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Ken Miles - unsung hero of the GT40 program

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#1 rvec


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Posted 29 December 2018 - 09:14 AM

Ken Miles, wearing a forced smile, congratulated Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon who had just won the classic LeMans race in 66. Inside, however, Miles was angry and disappointed because he knew that the victory had been stolen from him and co-driver Denny Hulme.
With only two hours to go and the LeMans race well in hand, word came down from the Ford top brass, that for public relations purposes, the three Mk IIs, running 1-2-3 at the time, would be staged to finish together. Miles, who was ahead, was directed to slow his pace so that the second place Mk II driven by McLaren/Amon could close. At the finish, both cars were on the same lap. The third Mk II, several laps down, driven by Bucknum/Hutcherson joined the procession and was some yards behind the leaders. When the checkered flag dropped, the first and second placed cars were deemed to have finished in a dead heat. The organizers scored the McLaren/Amon as the winner citing a rule that in case of a dead heat, the car that started further back on the grid would be the winner having covered more ground over the twenty four hour period.

Only this orchestrated finish had robbed Ken of a well-deserved victory. In addition, no driver had achieved wins at Daytona, Sebring and LeMans (dubbed the “Triple Crown”) in the same year. Ken was robbed of that achievement as well. He was inconsolable. At 47 years of age, Ken knew he might not have another shot at winning LeMans. At that point, no one was sure that Ford would even back an entry in 1967. After all, winning LeMans was Henry Ford II’s goal and it had been achieved.

To this day, many people do not understand the critical role that Ken Miles played in the success of the GT40 program. As the top development driver on the Shelby American team, Ken put in more test laps on the GT40 than any other pilot. Along with Phil Remington (Shelby American’s Chief Engineer) and Carroll Smith (Shelby American’s Team Manager) they discovered and corrected issues that plagued the early prototypes of both the small and big block varieties. Ken spent a lifetime positioning himself for the opportunity to win LeMans. His story deserves to be told in some detail.






Ken was born on November 1, 1918 into a family of modest means in Sutton Coldfield, near Birmingham, England. At fifteen years old, Ken made a failed attempt to run away from home to America. Instead of returning to a traditional education, Ken became an apprentice at Wolseley Motors. He was delighted with that turn of events. Wolseley sent Ken to Birmingham Technical College in Birmingham England where he studied under experienced engineers and craftsmen to learn the automotive trade, and learn he did. Unfortunately, World War Two intervened and Ken entered the fray as a tank commander. After the war ended, Ken, twenty-six years old at the time, attempted to make it on the British racing scene. The venture left Ken, his wife Mollie and their infant son in financial ruin.

Ken’s first break came in 1951 from a boyhood friend, John Beazley, from Sutton Coldfield. John, working in California, secured a job for Ken at Gough Industries as a Service Manager. Gough was a distributor of M.Gs in the Western United States and was interested in promoting the M.G. brand through racing. Gough encouraged Ken to race and provided some support for his effort. Ken began by racing stock M.Gs but moved quickly to designing and building a machine of his own specification. With the help of two Norwegian co-workers, they labored through the winter of 52 and into the spring of 53 to complete the car, dubbed the R1. The chassis was constructed from steel tubing. The front end based upon a Morris Minor rack, torsion bars with M.G. hubs. The rear suspension was from an MG TC. The bodywork was fabricated by hand from sheet aluminum. The car had a cigar shape with a blunted nose. Its open wheels were shrouded with cycle fenders. The power plant was a 1466 cc MG MKII series motor. Driving the R1, Ken mopped up the competition throughout 52 and into the spring of 53 in club racing, winning an unprecedented number of events. The R1 even won several contests in the over 1500 cc class against much more sophisticated machines including Jaguars and Allards.

Ken was one of the first drivers to take physical fitness seriously. He ran and lifted weights regularly. At five feet eleven inches in height he was a lean 147 pounds with sharply defined, ropey muscles. His fitness prepared him for the grueling endurance events he would enter in later years.

For the 1955 season, Ken designed and built a lighter and more powerful machine, the R2. The car was nicknamed the “Flying Shingle”. It was constructed of small diameter tubing, again around an aluminum body and TC running gear. It looked like an MG TF on steroids. Unfortunately, a confrontation with his employer over the R2’s design led to Ken’s departure from Gough. He secured a job with Clem Atwater’s MG and Austin Healey dealership in the San Fernando Valley. There he set up a new race car prep department. After a few problems which were sorted out rather quickly, the R2 also became a successful club racer winning its share of under 1500 cc events and placing well against competition in the over 1500 cc class.

Ken developed a reputation driving small bore cars. In 1955, M.G. Cars invited Ken to drive a prototype MGA at LeMans. He and co-driver Johnny Lockett finished twelfth overall and eight laps ahead of the TR2 works entry. Before returning to the States, Ken stopped in England to visit Colin Chapman. Perhaps Ken could import Lotus cars to America. A successful Lotus distributorship could have been a very lucrative venture; however, Ken could not find the cash to bring the deal to fruition.

Also, in 55, Ken drove a 4.5 liter Ferrari at the Seattle Seafair SCCA Nationals finishing third behind Carroll Shelby’s 4.9 liter Ferrari and Phil Hill’s 3 liter Ferrari Monza. In a similar matchup at a race in Santa Barbara, Ken, Phil and Ernie McAfee swapped the lead. Unfortunately, the Ferrari that Ken was driving developed an oil leak and was forced to retire. His performance in these two races proved that Ken could handle these much more powerful machines.

Porsches began challenging British machines in sports car racing. John von Neumann of Competition Motors hired Ken to race a Porsche 550 Spyder and to work as a field service representative. Ken’s first win in the Porsche 550 was at Torrey Pines in January of 1956. In 1956 – 1957, Ken successfully campaigned the von Neumann Porsche 550 Spyder and another special; a Porsche powered Cooper (nicknamed the “Pooper”). Porsche asked that the Pooper be retired because it was regularly beating customer Porsche 550s. One of Ken’s more impressive performances was delivered at the twelve hours of Sebring in 1957. Ken and co-driver John-Pierre Kunstle brought the Porsche 550 RS home for a second in class finish. A dispute with von Neumann led to a parting of ways at the end of 1957.

1958 was a banner year for the Miles family. Ken, his wife Mollie and their son Peter became American citizens. It was also Ken’s first year with the Estes-Zipper Precision Motors race team. In March of 58, Ken and his co-driver Jack McAfee finished second in class with a Precision Motors Spyder at the twelve hours of Sebring. Then in October, Ken won his class in the Los Angeles Times Grand Prix held at Riverside. From 58-63 Ken won 38 of 44 races in Estes-Zipper Porsches.

Ken signed with Frank Zillner to drive a Porsche RS61 in the USAC professional road racing series in 1961 and won the series with consistent performances. In addition, in 1961, Ian Garrard, President of the Los Angeles office of the Rootes Group, hired Ken to race a Sunbeam Alpine in the Calif. Sports Car Club Series. Ken took home first place in F-Production with the Sunbeam.

Carroll Shelby’s Cobra made its debut at Riverside in October of 1962. The car showed great promise but needed development work. Ken joined fellow driver Dave McDonald at Shelby American in 1963. A bit later in the season Bob Holbert was hired by Shelby as their third driver. Throughout 63, the Cobras were raced in club events and the USRRC. The three drivers dominated the manufacturer’s championship showing the Corvettes only tail lights. Two Cobras were entered in the LeMans twenty four hour race in 1963. One was entered by A.C. Cars while the other by East Coast distributor Ed Hugus.

In 1964 Ken was promoted to the position of Competition Manager for Shelby American. Carroll had filed paperwork to homologate the Cobra with the F.I.A. for the Grand Touring World Championship. The Cobras were going to race in Europe and challenge Ferrari in the Grand Touring class. Initially, the roadsters would carry the bulk of the load; however a new streamlined body would be developed to race at high speed courses like Daytona and LeMans. The new body, dubbed the “Cobra Daytona” was designed by Shelby employee, Peter Brock and was fabricated on a wooden buck in light-weight aluminum. The Cobra Daytona made its debut at Daytona in 64. The streamlined machine, driven by Holbert/McDonald, showed great promise. The car was running in first place, when, unfortunately it caught fire during a pit stop as fuel dripped on an overheating differential. The Daytona next appeared at Sebring and finished fourth and first in the GT class. Ken Miles drove an unusual roadster at Sebring. This development vehicle was powered by the rock crushing 427 cubic inch motor. A rare driving error sent the Cobra off the road and into a tree prematurely ending its debut performance. The 427 Cobra went on to be one of the most sought after machines for collectors and vintage racers alike.

In 64, Ken also became involved in another special project. The success that Shelby achieved with the Cobra did not go unnoticed. Ian Garrard hoped that the concept of stuffing an American made V8 into a lightweight European Sports car could be duplicated using the Sunbeam Alpine chassis. Ken’s experience building and racing prototypes of his own design made Ken a logical choice for the project. The first prototype was completed in a single weekend by Ken and two friends. It was a bit rough but it was a proof of concept car. Garrard liked the car well enough to hire Shelby American to produce a second more refined car with the motor set further back in the chassis than the initial prototype. And so, the Sunbeam Tiger was born.

As the Cobra and Cobra Daytona were having a successful year in 64, Ford’s Prototype, small block, GT40 was not. The GT40s were quick but suffered from a number of problems. They were entered at Nurburgring, Reims, LeMans, and two races at the Nassau Speed Weeks. Not a single GT40 finished. Impatient for a win, Ford assigned Shelby American to replace Ford Advanced Vehicles (a Ford subsidiary run by John Wyer) with responsibility to develop the GT40. Understanding the importance of the GT40 program, Shelby assigned his best men to the project. Ken Miles was selected as the development driver, Carrol Smith as team manager and Phil Remington as chief engineer. [/size]
The two GT40s which failed to finish at Nassau Speed week events arrived at the Shelby shop straight from the races. The vehicles were steam cleaned, torn apart and reassembled. They were painted in Shelby team colors, guardsman blue with white stripes. New Shelby prepared 289 cubic inch motors were installed. Initial testing was performed at Riverside. Carroll Smith, Phil Remington and a few others watched as Ken Miles flung the car around the course. Ken soon returned to the pits. Smith and Remington awaited the verdict. “It’s bloody awful” said Ken. Testing and development continued at Willow Springs.  As a result, several significant changes were made. In no small part, Ken’s experience as a development driver and constructor contributed to the effort. Ken was paired with Texan, Lloyd Ruby, to drive a GT40 at the Daytona 2000K event. The team won the race. A second GT40 driven by Ginther/Bondurant finished third. Ken’s win at Daytona was followed by a second place at Sebring (the winner was a Chaparral, not homologated into the F.I.A. World Championship).

While Ken was helping to develop the small block GT40 Mk I, Roy Lunn, the head of Kar Kraft (another wholly owned Ford subsidiary) and Roy’s team were busy building a GT40 prototype, dubbed the Mk II, powered by a 427 cubic inch motor. Ken, along with Phil Remington were summoned to the Romeo test facility, a high speed five mile test track located about an hour drive north of Detroit. Miles took the wheel, drove some laps, conferred with Remington, who changed the suspension settings. More laps and more adjustments. Finally the car hit 210 on the straight and averaged 201.5 for a given lap. After the session, Ken said, “That’s the car I want to drive at LeMans this year”.

The first Mk II prototype was shipped to Shelby’s shop in L.A. immediately after the test at Romeo. Roy Lunn set about constructing a second Mk II prototype for the LeMans race. Development work continued on the Mk II at Riverside. The car was not as agile as the Mk I but it was very quick on the straights. If the Mk II could hold together for 24 hours it had a good chance to win LeMans in 1965. Unfortunately neither Mk II finished LeMans in 1965. Both succumbed to gearbox failure. The problem was later traced to poor quality control. One of the gearboxes was fitted with a gear destined for scrap. The other had been assembled with some dirt on a bearing surface. LeMans 65 was a huge disappointment for Ford. Not only did the big blocks fail to finish but no Mk Is finished either (here the main cause was head gasket failure).

Ford brass decided to focus on big block prototypes for the 1966 season. The Mk II warranted further development. In addition, Kar Kraft would develop a replacement for the Mk II that was lighter and therefore faster than its predecessor. Ken Miles was a key member of the Mk II development team. The first tests were run in August of 1965 at the Daytona track. Then off to the Dearborn wind tunnel then to Kingman Arizona for extensive testing. Day and night Ken toiled throwing the car through turns and hurtling down straights. Then it was on to Sebring for more testing. Over the months of testing, the Mk II emerged as a formidable race car. Problems were identified and addressed. The Mk II was ready for the first race of the 1966 season, the Daytona twenty four hours.

Ken had more seat time in the Mk II than any other driver. It showed. He qualified first on the grid at Daytona; ahead of top drivers, McLaren, Ginther, Andretti, Gurney and the rest. In the race, Ken, the designated “rabbit” went out like a rocket and was never challenged. He and co-driver Lloyd Ruby won easily. In fact, Mk IIs finished 1-2-3-5, a testament to all of the hard work of Ken Miles and the Shelby development team.

Sebring was a repeat of Daytona although not an easy win for the driver team of Miles/Ruby. The Gurney/Grant Mk II was in the lead entering the final lap but the Gurney’s Mk II dropped a rod only several hundred yards from the finish, giving Miles/Ruby the win. The Mk II driven by Hansgen/Donohue was second.

The Mk IIs and Ken Miles were ready for LeMans. Miles/Hulme drove a brilliant race. At one point late in the race Miles/Hulme were ahead of McLaren/Amon by about three laps. Unfortunately the staged finish robbed Ken and Denny of the win a LeMans in 66.

Many believed that after the win at LeMans, Ford would withdraw from the international racing scene to concentrate its efforts on the domestic market; however, Henry Ford II had another idea. He wanted to win LeMans with a car designed and built wholly in the United States and win with American drivers. With this end in mind, works teams would not compete in races for the balance of the 1966 season. Instead, the focus would shift to developing the J car into the 1967 LeMans winner.  That would become quite a formidable task. Again, Shelby American and Ken Miles would be an integral part of the development of the new racer. At 47, it looked like the aging Ken Miles would have another shot at LeMans in 1967.

Testing of the J Car began at Riverside on August fifteenth 1966 with Ken Miles at the wheel. On the third day of practice the car went out of control on the high-speed one mile straight. The car shattered upon impact and burst into flames. Miles was thrown from the car and was killed instantly. The wreckage was mangled so badly that the cause of the accident was never determined; however, the consensus was that driver error was not a factor. This was a tragic ending to an unfulfilled racing career.

After the fatal crash, the J car program was suspended for some time. Finally it was decided to resume the program. The J cars were strengthened by adding a NASCAR style roll cage. The high speed instability problem was finally solved when the J car body was redesigned by a small team led by Phil Remington. The re-bodied J car was re-christened the GT40 Mk IV and went on to win LeMans in 1967 driven by Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt. Had Ken Miles lived, he might have been in that winners circle.

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Rich Vecchio

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