When Henry Ford II and Enzo Ferrari battled for supremacy
at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in
the mid-1960s, it shook up the auto-racing world and kept morgues busy.
Ford’s monumental effort to topple Ferrari from the summit of sports-car racing is vibrantly told in Like Hell, A.J. Baime’s fast-paced account of the clash between the two fearsome, hyper-competitive automotive titans.
Baime, an executive editor at Playboy magazine, brings the high-stakes drama to life with vivid portraits of both men, who had more in common than their passion for cars. Both had longtime Italian mistresses (Ford’s became his second wife, Ferrari’s bore him a son), little patience and no tolerance for failure.
The book also includes mini-profiles of colorful characters such as Carroll Shelby, an ingenious Texan who designed Ford’s first Le Mans-winning car; Phil Hill, a Beethoven-loving, anxiety-ridden Californian who became the first American to win the Formula One driving title; and Englishman John Surtees, a motorcycle and racecar champion who recovered from a near-fatal crash, only to be ditched by Ferrari after a falling out with the team manager.
In the early 1960s Ferrari was the undisputed king of Le Mans, the world’s oldest, most prestigious endurance race. Cars manufactured by the small Italian company finished first for six straight years before Ford ended the streak in 1966, becoming the first American car to win the race that began in 1923.
Baime gives a dramatic account of that finish, which remains the closest and most controversial ever at Le Mans.
With its top teams running 1-2 at the last pit stop, Ford officials tried to stage a photo-op tie, with both cars crossing the line at the same time. Because of an obscure rule, however, Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon (two drivers took turns piloting each car) were declared the winner over Ken Miles and Denny Hulme.
The botched plan ended Miles’ bid for an unprecedented sweep of the Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans endurance races that year. He never got another chance. Two months later, during a test drive in Riverside, California, his experimental car crashed down an embankment and exploded, killing him instantly.
Death is ever-present in Baime’s book. In an era when speed almost always trumped safety — Ralph Nader first sounded the alarm in his book Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965 — drivers died at an alarming rate. McLaren, killed in a 1970 crash in England, had unwittingly written his own epitaph years earlier: “To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy.”
Many thought Henry Ford II was foolhardy for challenging Ferrari at Le Mans. But the grandson of Ford Motor Co’s founder was determined to make his mark in European racing, primarily because it would help sell more Fords overseas. He also had a personal grudge against Enzo Ferrari after the Italian backed out of a deal to sell his company to Ford at the last minute.
With the aid of Shelby and a rising executive named Lee Iacocca, Ford poured millions of US dollars into the effort and eventually overtook Ferrari. Ford captured four straight Le Mans titles from 1966 to 1969, while Ferrari never won the race again.
“Henry Ford II’s vision of his company as a Le Mans champion began as a marketing campaign, an investment he hoped would pay off at the cash register,” Baime writes. In the end, it became something far more. Nationalism, glory, a quest to make history like no automotive magnate ever had …”