10 Facts About Ken Miles, the Race Car Driver at the Center of Ford v Ferrari
Though you’d be hard-pressed to find a car enthusiast who doesn't know the name Carroll Shelby, it wasn't until recently—with the release of Ford v Ferrari—that Shelby's teammate, Ken Miles, has been allowed to share the spotlight. The movie, which centers around the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans—a car race that’s been the center of more than a few heated debates—has finally given Miles his due.
Director James Mangold said that the first cut of Ford v Ferrari was close to four hours long, but that he eventually had to cut it down to its final two-and-a-half-hour running time. Naturally, a lot of great material didn’t make it into the final cut, including some of the most interesting facts about Miles's life. Here are 10 fascinating facts that you won’t find in Ford v Ferrari.
1. Ken Miles started racing when he was just 11 years old.
Ken Miles was born on November 1, 1918 in Sutton Coldfield, England, a town located less than 10 miles north of Birmingham. At the ripe old age of 11, Miles started motorcycle racing on a 350 cc Triumph bike. A crash broke his nose and cost him three teeth—which led to him purchasing a larger motorcycle.
2. Ken Miles met his wife when he was a teenager.
When he was just 15 years old, Miles met a young woman named Mollie, then turned to a friend and said, “I’m going to marry that girl.” And he eventually did. The courtship was so all-consuming that at one point the headmaster of Miles's school called his parents and asked if there was something they could do about “this whole Mollie business.”
3. Ken Miles built his first car when he was 15 years old.
Miles was a busy teenager. When he was 15, he built an Austin 7 Special that he named “Nellie,” and some of the mechanical modifications he made on the car became signatures of his later vehicles. Mollie, who seemed to be a fan of the wooing, painted Nellie a British Racing Green. Miles sold Nellie during World War II, but continued to design cars after the war was over.
4. Ken Miles was a military man.
For seven years, Miles served in the British Territorial Army. His primary job was tank recovery, a job that required him to reclaim tanks and get them operational again. In 1944, he took part in the D-Day landings as part of a tank unit. Miles was also one of the first British soldiers at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, an experience he rarely talked about even though he was frequently photographed wearing his military coat.
5. Ken Miles loved American engines.
During his military service, Miles found time to study and keep up with developments in engine technology. Separated from his racing friends, Miles had to work a little harder to share this love. In a letter to Motorsport Magazine, Miles went into the specifics about exactly what he loved about a new engine and how much potential he saw in it. He looked forward to designing his own supercharged version of the engine and installing it into a four-wheel drive vehicle.
6. Ken Miles understood how important physical fitness was for a driver before everyone else did.
Though physical fitness wasn’t as emphasized for drivers back then, Miles thought it was crucial, something we now know to be true. At five-foot-11-inches, Miles was a remarkably lean 147 pounds. Miles was an avid jogger who would carry two-pound weights in each hand.
7. Ken Miles once toilet-trained a cat—then was said to have done the same with a bobcat.
Miles once trained a cat to use the toilet. In addition to being a fun story he shared at parties, it was a fact that emphasized his stubbornness and his willingness to stick with a challenging assignment.
When Miles’s toilet-trained cat died, his friends sent him a wire telling him to go to the airport, where a new cat would be waiting for him. When he went to pick up the crate, Miles discovered that they’d sent him a bobcat. Carroll Shelby said in his biography that Miles was able to toilet train the bobcat as well (though Shelby was known for not letting the truth get in the way of a good story).
8. Ken Miles had a knack for sarcasm.
James T. Crow wrote an obituary for Ken Miles for Road & Track in which he wrote that Miles had "wit and charm like almost no one I’ve ever known. But if he could be elaborately polite, he also had a command of sarcasm that could make your teeth shrink." Crow’s obituary stands as one of the more complete reflections on who Miles was, and also observed that "It was said about [Miles] that he was his own worst enemy and this was undoubtedly true as he could have had almost anything he wanted if he could have been more tactful." Shelby at least was delighted by Miles’s total lack of tact.
9. Ken Miles saw himself as a mechanic first and a driver second.
Though he’s most remembered as a driver, Miles saw himself first and foremost as a mechanic. In A.J Baime’s book, Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans, Miles is quoted as saying “I am a mechanic. That has been the direction of my entire vocational life. Driving is a hobby, a relaxation for me, like golfing is to others.” Miles was hired on as the test driver and competition director for Shelby-American, a position that allowed him to use his mechanical expertise as well as his uncanny driving capability.
10. Ken Miles’s death changed the racing world.
On August 17, 1966, Ken Miles died when the Ford J-car he had been testing for almost an entire day at California's Riverside International Raceway flipped, crashed, and caught on fire, then broke into pieces and ejected Miles, who was killed instantly. But the J-car had been specifically designed to avoid this type of accident, and the damage done to the vehicle made it impossible to determine an exact cause for the crash.
"We really don't know what caused it," Carroll Shelby said. "The car just disintegrated. We have nobody to take his place. Nobody. He was our baseline, our guiding point. He was the backbone of our program. There will never be another Ken Miles."
Though it wasn’t uncommon for race car drivers to die in the 1960s, what was uncommon was the reaction Miles’s friends and family had to his death. Shelby said that it broke his heart when they lost Ken, and Shelby-American withdrew from Le Mans racing after 1967.
If there was a silver lining to Miles's death, it was that additional safety precautions—including a steel tube rollover cage—were implemented into the J-car's design that saved the lives of multiple other drivers, including a young Mario Andretti when he was involved in a similar crash a year later.
Ken Miles's death was a tragedy, for his young son and wife, for his team, and for the entirety of racing. Thanks to Ford v Ferrari though, Ken Miles is finally receiving the attention and recognition that should have been his all along.