The real story behind “Ford v Ferrari”

Ford v Ferrari

Ford v Ferrari, Hollywood’s take on Ford’s 1960s Le Mans assault, hits theatres today. With a budget north of $100 million, the filmmakers are looking for box-office gold, and with A-list stars such as Christian Bale as driver Ken Miles, Matt Damon as Carroll Shelby, and Alex Gurney playing his father, Dan Gurney, the producers are also angling for critical acclaim.

Based on the dismal track record of previous racing movies, I’m not optimistic on either score. Movies that bill themselves as being based on a true story—or, in this case, “the remarkable true story”—inevitably shade the truth in matters big and small and disregard it entirely whenever it’s inconvenient. Which isn’t a showstopper, of course, since the movie is a drama, not a documentary, and most people go to their local multiplex to be entertained rather than edified.

Then again, even without embellishment, the real story of what Ford accomplished with its GT40 racers is one of the greatest sagas in motorsports history. Anybody curious about the true true story has plenty of sources to choose from. Leo Levine (Ford: The Dust and the Glory) and Karl Ludvigsen (The Inside Story of the Fastest Fords) wrote definitive histories of the Ford GT program shortly after it ended. More recently, A.J. Baime’s breezier narrative, Go like Hell, became an unlikely best seller (and purportedly inspired Ford v Ferrari). In 2015, I published my own recap of the subject under the unconscionably cumbersome title Ford GT: How Ford Silenced the Critics, Humbled Ferrari and Conquered Le Mans.

Any lack of optimism aside, you’re probably as eager to see the flick as I am. But here are some truths about the Ford-Ferrari Le Mans rivalry that you ought to know before they dim the lights.

Although the film focuses on a mano-a-mano battle between Enzo Ferrari and Henry Ford II, there is much more to the story than that.

Enzo Ferrari in 1966
Revs Institute
Enzo Ferrari in 1966

In 1963, Enzo Ferrari was worried that his artisanal road-car operation could no longer generate enough money to support his colossal racing aspirations, so he let it be known he was looking for a corporate sugar daddy. Ford beancounters were dispatched to Maranello to inventory the factory, and Lee Iacocca sent his right-hand man, Don Frey, to negotiate directly with Enzo. After a storybook bromance full of intimate late-night dinners and hair-raising drives, a deal was struck. But Enzo had commitment issues, and at the 11th hour, he bailed. “My rights, my integrity, my very being as a manufacturer, as an entrepreneur, as a leader of the Ferrari works, cannot work under the enormous machine, the suffocating bureaucracy of the Ford Motor Company,” he thundered in operatic Italian.

Frey didn’t remember any histrionics, which suggests that Enzo’s screenplay-ready aria may have been an ex post facto fabrication. When Frey returned to Dearborn bearing only a signed copy of Enzo’s autobiography, he was summoned to the private dining room of Henry Ford II, a.k.a. the Deuce, a.k.a HFII. The grandson of Henry Ford, HFII was American royalty, and he was every bit as autocratic as Enzo. When Frey explained that Ferrari had blown him off, the Deuce growled, “All right, if that’s the way he wants it, we’ll go out and whip his ass.”

It sounds too good to be true. And maybe it is. Not that the conversation didn’t occur; Frey recounted this story many times, and he had no reason to lie about it. But HFII didn’t care about racing, and as he said later, “I don’t know, honestly, whether racing sells cars.” It’s hard to imagine he would have committed his company to what was at the time the most expensive and ambitious racing project ever undertaken simply over a fit of pique.

Leo Levine, who knew all the players, says flatly the Ford GT program was green-lighted by Iacocca, not the Deuce. Iacocca was the driving force behind the Total Performance marketing campaign, which leveraged racing to raise Ford’s profile with younger buyers. The company was already funding Indy cars, stock cars, and drag racers. Sports-car racing rounded out the motorsports portfolio. It’s no coincidence that Iacocca introduced the GT40 personally when it debuted in April 1964. “The Ford GT is more than a car,” he told the media. “It’s a test of Ford engineering skill and ability.”

Contrary to the naysayers, the original Ford GT40 wasn’t simply a rebodied British race car.

To do battle with Ferrari in the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, more than 100 technicians, mechanics, engineers, and administrators accompanied the eight GT40s fielded by the Shelby-American, Holman-Moody, and Alan Mann racing teams.
The Henry Ford
To do battle with Ferrari in the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, more than 100 technicians, mechanics, engineers, and administrators accompanied the eight GT40s fielded by the Shelby-American, Holman-Moody, and Alan Mann racing teams.

The goal: Win Le Mans. The problem: None of Ford’s 350,000 employees knew how to design or build the sort of exotic mid-engine monocoque sports car needed to turn this dream into reality. For chassis expertise, the company had to go to the race car experts in England.

Ford established a shop near Heathrow Airport. Eric Broadley, the founder of Lola Cars, was hired to design a chassis, and John Wyer, another Brit famous for ramrodding Aston Martin’s Le Mans victory in 1959, managed its construction as well as the race team. The only Ford employees embedded in the U.K. were executive Roy Lunn and three American engineers.

This small American footprint led some Anglophilic Ford critics to argue that the program was largely a British project and the GT40 was nothing more than a warmed-over Lola. Not true. Lunn, Broadley, and Wyer explicitly rejected this charge. The car was very much an Anglo-American collaboration. To be fair, Ford designers came up with the basic shape and dimensions of the prototype to be, and they picked the GT40 name (not Carroll Shelby, who wasn’t even involved yet), chosen because the car stood 40 inches high. Ford provided the engines, starting with a pushrod version of the 255-cubic-inch Indy V-8, then moving to an upgraded version of the 289 small-block found in the Cobra, and ultimately settling on a road-racing version of the 427-cubic-inch leviathan that had conquered NASCAR. But despite the Lola heritage, it wasn’t very good out of the box.

Two ill-prepared cars appeared at the Le Mans test in 1964. Both of them crashed on a wet Mulsanne straight. GT40s then posted seven consecutive DNFs before racing at the year-end Nassau Speed Weeks, where they were trounced by a Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport and, adding insult to injury, a crude Cobra. This prompted consternation in Dearborn, where, after much finger pointing, top brass decided the car was fine but the Brits running the show weren’t. Ford executives cut their ties with Broadley and distanced themselves from Wyer. Subsequently, they handed the reins of the program to their in-house cowboy and resident snake charmer, Carroll Shelby.

Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles weren’t the saviors of the Ford GT program.

Ford v Ferrari
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

In December 1964, Shelby took possession of the two Ford GTs that had failed so miserably during their rookie season. After two months of breakneck development in Southern California, Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby drove one of them to victory at Daytona.

After this, the Ford brass thought Shelby and Miles walked on water. As it turned out, the win was a miracle or a fluke—take your pick. At Sebring the next month, the GT40s were waxed by Jim Hall’s new Chaparral, and Ferrari humiliated the Fords at Monza, the Targa Florio, and the Nürburgring. Then came Le Mans 1965, where the team’s fortunes went from bad to worse. Six cars started the race, and six cars broke. At least they were consistent.

Ford never lost faith in Shelby. Although he was a salesman rather than a designer or engineer, Shelby deserves credit for bringing together a stellar team under the Shelby-American banner. He was able to draw on a vast talent pool in Southern California, which was the cradle of hot-rod civilization and the epicenter of the American racing and aerospace industries. He also attracted craftsmen—like Miles—from the U.K., Europe, and the Antipodes.

An expatriate Brit with a caustic wit and abrasive personality, Miles had moved to Los Angeles after World War II. He ran his own service shop and dominated smallbore sports-car racing on the West Coast. In 1962, Shelby hired him to help get the Cobra off the ground, and Miles emerged as the team’s most successful driver. When Ford gave Shelby operational control of the GT racing program, Shelby put Miles in charge of development.

Dan Gurney (in helmet) and Phil Remington (far right) were a formidable team for Ford. Gurney was one of the best all-around drivers of his era, and Remington was the most talented fabricator in road racing.
The Henry Ford
Dan Gurney (in helmet) and Phil Remington (far right) were a formidable team for Ford. Gurney was one of the best all-around drivers of his era, and Remington was the most talented fabricator in road racing.

Miles was a superlative test driver—a useful skill considering the GT40 was plagued by so many gremlins. He was also an excellent racing driver, fast and tough, with a spectacular track record in Cobras and Porsches. But in the long-distance endurance races of the day, fields tended to be decimated by mechanical failures, so drivers focused primarily on longevity rather than blazing speed, and the cars were more important than the guys behind the wheel.

No single person in the Ford GT program—not Shelby, not Miles, not even Henry Ford—played a bigger role in improving the breed than Phil Remington. A one-time hot rodder who’d worked on everything from Indy cars to F1 thoroughbreds, Rem was a jack-of-all-trades and the master of every one of them. Bunyan-esque tales are told about his unrivaled endurance and craftsmanship when it came to fabricating, welding, machining, and general wrenching. According to legend, hundreds of sketches for Ford GT components bore a common stamp: “Draftsman: Remington.” “Designer: Remington.” “Engineer: Remington.” “Approved: Remington.”

There was nothing Rem couldn’t fix, improve, or replace with something better. When the Cobra broke a stub axle during its debut at Riverside, he fabbed up a replacement that went into production and never broke again. He reworked the trouble-prone fuel-delivery system of the first Ford GT after riding in the cockpit, sans seat, with Bruce McLaren during hot laps at Brands Hatch. Later, he designed quick-change tools that allowed worn brake pads to be replaced during pit stops. Later still, when it became clear the Mark II version of the GT40 wasn’t fast enough to beat the new-for-1967 Ferrari 330P4, he almost single-handedly (and working entirely from intuition) fashioned the bodywork of what was to become the all-conquering Mark IV.

“Without him, [the Ford GT] would have been an unbelievable failure,” said the late Pete Weismann, who worked on the program before becoming a world-renowned transmission guru. “Whatever the engineers dreamed up, he was the one who made it work.

Ford was a mortal lock to win Le Mans in 1966.

A “motivational” note for motorsports manager Leo Beebe on the back of a “24 Heures du Mans” card
The Henry Ford
A “motivational” note for motorsports manager Leo Beebe on the back of a “24 Heures du Mans” card

The biggest lesson Ford learned during the disheartening 1965 Le Mans loss was that there was no replacement for displacement. The small-block GT40 was allowed to wither on the vine, and the company doubled down on Mark II models packing 427 cubic inches of Dearborn iron.

Ford opened the 1966 season with Miles and Ruby leading a 1-2-3 sweep at Daytona. Miles and Ruby won again at Sebring when leader Gurney’s car died on the last corner of the last lap (Gurney pushed the car across the line, rashly disqualifying himself instead of earning second place). Next, Ford descended on Le Mans with the biggest armada Europe had seen since D-day—eight factory-backed big-block Mark IIs, plus a backup car, seven spare engines, 21 tons of parts, and a mobile workshop containing everything from lathes to welders.

Leading this expeditionary force was Ford motorsports commander-in-chief Leo Beebe. A straight arrow and collegiate star athlete, he’d bonded with the Deuce while they were serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Beebe oversaw the Ford GT’s transformation from a doormat to a dominant force in endurance racing. He was acutely aware that anything short of winning Le Mans would be considered a failure. A few weeks before the race in 1966, the Deuce handed Beebe a piece of light-blue cardstock. Handwritten on it, in HFII’s decisive script, was a single command: “You better win.” It was signed “Henry.”

The Fords crushed it during practice. In the three Shelby-American entries, Gurney set a track record while qualifying on the pole, with Miles second and McLaren fourth. The fastest Ferrari was fifth, and the Italian team’s wispy chances of matching the Fords evaporated when star John Surtees quit before the race because of a dispute with the Ferrari team manager over who was the number one driver.

An interior view of a Ford J-car, which set the fastest lap time in Le Mans testing ahead of the 1966 race. Note the instruments for data gathering.
Revs Institute
An interior view of a Ford J-car, which set the fastest lap time in Le Mans testing ahead of the 1966 race. Note the instruments for data gathering.

Ford suffered a few hiccups early on. Miles’s door didn’t shut properly during the Le Mans start. After pitting at the end of the first lap to make repairs, he clicked off a string of fastest laps to make up for lost time. Bruce McLaren’s situation was more complicated. He’d recently negotiated a tire deal with Firestone to support his own fledgling race team. At Le Mans, the rest of the Fords were on Goodyears, but McLaren was on his Firestone sponsor tires. When it started raining, the Firestone intermediates kept throwing treads. After losing several laps, McLaren made the politically fraught decision to junk the Firestones and slap on a set of Goodyears. As his co-driver, Chris Amon, was about to drive off for his first stint on the new rubber, McLaren leaned into the cockpit and shouted, “Let’s drive the door handles off the thing!”

Halfway through the race, Ford GTs were first through sixth, and the Ferraris were nowhere. But team manager Beebe had seen this movie before. In 1964, all three Fords had broken after leading, and in 1965, all six broke after dominating the race. To preserve the cars, drivers were ordered to change gears at 5000 rpm (the normal shift point was 6200) and slow to lap times of four minutes, or 30 seconds off the qualifying pace.

Through the night and well past dawn, the lead swapped hands repeatedly among Miles, Gurney, and McLaren, but only due to pit stops, not because they were trading paint or pushing their cars to the limit. With the Ferraris out to lunch and Beebe spooked by the possibility of mechanical breakdowns, it was a long, slow slog to the finish. About 10 a.m. Sunday, Jerry Grant pitted in the Ford he was co-driving with Gurney. The water-temperature gauge was pegged—a blown head gasket. Nobody was going to catch Miles and McLaren now. “The rest of the race was a bit of a farce,” Amon told me a few years ago, shortly before his death.

Ford didn’t steal the win from Miles.

Ford v Ferrari
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Conspiracy theorists are convinced the fix was in to prevent Miles from winning Le Mans. “Ford wanted to say, ‘Ford wins Le Mans,’” Miles’s old crew chief, Charlie Agapiou, told me at the Rolls-Royce service shop he now runs in suburban Los Angeles. “If Ken had won, people would have said, ‘Miles wins Daytona, Sebring, and Le Mans.’” Late Ford designer Bob Negstad even claimed Ford officials went to the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, which sanctions the race, and asked ACO officials to dock Miles a lap so McLaren could catch up.

This strikes me as crazy talk. Miles had done the lion’s share of the development work on the cars. He’d been the lead driver for the Ford GT’s three victories. He was tight with the Ford honchos and a best bud of Shelby’s. If there were a knock on Miles, it was that he didn’t always toe the company line. At Sebring, Shelby had climbed up on the pit wall and furiously brandished a wheel hammer at Miles to warn him to stop dicing with Gurney. At Le Mans, Amon claimed, the only reason Miles was so far ahead was because he kept cutting fast laps while McLaren dutifully obeyed Beebe’s orders to back off.

McLaren could see where this was going. So he approached Ford officials with a cheeky proposition, later outlined in a letter to his father: “Why don’t you bring the cars over the line together?” Beebe was on this idea like a stripe on a skunk. At this point, his biggest fear was that Miles and McLaren would crash each other out of the race. Besides being a public-relations coup, staging a tie would eliminate any temptation they might have to fight for the win.

Surprisingly, the notoriously capricious ACO signed off on the dead-heat finish. Miles and McLaren synced up and waited for the last remaining Mark II, running third, 10 laps down, with NASCAR refugee Dick Hutcherson at the wheel. While the trio circulated serenely around the track, mayhem erupted in the pits when the ACO informed stunned Ford executives that a tie was no longer possible. Why the about-face? Nobody knows. Whatever the reason, the ACO now ruled that if two cars crossed the finish line side by side, then the one that had covered the greater distance would be declared the winner. Since McLaren had qualified fourth and started the race about 20 feet behind Miles, McLaren and Amon would get the victory garlands for that extra distance.

Ford v Ferrari
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

This was long before race cars were fitted with radios, and the situation was too complex to explain via signboards. As a practical matter, it’s doubtful Beebe wanted to tell Miles and McLaren about the ACO’s new position for fear they might do something stupid. Beebe admitted later that Miles’s “devilish” behavior for ignoring the slowdown orders during the race was a factor in his decision. But ultimately, his primary obligation wasn’t to Miles or McLaren; it was to Henry Ford II. Beebe realized the safest course of action was to do nothing, so nothing was exactly what he did.

Other than the ACO and members of the Ford inner circle, nobody knew what was going to happen when the Mark IIs crossed the finish line—not the 300,000 spectators lining the course, not the reporters in the press room, not the crews in the pits, and especially not the drivers on the track. When the race ended, Agapiou tried to push Miles and his car to the victory celebration, and it was only when French gendarmes blocked their way that they realized they’d come in second.

The anticlimactic finish prompted a subdued reaction from the crowd and scathing reviews from the media. On the victory rostrum, McLaren and Amon grinned sheepishly, like little boys who’d just gotten away with shoplifting dirty magazines, as they sipped champagne with Henry Ford II. “I didn’t think 10 minutes of politics could win a 24-hour race, but there you are,” McLaren wrote to his father. “Nice guys don’t win ball games, they say.”

Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction—even fiction based on a true story.