If you’re a fan of Ford, Ferrari or both, you know there is a somewhat volatile rivalry between the two brands. What you might not realize — even if you watched the biopic that came out around the end of 2019 — is why the two brands were butting heads during the ’60s and ’70s. Let’s take a look at the real story behind Ford vs. Ferrari — what actually happened, not the Hollywood-embellished version.
A Failed Purchase
Believe it or not, the story of Ford vs. Ferrari didn’t start with the iconic 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race, though that event plays an enormous role in the story. It started back in 1963, when Henry Ford II was working on a deal with Enzo Ferrari to purchase the latter’s company for $10 million. At the time, Ferrari was only making street-legal cars as a way to fund the racing side of their company. Ford, on the other hand, didn’t have a sports car in its catalog and was trying to recover from some failed models that had come out earlier in the decade.
Ferrari was ready to take the deal, if for no other reason than it would give him more money to put into his race cars and he wouldn’t have to worry about building cars for the average driver anymore. The problem was that Ford II wasn’t only interested in owning the Ferrari brand. He wanted a controlling stake in the racing side of the company as well — something Ferrari was not having. He turned around and sold to Fiat instead, leaving Ford II out in the cold and making him look every inch the fool for trying to trick Ferrari out of its racing stocks.
A Burgeoning Rivalry
The ’60s weren’t the first time Ford had gotten involved in racing. In 1901, the original Henry Ford raced in a custom car named Sweepstakes, winning a 10-lap race at the Detroit Motor Club against racing veteran Alexander Winton. With the history of his family’s company behind him, Ford II took Ferrari’s refusal to sell as a personal insult and spent three years working on creating a racing team from scratch, with a singular goal in mind.
He set his sights on beating Ferrari in the 24 Hours of Le Mans race endurance race. To that end, he recruited two of the best-known faces in Ford history — designer Carroll Shelby and driver Ken Miles.
In the end, instead of spending $10 million to acquire the Ferrari brand, Ford II ended up spending more than $25 million, all to avenge a perceived slight against his pride. His ultimate goal wasn’t just to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans — it was to create a sports car that would utterly blow Ferrari out of the water during the endurance race.
An Iconic Race
What Ford II came up with — thanks to the help and engineering genius of Shelby, among many others who worked on the project — would eventually evolve into the GT40, but the first incarnations were downright dangerous. The brakes, for example, would superheat to 1,500 degrees in a few seconds, leaving the driver without any way to stop the sports car.
The car that eventually won the 1966 race was the GT40 Mark II, and just like Ford II wanted, it didn’t merely win — it outright humiliated Ferrari. Ford’s GT40s took the top three spots, with driver Miles having to slow down to create a staged PR photo of all three GT40s crossing the finish line at a dead heat. This technicality, of course, led to Miles losing his first-place spot, but it helped Ford II accomplish his goal.
The History of Ford vs. Ferrari
The story of Ford vs. Ferrari and the insanity of the 1966 Le Mans race might seem like a typical over-the-top Hollywood embellishment. While the movie did take some artistic license, however, sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.