[This article contains spoilers for “Ford v Ferrari.”]
Hell hath no fury like an automobile-industry mogul scorned. In 1963, Henry Ford II tried to buy Ferrari, hoping the Italian sports-car company would bring a cool factor to his family-owned firm, then best known for selling square sedans and pickup trucks. When Enzo Ferrari nixed the deal at the last minute, Ford wanted revenge.
That’s the back story of the new movie “Ford v Ferrari,” which dramatizes how the American automaker assembled a team led by the driver-turned-designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to create a car that pulled off the seemingly impossible feat of beating the Europeans on their own turf — France’s 24 Hours of Le Mans — in 1966.
An American vehicle had never before won the race, an 8.36-mile course that begins and ends in a massive stadium and winds its way through often-treacherous rural public roads. Ferrari cars had triumphed in seven of the previous eight years, the only exception being in 1959, when Shelby and his fellow driver Roy Salvadori had steered a British-built Aston Martin to victory.
In 1966, “Ford caught lightning in a bottle with the right engineers, mechanics, drivers and manager,” Shelby’s eldest grandson, Aaron Shelby, said in a recent telephone interview. “While Le Mans is a huge race today, back then, it meant everything.”
The facts of the story are remarkable, but the filmmakers still tweaked some of the details. “It’s fairly accurate, but they embellished a lot of things with drama,” Charles Agapiou, a crew chief for Carroll Shelby’s 1966 team, said in a recent telephone interview. The British-born Agapiou has seen the finished film, in which he’s played by Jack McMullen.
One scene prominently featured in the trailer depicts Shelby taking Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) for a terrifying ride around a track in the GT40 racer, leaving the stuffy suit in tears. “I can almost guarantee that didn’t happen,” Aaron Shelby said.
In other ways, however, Shelby’s character is toned down for the screen. The Texas-born onetime chicken farmer was known for wearing striped bib overalls, a fashion choice that Damon’s more subdued character never makes. And while Shelby doesn’t have a love interest in the film, “he was not often without a lady by his side,” Aaron Shelby said of his grandfather, who was married seven times. “That was how he operated.”
In the movie, Shelby is portrayed as more even-tempered in comparison with the team member Ken Miles (played by Christian Bale). Yet Aaron Shelby said of his grandfather, “I saw more than one occasion where yelling was his preferred form of communication with his team.”
After he won as a driver at Le Mans, Shelby, who died in 2012 at the age of 89, made a name for himself in the early 1960s by designing and selling the Cobra, a lightweight sports car that ran on a powerful V-8 engine.
The movie captures his legendary salesmanship. “He could sell a one-legged dog,” A.J. Baime, author of the 2009 book “Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans,” said in a recent telephone interview. “He was a marketing genius, and people were just drawn to him because he was so charismatic.”
“Ford v Ferrari” focuses on Shelby’s friendship with Miles, a British mechanical engineer who was crucial to Ford’s team as a test driver and became an eventual finalist at Le Mans. “He absolutely loved racing,” Agapiou said of Miles. “He could take a bad car and make it into a great car, and his reflexes were absolutely perfect.”
Miles’s wife, Mollie (Caitriona Balfe), and son, Peter (Noah Jupe), are portrayed as frequent presences at the racetrack, but Agapiou said that was another bit of dramatic license: “They weren’t around very much at all. That was put into the film to add human interest.”
Though the filmmakers also tinkered with the still-controversial conclusion of Le Mans in 1966, they got the major details right. (Historical spoiler alert!) In an effort to ensure an attention-grabbing picture, Ford executives asked Miles, who was leading the race by a wide margin, to slow down and create a photo finish with two of the manufacturer’s other cars. But when French officials ruled another Ford driver was the victor because he started a few feet further back, Miles was shockingly denied entry into the winner’s circle.
“That was one of the worst nightmares of Carroll’s life — it just crushed him and Ken Miles,” Bruce Meyer, the founding chairman of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles and a friend of Shelby’s, said in a recent phone interview. “To all of us enthusiasts, Ken Miles will always be that race’s winner, but for the record books, he wasn’t.”
Less than two months after the event, Miles was killed in an explosion while he was testing Ford cars that would compete at Le Mans the following year. The American automaker would go on to win the race for the next three years in a row.
That accomplishment helped achieve Ford’s dual goals of handing Ferrari a humiliating defeat and redefining the American company’s own brand. As baby boomers came of age in the mid-1960s, “it absolutely made Ford a lot more exciting to the younger generation,” Agapiou said.
The impact was felt around the world, as Ford — which had long sold well in the South, thanks in part to its success on the regional NASCAR circuit — became an international force. “Henry Ford II relaunched his company in Europe during the dawn of globalism by going over there and winning the most famous race in the world,” Baime said. “Le Mans wasn’t just a sporting event. It was the greatest marketing tool the car industry had ever known.”
More than a half-century later, the story of “Ford v Ferrari” still resonates among racing fans as one of the greatest against-the-odds victories of all time. “You can never discount the underdog,” said Aaron Shelby. “If you’ve got the right circumstances and set of people, David can beat Goliath.”