Ford v Ferrari: How Accurate Is the Film? We Asked the People Who Were There

Photograph Courtesy Ford

Story By Steven Cole Smith • Photography As Credited

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the film “Ford v Ferrari,” skip this next sentence:

Ford wins.

If you have seen the film–and you should if you haven’t–you know that it chronicles the battle between Ford and Ferrari, ignited by a business deal turned sour. Enzo Ferrari hints that he might be willing to sell the company, and Henry Ford II is ready to write the check. At the last minute, though, Ferrari backs out, words are exchanged, and Ford II decides to try and hit Ferrari where it hurts: Build a car that will end Ferrari’s stranglehold on the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Ford hired Carroll Shelby to make it happen; he’s played by Matt Damon. Part of the package is the “difficult” but talented Brit, Ken Miles, who can wrench and drive; he’s played by Christian Bale, devouring the screen in every scene he’s in. 

The film is rarer than a unicorn in one aspect: Critics like it. “It stands with the greatest racing movies ever, and it’s certainly the most entertaining,” wrote film critic Roger Moore of Movie Nation. “But there is no doubt about one last superlative: ‘Ford v Ferrari’ is one of the best pictures of the year.”

And, Moore told Classic Motorsports, it’s profitable. The film “opened with over $31 million in ticket sales in North America,” he said, and sometime in December, Moore expects that to swell to over $150 million total. According to Variety, the film cost the producer, Cherin Entertainment, $100 million to make, so it should represent a tidy profit.

So we’ve established it’s good, and it’s making money. But how real is it?

A little backstory: The movie was originally supposed to star Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, and bear the title “Go Like Hell,” a phrase repeated multiple times in “Ford v Ferrari”–it was sort of Shelby’s mantra. (Remember the Dodge Omni GLH that Shelby endorsed? He insisted GLH stood for “goes like hell.” And the GLH-S? “Goes like hell, somemore.”

Go Like Hell” was also the title of A.J. Baime’s excellent book on the Ford-Ferrari battle, and the film, directed by Michael Mann (TV’s “Miami Vice” and films like “Heat” and “The Last of the Mohicans”), was to be specifically based on Baime’s book. That was in 2013; obviously nothing happened.

Exactly what kind of deal the “Ford v Ferrari” producers struck with Baime is unclear, but he seems happy about the film: “The response to the ‘Ford v. Ferrari’ movie launch has been terrific!! Some great stuff in the press.” He posted that on Facebook on November 19.

Photograph Courtesy 20th Century Fox

As to its accuracy, there’s no argument that there’s some Hollywood-style embellishment in there. Designer (of Shelby’s Daytona Cobra Coupe, for one) and Classic Motorsports columnist Peter Brock was there, and he dismissed most of the manufactured drama to the magic of moviemaking.

It’s a Hollywood movie,” Brock says. “When the first trailers came out it was apparent it would not be accurate, and the scripts for the characters don’t reflect the people as they were.” And as for some of the racing scenes: “Downshift to pass someone on the straights at Le Mans? Really?”

If you want historical accuracy, Brock offers a couple of suitable sources, available from Chassy Media and produced by Nate Adams and Adam Carolla: “Shelby American” and “The 24-Hour War.”

Photograph Courtesy Ford

Racer John Morton doesn’t let the “Ford v Ferrari” producers off so easy. Morton drove Brock’s legendary BRE Datsun and went on to secure the overall win at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, along with a class victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Morton and Brock worked together for Shelby in the early years, which Morton chronicles in his book “Inside Shelby American: Wrenching and Racing with Carroll Shelby in the 1960s.”

Morton is particularly annoyed with Christian Bale’s characterization of Ken Miles as a generally insufferable near-villain, always poised to boil over. Miles was indeed “prickly,” Morton says, “but he was nothing like he was portrayed in the movie.” Morton co-drove Miles’s infamous Cobra, in which Miles, largely on his own, crammed a 427-cubic-inch V8 where a 289 barely fit. The car’s first and last race was at Sebring in 1964.

At the time, Morton held only an SCCA amateur license, and he didn’t bring it to Sebring. Miles asked Morton if he’d like to share the 427 Cobra; Morton said he certainly would, but didn’t have the necessary FIA license. Miles scratched a note on a small piece of paper and told Morton to take it to race headquarters. It said, “John Morton is qualified to be issued an FIA license.” It was signed by Ken Miles. Morton left with the license.

Despite having raced only a Lotus 7 on local tracks, he borrowed a motorcycle helmet (from a man named Henri, it appears, because that was the name painted on the helmet) and bought a racing suit from a trackside vendor for $15. “I was ready,” Morton writes.

Well, not quite. Miles had hit a tree two days earlier, and the car was repaired–sort of. Also, Morton had never driven it. He spun the 427 Cobra twice on his first lap out, but then got the hang of it–until the brakes failed. And then the clutch failed. And then the engine exploded, and Morton spun in his own oil.

In the movie, Miles, cheated out of a win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans by the Ford brass, took it all in stride with an “aw, shucks” reaction. Morton saw him a few days later at Watkins Glen: “Aw, shucks” did not remotely cover how angry Miles was.

Morton also tells Classic Motorsports that the film’s portrayal of Phil Remington, Shelby’s right-hand man, was way off. Remington was quiet and taciturn in the film; in real life he, well, wasn’t.

Damon’s Shelby? Not bad, but the performance went easy on the degree to which Shelby was a “flimflam man.”

Peter Brock (Left) and John Morton (Right); Photograph Courtesy Nissan

Of course, “Ford v Ferrari” has the usual racing-movie issues. “You couldn’t look over and sneer at the guy in the next car while you’re driving 200 mph down the Mulsanne straight. Hell, you couldn’t even see who was in the car,” Morton notes. 

But it’s the “totally wrong” characterization of Miles that really rankles Morton. Prominent in the film was Miles’s son, Peter, who grew up watching his father race. Morton was told that Peter–who has long worked behind the scenes for race teams–asked someone, “Was my father really like that?” He was told no, not at all.

A pivotal moment in the movie–and in the real-life history of Shelby American–was Miles’s death just a few months after he was robbed of the Le Mans victory. He was testing the revolutionary new J-Car that was supposed to replace the Ford GT Mk II, in which Walt Hansgen was killed in April of that year during testing at Le Mans. 

As accurately depicted in the movie–or as well as it could be, because the track, Riverside International Raceway, no longer exists–Miles was driving down the back straight at probably 200 mph when the car snapped, crashed, flipped and caught fire, ejecting Miles in full view of his son. The cause has never been determined, but Remington told Morton that he suspected the experimental two-speed transmission seized. To this day Morton is haunted by the image of 15-year-old Peter Miles watching his father die.

Miles’s tragic death aside, “Ford v Ferrari” is essentially a feel-good movie, which is the way Peter Brock suggests we all approach it. “It’s a Hollywood movie that is bringing lots of fans into the theaters who aren’t die-hard car people. It’s expanding the knowledge of our history,” Brock says. “They are being exposed to the seduction of horsepower. There can be no downside to that.” 

Ken Miles; Photograph Courtesy Ford

Photograph Courtesy Ford

Photograph Courtesy Ford

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dougie
dougie Reader
12/3/19 8:46 p.m.

I loved the book when I read it 5 years ago. Sure the movie has a Hollywood spin to it, but it's a great movie that appeals to everyone and that's good for all car guys. The two docs Brock mentioned by Adam Carolla are wonderful as well!

Brian_13
Brian_13 New Reader
12/4/19 12:39 p.m.

Movies like this would be better if they used the general plot line from reality, but just made the fictional movie and were upfront about it, not using any of the names of the people who are not actually portrayed by the fictional characters. Of course, that wouldn't sell as well...

jfknupp
jfknupp New Reader
12/4/19 1:23 p.m.

I didn't personally know Ken Miles . So, I'll have to take John Morton's (not Peter Morton as shown in your picture with Peter Brock) comments as facts. 

While I enjoyed the movie story, Damon's representation was not even close to the charachter that Carroll Shelby was. First of all, Damon is much shorter. Second, Carroll was known for wearing covreralls a lot to perpetuate his image as "just a poor ole chicken farmer". We never saw that. Third, Carroll's Texas twang was a big part of how he presented himself. Again, this was missing.

namoyer
namoyer New Reader
12/5/19 1:03 p.m.

My recollection is that Miles raced the first 427 Cobra at Nassau Speedweek, and hit the only tree near the course.  Earned him the name "Teddy Treebagger"

hurstad
hurstad New Reader
12/5/19 3:31 p.m.

Yes, there are many errors in the film: Enzo never attended races in that time period, the spectators at Daytona 24 hour race were less than the number of people in the pits, and Beebe was not a bad guy as depicted. But, when we had a preview showing for the Simeone Museum in Philly of 400+ guests, the unanimous reaction was positive. And, attendance at the museum has increased significantly as a result of interest from the film. All good!

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