Shelf Life

Carmakers can learn from racing rivalry

Marketplace Staff Jun 12, 2009
Shelf Life

Carmakers can learn from racing rivalry

Marketplace Staff Jun 12, 2009


HOST: If you’re a racing fan, there is plenty for you to do this weekend. NASCAR races, Indy cars, drag races, a little bit of everything. Or you could tune into a real race. The 24 Hours of Le Mans is this weekend over in France. It is one of the world’s great races.

Cars and their drivers have to have speed. Not to mention the endurance to last a full day on the racecourse. For carmakers, it’s a chance for worldwide bragging rights. And forty years ago it was an opportunity for Henry Ford II to turn his grandfather’s company around.

A.J. Baime writes about that the race and Ford versus Ferarri in his new book “Go Like Hell.” A.J., good to have you with us.

A.J. Baime: Thank you so much.

Ryssdal: Let’s set the stage here for a minute. Because, you know, today Le Mans is race car race, it’s high profile and all that. But in the 50s and 60s, it was another order of magnitude.

Baime: It was probably the biggest single sporting event in the world at the time. By the end of 1966, it was a live broadcast, major major event. There was no better marketing for a car company than to build the fastest, most technologically advanced racing car and win at the 24 hours at the Le Mans.

Ryssdal: And here we have Henry Ford in the early-to-mid 1960s, Henry Ford II taking over the company and really having to rescue it a little bit, wasn’t he?

Baime: This quintessentially American empire was really backed into a corner and they had the foresight to see that the future of the automobile business was in Europe, that this was the dawn of globalism. So he invested wildly in conquering Europe. And the way to do that was to market your cars at the 24 hours at Le Mans.

Ryssdal: Tell me about the rivalry between Henry Ford II and Enzo Ferrari, because Ferrari was the dominant force in European racing at the time.

Baime: Two unimaginably larger-than-life figures. These two guys valued their companies and the companies that bore their name more than their own families. I mean, they lived and breathed those cars. Henry Ford II wanted to dominate Europe. He realized that in the 1960s people wanted cars that were about style and speed and even danger. And nobody represented that more than the cars of Enzo Ferrari.

So essentially, Ford sent a team over and tried to buy Ferrari. And the deal goes very sour. And it became apparent, I think, to many that Enzo Ferrari was just toying with Henry Ford II, that he never meant to make this deal in the first place and he was just negotiating so that he could go and make a deal with Fiat, which given what’s going on with Fiat and Chrysler today, wow, who could see into the future.

But Henry Ford II was spurned in a public stage, so this rivalry really became very intense and it came to pit two entire continents against each other at the greatest automobile race in the world. I mean, who could script that?

Ryssdal: Give us some sense of what it was like at these races back then. It’s not like they had harnesses and roll cages and all the equipment that drivers have today. These guys were strapping themselves into the car with a seat belt and wooden steering wheels and to quote your title, going like hell.

Baime: Rivalry fuels innovation, two people want to beat each other, they’re going to think really hard how they’re going to do it. So at the beginning of the book, these guys are in these cars going 103 miles an hour down the Mulsanne Straight, the longest straight in racing. By the end of the book, they’re going 225 miles an hour.

These were very difficult cars to drive, it’s incredible to think how primitive they were at the time. And yet, they were advanced: They had disc brakes. You know, Ferrari was fooling around with fuel injection, all this new technology, that eventually filtered into the cars that we drive everyday today.

Now there’s another way to answer that question: What was it like for the spectator? The race was very much an affair. It was something that wealthy people attended and people came from France and Germany. And you would see men in military uniforms on leave from base and TV cameras. There’s never been a moment in racing history that was that romantic.

Ryssdal: But that romance, I mean given the car industry today, it’s a little bit sad, isn’t it?

Baime: It is. It’s very sad, but there’s another way to look at it. The struggle for speed and glamor of the 1960s is translated to something different now: The struggle for the car technology of the future is very much the great industrial struggle of our time. And there’s something terrifically fascinating about that and I’m just excited for what we’re going to see in the future.

Ryssdal: A.J. Baime, he’s an executive editor at Playboy magazine. His book about Ford and Ferrari and Le Mans races of the mid-1960s is called “Go Like Hell.” A.J. thanks a lot.

Baime: Thank you so much for having me.

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