In the early 1960s Ford offered just about everything you could want in a car, except maybe excitement. Back then, there was nothing very sexy about owning a Ford. So, in a bid to attract younger customers, Ford tried to buy a company that was nothing but sexy: Ferrari.
Then, as now, Ferrari made some of the fastest and prettiest cars on the planet, and in 1963 the Ford Motor Company was ready to write a check for all of the Italian carmaker. But in the end, Enzo Ferrari said something in Italian that took a lot of syllables, but could ultimately could be translated as "No."
CEO Henry Ford II was said to be humiliated – so humiliated, in fact, that he decided to build a supercar that could beat Ferrari at a race they'd dominated for years: the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Ford spent untold millions on the efforts, and failed, in 1964 and '65. So, they decided to give it one final shot in 1966 – it was Ford versus Ferrari.
And now, it's a movie. Christian Bale is at the wheel as legendary driver Ken Miles, and Matt Damon plays the automotive artist who was hired to defeat Ferrari, Carroll Shelby.
Correspondent Tracy Smith asked Damon, "How much are you like Carroll Shelby?"
"I don't think I'm like him at all," he replied. "He was this bigger-than-life guy who, even if he beat the hell outta you in a business deal, you somehow still loved him. And I'm not like that! I'm very different from that!"
Shelby's best known for the cars that bear his name, like the Shelby Cobra. He died in 2012, but his name still looms large in the automotive world, and on the side of Shelby International near Los Angeles.
There was a lot riding on the results of the Ford effort. Aaron Shelby said that, for his granddad, the 1966 Le Mans race meant everything. "I think he had a lot of pressure on him. '66 was it, or they're done."
"And when you say, 'They're done,' what do you mean? What would've happened, do you think, if he lost?" asked Smith.
"I think Ford would've stopped funding the program," Aaron replied. "And also, at the time, they were still helping to fund Shelby here in Los Angeles, and building the Mustangs and the remaining Cobras as well. And I think a lot of that could have come to a screeching halt, had they not been successful in '66."
In Carroll Shelby's mind, the right car was nothing without the right driver, and the right-est driver he knew was a Brit, Ken Miles, who not only drove the cars but helped build them into what became finely-tuned weapons of speed.
Charlie Agapiou was Miles' crew chief, who said of Ken, "He was a very, very likable fellow. If you got into any kind of trouble with what you were doing ... he'd take care of it. He was a great guy. I mean, I loved him. He was just so friendly and so passionate about everything he did. He was just great to be around."
Smith asked, "What was the dynamic between Carroll and Ken like?"
"Unlike the movie, it seemed to me like they were going to be great friends. I'd never really seen them in an argument or anything like that."
No fist fights? "I'd never seen any fist fights, no," Agapiou replied.
And the actors, who'd never worked together before, seem to have captured that chemistry.
Smith asked, "I know your paths crossed over the years. But what'd you think about each other?"
Bale said, "Matt and I have actually been very sort of, you know, crossing paths very closely. We've had the same agent for decades. I know you think I'm making this up, I am very grateful to Matt because I wouldn't have a career if it wasn't for roles he passed on. There were many roles where I was told, 'Oh, well, Matt doesn't wanna do it.' So they went, 'Ugh, all right, what about Bale?'"
Kidding aside, Bale actually did turn down playing Dickie Eklund in "The Fighter," a role for which Bale took home an Academy Award.
Both guys have had plenty of Oscar attention over the years, with Bale snagging a Best Actor nomination this past January for his incredible, eerily-close embodiment of Vice President Dick Cheney, in "Vice." And when he was done playing the heavyweight American VP, Bale, who's actually British and skinny, had to become British and skinny again.
Damon said, "I had a great time watching him. He's got an incredible, monk-like discipline. He went from Dick Cheney to this guy, so he had to lose 70 pounds."
"I had to get in the car!" Bale reasoned.
"Does it get harder to do that physical transformation?" asked Smith.
"Yes. I keep saying I'm done with it," said Bale. "I really think I'm done with it, yeah. Gotta be."
Damon said, "You know when you're on set and he's, like, 'Oh, hold on, it's my cardiologist, I have to take this'! Yeah, you better take that call!"
Talk about heart-stopping: in the film you actually get the sense that you're in car with him, thanks to some pretty creative camera work. You also get the sense of just how dangerous auto racing can be, when drivers push themselves, and their cars, to that place where there can only be victory or disaster.
We won't spoil the ending for you, but to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, all true stories end in death, and "Ford v Ferrari" is based on a true story.
Damon said, "If a movie works, you end up feeling a lot of gratitude for all the people who worked on it, because it's hard work."
"Much like putting a race car together and winning Le Mans, right?" asked Smith.
"Exactly. Except we're not risking our lives!" said Damon.
"What is it about this film that you want people to see?"
"Well, it's a beautiful story," Damon said. "And hopefully it's a chance for everybody to kind of come together in a dark movie theatre and see a story about friendship. That's a nice thing to put out into the world right now."
You might say "Ford v Ferrari" isn't really about a car race; it's about ingenuity, teamwork and perseverance – things that everyone can root for.
- AUDIO EXTRA: Download or stream our podcast featuring Tracy Smith's extended interview with Matt Damon and Christian Bale!
To watch a trailer for "Ford v. Ferrari" click on the video player below:
For more info:
- "Ford v. Ferrari" (20th Century Fox) – Opens November 15
- Shelby American
- Petersen Automotive Museum, Los Angeles
Story produced by John D'Amelio.