Ford V Ferrari: The Untold Story of Ken Miller
– By Pioneer Auto Museum
Warning: If you have yet to watch Ford V Ferrari and don’t know the true story behind the movie, you may want to tread lightly. Spoilers ahead!
On the heels of the massive success of the new film Ford V. Ferrari, we thought it would be interesting to learn a bit more about the hall of fame driver responsible for the Ford Shelby winning (sort of) the 24 hour Le Mans endurance race in 1966, after five consecutive years of Ferrari dominance. We knew the name Ken Miles, and we knew about his genius ability to race high powered, high performance vehicles around any race track that was put under his foot pedals.
What we didn’t know, however, was that there were many people that didn’t believe he died in a fiery crash on August 17, 1966 while test driving the new Ford J-car prototype, just two months after racing in the biggest race of his career. The Le Mans race itself is for another blog at another time; today we want to share with you the story of Ken Miles surviving the crash that claimed his life, or…didn’t?
How did this conspiracy come to be?
It started with a police officer named Fred Jones, who believed it possible that Ken Miles may have been alive and living in an abandoned school bus in rural Wisconsin during the 80’s. While a police officer, Jones was contacted by a car enthusiast who was doing research on Miles and the J-car, when he discovered that there were two death certificates on file in the Riverside County archives, the same county where Miles had crashed and seemingly died. This raised suspicion with the officer, who began his own investigation.
Through his investigation, he was able to produce a few eyewitnesses who believed that Ken was still breathing when he was loaded into the ambulance, although he had suffered some massive head injuries. There were others though, who insisted the legendary driver was killed in the crash.
Later on in the late ‘80’s, Jones retired from police work, and while living in Pebble Beach, began collecting Cobras and race cars. It was at this time that he began traveling east, to visit a man known as Ken Miles, living in Scandinavia, Wisconsin. The man was living in poverty; his body ravaged by injuries, and relied upon crutches to help him around. He was scraping by in life by repairing power mowers, a far cry from a legend of the speedway.
Jones referred to him as “quiet, self-effacing, and hardly the show-off he was known to be. His neighbors called him the 'ex-race driver.' He didn't seem to have an English accent, except for a few phrases, and his memory was spotty. Yet he seemed to know a great deal about Cobras and Shelby American. What shocked me were his driving skills. He had a beat-up old Ford Torino sedan, and he flung the thing around with uncanny skill."
There was something about him that caused Jones to question the validity of his claim, though. Earlobes. "Based on the pictures of Miles that I could find, the ear lobes didn't match. That's a pretty definite way to identify people and difficult to alter," says Jones.
The investigation into the truth
The biggest question remained; why would this legendary race car driver be living in poverty, in the backwaters of rural Wisconsin, even if he had in fact survived the crash at Riverside? The supposed Ken Miles spoke to Jones as to how this came to be. "He claimed to have been given a couple of million dollars by Ford to disappear," recalls Jones. "He said they didn't want a badly injured survivor of one of their car crashes to be in public. After moving to Hawaii, he told me his wife, Mollie, and son, Peter, became estranged and made off with his money."
That’s a pretty lofty tale to tell, indeed. Jones wanted more answers, and so he attempted to get some from those closest to him. Phil Remington, who was Shelby’s aide-de-camp during the Cobra wars, was staunch in his insistence that Miles had in fact died at Riverside, finding it offensive to even suggest that he may have been alive. Shelby driver Bob Bondurant was also quite convinced that there was no truth to the rumors of his escape from the fiery crash. But when Jones found Carroll Shelby at the Monterey Historics one afternoon, he received a different kind of response. When questioned about the possibility of Miles being alive, Shelby reportedly dropped a plate of food in shock and refused to speak about the issue.
What do you believe?
Make what you will about that incident, and the whole tale altogether. It’s a wild world we live in, and stories like this make for interesting water cooler discussion. As to the validity of any of this, we certainly don’t know, and it’s all a bit absurd to ponder. But, it sure makes the legend of Ken Miles a bit more fun, doesn’t it?
There are no conspiracies about the Pioneer Auto Show, just some amazing history that the whole family can enjoy. Come out and see us and learn the tales behind some of the great vehicles, antiques and collectibles of the past!