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Real Racing History

The True Story Behind Ford v Ferrari

The True Story Behind Ford v Ferrari

(10/25/2019)

Do you love car races and exciting rivalries? Then FORD v FERRARI, opening on November 15, is the movie for you. James Mangold’s thrilling biopic tells the story of designer Carroll Shelby (played by Matt Damon) and race car driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), who in the 1960s are already racing legends when they're recruited by the Ford Motor Company to accomplish a seemingly impossible mission: Build a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans.

It's a true story that has circulated in car racing circles for years. With FORD V FERRARI fast approaching the starting line, let’s take a trip back through history and look at the true story behind the upcoming film. (Note: Because we're talking about the history that inspired the film, potential spoilers are ahead.)

The Beginning of a Rivalry

Ford GT40

Ford and Ferrari have a fascinating shared history that extends back to a point years before the 1966 Le Mans race. In 1963, after a long rivalry was well established, Henry Ford II struck a deal with Enzo Ferrari to purchase his company. The deal looked promising, but things took a left turn when Ferrari became unhappy with the terms of the contract.

The legendary Italian car mogul ended negotiations at that moment, leaving Ford II furious. Not one to take “No” for an answer, Ford decided to get back at his rival by beating Ferrari at the Le Mans race. This was a gargantuan task for the Ford team, as Ferrari had been one of the competition’s most consistent winners. The idea that a Ford could beat Ferrari was nearly ridiculous.

Ford’s dream wouldn’t be rapidly fulfilled, as the development of the car proved to be more than a little bit troublesome. Roy Lunn, the head of Ford’s advanced vehicle department, stepped in to design the machine alongside former Aston Martin member John Wyer. He came up with the GT40. ("GT" stands for Grand Turing, while 40 represents the car’s 40-inch height.) That became a legendary car in its own right, and was a good start — but it wasn't the answer to Ford's ambition.

Shelby and Miles Enter the Fray

Matt Damon in Ford v Ferrari

While promising, Lunn’s new car wasn't able to perform up to the standards of the grueling contest. It lost the 1964 Le Mans race. With no sure win in sight, a new designer was brought in: former star driver and engineer, Carroll Shelby.

Shelby already had experience beating Ferrari, having won the 1959 Le Mans. Shelby brought along Ken Miles, an experienced race car driver and engineer who had worked with him on other vehicles. The pair noticed several kinks in Ford’s GT40 and reworked them. Their efforts resulted in the GT40 Mark II, a faster and stronger machine, which, ideally, would not break down like the previous version.

Once again, however, victory escaped Ford. Even though the new GT40 was, undeniably, an improved version of its predecessor, it failed to finish the 1965 Le Mans. Nevertheless, the effort to create the perfect, Ferrari-beating machine carried on.

The 1966 Le Mans

Christian Bale in Ford v Ferrari

Then came 1966, which is when FORD v FERRARI is set. Following the GT40’s defeats, Shelby and Miles improved their vehicle even further. Going into that year’s Le Mans, there was, unsurprisingly, a lot riding on the new GT40. Ford had already endured two defeats at the hands of Ferrari. Incredible amounts of money had been invested in his company’s new car. Luckily for Ford, Shelby and Miles, the GT40 – co-driven by Miles and Denny Hulme – finally beat Ferrari.

Still, the win wasn’t quite what the Ford team had dreamt up. Wanting to have a picture of his other GT40 Ford vehicle, driven by Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon, finishing the race alongside Miles’ GT40, Miles was asked to slow down. He complied, but what had been a sure win for him quickly evaporated. The Le Mans rules stated that, in the event of a tie, the car that had driven the longest distance was the rightful winner of the race.

Since McLaren and Amon’s vehicle started out the race around 20 meters behind Miles’ GT40, they were crowned winners over him and Denny Hulme. Nevertheless, the story of Ford vs. Ferrari became a favorite among the racing community, and Ford’s GT40 went on to become one of Le Mans and Ford’s most memorable vehicles.

Even knowing those details, we're looking forward to seeing how the rivalry plays out on screen in FORD V FERRARI. Damon and Bale are terrific choices to play Shelby and Miles, and Tracy Letts is an inspired casting choice for Henry Ford II, and the cast features other highlights, too, such as Jon Bernthal as Lee Iacocca and Josh Lucas as Ford's Director of Special Vehicles, Leo Beebe.



FORD V FERRARI opens on November 15!



All images courtesy of 20th Century Fox.