Ford vs Ferrari: the real story of Le Mans '66 and Ken Miles

by Jake Williams-Smith on 22nd November 2019

Ferrari had dominated early '60s endurance racing but Ford took aim and conquered the Le Mans '66 race: the story of Ford vs Ferrari, and the crucial role of Ken Miles

Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon's Ford GT40 Mk II

Ford GT40 Mk II and the Ferrari 330 P3 Spyder Photo: Motorsport Images

Le Mans '66: the true story

A rivalry so heated it has worked its way to the silver screen, the battle of Ford vs Ferrari kickstarted an unwavering war played out on endurance racing's grandest stage; the Le Mans 24 Hour race.

The clash of Italian purist sports car heritage with the big bucks of corporate Detroit was always destined to attract Hollywood, and the story is now depicted in the Le Mans '66 / Ford vs Ferrari film starring Christian Bale and Matt Damon as Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby; two of the key figures in the real story, which is outlined below.

You can also click through to the original Motor Sport 1966 Le Mans race report and an in-depth feature on the saga, published on the 50th anniversary of the race.


Ford vs Ferrari

The early 1960s was dominated by Ferrari at the La Sarthe circuit but, behind the scenes, Enzo Ferrari was in the process of putting the famous brand up for sale. And it had attracted the attention of one American businessman in particular.

An incensed Henry Ford gave the command: ‘You go to Le Mans and beat his ass.’

With a desire to win the most prestigious endurance race on the motor racing calendar, Henry Ford II's ambition coincided neatly with Ferrari's apparent willingness to sell. Diligence was carried out, a price agreed and the transaction drawn up.

After 22 days of negotiations, and with a waiting army of Ford lawyers and engineers that had flown out to Italy, the deal was close to being signed. But at the last minute, on May 20, 1963, il Commendatore showed the squad of Ford personnel the door.

Despite an offer that consisted of eight figures, Enzo wasn't prepared to accept a budget control for his racing team. Infuriated by a contract that stipulated that he would need Ford's approval for any spending increase by the team, he turned to Franco Cozzi, his personal secretary at the time, and said: ‘Let's get something to eat'. The Ford party retreated empty-handed to the US.

It was the day that the Ford GT40 was born.

One week later, Ford created its Special Vehicles Department and the new arm of the motor giant began plotting a sports car that would go on to dethrone Ferrari on track.

 Retaliation by racing, beating and hopefully humiliating Ferrari in Europe and chiefly, at Le Mans, was the overarching ambition. An incensed Henry Ford gave the command: ‘You go to Le Mans and beat his ass.’

Ford vs Ferrari: behind the scenes on Hollywood's racing film of the decade
In the latest Motor Sport Magazine


Leo Beebe

He is the villain of Le Mans '66, but it's a role that comes more from the demands of movie scripts rather than reality, even though Beebe played a key role in the controversial finish to the 1966 race. 

Leo Beebe, who died in 2001 was the conductor and problem solver of Ford's bid to win Le Mans. The former sports coach was Henry Ford's right-hand man in the pursuit of Ferrari, and became tasked with ensuring that the Blue Oval achieved overall victory at Le Mans and endurance racing’s other premier events: the Sebring 12 Hours and Daytona 24 Hours.

The project began almost immediately, and it soon turned to obsession as more millions of dollars were pumped into the project: determination, revenge and perhaps slight desperation the driving force.

As director of special vehicles, it would be Beebe on the block if the project failed. Initially, he travelled to Britain and tasked Eric Broadly of Lola with producing a Ferrari-beater. A succession of retirements in the 1964 race and thin patience — not shown in the film — meant control of the project was then handed over to Shelby American. With Ford funding, Carol Shelby headed up the new Kar Kraft division dedicated to the GT40 operation.

It was at this point that Shelby drafted Ken Miles into the fold. A renowned tester, his role in the development of the GT40 was crucial, though the path to the podium wasn't smooth.

Ken Miles and Bruce McLaren Ford GT40 at Le Mans in 1965

Ken Miles and Bruce McLaren's GT40 retired in the 1965 Le Mans race Photo: Motorsport Images

The 1965 Le Mans race — the second to feature GT40s — put Ford on the edge of breaking point, with each of the GT40s suffering retirements relating to poor reliability while Enzo's Ferraris took victory.

Beebe assembled a deflated crew. "This is a victory meeting," he announced. "Next year, we're going to come back and win, and we might as well start right now."

To spread the risk, operations were then shifted between Shelby Automotive and Holman and Moody in the United States as well as Alan Mann Racing in the UK.

It was where Beebe's management expertise became vital. His mediation, amid infighting between the teams, ensured that the development of the GT40 continued in a competitive atmosphere. The MkII was born.

Mann constructed three GT40 entries to Ford Advanced Vehicles specification, with Shelby and H&M separately responsible for another three MkIIs each. The competition for Ford's primary backing led to frayed relationships between the Ford teams, with each entry desperate for the majority of the funds to be directed toward their efforts to become the winning Ford.

That competition bled from the teams to drivers also, with Jerry Grant, team-mate to Dan Gurney, explaining in Twice Around the Clock: The Yanks at Le Mans: "The real competition was between the Ford drivers...our main concern was beating the Ford drivers from the other camp. If a Ferrari beat you, you always had that 'well, it was a Ferrari'. But if a Ford beat you, it was the driver."

Six privateer entries also competed as ultimate effort was afforded in the third attempt to steal away endurance racing’s crown jewel from the Prancing Horse.

The 1966 season started well, with Miles and Lloyd Ruby winning the Daytona 24 hours in March and 12 Hours of Sebring a month later. Winning at Le Mans would earn Miles sports car racing's 'triple crown', although — after Sebring — Beebe warned Miles about taking unnecessary risks in the race.

Come the summer, 20 tons of spare parts, equipment, dedicated car and crew that had the backing of Ford Motor Company behind it all were dispatched to La Sarthe.

Henry Ford II sent a message to Beebe: "You better win"
Continues below


More on Ford vs Ferrari at Le Mans '66


Le Mans ‘66: the race

Henry Ford, honorary starter in ’66, waved the flag to open the chapter of the story he had been so desperate to author.

Leading from the start, Fords quickly established a lead, although Ken Miles’ collision with John Whitmore’s Alan Mann Racing Ford brought him into the pits at the end of lap one.

A quick slam of the door was all that was needed before he was sent on his way once more.

Ford headed the field after hour one in a 1-2-3, Dan Gurney leading the charge of 13 GT40s, brought to ensure that at least one would win.

The Gurney/Grant Ford battled for the lead throughout the night, but retired through an engine issue following temperatures that skyrocketed in the morning, leaving Miles to push on.

As the race wore on, the fleet of GT40s slowly dwindled to leave a three-pronged attack, but Ferrari wilted too, succumbing to the brutal pace of the leading MkIIs. The final Ferrari P3, in the hands of Lorenzo Bandini and Jean Guichet, submitted to a nagging water leak and clutch failure.

It left the No1 Mk II of Miles and Hulme out front leading the American effort and victory virtually assured for Ford.

Without any real challenge,  Beebe began to put plans into action that were intended to see both leading Mk IIs cross the line side-by-side in a dead heat.

The ideal photo opportunity that would underline Ford’s dominance against the competition, positive publicity would not be squandered.

Miles pitted shortly before the finish for a planned change of brakes and resumed shortly afterwards. He would be in soon after though, reporting a brake vibration, his lead dwindling by the second.

And then farce. The team discovered that the car had been fitted with the wrong brakes and would have to pit yet again. Failure or conspiracy to ensure the photo finish? Either way, it allowed Bruce McLaren to pass in the No2 GT40 and, in doing so, rejoin the No1 Ford on the lead lap.

Henry Ford II stands on the podium alongside Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon

Job done: Henry Ford is flanked by Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon Photo: Motorsport Images

Miles's previous four-lap lead had been decimated, as had his confidence; the Briton believed that higher-ups at Ford wished to see someone else the victor.

Although initially receptive to the idea of an unprecedented ‘draw’, organisers stated that the No2 Ford would be declared winner in such a dead heat, courtesy of the extra distance covered, having started further down the grid than the sister car of Hulme and Miles.

The decision was unbeknown to the drivers, and the top three approached the finish line as instructed, McLaren door to door with Miles as Dick Hutcherson followed, the third-place car in tow.

Depending on the source, the Kiwi accelerated to the flag / Miles backed down in protest of the falsified finish, handing the win to No2 Ford.

A furious Miles was classified second - believing he was the victim of a grudge by senior Ford team members. 

Amon and McLaren stood atop the podium flanking a jubilant Henry Ford, champagne in hand.

Ambition achieved.


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