To say that Ford v. Ferrari plays fast and loose with the facts is arguably to miss the point. Nevertheless, gearheads, automotive historians, and former business colleagues of Ford Senior Vice President Leo Beebe will find a lot to quibble about in this dramatization of the Ford Motor Company’s historic first win over its Italian rival at France’s 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966, which takes its inspiration from A.J. Baime’s nonfiction book Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans.
In one of the many rousing sales pitches that Matt Damon’s race car driver–turned–race car maker Carroll Shelby delivers in the film, he solemnly promises, “We’re going to make history.” And although there’s not much evidence that Shelby actually delivered this pep talk in the 1960s, he certainly said it later when Shelby American and Ford teamed up again in 2008. So, when is Ford v. Ferrari remaking history, when is it at least being true to the spirit of the story, and when is it simply printing the legend? To use another (but sadly not the last) racing metaphor, let’s take a look under the hood.
Grandson of the founding Ford of Ford Motor, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), who really was nicknamed “Hank the Deuce,” is portrayed as both an imposing captain of industry and a neurotic beneficiary of his family’s largesse in Ford v. Ferrari. One factual aspect of the dynamic as portrayed in the film is that Ford II and his subordinate executives—including Ford’s then–vice president and general manager, Lee Iacocca—did see success on the European racing circuit as a shortcut to the kind of youthful mod glamour that might appeal to a new generation of American car buyers. And Ford’s plan to spare no expense on this project was indeed inspired by Italian car designer Enzo Ferrari’s showy and vulgar rejection of Ford’s acquisition offer and the restricted terms of its Ferrari-Ford racing team proposal. Ford II’s reaction to this slight, as reported in real life, “All right, we’ll beat his ass. We’re going to race him,” was somewhat more decorous than what erupts from the mouth of Ford v. Ferrari’s Ford II upon hearing this news: “We are gonna bury that greasy wop.”
The movie also streamlines the Ford team to a size more suitable for a feature film. Ford’s first two defeats at Le Mans in 1964 and ’65 were overseen by another persnickety Brit, John “Pappy” Wyer, Shelby’s former boss on Aston Martin’s racing team, but Pappy did get into heated arguments with Ford exec Beebe over the firm’s micromanagement by committee—similar to the ones shown between Shelby and Beebe in the movie.
Though the scenes of conflict within the team, pitting sleazy marketing guys against maverick racing savants, have some basis in reality, they are embellished. Shelby never locked Beebe in an office to get a private audience with Ford, according to Frank Comstock, a journalist and former student of Beebe’s. That said, Beebe did object to risks Miles took at the 12 Hours of Sebring race in Florida and later at Le Mans that he felt were unnecessary—although not to the extent that Carroll Shelby ever felt the need to bet his entire business on Miles’ success, “lock, stock, and brand,” or walk onto the shoulder of the track with a sign reading “7,000+ go like hell.”
Fact: There really was a company in Italy named Ferrari that made excellent and fast sports cars in a bespoke fashion that contrasted dramatically with Ford’s assembly-line system. And in April 1963, Ford really did attempt to purchase the financially ailing Ferrari over the course of several secret meetings, including a tour for Ford reps through one of the artisanal shops in which machinists carefully worked on Ferrari’s 400 Superamericas. While Iacocca had a role in this scheme, it was more minimal than it appears in Ford v. Ferrari. Much of the travel and haggling was conducted by his subordinate, a metallurgical engineer named Don Frey, whose technical know-how genuinely won the eccentric carmaker’s respect for a time. Enzo Ferrari would call Frey “Dottore Ingegnere” (Dr. Engineer) and would wistfully doodle logos experimenting with mergers of the Ford and Ferrari names.
In the film, the Ford-Ferrari acquisition craters thanks to an insider tip delivered by an enterprising Italian photographer, seemingly employed by Ferrari, to the home camp of Fiat owner Giovanni Agnelli, whose competitive spirit and national pride compels a counteroffer. In reality, Fiat had been granting Ferrari a cash stipend for years simply as a gratuity for elevating the stature of Italian-made automobiles internationally and, as many speculated before and since, Enzo Ferrari was too much of a nationalist to sell his company to Americans. The sale to Fiat also did not happen until 1968, well after Le Mans ’66.
As for Ferrari’s epithet-laden rejection of Ford’s offer, Franco Gozzi, Enzo Ferrari’s lawyer and chief adviser, did recall something on par with the film’s Ferrari calling the company’s executives “worthless sons of whores” who manage a “big ugly factory” that manufactures “big ugly cars” for a “pig-headed boss” who is “not Henry Ford” but Henry Ford II. As Gozzi says in Baime’s book, it was “a tirade that I had never seen or heard before in my entire life and have not done so since.”
Ken Miles (Christian Bale)
Ken Miles, the human being, does not differ much from Ken Miles, the effervescent and Brummie-accented character played by Christian Bale in Ford v. Ferrari. Miles really did go from driving lumbering tanks for the British Army in World War II to setting records in some of the fastest sports cars produced over the ensuing two decades. He really did move to Hollywood and ingratiate himself with Southern California’s hot-rodding racing scene. He did in fact run a tuning shop, Ken Miles Unlimited in North Hollywood, happily but unprofitably until early 1963—when the IRS padlocked the business over unpaid taxes. He did marry a woman named Mollie and father a son named Peter. And, tragically, Ken Miles did die shortly after Le Mans ’66, while testing Ford’s experimental J Car at the Riverside Raceway on Aug. 16, 1966.
To the extent that the cinematic Miles diverges from the historic Miles, it’s in the innumerable minor events and dialogue exchanges that give Ford v. Ferrari its character arcs and dramatic tension. Here’s one pointed example: After Ford II has given Carroll Shelby and his team a blank check to design, build, and road test a race car to best Ferrari at Le Mans, the Shelby American crew knuckles under at an airplane hangar near LAX to put various prototype dragsters through their paces. In the film, Miles has no patience for Ford’s corporate gearheads insisting on weighing his experimental Ford GT40 down with a sophisticated aeronautical computer in the passenger seat, ripping the whole device out in frustration and opting with the rest of Shelby’s team to employ a more tried-and-true, old-fashioned approach: taping bits of string to the vehicle exterior and eye-balling their wriggling movements for evidence of drag. In reality, there was no conflict. Ford’s aeronutronic technicians and Shelby’s team manager, Carroll Smith, worked these two methods in tandem, with the computer gathering internal air pressure and temperature and the string method gathering information about the car’s exterior and exhaust.
Among the many rough edges smoothed over in the process is one of the historic Ken Miles’ most iconic and dramatically relevant quotes. Upon realizing that he had lost his well-deserved win at Le Mans ’66 to another Ford driver, by conceding against his gut to a publicity stunt, the real Miles said something that probably would have made for a delightful line-reading from Bale: “I think I’ve been fucked.”
Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon)
Matt Damon got a perm to better resemble the legendary Texas-born racer and quite effortlessly fit Iacocca’s recollection of the man as a “good lookin’ son of a bitch.” But the historic Shelby was a little more proactive than the one in the movie. In Ford v. Ferrari, Iacocca shows up to Shelby’s automotive workshop with a life-changing offer and a blank check, but in real life, it was Shelby who showed up to Iacocca’s office in Detroit with a well-rehearsed pitch and a calculated asking price. “The idea is staring American car manufacturers in the face,” Shelby said, according to Go Like Hell. “With $25,000, I can build two cars that’ll blow off the Corvettes.”
As with Miles, the screen version of Shelby hews close to the real-life driver and mogul. Shelby truly was an expert salesman, and his gift for gab was of continuing assistance throughout his life and Ford’s Le Mans project. Shelby, as he does in the film, did have a serious heart ailment, angina pectoris, which led to both his retirement from race car driving in 1960 and the steady diet of nitroglycerin tablets that Damon’s Shelby is seen popping in the film. Shelby was also a trained pilot, and while he did not rakishly scare Iacocca and company with any cavalier aerial stunts on their way to the Ford Mustang GT350 presser on Jan. 27, 1965, he was present for what was by all reports a bumpy plane ride.
As for Shelby’s relationship with Miles, Shelby could be a sentimentalist about his friend and colleague, but as difficult as Miles really could be, their friendship does not seem to have included a fight in which Miles threw a wrench at Shelby, leading to Shelby having that wrench framed. Similarly, Miles’ crew chief recently told CBS News that he never saw them get into any knockdown, drag-out, grocery-spilling fistfights.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans
One of the most surprising things about Ford v Ferrari’s treatment of Le Mans (and other races like Sebring) is how accurate the carnage is. No less than seven cars failed to finish as a result of major accidents, many due to the rain that came in as the 24-hour race hit nightfall. Ferrari racer No. 20 did have an accident that led to a pileup with a Porsche and a French Matra MS620. Many more vehicles, including the Ford and Ferrari entrants seen blowing gaskets and burning out their engines in the film, did not finish due to less harrowing equipment failures.
Among those nerve-wracking technical glitches, Miles did actually have trouble closing the door of his Ford GT40 Mk II, reportedly because he had bent the door by slamming it on his own (helmeted) head, but this did not stop him from setting multiple new lap records. Much of the overlapping suspense and foreshadowing about the car’s “brake fade” issue is also true to life, as is the pit crew’s unorthodox strategy of replacing the entirety of the front brake rotors—to the shock of French racing officials but seemingly not the vocal objections of Ferrari’s own pit crew that are depicted in the film. The daring untried nature of this gambit, meanwhile, was not exacerbated by Shelby nicking the Ferrari team’s precision Swiss stopwatches, a flourish that is regrettably absent from the source material.
But, in keeping with the many acts of dramatic license already reviewed, there was less internal bickering within the Ford team about Beebe’s directive that Miles slow down long enough for the second- and third-place Fords to catch up for a three-way photo finish. In the heat of the moment, Shelby was completely fine with Beebe’s suggestion, although he came to regret it after Miles’ unexpected death a few months later. As he says in Go Like Hell, “I’ll forever be sorry that I agreed with Leo Beebe and Henry Ford to have the three cars come across at the same time. Ken was one and a half laps ahead and he’d have won the race. It broke his heart. Then we lost him in August.”
Miles, too, was also more accommodating in real life than in the movie, despite a clear awareness that he’d been fucked. As he judiciously tried to explain to Los Angeles Times reporter Bob Thomas, “Please be careful in how you report what I have said. I work for these people. They have been awfully good to me.” Perhaps a man that congenial and talented, denied recognition in his lifetime due to minor technicalities and a fatal accident in his late 40s, deserves a slightly hagiographic Hollywood dramatization like this, with just a little extra polish.