Ken Miles: an appreciation
by James T. Crow
Road & Track magazine, November 1966
reprinted with permission of Road & Track magazine
and with a special tip-of-the-visor to the Los Angeles chapter of SAAC, who brought this article to our attention in the club’s August 2001 newsletter.
On Wednesday August 17, 1966 Ken’s life was cut short in a freak accident at Riverside International Raceway.
The death of Ken Miles has created a unique sort of void in the lives of an uncommonly large number of people. Personally I have known no other driver whose death has touched so many people in some private, special sort of way.
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 in this fall’s 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, make it doubtful that the reason for the accident will ever be determined. It may not matter now, except for our own satisfaction, but no one who knew Ken’s driving can believe that the accident resulted from a mistake on his part.
The funeral was held the following Saturday and the chapel would not hold all the people who came to pay final respects to a man whose career was unique in the history of American racing.
Ken’s early career has been documented in a number of biographical sketches and articles. Several of the better ones have appeared in Road & Track during the last ten years.
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, of course, was the season of his greatness—the victories at the Daytona 24-hour, the Sebring 12-hour and except-for-a-fluke, the LeMans 24-hour race. For these things alone, Ken’s name will be remembered for a long time. And it Is fitting that his name should he remembered, for his driving earned it.
Yet his racing record, even if it were to include every race he ever ran, couldn’t do more than hint at what Ken Miles was like or what he meant to the sport. Nor have the biographical sketches. Nor the uniformly respectful obituaries that have appeared since his death.
No amount of cold factual information can convey how much Ken meant to the formative years of road racing in Southern California, for example. When I discovered road racing, Ken was president of the California Sports Car Club and winning consistently in his first MG Special. He was not only the hero driver of the day, he also ran the club that staged the race. And furthermore he built the car in which he won the UNDER-1500-cc race (which were an hour long in those days) and, in all likelihood, finished no worse than third or fourth In the OVER-1500-cc race. To so many of us, he was road racing in those days.
Ken represented what road racing was all about. It was not only courage, which we had seen before in the traditional round-track racing, but it was also coolness, skill, finesse. Anybody could go fast on the straight—if he could afford the car that would do it—but it was Ken who showed us about going deeper into corners, who shifted down with immense skill and who would probably continue to smile as he passed an adversary on the inside. He had style and we loved it.
He exemplified road racing to us, the idol who reflected everything that was new and intriguing about the sport. The first quick-lift jack I ever saw was used on his Flying Shingle during the OVER-1500-cc main event at Palm Springs. Quick-lift jacks are nothing at all to me anymore but that first one (one motion and the rear of the car was up in the air and a pit crew member was whacking a hub spinner off a wire wheel), entering into a consciousness that had never previously known anything more glamorous than a garden-variety floor jack, was something pretty special.
And Ken knew about the organization of racing, too. He was the Cal Club and when he ran it, he ran it from a driver’s point of view and for the driver’s benefit. So he was not only a driver who could build a winning car, he also knew how to set up a circuit, how to arrange a starting grid and what the procedure should he for scrutineering.
In other words, we believed Ken Miles knew everything that needed to be known about road racing and we were properly respectful because we barely knew an SU from an Amal, and a Weber was something we’d only read about in Road & Track.
He talked and we listened and we learned. We watched and we admired. And his British accent, even if slightly incomprehensible as it came out the side of his mouth, seemed exactly right.
Yes, we discovered Ken Miles when we discovered the marvelous new world of road racing and his name became part of our conversation along with such things as shut-off points, Mowog and heel-and-toe. His death is all the more poignant because it severs a link with that period of wonder and excitement.
But that isn’t the whole Ken Miles either. In all I’ve written so far, there isn’t a hint that Ken wasn’t loved by everyone who knew him—and the fact that he wasn’t was an essential part of Ken Miles too. Ken made enemies along the way, and many of us can remember a time when hardly anyone could be found who had a good word to say about any Ken Miles except Ken Miles the driver.
When he ran the Cal Club, for instance, he ran it his way and without much consideration for the feelings or opinions of anyone else. He wanted things done his way and he didn’t want to discuss his decisions with the non-racers, either.
At the peak of his strength in the Cal Club, he fought the local SCCA region right down to the ground. He led other drivers in refusing to race in Los Angeles SCCA races and for a good many years seemed to enjoy baiting SCCA officials. He rather enjoyed the fact that his application for membership was refused by SCCA even after he was no longer active in Cal Club affairs.
He was finally forced out of power in a palace revolt within the Cal Club and it was somehow ironically fitting and proper that years later he was again a member of the Cal Club board of governors when the Los Angeles SCCA was scuttled and Cal Club became an SCCA region.
Curiously, though, Ken was ruthlessly democratic in his own autocratic way of running the Cal Club. His leadership encouraged new drivers to race with the Cal Club when membership in most SCCA regions was still based on the old-boy system—if you weren’t the right type weren’t put up for membership. Under Ken’s leadership the Cal Club had 10 full-fledged race meets a year, real damned road racing that didn’t let the socializing interfere with the club’s proper purpose. This intense racing program, which was largely Ken’s creation, created in atmosphere that encouraged young drivers. The outstanding crop of Southern California drivers who got their start in those days (the list starts with Dan Gurney) owe more to Ken Miles than they generally realize. their start In those days (the list starts with Dan Gurney).
It is unfortunate that Ken was never properly thanked for all he did for Southern California road racing. It is probably true, also, that he would have brushed it off had anyone tried.
There were still more sides to Ken Miles. He also had charm. Wit and charm like almost no one else I’ve ever known. But if he could be elaborately polite, he also had a command of sarcasm that could make your teeth shrink. It’s generally forgotten too that he could write and that some of the columns he did for Competition Press were superb.
While we’re on the subject, it should be recorded too that not every step he took led upward, either. With his ability to alienate people who could have been helpful to him, he went through and past a lot of what could have been good jobs. It was said about him that he was his own worst enemy, and this was undoubtedly true as he could have had almost anything he wanted if he could have been more tactful. Only in his last job—working for Shelby—did everything seem to be right. Ken never lost the sharp edge to his tongue but he and Shelby had a rapport based on mutual respect and admiration.
Even in racing, Ken’s career didn’t follow a smooth line that led directly to Shelby American, Ford and LeMans. He was out of a ride, or almost, several times, and the season before joining Shelby was campaigning a Sunbeam Alpine. Not that there’s anything wrong with campaigning a Sunbeam Alpine, but it wasn’t really appropriate to Ken’s status.
Those who knew him only after he went to work for Shelby knew a different Miles, with a mature tolerance that hadn’t always been in evidence before. No better example call be given than his behavior after LeMans. If he had won he would have completed an unprecedented Daytona-Sebring-LeMans sweep, something no one is likely to have a chance at again. It had to be important to Ken. Yet he accepted, almost with amusement, the monumental tactical error which robbed him of a victory he had truly earned.
There was also the Ken Miles who was curious about things. It isn’t difficult to imagine him taking things apart to see what made them work. He was always intensely curious about the physiology of drivers, their reactions and what set one apart from another. He was always eager to participate in a test or an experiment that touched on these things and was always interested in discussing them. He enjoyed instrumentation and the knowledge to be gained from it—but mostly, I think. he enjoyed the instruments themselves, Talking about the elaborate instrumentation used in developing the Ford GTs, his eyes would shine.
There was also the Ken Miles who knew how to order a good wine. There was the Ken Miles who’d read more books and knew more about a larger number of subjects than you’d expect. And there was the Ken Miles who was the husband of Mollie and the father of Peter.
And finally there was the thoroughly professional race driver who was killed at Riverside on August 17. And as I said, I have known no other driver whose death has touched so many people in some private, special sort of way.
Road and Track
May I, through Road & Track, express my thanks to the hundreds of people who, from all over the world, sent flowers and messages. Nothing could ever replace what I have lost—but the love and kindness showered upon me has been unbelievable. I am trying to acknowledge all the messages, but inevitably there are a few addresses I do not have.
It has been a great life out here (in California)—sometimes controversial, sometimes turbulent, but we have been happy, and when I was asked if I planned to continue living here, I was honestly dumbfounded. All I could think of to say was “Of course, this is our home.” And it is. Thank you all for making it so.
Very sincerely, Mollie Miles, November 1966
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