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Ken Miles - The Shelby American Years

cover of the book "Ken Miles - The Shelby American Years" by Dave Freidman

Book Review: a book about a man, a driver, and a true automotive character... Ken Miles

First and foremost understand that the guy whose name is listed as the author, was there, shot that, and has here published (and expertly captioned) over 300 of his own photos … taken in the heat of battle, in the dark of the night, in the good times and the not-so-good times, and in the workshops and pit areas of the Shelby American Cobra teams.

By Doug Stokes

Wed, Jun 9, 2021 01:27 PM PST

KEN MILES - The Shelby American Years

By Dave Freidman

Forward by Peter Miles and Charles Agapiou

Publisher: www.cartechbooks.com

ISBN: 978-1-61325-597-1

$38.95 US

His name is Dave Friedman and his well-presented book is about a here-to-fore little known English ex-pat racing driver named Ken Miles who was so much a part of the Shelby Cobra story that (at least for this fan) it just leaps off the page here and roars on for some 230 (plus) pages.

Ken Miles in an RS550 Porsche at the Pomona Fairgrounds Course.
Miles hustles a Porsche 550RS at Pomona
A Classic shot of Ken Miles taming a Cobra at the Bridgehampton Circuit in Connecticut.
Bridgehampton: Miles tames the Cobra

The story here begins in 1963, with car mechanic Miles battling the giants of the West Coast sports car racing, among them: Dick Guldstrand, Bob Bondurant, Dan Gurney, Bill Krause, JP Kunstle, Jack McAfee, and Dave McDonald; Miles competing in lightweight machinery like 550RS and RS61 Porsches. A great driver, and an even greater mechanical genius, he became one of the first members of the vaunted Shelby American racing team contributing both driving skill and an intimate understanding of what made race cars go fast and stay together. Working with some of the best design and mechanical talent ever assembled (the great Phil Remington, Peter Brock, and many others, like John Morton, and the Agapiou brothers) he was an instant fit there.

Ken Miles coming out of a corner in a Ford GT...
Note the duct tape...
Ken Miles at the 1966 Le Mans
Ready for racing!
Ken Miles in a racing helmet talking to Twain who is wearing a cowboy hat.
The Englishman and the Texan ... Twains meet up, and it works. 

As it turned out, the former WW2 British Tank Commander (he was there at Normandy) was the sort of team leader that Carroll Shelby needed and came to rely on heavily to make the whole show work as well as it did. The photos are evocative - racing action and pit scenes that reveal the intimate details of the sport in sharp relief. These photos are the lasting character studies of the men and the machines that proudly wore the COBRA name on racetracks all over the world.

And then there’s Le Mans. What some called a "mistake" and others an outright steal of victory in the greatest long-distance race in the world - the 24 Hours of Le Mans - is graphically documented here by Friedman. The decision at the 1966 event* on an echelon finish for the three leading Ford GT40’s put the car that Miles and Dennis Hulme had lead most of the race in, slowed down and running slightly ahead of the Bruce McLaren/Chris Amon team car for a PR stunt “photo finish” when the checkered flag came down to end the grueling twice around the clock endurance contest.

 Ken Miles racing a Cobra at Nassau
 Miles in a Cobra at Nassau  (some "in-combat" body modifications evident here.)
Ken Miles and Charlie Agapiou standing next to each other beside a race car at the 1966 Le Mans.
Miles and Charlie Agapiou at Le Mans

With that the officials ruled that the McLaren/Amon car had started the race further back on the track (the famous “Le Mans Start” where cars are lined up at the pit wall and the drivers run across the track and jump in to begin the race) and therefore had covered the greatest distance for the 24 hours of the race.

Friedman quotes Miles’ friend and crew chief Charlie Agapiou about the finish, "Ford didn’t want Ken to win at Le Mans. They wanted the headlines to read: 'Ford Wins Le Mans' not 'Miles Becomes The First to Sweep Daytona, Sebring, and Le Mans'". Shelby later took responsibility, saying: "That was my (expletive)" and admitting that he should have overruled the onsite Ford brass who had ordered the blanket finish. It was something that a stoic Ken Miles sucked up, but that really hangs heavy in Friedman's photos of that day.

An image from the stands, of the still controversial finish of the 1966 Le Mans race
The still controversial finish of the 1966 Le Mans race

At the book’s end there’s just no real way around the tragic accident that took Miles’ life only two months later at Riverside Raceway. Friedman relates that awful story in measured terms (with no graphic photos) simply trying, it seems, to make some sort of sense of the man’s death testing a new iteration of the GT40 called the “J-Car.”

Ken Miles was 48 years old.

Author’s Note

“Stokes, it was just a movie… relax man,” that’s what I’ve heard way too many times from good friends, strangers, others, and directly from one of people who was portrayed in the film.  Doubtless you know what movie I’m referring to here.

“Ford v Ferrari” was a fairly well-made Hollywood film and most of the events that were chronicled actually happened to one degree of another.  It’s just my sense (and I was around back then and at races that he competed in) that Ken Miles was not as much an unlikable, surly character as he was simply single-minded.  And, sorry, but Matt Damon as Shelby did not work for anyone who ever was in the guy’s presence.

*There’s an excellent documentary on the race and that benighted finish that was made a few years back by Kahn Media: "8 Meters" tells the story of the 1966 Le Mans race that Ken Miles and Dennis Hulme "lost" by 26 feet 3 inches … or 8 meters.

About The Author

Doug Stokes's profile picture

Doug Stokes

Doug has a long and wide-ranging history in the motoring business. He served five years as the Executive Director of the International Kart Federation, and was the PR guy for the Mickey Thompson's Off-Road Championship Gran Prix. He worked racing PR for both Honda and Suzuki and was a senior PR person on the first Los Angeles (Vintage) Grand Prix. He was also the first PR Manager for Perris Auto Speedway, and spent over 20 years as the VP of Communications at Irwindale Speedway. Stokes is the recipient of the American Autowriters and Broadcaster’s 2005 Chapman Award for Excellence in Public Relations and was honored in 2015 by the Motor Press Guild with their Dean Batchelor Lifetime Achievement Award. “… I’ve also been reviewing automobiles and books for over 20 years, and really enjoy my LA Car assignments.” he added.

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