The racing movie plays fast and loose with the facts, but some of its most unbelievable details are straight from the record books.
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.”