Ken Miles was key in Ford’s triumph at Le Mans in 1966, developing and racing the Ford GT40, as depicted in the film Le Mans ’66. He also developed the Shelby Cobra. But Miles is also known for missing out on the Le Mans win in 1966; he gave up a dominant lead in an effort to ensure a tied finish with the second-placed GT40, driven by Bruce McLaren, which went on to be awarded the victory.
Ken Miles was born Kenneth Henry J Miles on November 1, 1918 to Eric Miles and mother Clarice Jarvis in Sutton Coldfield, England.
In 1929, Miles began riding a 350cc Trials Special Triumph bike, resulting in a crash that broke his nose and the loss of three teeth, but Miles persevered and fixed up an 1100-cc Salmson motorcycle.
At the age of 15, in 1933, he met his future wife Mollie and purchased an Austin 7 Special that she painted in British Racing Green. It was this year when his engineering prowess was realised and he quit school to become an apprentice at Wolseley Motors.
When World War II dawned, Miles was posted to an anti-aircraft unit in the British Territorial Army with just eight weeks of his apprenticeship remaining, becoming a driving instructor at Blackpool a year later. He was promoted to staff-sergeant in 1942, and was a part of the D-Day landings as part of a tank unit in 1944.
While in the army, he wrote to Motor Sport and his letter was published in the August 1943 edition. He waxed lyrical about the “great promise” of American vehicles “from a sporting point of view”.
After the war, Miles was hired as an engineer at Morris Motors, and his son was born.
Miles’s racing career began in earnest after WW2 – first racing at Silverstone on April 23, 1949, when his name appeared in Motor Sport once more as the driver of a Mercury V8-powered Frazer Nash that he took to various hill climbs and club races.
He found himself in the United States in 1951, working for Gough Industries, and entered races for the company in a stock MG-TD. In 1953, Miles won his first race in the United States, at Pebble Beach and won every race in the under-1500cc class that year.
The MG was later modified to carry a 1500cc engine and dubbed the “Flying Shingle”, which brought him success in the SCCA Modified class against the likes of actor James Dean. Miles graduated to a Porsche 550 the following year, in 1956, and in ’57 he fitted the Porsche engine and drivetrain to a Cooper chassis.
Ford vs Ferrari
Between 1958 and ’63, Miles won 38 of 44 races he entered, also driving part-time for Sunbeam distributor Rootes. He was swiftly picked up by Carroll Shelby to test and race the Cobra – a partnership that was immortalised on screen in the 2019 movie Ford vs Ferrari. He also had a hand in developing the Sunbeam Tiger for the Rootes Group.
While synonymous with Ford, Miles did race Ferraris from time to time including a 375 Plus Spider in 1955, which he took to third behind Ernie McAfee and Phil Hill. Hill would later join him at Shelby’s squad alongside Parnelli Jones, Dan Gurney, Bob Bondurant, Chris Amon, Bruce McLaren and Roy Salvadori among others. However, Miles was renowned not just for his driving, but engineering expertise.