When somebody is given an epitaph of such utterly bonkers brilliance, it is unwise not to follow it up. Those words were not spoken with any great fondness, however. In fact, we are talking about a hard-bitten racer who managed to alienate most of his competitors, team mates and employers at some time or other. But in the long run he was often the right man at the right time.
His name was Kenneth Henry Miles, known as simply Ken or, more often, The Hawk. None of these is a name that ranks alongside such British success stories of the ‘Fifties as Mike Hawthorn, Stirling Moss or Jack Sears in today’s world but in terms of his impact on the history of motor racing, his career stood tall alongside them.
With his icebreaker nose and jutting jaw, Miles cut a distinctive figure in any paddock. He had been born in Sutton Coldfield, right in the heart of Britain’s industrial Midlands, just days before the end of World War 1. Like many young boys, he was enthralled by mechanical things and apprenticed with Wolseley, where he spent his pay on racing motorcycles.
All this ended with the war. Miles’ mechanical expertise kept him out of the firing line and he ended up engineering tanks until he was demobilised in 1946. After the war, Miles joined the Vintage Sports Car Club and campaigned a lot of what were fairly cheap ‘old runabouts’ like Bugatti T35s and Alfa Romeo Monzas.
Somewhat presciently, the first racing car that he built was a based on an old Frazer Nash into which he Inserted a Ford V8-60 engine and worked hard to turn it into a contender.
The problem was that the war had robbed Miles of his best years. He was in his mid-thirties and a new generation of young British drivers, more than a decade younger than he was, had begun its presence felt. Miles did not really belong with them, nor was he a member of the ‘in-crowd’ at Goodwood. He might well have remained a committed clubman, were it not for a cast-iron belief in his own abilities.
Instead of settling for a quiet life in Britain, Miles decided to head over to America. He found a blossoming motor sport community who wanted to campaign the European sports cars that they had fallen in love with – many of them while serving as GIs in the days after World War 2. Uprooting his wife Mollie and young son Peter, Miles moved to America and found work as the service manager for the Southern California MG distributor.
While he was working on road cars, Miles built himself a ‘special’ – largely comprised of pre-war MG components. In 1953 he used it to win 14 straight victories in Sports Car Club of America-sanctioned races, building up funds to keep his family and build a second, more advanced ‘Special’ using his own bespoke racing chassis.
The resulting machine was extremely low, a little curvy and in its brownish-green paint it looked like a plaice on wheels. Miles’ wiry figure loomed out of this odd-looking car, his dark green helmet canted over as he worked the wheel, and he called it the ‘Flying Shingle’.
It might have looked like an ungainly homebuilt but Miles took the SCCA’s 1500cc class by storm throughout 1955, when competing against the new Porsche 356s and 550 spyders of wealthier drivers like Hollywood idol James Dean.
The ‘Flying Shingle’ earned Miles some recognition back home, and he travelled to Le Mans for the fateful 1955 race, campaigning the lightweight MGA EX.182 and finishing in 12th place overall. In the USA, he continued to be a thorn in Porsche’s side and so the man charged with selling these mid-engined wonders in America – an Austrian émigré called ‘Johnny’ von Neumann –invited Miles to drive for him rather than against him in 1956.
Miles duly won the first two races of the year and was a regular contender throughout the season, while Porsche relished not having to compete against his awkward little MG.
As well as driving, Miles got involved in race organisation. In fact, he assumed leadership of the Californian branch of the SCCA and managed every detail of race management, marshalling, ticketing and all else in between. He did so in an autocratic way that rubbed many people up the wrong way, but he also encouraged enthusiasts from all backgrounds to come and take part in motor sport.
American motor sport in the 1950s was as clique-riddled and elitist as it was in Britain. Miles hated that, and did his level best to encourage the local kids to ‘run what they brung’, to learn their craft and then to take no snootiness from the posh collegiate racers on the East Coast – or even from Los Angeles, for that matter.
Driving was fun and effective race management was important to him but Miles enjoyed engineering even more. In 1957 he mated the engine and transmission from a Porsche with an old Cooper chassis. These cars were known as ‘Poopers’ and became increasingly popular as more gleaming Porsche spyders got totalled in racing accidents and thereby more of their potent engines and transmissions became available to builders.
Miles added some of his engineering savvy to the Pooper that he built for 1957 and not only dominated the 1500cc class but also scored regular podium finishes overall against cars with far more horsepower. Once again, Porsche took a dim view of this freelancing and being shown the way home by a homebuilt ‘special’ so Miles was quietly dropped and by the early ‘Sixties he was simply a hired gun driving an assortment of cars for whoever could pay him.
He was undoubtedly still fast – in total Miles had racked up 46 career wins in domestic American sports car racing to the end of 1962 – but he was now getting well into his Forties and seemingly a spent force. It was at this time that Carroll Shelby came back from England with a little 2-seat sports car and a big idea. He invited Miles to join him in turning this idea into a car to beat the all-conquering Chevrolet Corvette.
The result was the AC Cobra.
Ken Miles was the man who engineered, test drove and raced the car that would not only carve a mighty legend in motorsport but ultimately lead the corporate might and muscle of Ford Motor Company into motor racing. In the laconic Carroll Shelby, Miles had a boss that he respected and for whom he was happy to knuckle down. It was to lead to an astonishing career twilight – of which there will be more in Part 2…