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Ford vs. Ferrari: The Real Story Behind The Bitter Rivalry

History is full of famous rivalries: Most are motivated by a need for control or a desire for revenge, and others are motivated by both. However, the greatest legendary stories come from the most difficult relationships. Consider the saga of how Henry Ford II, aka Hank the Deuce, and Enzo Ferrari, the resolute owner of the Italian automaker, clashed for nearly a decade after Ford II’s 1963 attempt to acquire Ferrari.

Is Ford vs Ferrari a Real Story?

ford vs ferrari

The story of Ferrari and Ford, as told in the new film Ford v. Ferrari starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale, is fundamentally about a business deal gone wrong and the reaction of a stubborn, egotistical automotive titan who was willing to spend about $25 million and thousands of engineering man-hours to avenge his pride. Ford’s goal was to end Ferrari’s dominance at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the most renowned auto race in the world.

The time period of this story is the early 1960s. The maturation of the Baby Boomer generation influenced a shift in American consumption patterns. Young people surpassed their parents as the most crucial demographic for the success of American businesses. Boomers had plenty of money to spend on things like automobiles, clothes, and houses, and they wanted something different from a new car than their “a penny saved is a penny earned” parents, who had endured the Great Depression and World War II. They preferred speed and performance to convenience and dependability and hence want sportier, sexier automobiles. Ford Motor Company management understood this demand for sports cars.

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All About the Ford vs Ferrari

ford vs ferrari

Having suffered from the failure of the Edsel and the rising popularity of competing models from General Motors and Chrysler, Ford was just beginning to recover from a sales slump in 1962. CEO Henry Ford II, Edsel Ford’s eldest son, and Henry Ford Sreldest .’s grandson were looking for any method to turn the company around. Ford Division general manager Lee Iacocca and other executives persuaded him that a sports car was the way to go.

The catch, however, was that Ford did not offer or intend to offer a sports car. (The release of Iacocca’s iconic Mustang was still a few years away at that point.)

It was thought that buying a vehicle would be the quickest route to selling one to the public. In those days, Ferrari was known primarily for its racing efforts and only offered street-legal vehicles to subsidize those efforts.

A deal finally seemed to be in sight by the spring of 1963 after months of discussion. Ford offered Enzo Ferrari a cool million to buy out his entire firm. Enzo, a former racer, was rumored to be keen to strike a deal with Ford, as doing so would free him from day-to-day operations at the company.

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However, Ferrari pulled out at the last minute because of a stipulation in the contract that gave Ford complete control over Ferrari’s racing team’s budget and, by extension, all of the team’s choices.

ford vs ferrari

Enzo refused to give up his authority over the company’s motorsports endeavors. In his conversations with Ford’s officials, he made it clear that he would never sell under those conditions, or to an ugly firm that produces terrible cars in an ugly factory. Supposedly, he even attacked Henry II personally by suggesting that he wasn’t as great a guy as his grandfather, the real Henry Ford.

Enzo then sold majority ownership in Ferrari to rival Italian automaker Fiat, further compounding the hurt. A few Ford executives, including the Deuce, have theorized that Enzo was merely pretending to be interested in selling to Ford in order to get Fiat to raise their offer. The plan succeeded, and King Henry II was left looking like a fool after he was stranded without transportation.

To exact his revenge on Ferrari, the Deuce constructed a sports car capable of destroying the Italian company at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The groundwork was laid for what would become the iconic GT40 racing car.

Ford’s Advanced Vehicles Group in the UK was originally tasked with developing the Ferrari Killer. Ford’s experimental engine group in Dearborn, Michigan, has already begun work on an engine that would power a vehicle under development.

The initial GT40s produced by the Advance Vehicle Group were quick, but they were also highly erratic and unreliable. In addition, the brakes were quite hazardous.

As reported by Popular Mechanics, Ford researchers determined that the front brake rotors would overheat to an unsafe 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit within seconds of a driver using the brakes at the end of the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans. If the best drivers in the world tried to race in this region of northwest France, they would likely meet with disaster.

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The Ford team failed to win Le Mans because they could not keep their cars on the track for the whole 24 hours. Ford hired Carroll Shelby, a famed car designer from Los Angeles and one of only three American drivers to win at Le Mans, after two consecutive losses to Ferrari at the race. Shelby (Matt Damon) had been working as a consultant on the project up until this point, but now he was in command and ultimately accountable for its success or failure.

Shelby and his trusty buddy, test driver and engineering specialist Ken Miles (portrayed in the film by Christian Bale), had a rocky start with the GT40 but eventually perfected it. They did not have to start from scratch because they worked with the Advanced Vehicle Group and Ford’s experimental engine group.

Shelby and Miles first enhanced the vehicle’s handling and stability by enhancing its aerodynamics through flow testing. To test the flow of air over and around the car, they taped wool streamers or tufts to the exterior. When an automobile is more efficient in slicing through the air, it uses less energy to go forward, which in turn reduces its impact on the environment by reducing its fuel consumption.

ford vs ferrari

For everything to be okay, it was necessary that the yarn lay flat. If not, then the car’s design errors compromised its downforce and stability. Based on the collected information, Miles and Shelby were able to improve the GT40’s handling and stability by modifying the car’s body and suspension.

Phil Remington, an engineer on the Ford team, figured out how to fix the brakes. So that the team wouldn’t have to worry about the brakes lasting the entire race, he came up with a quick-change brake system that would allow the mechanics to switch in new pads and rotors during a driver change.

The group employed a dynamometer to examine the system’s dependability. Although testing an engine on a dyno, as it is more popularly known, is now commonplace, it was a radical concept back in the 1960s. By measuring force, power, and speed, a dynamometer can help you assess your power requirements and available resources. The experimental group had filmed previous practice sessions in preparation for Le Mans and then used a dyno to simulate the track’s numerous stress spots. The crew next subjected the engine to 24 to 48 hours of grueling dyno runs, simulating race conditions in an effort to prevent a catastrophic failure.

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How did Ken Miles Die?

The GT40 Mk. II was the result of their efforts, and it was a success. When Ford competed against Ferrari at Le Mans in 1966, it not only won but completely dominated the Italian racecar giants. While no Ferraris crossed the finish line, three GT40 Mk. I did so.

The conclusion was not without contention. At the end of the race, Miles had a comfortable lead and was on his approach to being the first driver to win the 24 Hours of Daytona, the 12 Hours of Sebring, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the same calendar year.

Leo Beebe, Ford’s public relations guru, wished to commemorate the victory with a photo of the three of them at the finish line. Consequently, he instructed Shelby to tell Miles to slow down so the other GT40 teams could catch up to them. The announcer told Miles after he crossed the finish line that he had come in second. Bruce McLaren, a teammate, was the one who did it. McLaren’s lineup was delayed behind Miles’ by a few vehicles at the start. So, Miles was the quicker runner-up until the very end, but McLaren still covered more ground in less time due to Miles’s deliberate slowdown.

Miles passed away too soon to compete in another Le Man’s event. While conducting testing on yet another Ford race car around the end of 1966, he was involved in a fatal accident at California’s Riverside International Raceway. The accident ultimately proved fatal for Miles.

But the Deuce got its revenge the following year at Le Mans when Shelby’s (who died in 2012 at age 89) Ford GT40 Mk. IV took first place. A Ferrari came in second place.

The Ford GT40 is still one of the most collectible cars in the world, with a price tag that would make any driver’s hair stand on end. In 2020, the base price of a Ford GT will be zero dollars, while the track-only Ford GT Mk. II will set you back $1.2 million. It appears that getting even is still profitable.

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Fact vs. Fiction in Ford v. Ferrari

Since not all rivalries are sexy enough for Hollywood, Ford v Ferrari screenwriters John-Henry Butterworth, Jez Butterworth and Jason Keller took some creative license with the real story. Here are five detours the movie took with the truth:

ford vs ferrari

Turn 1: Henry Ford II addressed the production line at the Rouge River plant in Dearborn, Michigan.

Ford had 20 lieutenants between the assembly floor and his jurisdiction. Any one of them would have given that speech, but not the chief executive.

Turn 2: The Deuce went on a joy ride in the GT40 MKII with Carroll Shelby.

There’s no way the CEO of Ford Motor Company would jump into a race car without adequate protection.

Turn 3: Lee Iaccoca was intimately involved in the negotiations with Enzo Ferrari.

A Ford contingent did travel to Maranello, Italy, on the orders of Henry II to buy Ferrari, but Iacocca was not part of the group.

Turn 4: Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby had a brawl while gearing up for Le Mans.

Shelby and Miles were both headstrong, incredibly intense and brilliant guys. There’s no doubt that they butted heads on a very regular basis, and the film certainly alludes to that. But there is no evidence they ever had a physical altercation.

Turn 5: Ford executives drank in Pit Row after winning Le Mans in 1966.

The car would have been disqualified if officials had observed that behavior on the track.

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