Ford vs. Ferrari: The Real Story Behind The Most Bitter Rivalry In Auto RacingChris Adelugba
History is full of famous rivalries. Most stem from a power grab or wounded pride—a few are a combination of the two. The best contentious relationships, however, are the ones that create the most legendary tales. Take the saga of how Henry Ford II—a.k.a., Hank the Deuce—attempted to acquire Ferrari in 1963, sparking a nearly decade-long feud between him and Enzo Ferrari, the strong-willed man that owned the Italian carmaker.
At its core, the Ferrari versus Ford narrative—which gets the full Hollywood treatment in the new Ford v. Ferrari movie starring academy award winners Matt Damon and Christian Bale—recounts a business deal gone wrong and the reaction of a stubborn, egotistical automotive titan who was willing spend some $25 million and thousands of engineering man-hours to avenge his pride. To Ford, that meant beating Ferrari in the world’s most prestigious car race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which the Prancing Horse had historically dominated.
The story begins in the early 1960s. U.S. purchasing habits changed as the Baby Boomer generation came of age. For the first time in history, youth were more important to American business’ bottom line than their parents. Boomers had lots of disposable income to spend on items such as cars, clothes and homes, and unlike their “a penny saved is a penny earned” parents, who had lived through the Great Depression and World War II, they were looking for something unique from a new vehicle. They wanted cars that were sportier and sexier, valuing speed and performance over comfort and reliability. They wanted sports cars, a fact that was not lost on the executives at Ford Motor Co.
In 1962, Ford was coming out of a major sales slide thanks to failed products like the Edsel and the growing popularity of rival products from GM and Chrysler. CEO Henry Ford II, the eldest son of Edsel Ford and eldest grandson of Henry Ford, was desperately looking for a way to turn the tide. Top executives, including Ford Division general manager Lee Iacocca, convinced him that the answer was a sports car.
The Rivals: The most famous and powerful CEO in America in the sixties, Henry Ford II (right), up against Enzo Ferrari, possible the most narcissistic man to walk the earth.MARKA / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO; ROGER VIOLLET/GETTY IMAGES
There was just one problem: Ford didn’t have a sports car in its portfolio, and there were no plans to build one. (Iacocca’s legendary Mustang was still a couple of years away from production.)
It was decided that the most expedient way bring a vehicle to market would be to acquire one. That’s when the idea was floated to purchase Ferrari, which in those years was primarily a race car company that sold street-legal machines only to fund its track exploits.
In the spring of 1963, after months of negotiation, an agreement seemed to be near. Ford would pay $10 million to Enzo Ferrari for his company and all its assets. A former racer, Enzo was supposedly eager to put a deal together with Ford, a move that would relieve him of the burden of running the company day-to-day. But at the eleventh hour, Ferrari balked at a clause in the contract that said Ford would control the budget and, thus, all the decisions governing the Ferrari racing team. Enzo was unwilling to relinquish control of his company’s motorsports program. He told Ford’s representatives that he’d never sell under those terms—nor, he added, would he sell to an ugly company that builds ugly cars in an ugly factory. It is rumored that he also insulted Henry II personally by insinuating that he couldn’t hold a candle to his grandfather, the real Henry Ford.
To add even more insult to injury, Enzo then turned around and sold a majority stake in Ferrari to fellow Italian automaker Fiat. Some Ford executives, including the Deuce, speculated that Enzo was never serious about selling to Ford at all but had only negotiated with the company in order to pressure Fiat to come up in price. The ploy worked, and Henry II was left looking like a fool—without a ride.
GT40 MK II Ferrari
Triple Threat: While a trio of GT40 MK IIs passed the finish line in Le Mans together, none of the Ferraris even finished the race.
To get his pound of flesh, the Deuce decided to build a sports car that would humiliate Ferrari where it mattered to him the most, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The seeds for the legendary GT40 race car were sowed.
Initially, the task of building the so-called Ferrari Killer was assigned to Ford’s Advanced Vehicles Group in the United Kingdom. They were already developing a vehicle that would use an engine created by Ford’s experimental engine group, located in Dearborn, Michigan.
While the first batch of GT40s to roll out of the Advance Vehicle Group were fast, they were also incredibly unstable and unreliable. And the brakes were downright dangerous.
According to Popular Mechanics, Ford engineers calculated that when a driver hit the brakes at the end of Le Mans’ Mulsanne Straight, the front brake rotors would heat up to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit within seconds, causing them to fail. This would prove to be disastrous—even deadly—for any driver trying to compete in northwestern France, even the best in the world.
Ultimately, the Ford team couldn’t figure out how to make the cars stay firmly on the tarmac, let alone run continuously for 24 hours, two musts for a win in Le Mans. After losing to Ferrari at Le Mans in 1964 and 1965, Ford turned to the legendary Los Angeles car designer Carroll Shelby, one of the only American drivers to ever win at Le Mans, to run race operations. Shelby (played in the movie by Matt Damon) was already a consultant on the project, but now he was in charge, responsible for its success—or failure.
Lights, Cameras, Action: Academy-award winners Matt Damon (left) and Christian Bale play Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles, respectively, in the film.MERRICK MORTON
After a challenging start, Shelby and his trusted friend, go-to test driver and engineering specialist Ken Miles (portrayed onscreen by Christian Bale), reinvented the GT40. And they did so by collaborating with Advanced Vehicle Group and Ford’s experimental engine group, rather than starting from scratch.
Shelby and Miles first improved the handling and stability of the vehicle by improving its aerodynamics through flow testing. They taped wool streamers or tufts to the exterior of the car to see how air traveled over and around the vehicle. The better a car cuts through the air, the less power is required to propel the vehicle, which also leads to less fuel consumption. If the yarn lay flat, all was good. If not, it indicated there were flaws in the car’s design that adversely affected downforce and stability. The data collected allowed Miles and Shelby to make body and suspension modifications that helped the GT40 be more stable and maneuverable on the track.
The brake problem was solved by Phil Remington, an engineer on the Ford team. He devised a quick-change brake system that allowed the mechanics to swap in new pads and rotors during a driver change, so the team didn’t have to worry about making the brakes last the entire race.
To address reliability issues, the team used a dynamometer. A standard practice today, putting an engine on a dyno, as it is commonly known, was revolutionary in the mid-sixties. A dynamometer is a device that can measure force, power, and speed—so you can figure out how much power you need or how much you have on hand. The experimental team videotaped practice sessions before Le Mans and programmed a dyno to re-create the various stress points on the track. Then the team ran the engine for 24 to 48 hours on the dyno, virtually re-creating the conditions the engine would face during the race so it wouldn’t break down before the finish line.
Ferrari versus Ford: The #2 GT40 Mk II piloted by Le Mans winner Bruce McLaren passe Richard Attwood in the #16 Ferrari 365 P2. The latter didn’t finish the race. UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP VIA GETTY
All their hard work paid off, and the GT40 Mk. II was born. Ford didn’t just defeat Ferrari at Le Mans in 1966, it humiliated the Italian stallions. While Ferrari didn’t even have a car that completed the race, GT40 Mk. II’s captured first, second and third places.
The finish wasn’t without controversy. Late in the race, Miles was well ahead of the competition, on his way to ending Ferrari’s dominance at Le Mans and becoming the only driver to win the world’s three biggest endurance race—the 24 hours of Daytona, 12 Hours of Sebring and 24 Hours of Le Mans—in the same year.
Ford’s PR guru Leo Beebe wanted to celebrate the win with a picture of the trio crossing the finish line together. So, he had Shelby order Miles to slow down and let the other GT40 teams catch up. After crossing the line, Miles was informed that he did not win the race. His teammate Bruce McLaren did. McLaren started several cars behind Miles. So even though Miles was faster until the very end, McLaren actually traveled farther faster, because Miles intentionally slowed down.
Sadly, Miles died before he could race at Le Mans again. Late in 1966, he was testing another Ford race car at Riverside International Raceway in California when he lost control and crashed. Miles did not survive the accident.
The Deuce, meanwhile, got a second taste of vengeance the following year at Le Mans—a Ford GT40 Mk. IV built by Shelby (who died in 2012 at 89) won the 1967 race. Ferrari finished second.
As for the Ford GT40, the great American supercar remains one of the most collectible automobiles in the world, with a sticker price that would blow back any driver’s hair. The 2020 Ford GT begins at $500,000 while the track-only Ford GT Mk. II sells for $1.2 million, the first car from a Ford factory to cost more than $1 million. Revenge, it seems, still pays.