“He’d race his grandmother to the breakfast table.”

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.

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The ‘Flying Shingle’ has been restored and polished to a mirror finish in recent years

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.

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Miles pressing on in one of Neumann’s Porsches during 1966

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.

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Miles looks determined at the 1966 Le Mans 24 Hours

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.

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Miles at speed early in the Cobra’s racing career

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…

James Dean goes racing, 1955

Here’s a rather lovely little bit of film for fans of the grassroots sports car racing promoted by the Sports Car Club of America in the 1950s – breeding ground for practically every American driver to make a splash on the international scene. This particular film shows the May race meeting of 1955 in Santa Barbara, California and it shows one of the locals getting involved in the action – Hollywood heart throb, James Dean.

Santa Barbara’s circuit was a temporary affair at Goleta airport – a wartime airfield that became the regional airport and hosted both drag racing and circuit racing – the SCCA having events each May and September.

The May race was a two-day affair on Memorial Day weekend but Dean had missed all of the action on Saturday because he was getting his hair done. Such was the studio system at the time that, with filming barely complete on his seminal Rebel Without a Cause, the newest hot-shot in Hollywood was already in for duty on his next feature, Giant.

Presumably rather frustrated at the delay, Dean left as soon as he could without bothering to inform anyone involved in the film where he was heading. He charged up the Pacific Coast Highway to be reunited with the car that he would be racing the next day – his white Porsche 365 Speedster.

Dean qualified only 18th but drove a strong race, climbing as high as fourth until the Porsche burnt a piston, putting him out of the weekend’s action. In the film shot at the event, the slight, bespectacled figure with a cigarette permanently drooping from his lips seems quite at ease – even posing quite happily with a couple of fans.

What the weekend had shown Dean was that, as a racer, his Porsche 356 could no longer make the grade. He had to find something faster if his talents were going to be rewarded. Before then, however, there was another movie to made and when it was made clear to Warner Brothers and the production team on Giant how their star man was spending his weekends, a memo was sent banning him from competition for the duration of the shoot.

With a difficult cast headed by Dean, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, motor racing would have seemed like an uncomplicated oasis that was frustratingly being kept out of reach. Dean apparently spent his down-time on set pondering the virtues of cars like an Offenhauser-powered Lotus until he bit the bullet and ordered another Porsche – in this case a 550 Spyder.

The cost was reportedly his old 356 in part-exchange plus $3,000 – which was a vast sum of money. But a new car to the specification with which Porsche was cleaning up in the smaller engine classes of sports car racing worldwide seemed like the obvious choice.

In September, with filming on Giant complete, Dean brought his 550 – chassis 550 0055 – back to his garage and began learning how it performed on the roads near his home. This ended up needing one or two repairs – so that when the next available meeting came up at Salinas, Dean decided to try and get more miles in the car by driving it there instead of trailering it.

And it was on the way to Salinas that Dean, driving hard, told his mechanic, Rolf Wütherich, sitting in the passenger seat, not to worry about the 1950 Ford coupé that was trying to turn across their path at the intersection on California Highway 466. “He’ll see us,” he said over the roar of the engine and the battering wind. And the rest is history…

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