‘Ford v Ferrari’ depicts a generation of car guys that’s best left behind

Carroll Shelby epitomises the worst of the 1960s car world

by HANNAH ELLIOTT/ pic credit: Bernard Cahier/Hulton Archive

“FORD v Ferrari”, which opened last Friday (Nov 15), starring Christian Bale and Matt Damon, follows British racing driver Ken Miles (Bale) and hot-rodder Carroll Shelby (Damon) as they build a special race car to help the Ford Motor Co beat Ferrari SpA at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966 and 1967. The goal was to break Enzo Ferrari’s stronghold on international racing that had his Scuderia Ferrari winning everything throughout the 1960s.

They strike an odd-couple pair: Miles is a wiry, eccentric Brit; Shelby is a square-jawed, cowboy-hat-wearing Texan. Neither much like the corporate pressure exerted by Ford chief Lee Iacocca and his marketing goons, who themselves were humiliated by Ferrari’s Old World gravitas after a bungled buyout attempt. And there you have the necessary tension for a movie.

It’s a beautifully shot film that will be enjoyable for modern car buyers and enthusiasts alike — engines rev, tires squeal, stopwatches click. But what I saw is a devastating picture of the lack of diversity that permeated the industry in the 1960s.

If automakers want any hope of relevance in the next decades, as they face the most radical changes and challenges they’ve experienced in 150-odd years of automotive history, they would be wise to contemplate it closely. Because “Ford v Ferrari” shows a generation best left dead and gone.

But only one major automaker in the world has a woman in control of it all: Barra has led GM as CEO since 2014 (Bloomberg)

It’s a Man’s World

Picture this: During all 152 minutes of the film — which, for those who love vintage racing cars, will feel as good as an ice cream sundae on a summer afternoon — men dominate the screen for 98% of the time, by my unofficial count. They are in the executive suites at Ford and Ferrari, in the workshops and garages in Venice, on the track out at Willow Springs Raceway. (And when I say men, I mean white, straight men.)

No fraction of the storyline is devoted to parsing the thoughts and feelings of any female who appears, even peripherally, on screen.

Instead, Caitriona Balfe, who plays Miles’s wife, Mollie, is presented as the doting mother: She smiles mildly and nods her head indulgently as her husband struggles to gain traction in the race world. She clucks and scolds like a schoolmarm when Miles and Shelby come to blows on her front lawn — then brings them each a soda pop.

Other women waft through the film like smoke: Secretaries in wood-panelled offices handing manila folders to men in navy suits; corporate wives smiling silently, always positioned one step behind their husbands’ shoulder; young racing fans that serve as pretty décor on racing podiums. To the victor go the spoils.

The critique I heard most often about “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” could easily apply here: This is a film celebrating those nostalgic golden days when white men ruled. It’s pretty to watch if you can suspend thinking for two hours about what that world must have been like for any ambitious or creative folks who didn’t fit that demographic.

‘Ford v Ferrari’ stars Bale (left) as racing driver Miles. Damon (right) plays former pro racer Shelby (Source: Twentieth Century Fox)

Behind the Shiny Exterior

The central message of “Ford v Ferrari” — that the answer to the question, Who are you? is what really matters in life — is delivered in the beginning, middle and end of the film by Shelby.

The biggest problem with that is Carroll Shelby. The man who was responsible for turning the Ford Mustang into the epitome of American muscle occupies a godlike status in car culture and embodied everything the red-blooded American male of the era was supposed to hold supreme.

Some of it is admirable: A former chicken farmer from Texas who pulled himself up by his own proverbial bootstraps, Shelby wore overalls when he raced and built his own cars with Ford-tough V8 engines. He beat the Europeans at their own game at Le Mans. In his later years, he established a charity that helped provide organ transplants for children.

Most of it was not: Shelby was a notorious womaniser who blew through six marriages and was heading toward divorce from his seventh when he died. He spoke to everyone with language so blue it was legendary; ask any car journalist or professional driver who knew him, and they’ve got plenty of descriptive words to describe the way he treated anyone within earshot. Many of those words are unprintable here.

For fun, he shot lions, elephants and rhinoceroses on animal hunts in Africa. He filed so many lawsuits — against Ford, against local car builders, against online forums and, ironically, against the company that later would supply all of the Cobras for the film — that he become more known and reported on for that in his later years than for any feats of automotive genius.

In fact, after his blast of success with the AC Cobras in the 1960s and his hot-rod take on the Ford Mustang, Shelby didn’t have a single real hit. Instead, there were claims he falsely represented many of the cars he sold.

He left Ford for Chrysler Corp, where he helped develop some special-edition Dodges. Ford fans brought up to adore him as a brand hero shouldn’t have been so surprised he left; this was not an individual known for loyalty to anyone or anything other than himself.

It gets worse: One of his former personal assistants, Angelica Smith, sued Shelby for sexual harassment in 2011. The suit included information about an alleged rape that happened at Shelby’s home by one of his employees, and that she was fired, partly in retaliation, after she reported it. (Shelby called the allegations “wild and fantastical” at the time; he died less than a year later.)

But that particular anecdote has been washed almost entirely clean by the same boys-club car culture that idolises Steve McQueen, a decent actor who died conveniently early and had a habit of hitting his wives.

“Who are you?” is rich, coming from Shelby. We know what kind of man he was: The type we all are better off for no longer holding the keys to any automotive kingdom.

The film used a replica of the Ford GT40, which Shelby and Miles built to beat the Ferrari team at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (Source: Merrick Morton via Bloomberg)

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

It’s no surprise to survey this patriarchal wasteland — but it’s no less depressing to see it, nonetheless. The epic portrayed remains uncomfortably close to how the car world is today. We still have to look hard to find women of consequence.

There’s Laura Schwab, the president of Aston Martin of America. Katya Bassi, Automobili Lamborghini SpA’s CMO. Susanne Klatten, who, with her brother, owns nearly half of BMW AG.

But only one major automaker in the world has a woman in control of it all: Mary Barra has led General Motors Co (GM) as CEO since taking the helm in 2014. Last year, she named Dhivya Suryadevara as GM’s CFO; Suryadevara is the first woman to hold that job at GM and is now in line as a possible Barra successor.

Six of GM’s 11 global board members are women, an admirable percentage. But the numbers are worse elsewhere. At Toyota Motor Corp, just 13% of board members are women; Hyundai Motor Co and Kia Motors Corp have no women in any position as high as VP.

The auto industry lags behind the rest of the world: Women in corporate America at large occupy 21% of C-suite offices, 30% of VP-level roles and 38% of managerial roles, while the auto industry places women in 13% of C-suites, 18% of VP-level spots and 20% of managerial positions, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit that advocates for women in industry.

This isn’t good enough. Today, car companies face difficult questions about brand identity and mobility — concepts they’ve never had to contemplate before now. They are evaluating who they are — there’s that question again — in a world increasingly oriented toward mobility rather than mechanical transport, electric motors rather than V8 engines.

“Ford v Ferrari” puts in stark relief the stunted mentality of previous generations. Shelby, crystalised by Hollywood like a mosquito in amber, is its totem artifact of generations dead and gone. For those who are serious about making brilliant, thrilling, innovative vehicles in the modern age, he’s best left behind. — Bloomberg