the SCCA Modified class against the likes of actor James Dean. Miles graduated to a Porsche 550 the following year, in 1956, and in ’57 he fitted the Porsche engine and drivetrain to a Cooper chassis.
Ford vs Ferrari
Between 1958 and ’63, Miles won 38 of 44 races he entered, also driving part-time for Sunbeam distributor Rootes. He was swiftly picked up by Carroll Shelby to test and race the Cobra – a partnership that was immortalised on screen in the 2019 movie Ford vs Ferrari. He also had a hand in developing the Sunbeam Tiger for the Rootes Group.
While synonymous with Ford, Miles did race Ferraris from time to time including a 375 Plus Spider in 1955, which he took to third behind Ernie McAfee and Phil Hill. Hill would later join him at Shelby’s squad alongside Parnelli Jones, Dan Gurney, Bob Bondurant, Chris Amon, Bruce McLaren and Roy Salvadori among others. However, Miles was renowned not just for his driving, but engineering expertise.
Miles’s racing record continued to astonish, helping Shelby to the 1964 USRRC constructors’ title, taking first with Lloyd Ruby in the 1965 Daytona Continental 2000km, second in the 12 Hours of Sebring race with Bruce McLaren in a GT40 and winning at Laguna Seca in a Cobra.
He and Ruby won the 1966 Daytona 24 Hours for Ford and Shelby American in the MKIIB GT40, with GT40s sweeping all of the podium places. And the Ruby/Miles pairing won again at Sebring in March that year in a Ford GT40 roadster – the X1.
But his greatest triumph came at Le Mans. In 1966, MkII GT40s were dominating the Le Mans 24 Hours, occupying the top four positions until Jerry Grant/Gurney’s car retired with a blown head gasket.
Shelby was ordered to orchestrate a formation finish to trigger a dead heat, with Denny Hulme/Miles in the lead ahead of McLaren/Amon in third. Miles slowed down, realising that in the event of a dead heat, the qualifying times would be used and McLaren would have been declared the winner.
Jaded from Ford’s orders, he resigned himself to taking second place and McLaren was the winner.
Ford wanted more from the GT40, and began the ‘J-Car’ project after the Le Mans 24 Hours triumph. It was to be an evolution of its winning sports car to take on Ferrari’s growing might.
On August 18, 1966, Miles died testing a J-Car at Californian circuit Riverside. His Ford flew off a high bank at 200mph and rolled over multiple times, throwing the driver out of the car on its third revolution and bursting into flames.
Ford later investigated the crash and blamed it on mechanical failure. Shelby was shaken, and more than 400 people attended his funeral on the Sunday after his death including Shelby, Otto Zipper and a number of former team-mates.
Miles died having given Ford and Shelby everything he had, but his life was taken away by the GT40.