CC Cinema: Ford v Ferrari

Last June, new CC Editor Ed Snitkoff previewed the film “Ford v Ferrari”. Yesterday, my wife and I walked down to our local multiplex and saw the movie, 2 1/2 hours of almost non-stop Curbside and Trackside Classics.

I can’t really remember the last non-documentary racing movie I watched. It might have been “LeMans”, with Steve McQueen from 1971. I definitely do remember the first racing movie I saw in a theater, “Grand Prix” with James Garner and Francoise Hardy, in 1966. I was ten years old. I’ve never seen “Days of Thunder” or any of the Ricky Bobby parodies, nor any of the Fast and Furious films.

“Ford v Ferrari” centers around the relationship between Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), retired as a driver and building and selling Cobras at Shelby American in LA; and Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a British-born mechanic and driver also living in southern California.

The early scenes show Miles working in his sports car repair shop in LA, Shelby selling Cobras, and the two of them at Willow Springs Raceway with Miles racing an early, narrow-bodied small-block Cobra against early Sting Rays and older solid axle ‘Vettes.

These scenes are exciting, and well-filmed, but the cars looked just a bit too clean, new and colorful. I realized that almost everything I’d seen of that era was in black and white. It took most of the 2 1/2 hour movie for me to get used to the color. As many observed in response to the recent QOTD about automotive movie pet peeves, the cars were mostly period correct but just too nice looking.

Did Shelby really ever drive a Porsche 356 in 1963, let alone a 356 replica? And since when were 1963 California plates yellow-on-black with numbers preceding letters? Never.

In parallel with the SoCal racing scenes, we’re introduced to Henry Ford II, Lee Iacocca and other senior Ford managers. Ford decides to go racing – international sports car racing, not just NASCAR – and tries to buy Ferrari, but gets turned down. So Henry II decides to develop a sports car to beat Ferrari and win the 24 Hours of LeMans. In late 1963 or perhaps early 1964, Lee Iacocca travels to California to meet with Shelby and asks him to join the team. In a scene that doesn’t seem automotively credible, Lido shows up at Shelby’s shop in a convertible square Bird. Whether it’s a rental or more likely a regional corporate loaner, would a Ford VP really be driving a three or four year old car?

Similarly, some of the technical dialog doesn’t sound like anything car guys would say. There’s some vague discussion of aerodynamics and handling. but never once do terms like lift, or understeer, or brake fade come into use. When Ford decides to switch from the 255 small block of the first cars to a 427 big block, the engine is described (I think by the GT’s designer Roy Lunn) as coming from a stock car, with aluminum cylinder heads. At some point, there is mention of the displacement, but I think Shelby and Lunn would just call it a big block, with aluminum heads.

In another scene, I could have sworn that Shelby American engineer Phil Remington refers to a HARLEY carb. Surely he meant Holley. Another thing that bothered me was that although some of the other Ford drivers were named (Amon, McLaren, Gurney, Hulme and others), they were barely shown in the trackside scenes. Miles shared the driving at LeMans in 1966 with Denis Hulme, but aside from three or four words overheard spoken in a vaguely Antipodean accent, there is no mention of him or scenes with him driving, despite this race occupying at least 30 minutes of the film.

On the other hand, although Ken Miles is bankrupt when he’s hired by Shelby, the ’63 Country Squire he and his wife share seems appropriate. But all CC nit-picking aside, it was a good movie, though perhaps a bit too long. My wife, not a huge car or racing fan enjoyed it. We both thought Christian Bale’s acting was excellent … he portrayed Miles as a passionate and insightful driver and car developer, and a decent father and husband. And Damon’s Shelby and Jon Bernthal’s Iacocca came across as the charismatic and influential people we know they were.

I’ll end with a period black and white photo of the Ford GT’s at Le Mans in 1966. The film pretty much ends with this race (no more spoilers from me), but of course Ford GT’s went on to win again 1967 with the big block prototypes, and again in 1968 and 1969 with the small block “production” GT.