Ken Miles

Ken Miles

1/11/1918 - 17/8/1966

Ken began racing in MG Specials. He went on to great success driving Porsche Spyders for Otto Zipper. Then he raced Cobras for Carroll Shelby and went on to join the Ford factory team that developed the GT40. He was killed at Riverside Raceway in 1966 while testing one of the Ford J-car prototypes.

He was born in the city of Sutton Coldfield, England, a few miles from the manufacturing center of Birmingham, on November 1, 1918. Always intrigued by mechanical things, he was apprenticed to a British car manufacturer but World War II intervened and he spent seven years on various duties having to do with machinery and mechanics and was a sergeant of tanks at his demobilization in 1946. After this he returned to the motor industry in various jobs and continued a racing career that had been whetted by motorcycle racing while still in the service. His first racing car was a Frazer-Nash into which he Inserted a Ford V8-60 engine and he enjoyed some small local successes in club events and hillclimbs. After an unsuccessful venture into building front-wheel-drive F3 cars, he came to the U.S. in early 1952 as service manager for the Southern California MG distributor.

He first raced an MG-TD in local road races, then began to attract widespread attention in his first MG Special. This car won the first race in which it participated (Pebble Beach, 1953) and formed the basis for his beIng regarded as the finest under-1,500-cc car driver in the West. The original Miles Special was a remarkably successful machine and because Ken make it look so easy, it was undoubtedly the inspiration for most of the homebuilt specials that appeared in California the next few years. As modern racing cars go, it was completely uncomplicated--front engine, live rear axle, stock gearbox, almost no special components except chassis and body--and almost utterly reliable. Proof of the car's essential integrity, it was later campaigned by Cy Yedor, then by Dusty Miller and even after that by Dusty's son, Nels. And it was still a good car.

Next came The Flying Shingle, undoubtedly the most excitIng special ever to appear in West Coast racing up 'til that time. It was lower, smaller, lighter and faster--but hardly more complicated--than the original MG Special. It was not quite so successful as the first Special, though Ken won more than his fair share of races in it. But times were changing and the cast-iron MG engine, even in racing tune, was being asked to do too much against the Porsches that were beginning to make their presence felt in racing then. But Ken and The Shingle were still the standard by which under-1,500-cc performance was measured. No one who was at the May 1956 Santa Barbara races will ever forget the racing between Miles in The Shingle and Pete Lovely in his then-new Pooper-Porsche. Ken won on reliability, but Lovely's Pooper, demonstrably faster, was a sign of the times.

After The Shingle, which almost never raced again after Ken sold it and was last heard from when somebody tried to put half a Chevrolet V-8 in it, Ken began driving Porsche Spyders for Johnny von Neumann, the southern California VW-Porsche distributor. I happened to be standing on the critical corner at Torrey Pines the first morning Ken drove a Spyder. It was for practice before the last or next-to-last Torrey Pines 6-hour race, and Ken kept coming through the left-hand sweeper past the ocean turn faster and faster. We were still saying to each other, "Miles sure looks funny in a Porsche, doesn't he?" when Ken got off the road, hit a ditch, and flipped spectacularly. The car landed on its wheels, Ken got out, looked at the battered car while stretching his back, and accepted a ride back to the pits with, I think, Phil Hill. Ken didn't drive In the 6-hour race that Saturday but on Sunday, in another von Neumann Spyder, he won the under-1500-cc main event.

There was just one more Miles Special, the Cooper-Porsche he built while working for von Neumann. This car, once sorted out (he was off the road almost more than on in the first race in that car), was so successful that Ken won over-1,500-cc main events with it and ultimately was forced to part with it because Porsche officials found it distasteful to have an employee in a special beating the factory's, best products.

But after going to work for von Neumann, Ken became famous for the Porsches he drove, first for Johnny, later for Otto Zipper, and it was in Porsches that he reached the zenith of his career in smaller-engined cars. There was hardly a race in the West with any pretensions of importance in which Ken didn't drive a Porsche. And it seems to me that he lost only when his opponents had something newer from the factory.

The next large step came in Ken's career when he went to work for Carroll Shelby. He drove for Shelby before going to work for him full time but it was after Ken became closely associated with Shelby American that his greatest national and international fame was achieved. No one who followed the first two seasons of U.S. Road Racing Championship racing can forget Ken in the factory Cobra. It was in the Cobra that he finally and completely dispelled the myth that he could drive only small-engined cars and it was through Shelby American and the Cobra campaigns that the rest of the U.S. was exposed to both Ken's driving and his personality. And that experience enriched both of them, I think.

His last season was his greatest with victories at the Daytona 24-hour, the Sebring 12-hour and except-for-a-fluke, the LeMans 24-hour race.

Ken was killed at Riverside Raceway on August 17 while testing one of the Ford J-car prototypes. The testing program that was being carried out was to determine whether the J-car was suited for participation the Canadian-American Championship series. A series of trouble-free laps had been made before the accident and on the final lap there was nothing to indicate anything wrong as the car came down the backstretch at about 175 mph. Then, toward the end of the straight when the car had slowed to approximately 100, it went out of control, spun to the inside of the course and went over a tall embankment. The car bounded end over end and Ken, thrown out of the car, was dead of head injuries before emergency crews reached the scene. The main section of the chassis caught fire after coming to rest and the fire damage, plus the physical battering given the scattered components in the violent series of crashes, meant that the reason for the accident was never determined.

James T. Crow. Nov 1966 reproduced with the kind permission of Road & Track magazine

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