Ken Miles

Date of birth: November 1 1918

Deceased: August 17 1966

Biography Ken Miles

Ken Miles was born Kenneth Henry J Miles on November 1, 1918, in England in a rural town called Sutton Coldfield, not that far from Birmingham. From his early childhood on,  Ken Miles showed interest in mechanics. He started driving motorbikes at the very young age of 11 years. This soon resulted in a broken nose and the loss of some teeth after a crash. But even at that young age, Miles showed his perseverance and continued driving. 

Miles always wanted to be a mechanic. And at the age of 15, a dream came true. Ken Miles quit school to become an apprentice at Wolseley Motors.  World War II intervened and Miles spent seven years on various duties having to do with machinery and mechanics. During the war, he was also appointed as a driving instructor at Blackpool, England. In 1942, he was promoted to the rank of staff sergeant, and he was also a part of “Operation D Day,” which is the largest seaborne invasion in history.

Moving to the USA

After the war, he returned to the motors industry. Miles kept on pursuing a racing career, this time however on 4 wheels. Some victories in local races and hill-climbs were the best he could achieve.  In early 1952 Ken miles moved to the USA to start working as service manager for the Southern California MG distributor. Miles started racing for the company in a stock MG-TD. In 1953, he won his first race in the United States, at Pebble Beach and won every race in the under-1500cc class that year.

Ken Miles taking victory in the Flying Shingle at the 1955 Palm Springs Road Race.
Miles taking victory in the Flying Shingle at the 1955 Palm Springs Road Race.

In 1955, Miles designed, constructed, and raced a car from MG components named “The Flying Shingle.”, a car he mainly put together himself. In the same year, he had participated in a race with that car in Palm Springs to take the victory. However, it turned out that the fenders of the car were too wide. This resulted in a disqualification. One of the most remembered races of the Flying Shingle was at the 1956 Santa Barbara races against Pete Lovely in his Cooper-Porsche, the Pooper. Ken won on reliability but Lovely’s Pooper, demonstrably faster, was a sign of the times. The Porsches were beginning to make their presence felt in racing.

Ken Miles and Porsche

Ken Miles in John von Neumann's Porsche 550 gets the jump on Bob Drake in Joe Lubin's Cooper- Climax Bobtail Hourglass Field 1957
Ken Miles in John von Neumann’s Porsche 550 gets the jump on Bob Drake in Joe Lubin’s Cooper- Climax Bobtail Hourglass Field 1957

In 1956 Ken Miles began driving Porsche Spyders for Johnny von Neumann, the Southern California VW-Porsche distributor. In his first outing in a Porsche, he nearly destroyed the Porsche 550 Spyder at the Torrey Pine races, getting too deep in a left-hand sweep during Saturday practices. Von Neumann handed Ken Miles an older Porsche 550 Spyder for the Sunday event. And Miles responded by taking first at the under 1500cc class. He then entered the main event and took 3rd overall ahead of a Jaguar D type. That same year, Ken Miles took another 3 victories in the Porsche 550 Spyder: San Diego, Bakersfield, and Santa Barbara. His teammate Richie Ginther won 5 races.

The Pooper Porsche

The ex-Ken Miles "Pooper" at Laguna Seca, 1958. This car is now in the collection of Dr. Julio Palmaz. Bill Hewitt photo
The ex-Ken Miles “Pooper” at Laguna Seca, 1958. This car is now in the collection of Dr. Julio Palmaz. Bill Hewitt photo

But despite these successes, lightweight Coopers and Lotus race-cars started outclassing the Porsches. The answer was the newer Porsche 550A. But Von Neumann had difficulties with the supply of that newer Porsche. Soon the idea rose to make build their own car. Inspired by Pete Lovely’s Cooper-Porsche, Von Neumann ordered a Cooper Bobtail without engine and gearbox. Ken Miles managed to power the car with a 550 engine and transmission. They further modified the body, with the Pooper Porsche as the final result. In Pomona, the Pooper made his debut, with Miles at the wheel. He immediately took 2nd place. In the next race at Paramount Ranch, he took victories in the preliminary race as well as in the main event, beating the big-bore machines.

Porsche however didn’t like the idea of mating a Porsche with a Cooper. So von Neumann had to sell the Pooper not to lose his franchise. He replaced it with a Porsche 550A. Even though a minor car compared to the Pooper Porsche, that couldn’t keep Ken Miles from the winner’s circle. In April 1957, Ken Miles drove a race in Avandaro Mexico where he met the young Ricardo Rodriguez. They became friends, and Ken Miles was keen to see the young Rodriguez back at Riverside. However, von Neumann headed to Europe and left instructions that Miles could not compete in Riverside. Reason enough for Ken Miles to resign at the end of the season.

Otto Zipper and Precision Motor Cars

Ken Miles then moved to Otto Zipper and Bob Estes Precision Motors. Cars for the 1958 season.  They bought an old Porsche 550 and added a Porsche 550A later in the season. However, Jack McAfee outclassed them in a Porsche 550A tuned by Vasek Polak.  In 1959 things went better, when Precision Motors acquired a Porsche 718 RSK. Even though Miles found the new racer very unpredictable, he knew to get it under control. Soon Miles loved the Porsche RSK and he continued to race it during the next 2 seasons, together with the Porsche 550A he loved so much.

Ken Miles, driving Porsche 550A #50, leads the field away from the start of the Los Angeles Examiner Grand Prix on the Pomona Fairgrounds circuit. Photo- Peter Miles Collection
Ken Miles, driving Porsche 550A #50, leads the field away from the start of the 1958 Los Angeles Examiner Grand Prix on the Pomona Fairgrounds circuit. Photo- Peter Miles Collection

In 1960 Precision Motors changed cars again and moved up to the Porsche RS60. At the Los Angeles Grand-Prix, he took 2nd to Carroll Shelby’s new Tipo 61 birdcage Maserati and finished ahead of 3 3.0 liter Ferraris. In 1961, Miles drove a Porsche RS61 for Frank Zilner, owner of  Crandal Industries. In other events, he competed in an Otto Zipper car. 

1962 Dolphin Porsche - The Porphin
1962 Dolphin Porsche – The Porphin

After the 1961 season, when Porsche decided not to continue the RS Spyders to raise funds for the F1 program, Miles helped the Dolphin racing car company to design a one-off Porsche Special, the Porphin. Miles drove the Porphin to a class win and 2nd overall at Pomona. He then had a falling out with Zipper later that season and left to race Cobras for Caroll Shelby. 

Miles and Le Mans 24H

Miles became a part of the “Shelby Cobra Racing Team.”  He helped in creating the “Daytona Coupe” and “427 versions” of the Cobra and the Ford GT 40. In 1963, Miles was appointed as the chief test rider of “Shelby American.” In 1965, Miles took part in the Le Mans 24H  with Bruce McLaren in a  “Ford GT Mk II” .  They retired from the race due to a gearbox problem.

Miles at the Daytona Continental ‘65
Miles at the Daytona Continental ‘65

1966 was the most successful year for Ken Miles. He had won both Sebring 12H and Daytona 24H. Miles wanted to score a hattrick by winning the Le Mans 24H too. He created and designed the Ford GT40 with “Shelby American” and he was racing on behalf of Ford. Ford had 2 other teams that took part in the Le Mans 24H. By the end of the race, Miles was leading by a considerable number of laps against all the other teams.

Miles testing the first GT40 at Riverside
Miles testing the first GT40 at Riverside

However, Ford Executives wanted a photo of all 3 Ford cars crossing the finish line together. Shelby was ordered to orchestrate a formation finish to trigger a dead heat, with Denny Hulme/Miles in the lead ahead of McLaren/Amon in third. Miles slowed down, realizing that in the event of a dead heat, the qualifying times would be used and McLaren would have been declared the winner.

Ken Miles was key in Ford’s triumph at Le Mans in 1966, developing and racing the Ford GT40, as depicted in the film Le Mans ’66. He also developed the Shelby Cobra. But Miles is also known for missing out on the Le Mans win in 1966; he gave up a dominant lead in an effort to ensure a tied finish with the second-placed GT40, driven by Bruce McLaren, which went on to be awarded the victory.

The fatal crash with the J-Car

The J car at Riverside
The J car at Riverside

Ford wanted more from the GT40 and began the ‘J-Car’ project after the Le Mans 24 Hours triumph. It was to be an evolution of its winning sports car to take on Ferrari’s growing might. On August 17, 1966, Miles died testing a J-Car at Californian circuit Riverside. His Ford flew off a high bank at 200mph and rolled over multiple times, throwing the driver out of the car on its third revolution and bursting into flames.

Ford later investigated the crash and blamed it on mechanical failure. Shelby was shaken, and more than 400 people attended his funeral on the Sunday after his death including Shelby, Otto Zipper and a number of former teammates.

Pictures courtesy as credited and unknown.