Ford v Ferrari tells the dramatic story of the racing rivalry that came to a dramatic climax at Le Mans ’66, but the truth is just as fascinating. Hollywood has wanted to adapt the story of the 1966 24 Hours at Le Mans race for a long time. The heated tale of racing rivalries, fast cars, and behind-the-scenes machinations has proven too thrilling not to get the big-screen treatment.
Initially, Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt were set to star in the movie, but it was Logan's James Mangold who finally made it happen, bringing together Christian Bale and Matt Damon to star. After a strongly received world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, Ford v Ferrari is now screening nationwide. The central drama follows the '66 endurance race and Team Ford's attempts to take on the might of the Ferrari racing team.
Most of the film’s focus falls on the characters played by Bale and Damon: Ken Miles, the talented but tempestuous English driver, and Carroll Shelby, the racing legend and designer who helped bring Ford’s Le Mans dream to fruition. The movie is at its best when it focuses on their warm but frequently testy friendship and how two driven winners had to fight against not only Ferrari but the corporate oversight of Ford and its many executives. The thrills of those car races show not only the immense skill required to compete as a driver but the insane risks involved at a time when safety seemed like such an afterthought. How much Ford v Ferrari (or Le Mans ’66 if you’re in the UK) follows the truth of that amazing story is another matter. As is expected with any biopic, elements are embellished, drama is added for narrative flow, and more mundane moments are glossed over. Here’s the true story of Le Mans ’66, and what Ford v Ferrari does differently.
Ford and Ferrari's Rivalry
Henry Ford II, as played in the movie by Tracy Letts, was the eldest son of Edsel Ford and the eldest grandson of Henry Ford, the latter of whom founded the Ford Motor Company. Ford II was President of the brand for 15 years, from 1945 to 1960, as well as the CEO from 1945 to 1979. Under his leadership, Ford became a publicly traded corporation.
Enzo Anselmo Giuseppe Maria Ferrari was an Italian racing driver and entrepreneur who founded the Scuderia Ferrari Grand Prix motor racing team, and subsequently the Ferrari automobile marque. He originally raced with Alfa Romero and won his first Grand Prix in 1923 at the age of 25. After the birth of his first son, he decided to retire from racing and focus more on a managerial position in helping to develop Alfa's race cars. He compiled a team of superstar drivers called Scuderia Ferrari, which dominated the scene for several years. When the team struggled with financial constraints and a lack of equipment to keep up with teams like Mercedes, Ferrari went solo and decided to start making cars in his own name. Ferrari took on Alfa Romeo and won, with their first major victory coming at the 1949 Le Mans race. From 1960 to 1965, Ferrari cars won Le Mans, and typically with Italian drivers.
One of Ford II's long-running dreams was to buy Ferrari, and he engaged in many negotiations with Enzo Ferrari over this possibility. Ford II was keen to expand his company's presence in motorsport and to get a foothold into the prestigious world of Le Mans, something the film shows him needing to be coaxed into. However, talks quickly collapsed and Ford II became more determined than ever to end Ferrari's dominance. This lead to the formation of the Ford GT40.
What the film overlooks is how it was Ferrari who had originally offered Ford the opportunity to buy Ferrari, but that he pulled out late in the negotiations because the company would not grand him totally independent control of the racing department. Ford v Ferrari depicts these initial negotiations as a ruse for Ferrari to get Fiat, a competing company, to up their own offer for the company. Fiat did buy a small share of Ferrari in 1965 when Ferrari became a joint-stock company. The film also shows Ferrari insulting Ford as a company and the boss himself, calling him fat and nothing but second best to his grandfather. A breaking point for Ferrari the movie depicts is in finding out that he would have to sit out Le Mans if Ford demanded it, but the real-life problem was in potentially having to skip the Indianapolis 55 because Ford already fielded its own cars in that race and would not want competition from Ferrari. It's a fun dramatic moment but overtly simplifies what was really more of a bland business dealing.
While Ford had that moment of glory over Ferrari and a four-year hot streak, they ultimately won the war, winning Le Mans five more times than Ford. The two constructors with the most wins are both German brands: Porsche and Audi, with 19 and 13 wins respectively. Ford is still the only American car to win Le Mans.
The Ford GT40’s Development
The Ford GT40 project was a five-year project intended to create high-performance racing cars for endurance races. Initially, the project leader was John Wyer and he lead the GT40 program for a season in 1964 but bowed out due to dismal results, including at that year's Le Mans. It was then handed over to Carroll Shelby, who is depicted as the sole leader in the film. He and Ken Miles brought Ford to victory in the Daytona 2000 in February 1965, a moment shown as a new peak for the company, but the movie does not show the disappointing season that followed. Ford v Ferrari also uses the Daytona race as a peculiar plot point: Shelby bets ownership of his entire company on Miles winning the race in order to ensure he can race at Le Mans. This didn't happen and is yet another strange biopic moment intended to inject further tension into a story that does not require it (the white-knuckle grip car race scenes do that well enough).
Little time in the film is given to the specific mechanics of the Ford GT40's development and the various models they went through. This is probably because the filmmakers feared too many scenes of shop talk would get boring, which is understandable, but so much of the truly fascinating stuff in the Le Mans '66 story comes from the engineering marvels. The narrative tries to compensate with this by going for more conventional story beats, including elements with Miles's wife and son that never truly settle on a tone or intent.
Following the race, Miles and Shelby got to work testing the J-car, which would eventually become the MK IV. This iteration of the car included an aluminum honeycomb chassis construction to make it even lighter and give it greater aerodynamic qualities. Unfortunately, it was in this Ford vehicle that Miles died. Later on, a newer version of the MK IV went on to win Le Mans '67. Variations of the GT40 won Le Mans four times in a row. Ford now makes a Ford GT for road use, although in July 2019, it also unveiled a track-day-only Ford GT MK II model. Only 45 have ever been built and one can be yours for $1.2 million, making it the most expensive new Ford car of all time.
The Le Mans '66 Race & Finish
Le Mans, also known as 24 Heures du Mans, is one of the world's longest-running endurance car races, having been held annually since 1923. The event represents one leg of the Triple Crown of Motorsport; other events being the Indianapolis 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix. Rather than competing with fixed distances, the winner of Le Mans is determined by how many laps they can achieve in 24 hours. Many of the most innovative developments made to racing cars happened for vehicles entering Le Mans. As prestigious as the race is, it's also one of the most challenging and frequently dangerous in the sport, one with a great number of fatal accidents to its name. In 1955, a major crash caused large fragments of debris to collide with the crowd, killing 83 spectators and injuring 180 more. The most recent Le Mans death happened in 2013, when Danish driver Allan Simonsen, working with Aston Martin Racing, spun off the curbs just ten minutes into the race and crashed.
By 1966, Ferrari had won the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race a total of nine times, with five of those victories happening in a row from 1960 to 1965. For the 1966 race, the safe bets seemed to be on Ferrari to continue their stunning streak of victories. Meanwhile, Ford's work had shown very little growth or improvement over the two years of the GT40 program, despite massive financial investments. Things had gotten better thanks in large part to Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby but there was still a lot of work to be done. Not only was Ferrari in good form but Porsche was strong, as were Alpine, although only Ferrari is ever positioned as a true threat.
The race ended up being a huge success for Ford, and it was clear going into the final morning of the event that victory was in sight. The only problem was which one of the three Mk. II GT40s would take the top spot. Ford II and Leo Beebe, Ford's racing director, were eager to make the moment iconic for the company and racing at large, so they engineered things so that two of their cars would be in a dead heat crossing the finish line. Miles was told to ease off to allow fellow Ford driver Bruce McLaren to catch up with him, a move that reportedly angered Miles, who felt he'd been robbed of the victory through Ford's desire for self-promotion. Having already won at Sebring and Daytona, he'd hoped to cinch the Endurance Racing Triple Crown. Having a dead heat between the two cars was logistically tough, and ultimately, McLaren won. Some believe Miles deliberately slowed down at the last second to allow McLaren’s victory as a protest of sorts to Ford, although the film shows Miles not even knowing he lost until he sees the crowd running past him and towards his colleague.
In the film, Beebe is portrayed as the active instigator of this historic moment having been shown as a bureaucratic toady with a personal grudge against Miles and Shelby. Rather than the moment being symbolic of overall corporate meddling and the desire for a good image over the team’s victory, the finish is shown as the smug decision of middle management. It’s a disappointingly conventional biopic moment in a film that’s at its best when it rejects those tropes. In 2016, Frank Comstock, a friend of Leo Beebe, wrote of his vilification over the Le Mans victory and how much his own involvement in the project was denied by history.
Driver and car designer Carroll Shelby is one of the true American icons of race car development. Having started his career as a driver in the 1950s, he set 16 U.S. and international speed records at the Bonneville salt flats while driving a modified Austin-Healey 100S. He also took part in Formula One racing for two years and was Sports Illustrated's Driver of the Year for 1956 and 1957. Before retiring, he helped bring Aston Martin and the David Brown Racing Department to victory at the 1959 Le Mans race alongside British driver Roy Salvadori.
Shelby retired from driving in 1959 for health reasons and moved into running his own driving school and customization company. After the Ford GT40's first dismal season, the program was handed over to Shelby in time for the 1964 Nassau race. The changes he made to the vehicle paid off and then some when the GT40, driven by Ken Miles, took home the top prize in the Daytona 2000 in February 1965. When Ford II became obsessively determined to beat Ferrari at Le Mans, he brought Shelby on board to work on the Mark II version of the GT40, which lead to their iconic but controversial one-two-three victory at Le Mans 1966.
The following year, Shelby's team and the Mark IV GT40 won Le Mans. One of the drivers, Dan Gurney, celebrated by shaking his champagne bottle and spraying it across the podium, thus kickstarting a whole new racing tradition. After parting ways with Ford, Shelby began working with Dodge, helping to make the Dodge Viper as light and powerful as possible, much in the same way he'd done with Ford. Shelby only ever produced one car from scratch: The Shelby Series 1. While its development was revolutionary, it was also costly and did not gel with changing vehicle safety standards. After that disappointment, Shelby returned to Ford, building and working on various cars as well as providing his name for other models he personally had no hand in creating.
In his personal life, Shelby married a grand total of seven times. He died on May 10, 2012, at the age of 89 after a series of heart issues that plagued his later years. After his death, a legal battle broke out between his children and his final wife Cleo over the rights to his body. Eventually, Shelby was cremated and his ashes were split between his widow, his three kids, and his parents' family lot.
Ken Miles' Life & Death
Christian Bale plays Ken Miles, the celebrated English sports car driver and engineer enlisted by Ford to help them in their battle at Le Mans. Despite the title, the film is easily at its most compelling when it focuses on the blunt, no-nonsense Brit. Miles was a lifelong dedicated racer who spent his youth racing motorcycles before serving in the British Army during the Second World War, where he was dispatched as a tank commander. After the war, he moved to California and further established himself as a racer to watch out for. On top of winning 14 straight victories in SCCA racing, he did so in a car of his own design that he constructed himself. Miles was celebrated for the work he did on his own vehicles, particularly the modifications made to Porsches.
Miles was notoriously very private and almost no footage of him speaking or working exists to this day, which gave Christian Bale a lot of wriggle-room to find the character, but it also meant the screenwriters had to fill in a few of those gaps themselves. Mostly, they do that by hyping up his temper and “difficult” reputation on the track then contrasting it with his peaceful and content family life with his wife Mollie and son Peter (played by Caitriona Balfe and Noah Jupe.) Ford v Ferrari is a very testosterone-heavy movie, as was the historical moment itself, so Balfe is left to really be the only active female character for its running time. Sadly, the film can’t decide whether it wants her to be a mega-cool supportive wife who loves speeding around herself or an impatient woman waiting at home and constantly worrying for her man.
Sadly, Miles never got another chance to win Le Mans. Only a few months after his racing with Ford, Miles was testing a new car at the Riverside International Raceway in Southern California when the vehicle suddenly flipped, crashed, then caught fire. He died instantly. Miles was 47-years-old. As noted by ESPN, the reason for the fatal crash itself has never been fully figured out, and speculation over its ultimate cause continues to this day among racing enthusiasts. Miles's obituary in Road and Track from 1966 said: “It may not matter now, except for our own satisfaction, but no one who knew Ken’s driving can believe that the accident resulted from a mistake on his part.”
In 2001, Miles was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. Miles's death happened shortly after that of fellow driver Walt Hansgen, who was also killed after crashing a Ford model. The combination of these tragic deaths at the ages of 47 and 46 respectively lead Ford to favor younger drivers in future races.