At first you’ll think Ford v Ferrari is about cars. It is, and about car racing. However, you’ll be surprised how much more it’s about.
The Ford Motor Company is going through an image issue in the mid-1960’s. For decades starting at the very beginning of the 20th Century, Ford under the genius of Henry Ford manufactured cars that completely redid the way Americans travel. Ford is still on top and currently led by Henry Ford’s grandson Henry Ford II, but it’s trying to win over younger buyers of their cars. It’s a bit harder because young people have recently developed an interest in racing cars and see Fords as their ‘parents cars.’ In 1963, Vice-President Lee Iacocca recommends to Ford they strike a merger with the cash-strapped Italian company Ferrari. It seems like a good choice as Ferrari has been a big winner in racing. In fact Ferrari cars have won the most recent 24-hours of Le Mans races since 1960.
However over at the meeting at the Ferrari office, the meeting does not go well. Enzo Ferrari tells Ford that he accepted a deal with Fiat that’s more lucrative and allows him to keep the Scuderia Ferrari racing division. In the meeting, Ferrari insults the Ford cars and Henry II as ‘not Henry Ford but the grandson of Henry Ford.’ That infuriates Henry Ford and he plans a revenge on Ferrari. The revenge is actually one to take the Ford Car company into the future. He plans to have a Ford car designed to win auto races. He hires Carroll Shelby who won the Le Mans in 1959 but had to retire because of heart problems: a problem he consistently takes pills straight out of the bottle. Since retiring racing, Shelby devoted his time to developing cars for auto racing through his company Shelby American. Carroll Shelby is close friends with 47 year-old Ken Miles: a British auto racer who is infamous for his bad temper and struggles as a mechanic with owning his garage in Los Angeles. This is a burden not only to him, but his wife Mollie and young son Peter. Especially since the IRS is on his case.
Miles is Shelby’s first pick in his Cobra team to test out his cars. Miles’ racing style and car know-how allows Shelby to make good decisions. He is always very honest with Shelby whenever he notices something that needs an improvement or when something’s a weakness. However, the choice of Ken Miles does not go well with Henry Ford, especially since he feels Miles’ personality and notorious temper doesn’t fit the Ford image. Ford elects to send Phil Hill and Bruce McLaren to the 1964 Le Mans instead. Miles predicts none of the Ford participants will win the race, and he ends up right. Once again, the race is won by a Ferrari driver.
Despite the big loss at Le Mans 1964, Shelby tries to reassure Ford that one of the Ford drivers hit 218 mph on the Ford GT40 and that made Ferrari nervous. Meanwhile it’s back to the drawing board. Shelby continues development on the Ford GT40 Mk II and he has Miles test the cars with Peter watching frequently and Ford unhappy about the arrangement. On one practice run, the brakes fail and cause the car to crash in fiery manner, which Miles is lucky to escape.
In 1966, Ford takes an extra step in the efforts of their racing cards by creating a racing division of their company and has Ford’s Senior Vice-President Leon Beebe run it. Beebe wants the program a case where Miles is not a part of any of it, not even the testing. Shelby meets up with Ford on an opportunity and offers to take him into his car. Ford accepts, and Shelby drives like a racer on the track which scares Ford almost to death. It’s right there he convinces Ford that Miles is the best man to win Le Mans. Ford agrees, but with a compromise; Miles needs to win the 24-hours At Daytona first before he can race at Le Mans. Shelby visits Miles at a street corner near his house after he’s finished grocery shopping to tell him the news. That infuriates Miles so much, he has a fist-fight with Shelby at the corner, which wife Mollie watches entertainingly.
Shelby and Miles continue with the racing and testing as Peter continues to watch and Phil Remington is the mechanic doing the fixing. Beebe is hoping Miles doesn’t win as he has puts in a second Ford entry in Daytona with NASCAR team Holdman-Moody supporting it. The Holdman-Moody team is faster at pit stops, but Shelby allows Miles to push his car to 7000 RPM. The result: Miles wins Daytona. It’s Miles’ first win in five years. Miles also has continued success later by winning the 12 Hours Of Sebring. Le Mans will be Miles’ chance to win the rare Triple Crown of endurance races.
At the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966, Miles is there as is Shelby, but so is Ford and Beebe. So is Enzo Ferrari in hopes of this being victory #7 for the Ferrari car. Ferrari has just released his latest racing prototype, 330 P3, and his best hopes in repeating rest with Italian driver Lorenzo Bandini. Mollie and Peter are listening to the race on the radio as Peter will be going through the race on the Le Mans racetrack he drew.
The race starts and Miles has problems on the first lap as the passenger door won’t close; he has to steer with his right hand and hold the door with his left. At the first lap, Miles alerts of the problem, which Remington fixes with a sledgehammer. Miles gets back to driving and has a lot of ground to make up. With each lap, he breaks the track record and passes numerous Ferraris as he gains ground on the leaders. However, as he’s pursuing Bandini, brake problems occur. At the pit stop, the team replaces the brake system, which infuriates Enzo Ferrari. He feels it’s against the rules, but Shelby is able to successfully convince race officials that the brake replacement is within the rules. As the race continues, Bandini is in hot pursuit by Miles, but Bandini is the last Ferrari driver in the race. As they duel again on the Mulsanne Straight, Bandini blows is engine and is out, making this the first Le Mans since 1959 Ferrari won’t win!
There’s still one more act of the drama. Three Ford cars lead the race nearing the finish with Miles leading them all. What should be a normal racing situation actually becomes a publicity opportunity for Henry Ford. He envisions all three Ford crossing the finish line simultaneously and even Beebe gets Shelby to tell Miles to slow down and set up for the opportunity. Miles is furious about this as this could put his Triple Crown in jeopardy and responds by setting more lap records, but eventually agrees with it. Miles does slow down and the three cross the finish simultaneously. However, it’s not a shared win as Ford driver McLaren is declared the winner. Shelby is mad that it ends all chances of Miles’ Triple Crown, but Miles is not down. Miles is just grateful for driving at Le Mans and giving the crowd a show.
That race would be Ken Miles’ last ever race. One day while testing a J-car, and with Shelby and Peter around, Ken crashed near a turn. It was a ball of fire and he didn’t get out. The fatal crash happened in Peter’s view. Some time later, Shelby goes to visit Mollie and Peter. He sees Peter still hurt but gives him words of comfort about his father and gives him a wrench Ken threw at Carroll years ago. As for Mollie, he just waves back from a distance after she waved to him. Then he drives off like a racer.
The film is unique as it is more than just a story about racing. It’s also how one race depended on taking a solid American business and a business legendary in making automobile travel the new norm for the USA into the future. Because of it, or maybe not exactly because of it, people still drive Fords today. Ferraris are still the most expensive sports cars today but Ford is still one of the biggest auto manufacturers in the World. The film also gave us some reminders about sports business. Businesses don’t simply look for sportspeople who win all the time. They also look for those with a marketable image. Michael Jordan may be a case where one of the best sportsmen ever becomes the most marketable ever, but it’s not always a guarantee. Seeing how a great racer like Ken Miles was shunned by everybody except by his family and those involved with Shelby American is one example. Also how Henry Ford looked at him was also unpleasant to see. I remember one person said that Henry Ford simply not liking you was enough for him to fire you. Goes to show he was cruel to whoever as he was to Ken Miles.
The story isn’t only about racing or even about a remarkable race. It’s about an auto racer whom at an age most would retire from the sport at was having the most successful year of his life. It was his love for his family. He wanted to win for them. And he especially wanted to be seen by his son as someone to be proud of. It was also of a friendship between Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby. Miles was the one person Shelby can best trust for an honest opinion about his cars, or should I say Ford’s cars. Shelby saw a lot of qualities in Miles most others overlooked. The friendship was strong, but it wasn’t without its friction as both men were temperamental and fighters. But the friendship was still very strong.
One thing about this film is that it doesn’t compromise in being an auto racing film. Being such, it knows that it has to make the audience feel like they are part of the race or they are in the driver’s seat. The camera angles as well as many of the scene shots helped greatly in creating the experience and intensity and leaving the audience at the edge of their seat. The film also does a great job of putting the audience in the races too. Despite the intimate story, the story does not forget what it’s about and makes the audience feel the moments too.
The film marks another great success for director James Mangold. This is his sixth film to earn Oscar nominations and his first ever to be nominated for Best Picture. Although he missed a Best Director nomination, he creates a great film that delivers just as good a story as it delivers in racing excitement. The story by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth along with Jason Keller becomes more than a racing story with a simple plot. It’s a deep plot with three-dimensional characters and reminds the audience that the story is as much about the man, the friend, the husband and the father as it is about the racer.
The film marks another great performance for Christian Bale. Again he succeeds in getting into character and delivering a deep role. Not a false note about the character nor the father-son relationship. Matt Damon was also great as Carroll Shelby. His role may not have been as deep as Ken Miles’ but he added dimension and character to the role. The other standout of the film was Noah Jupe as Peter Miles. Noah made the father-son relationship work as well as Christian did. Other standout efforts include the cinematography from Phedon Papamichael. He knew the shots he needed for this racing film and he delivered, especially in some of the most intense scenes. The visual effects were also excellent and perfect for the film. Also the score by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders added to the excitement of the film.
Ford v Ferrari is the remarkable story how a driver and a race depended on the future of the Ford auto company. It’s also a story about a friendship between two racers few of us knew of. And a reminder of an overlooked great in the sport.