Carroll Shelby was a man of many talents. His best skill was probably picking the right people to make the magic at Shelby American. Maybe it was just a coincidence that he was able to surround himself with such a talented team. Maybe it was a lot of the right people at the right time in the right place. Regardless, one of those very key people was Ken Miles.
Ken was a transplant from England, born in Sutton Coldfield on November 1, 1918. He was a natural mechanic. He left school at age 15 to apprentice with Wosley Motors, a British car manufacturer. Wosley sent him to technical school to learn vehicle construction. He got into racing motorcyles while there. When the World War II came, Ken joined the British army. Among other things he did in the army, mostly related to mechanical or as a driving instructor, he landed at Normandy mid 1944, as a sergeant commanding a tank. Ken and his tank crew fought across Europe.
After WWII, Ken got more into racing. He drove Bugattis, Alvises & Alfa Romeos. He also got hold of a Frazer Nash with a Ford V8 engine in it. In 1952, he relocated to the Los Angeles CA to be service manager for the Southern CA MG distributor, Gough Industries. It didn’t take him long to get back into racing in the LA area. He took a MG-TD and modified it. Ken won 14 straight races in 1953 in SCCA racing. He was the driver to beat in the 1.5 liter class.
Miles had such a great driving reputation, he got the chance to return to England in 1955 to drive at LeMans. That particular LeMans race proved to be the deadliest LeMans of all times. Pierre Levegh, driving a Mercedes 300 SLR, ran into the rear of an Austin Healey. The impact sent the Mercedes airborne into the spectators at about 150 mph. More than 80 people were killed. The race went on. Miles finished 12th overall with his co-driver John Lockett.
Miles returned to California, for the 1955 SCCA season. He raced a very special MG car that he modified known as the “Flying Shingle” due to his design. He was very successful in the SCCA F modified class. At Palm Springs in March 1955, Ken finished first in his class beating a novice driver named James Dean in his Porsche 356 Speedster. Ken was disqualified after the race due the improper distance between his vehicles fenders. This moved Dean to second place, first place going to a top driver named Cy Yedor. In 1956, Ken drove for John von Neumann, the Southern California VW-Porsche distributor in a Porsche 550.
During the 1957 racing season Ken, still working for von Neumann, put the engine and transmission from a Porsche 550S into a 1956 Cooper body. The car dominated F Modified SCCA class during 1957 and 1958 with Ken behind the wheel. Ken became famous for driving Porsches. He won most of the time.
The Pic to the left is a 1956 Cooper. (that is NOT Ken Miles at the wheel though.)
In the early 60’s, Ken started driving for Shelby American. At that time, the Shelby Cobras were the cars to beat. All the best drivers came to Shelby looking for a ride. Shelby hired Miles to drive one of the 289 Cobras. It wasn’t long before Ken went to work full time for Shelby American. He was probably was motivated by the IRS seizing his Ken Miles Limited auto shop off the Hollywood Freeway for past due taxes.
It was at Shelby American that Ken got rid of his reputation for being a great driver only in 4 cylinder cars. But it was also at SA, that Ken more than proved his real skill was designing and tweaking race cars. Driving was something that he just happened to be good at it, or as he said some people like to relax on a golf course, he liked to drive cars fast. Ken Miles was a car mechanic first and a driver second. Which is why he was so important to Shelby American. He could drive a car and know what suspension and braking tweaks the car needed.
When Lee Iococca strongly requested Shelby turn the Mustang into a winning race car, it was Ken Miles that was given the task of turning a secretary’s car into a race car. He also drove the GT 350R to victory in numerous races.
The picture to the left is the famous pic of Ken Miles during a race where he put the GT350R airborne called the “Flying Mustang”
Ken was very instrumental in making the Cobras, especially the big block, the cars they became. But the two Shelby cars that Ken was the key tweaker on were the Cobra Daytona Couple and the Ford GT40.
When Ford shipped the GT 40’s cars to Shelby American at the end of 1964, Ken took one of them for test drive at Roverside track. His opinion on the GT40’s was they were “Bloody Awful.” Ken spent days testing and tweaking the GT40. His first objective was to get the cars “back to where they started.” So many people had changed so many things that the cars were no where close to how they started. Shelby American had eight weeks to get the GT40 ready for the 1965 Daytona Continental. This time he was also a driver. Llyod Ruby and Miles won the event in their GT40. This important race for Shelby American was also the first time that an American car had won a Federation Internationale de l’Automobile sanctioned event in 40 years.
It was a year later that Ken’s magic touch was so important. The Mark II (427) GT 40 had to be sorted out to be a winning car. Ken was the lead person on development of that important car. Lloyd Ruby and he won the Daytona race then Sebring, two of the three legs of a Triple Crown of racing. LeMans was next. Ken drove his best race ever at LeMans. He set track records and lapped everyone including his team members in two other Mark II GT 40’s. This is the famous race Ford Vs Ferrari is all about. The Ford executives thought it would be a great promo picture to have the three GT 40’s cross the finish line together. That meant Miles had to slow down and let the other two GT 40’s catch up with him. If you saw the film you know that Ken reluctantly agreed expecting to still be still be awarded the win giving him the Triple Crown. A technicality gave the win to Bruce McLaren based on the fact that he had driven 20 feet longer starting behind Miles.
You also know if you saw the movie, that Ken came back to California and started testing a new unibodied GT 40. Something went wrong during a test drive causing the car to breakup resulting in Ken’s death.
Ken Miles should have a special place in racing history. The Shelby American team changed the path of performance cars in the US and the world. Shelby American would not have been the company it became without Ken Miles. The racing success of the Shelby American cars would not have been what it was without Ken Miles. This is the thing that legends come from.
A small treat for you. Watch a YouTube video produced back in the 60’s about the car culture in Southern California. Apparently there was a program called Wonderful World of Wheels narrated by Lloyd Bridges. About 8 minutes into it there is Ken Miles driving Cobra 98. Click Here