Back in 1963, Henry Ford II wanted Ford Motor Company to have a champion race team. The problem? No viable sports cars for racing. But Enzo Ferrari’s pedigreed steeds constantly took checkered flags. Ford struck a tentative deal to acquire Ferrari for $10 million, but everything fell apart when Ferrari, dubbed “Il Commendatore,” found a clause in the contract that gave Ford control of the race budgets. Ferrari stormed away from the bargaining table, leaving Ford II, also known as “the Deuce,” seething. The Deuce vowed revenge and set upon clobbering Ferrari where it would hurt most: the race track. While Ford II flung unfathomable amounts of money at the fight, Ford’s racing team feverishly began development to create a race car capable of eviscerating Ferrari. This is the crux of Ford V Ferrari, out in theaters on November 15, starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale.
The tale is laden with egotistical, larger-than-life automotive giants, innovative and scrappy underdogs, and talented drivers who fearlessly pushed boundaries; all the hallmarks of a solid film. Here, some facts about the true story that inspired the film, and some about the production of Ford V Ferrari.
1. Ford direly needed help developing a race car that could last 24 hours.
Le Mans is the iconic endurance race that lasts a full day, and winning on this hallowed French circuit was a definitive way to demonstrate a driver’s prowess. It also showed that the manufacturer could build a mechanically reliable car that wouldn’t shake to pieces after being hammered at full tilt for a full day. “Ford underestimated the brilliance of Ferrari,” says A.J. Baime, author of Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans. “Ferrari had collected incredible engineers and designers and his genius was proven by the years of winning and creating the most exotic name in cars in the world.” A good race car is the sum of its parts, and Ford had never built a mid-engined racing car with a transaxle, and the engineers couldn’t get their creation, the GT40, to perform. The brakes failed, the gearbox failed, and the aerodynamics were terrifyingly causing the cars to lift at 200 miles an hour.
2. Carroll Shelby was only given mere months to whip the GT40 into fighting shape.
Shelby, played by Matt Damon, had built his own race cars and seen tremendous success at the 24 Hours of Daytona and 24 Hours of Sebring. “And he’d won his class at Le Mans in 1964,” Baime says, “so Ford believed he could help. Race cars take years to develop, but they gave him a couple of months.” Shelby and his crew stripped the GT40 back to simple components and started fresh. But Shelby had been forced to stop driving due to a bad heart, so he’d need a solid wheelman.
3. Ken Miles’ failed career as a garage owner helped put him in the driver’s seat of the GT40.
Shelby recruited Ken Miles, played by Christian Bale, to help with development. “Miles had come to the Los Angeles sports car scene in the Fifties and they raced against each other and became friends,” Baime shares. “Miles built his own race cars and had driven in Europe and initially had a garage where his claim was ‘the same brilliance that made Ken Miles a winning driver can make your car a good commuter.’ But Miles was terrible with money and couldn’t keep his business going so he went to work for Shelby.” In short order, they’d rectified a number of issues and the GT40 notched an important victory at the 24 Hours of Daytona.
4. A special program was concocted to test the Ford engine for 48 straight hours.
The development of the GT40 was, by far, the most intensive development program on any car “likely ever,” Baime says. The Deuce ordered the entire Ford corporation to focus on building this car and told them to do whatever it takes. “One Ford executive told Shelby ‘we’ll gold-plate the brakes if need be,’” Baime explains. That didn’t happen, but a custom machine was built to run the engine exactly as it would during the 24 Hours of Le Mans. “They programmed everything; all of the shifts and estimated engine RPMs. They even programmed the length of distance when Miles declutched. It was like a ghost racing a car,” Baime says. They ran the engine in a dynamometer room in Dearborn, Michigan, until it could last for 24 hours. When that was accomplished, they ran it for 48 straight hours, just to be sure.
5. Ford’s interminable bank account saw replacement windshields flown in on private jets.
In 1967, the windshields kept cracking and the team was running out of replacements. Ford frantically called Corning Glass on a Wednesday, begging for help. New tempering was employed and the fabricated windshields were loaded onto a New York-to-Paris commercial flight Thursday night in the passenger section, believing that the cargo hold temperatures could crack them. Upon landing in Paris, Ford had a private plane waiting to get them to Le Mans as quickly as possible. They arrived by Friday afternoon and the new compounds held throughout the duration of the race.
6. Ford’s final directives to Shelby and his race team was beyond blunt.
The Deuce issued small cards to his race director and one to Shelby at the start of the 1965 season. They simply said: “You better win. HF II.”
7. Enzo Ferrari knew Ferrari’s defeat was imminent.
“Even a genius can’t compete with an endless money supply,” Baime says. (Estimates place the amount of money the Deuce spent to be north of $25 million.) After Ford notched the first victory in 1966, Il Commendatore wrote in his annual end-of-year book that “we were beaten by Ford at Le Mans” noting the engine cylinders of the GT40 “were as big as wine bottles.”
8. Ferrari and Ford executives had a very awkward run-in at a race in 1965.
While attending a race at Ferrari’s track in Italy, a batch of Ford executives encountered Enzo himself in a public place. “The Ford guys gave this cloying speech about respecting Ferrari,” Baime says, to which Ferrari snarked, “Yeah, like the U.S. respects Russia.”
9. Christian Bale went to race school to learn how to drive.
Ford v Ferrari stunt coordinator Robert Nagle sent Bale to Bob Bondurant’s race school. Bondurant himself, 86, drove Shelby’s race cars to a win at the 1964 24 Hours of Le Mans and was a close friend of Miles. Bale would wrap up at race school and afterward talked “for five hours with Bob,” says Nagle. Bale, who learned on 180-hp, open-wheel Formula Mazdas, was calm under pressure from Nagle: “I’d hound Christian [on track] and he didn’t bobble once. When I pressure people like that I can usually see when they stop driving their car and start watching me in their mirrors. I have to say that he’s hands down the best actor I’ve ever trained.”
10. Bale had to quickly shed 70 pounds he’d packed on to play Dick Cheney in Vice.
Race cars have cramped cabins and seats, which weren’t great for Bale’s stature post-Vice, which he’d just finished filming right before this movie. See how Bale dropped the pounds fast over here.
11. The real cars were too priceless to use in Ford v Ferrari.
A 1965 GT40 recently sold for $7.65 million at auction, and a 1968 model fetched $11 million nearly a decade ago. The requirements of the vehicles on-screen meant they had to be driven hard for extended periods of time, so the filmmakers leased sixteen continuation cars built by Superformance, the only company to be licensed by Shelby and Ford to create and sell new versions of the Ford GTs. A continuation car isn’t a replica; it’s built to the same exacting standards as the cars were back in the 1960s, right down to the nuts, bolts, and welds, and they have official Shelby chassis numbers, as an original would bear. The Superformances aren’t cheap, either. GT40s can cost as much as $300,000.
12. The movie employed real race drivers, some of whom were the progeny of iconic race champions.
Many of the 400-plus cars used in the film, ranging from Corvettes, rebodied Porsche 911s, and replica Ferraris (powered by Chevrolet V-8s), were purposefully lacking any electronic safety systems, to further aid in the realism. Raw, powerful cars are best driven by race drivers, and Derek Hill, a two-time champion and son of Formula 1 luminary Phil Hill, was one of the stunt drivers. “On the Daytona straightaways, we were doing at least 160 mph,” Nagle said. “For the shot at Le Mans’ Mulsanne Straight, speeds approached 185 mph. That’s the realism I wanted and the realism [director] James Mangold wanted.”
13. Some stunts were hairier than others, including a flipping “Ferrari.”
To smash up a flipping replica Ferrari 275 GTB, a giant truck barreled down the track alongside the racer cars, with the faux Ferrari affixed to a ginormous air cannon. When they were ready, the truck driver nailed the piston, which stopped his truck and shot the car off somersaulting through the air to land on the track and smash into pieces.
14. One single lap at Le Mans in the film required shooting in six different locations.
Because the circuit at Le Mans has changed significantly from the Sixties, Mangold and the crew had to cobble together laps at the track from other locations that looked period-correct. Willow Springs Raceway (where Miles actually raced), California airports, rural Georgia roads, Road Atlanta, and more all served as stand-ins.
Ford v Ferrari opens nationwide on November 15, 2019.