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Ken Miles

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 attending school 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 continued. 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 became 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.)

Ken raced a number of times against a young driver from Texas named Carroll Shelby.

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 motivated to take a job at Shelby American when the IRS seized 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. All the Shelby cars were v8 powered. 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 the car needed to be faster in a race.

In 1964, Lee Iococca strongly requested that Carroll Shelby turn the Mustang into a winning race car. Ken Miles was given the task of turning “a secretary’s car” into a race car. The first GT 350 debuted on January 27, 1965.

A special racing only version, the GT 350R was developed. Miles drove the GT 350Rs to victory many times. To GM’s dismay, not only was the Cobra a threat to the Corvettes, now the Shelby Mustang could beat them.

The picture to the left is the famous pic of Ken Miles during a race where he put the GT350R airborne, referred to as the “Flying Mustang”

Ken was very instrumental in making the Cobras the cars they became. The 289 Cobras were continually being tweaked. But it was the 427 powered Cobras that became legendary. The big block Cobras were a handful to drive. Too much horsepower in a light car with a much heavier engine in the front. Ken’s tweaks made the over-powered 427 Cobra’s manageable.

But the two Shelby cars that Ken was was very key on developing were the six Cobra Daytona Coupes and the Ford GT40.

The Cobra Daytona Coupes

It was quickly obvious that the open Cobra coupes, even with a 427 engine, couldn’t out run or even keep up with the closed coupe Ferraris. The cars had to do 200 mph at the LeMans straight away. The Cobras could do 165 mph. The Cobras had the aerodynamincs of a barn door. The new Ferrari 250GTO could hit 185 mph.

Aerodynamincs for cars was only being discussed for the first time on any scale. Pete Brock, another lost soul that ended up at Shelby American, had actually worked on the design of 1963 Corvette Stingrays at GM. He left GM and came to California to see if he could get deeper into cars. Southern CA was the cradle of the car culture in the US. Hanging out at race tracks, he ran into Carroll Shelby.

Pete wanted to be a race car driver but Shelby didn’t need a driver, but what he needed was someone to run his driving school. Pete got that task then eventually ended up inside Shelby American. Pete knew about the Cobras needing to hit the 200 mph. And he knew no matter how much horsepower you put under the hood, that open coupe body was not going to do it. Pete was also familiar with a German article from the late 30’s by Dr. Wunibald Kamm about how important the body shape was to slice through the air. Air flow across a car body could help or hinder the top speed. The other key point in that German article was how the shape of the rear of the vehicle impacted the air flow. He talked to Shelby about the design changes for the Cobra, Shelby told Pete as long as it doesn’t cost anything to draw up the plans, so go ahead. When the plans were done Shelby had Pete explain it to the guys in the shop. The consensus was everyone in the shop considered it some voodoo science and a waste of time. No one wanted anything to do with it, except Ken Miles.

Ken Miles convinced Carroll that there was something special about Brock’s design. Miles, being from Europe, was quite familiar with the European cars, he had driven or competed against most of them. And Ken had even heard about the Kamm article. Shelby agreed to let Brock work on his project. Ken, Pete and a young kid from New Zealand started building the prototype back in a corner of Shelby American. The rest of the crew still wanted nothing to do with it knowing that car was going to be a loser. The first Daytona coupe was built on a Cobra frame laying around the shop. They got body panels made and assembled the car on a stock Cobra frame. When it was ready, Pete and Ken took the car to Riverside. With Ken at the wheel, the Daytona Coupe was 3 1/2 seconds faster then the open Cobras. After 15 laps, Ken pulled in and called Shelby. He told Shelby that this closed Cobra coupe could beat any Ferrari that he had ever driven. When the two returned to the shop, Carroll called a meeting and told the rest of the crew that everyone was to drop everything and get one of these cars ready for Daytona. Six Daytona Coupes were built. The Shelby American racing team won the World Championship with those cars. No American manufacturer had ever done that before.

The Cobra Daytona Coupes were first raced at Daytona which is how they earned that name. When the GT 40 project dropped into Shelby American, part of that deal was to stop the Daytona Coupe racing and focus 110% on the GT 40s.

The Ford GT 40s

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 Riverside track. After the track run, Miles said the car was “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. The first things that had to be changed was to replace the problematic Indy 289 engines the Ford team used and replace them with the tried and true 289 version the Shelby team had been using in the Cobras. The next thing was get rid of the thin wire wheels and narrow tires. Shelby went to Goodyear to get much wider racing tires and put them on lighter mags.

This time he was also a driver. Lloyd Ruby and Miles won the ’65 Daytona Continental in a 289 powered 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 small block GT 40’s were great cars but not what was needed to beat Ferrari at LeMans. The GT 40s had to be able to hit 200 mph on the LeMans straightaway. It needed more horsepower. The decision was made to stuff the big block, 427 Ford engine into the car. 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 Miles won the Daytona race, leading the entire race. Ford fielded five teams in this first race. Shelby had three of them and Ford’s NASCAR team, Holman Moody, had two teams. Ferrari did not participate at Daytona that year.

The next race was at Sebring. The Ford LeMans Committee decided that the 289 GT 40’s would do better on this track which needed better handling. There were three Ford teams at Sebring, Shelby American, Holman Mood and Alan Mann. All three teams included some small block GT 40’s. Ferrari entered one of it’s 330P3 cars. It was pretty obvious as the night set in, that the small block GT 40’s didn’t have the top speed to keep up with the Ferrari car. Miles and Dan Gurney driving big block GT 40 easily kept pace. The Ferrari car went out at the 7th hour with a transmission issue. With the main competition out of the race, a slow down message went out to Miles and Gurney. Miles ignored the order running a private race with Gurney. Carroll Shelby eventually climbed upon a block to tell Miles to slow down. The GT 40 wanted to save the cars for the upcoming LeMans race. Miles slowed down and so did Gurney. Gurney was leading Miles by a full lap. Then his car threw a rod in the engine and came to a stop 100 yards from the finish line. A minor official told Gurney he could push his car across the finish line. Gurney was instantly disqualified since the rules of the track said a driver could not push his car except to get it off the track. Mile cruised to victory. The first three places at Sebring in 1966 were held by Ford GT 40’s. Miles had wins at Daytona and Sebring, two of the three races.

Gurney’s 427 throwing a rod turned out to be a blessing in disguise. After the race, that engine was returned to Ford Engine & Foundary team to see what went wrong. Ken Miles joined that team and helped them set up a dyno to allow the engines to be able to be tested under simulated racing conditions and for 48 hours, twice as long as needed. After numerous failures, the team ended up with a version of the 427 that would survive for 48 hours. By the end of May 1966, Ford offered a 427 engine that consistently produced 485 horsepower at 6,400 RPM for the full 48 hours. Ford provided 12 of these better engines to the Shelby American, Alan Mann and Holman Moody teams in preparation for the assault on LeMans.

The brakes were also a major issue. The Mark II cars were heavier and faster than the 289 GT 40’s. Going at 200 mph than slowing to make a hairpin curve beat the brakes up. The heat would cause the brake fluid to boil, crack the pads and warp the rotors. Kelsey Hayes worked with the Ford engineers to come up with better materials. When the right combination was found, many sets were needed for LeMans. When the foundry that got the task of producing them said they couldn’t promise enough materials, Ford bought the company to guarantee delivery. Phil Remington at Shelby American and John Holman at Holman Moody came up with a method to swap out the entire unit, rotor pad and calipers and all quickly.

The Sebring win gave Ken two of the three legs of a Triple Crown of racing. LeMans was next. But Shelby had to convince Ford to allow Ken to drive at LeMans. The fact that he developed the cars and knew them better than anyone else didn’t matter to Ford. Ken was not viewed as a team player or a good person to represent Ford. Shelby prevailed and convinced Ford to allow Miles to pilot one of the GT 40’s at LeMans on June 19, 1966.

LeMans 1966 saw a huge team of Ford engineers arrive to support the GT 40 efforts. Three teams were entered. The Shelby and Holman Moody teams each has three GT 40s. The Alan Mann team had two cars. Ferrari entered 11 cars, three 330P3 cars and four 385P2 cars.

Miles ran a phenomenal race at LeMans. He drove his best race ever. As he would have said, the perfect race. He set track records and lapped everyone, including his team members in the other two Mark II GT 40’s. This is the famous race Ford Vs Ferrari is all about. Some Ford executive 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 awarded the win giving him the Triple Crown. A technicality gave the win to Bruce McLaren based on the fact that he had driven 8 meters (26 feet) further starting behind Miles.

LeMans finish on June 19, 1966. Miles and Hulme are in the #1 car to the right.The #2 car on the right was driven by Bruce McLaren & Chris Amon. The #5 car trailing. Both leading GT 40’s had completed 360 laps at LeMans, but the McLaren car started behind the Miles car, and was ruled to have driven father and was given the win.
Peterson Automotive and Superperformance video about the GT 40 and Ken Miles from YouTube (26 minutes)

You also know, if you saw the movie, that Ken returned to California and started testing a new unibodied GT 40. Three months after LeMans, Miles was on the test track and something went wrong, the GT 40 broke up and the car crashed, resulting in Ken’s death.

Ken Miles has a special place in racing history. A man for the times. The Shelby American team changed the future of performance cars. Shelby American would not have been the company it was without Ken Miles. The racing success of the Shelby American cars would not have been as successful 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 featured driving Cobra 98. Click Here