By Hannah Elliott
Ford v Ferrari—the $97 million film that chronicles the fight between Carroll Shelby’s Ford GT40 team and Enzo Ferrari’s Scuderia Ferrari for dominance at the 24 Hours of Le Mans car race in 1966—is best enjoyed loud.
That’s how to fully appreciate the brilliant camerawork, technical prowess and logistical feats that went into making the many racing scenes shot on historic tracks across multiple continents feel so realistic.
You might as well be in the car with Matt Damon—err, Carroll Shelby—driving through the black night as he fights fatigue to hold on to his win at the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans, or with wiry British driver Ken Miles (a 70-pounds-lighter Christian Bale) as he busts through a pack of smug meatheads in muscle cars at a local race at Willow Springs International Motorsports Park. The tension is palpable through the roar of the car engines; you can practically smell the oil and dirt and burning rubber.
It’s all so intense, in fact, that you could be forgiven for having to unclench your fists, relax your shoulders, and stretch your back when you walk out of the theatre two hours later. Ford v Ferrari makes it feel as if you’re the one behind the wheel.
Credit for all the glorious car scenes goes to 46-year-old Rob Johnson, the vehicle director of the film. Johnson led the team that obtained the 460-odd vehicles used and abused during two months of shooting last summer. It took him half a year just to prep for it.
“I worked on this project for seven months before we started shooting, and for the first three months of it, I worked every single day,” he says. “I would just sit down and pore over books and be, like, ‘What’s that old racing sticker? What’s that one? What colour ink is that?’ Those might not sound like that big a deal, but they’re necessary.”
Johnson was more than happy to share the secrets to his trade. Here are the big ones behind the making of Ford v Ferrari.
The Cobras were replicas: Shelby developed his own take on the British cars called AC Aces, a line he had raced extensively in the late 1950s. Shelby purchased the bodies from AC in England, exported them to the US, dropped in a Ford V8 engine for more power, and then sold them from his shop in Venice, California, under the name AC Cobra. Ford v Ferrari shows Shelby’s shop, with dozens of Cobras at various points of construction.
All the vehicles shown, according to Johnson, were continuation replicas leased from Superformance, an outfitter based in Irvine, California. Superformance buys the body shells from South Africa and then installs modern components inside.
The crashes were real: “The Ferrari in the Le Mans scene was mounted on a cannon on a truck and taken at speed going down the stretch of track in Georgia and then fired the air,” Johnson says. “We did it multiple times. They were sacrificial shells. But what happened to them actually happened. They were flown through the air, crashed, and set on fire.”
The Porsche was in there because, well, it was reliable: In early scenes of the movie, Damon drives a Porsche 356—the Volkswagen Beetle-like precursor to the faster, sportier Porsche 911. That Shelby drove a Porsche at all may not be strictly accurate, historically, but it could have happened.
The real reason why Shelby was in a Porsche at all is a testament to the mechanical soundness of Porsche products. In a sea of vintage vehicles constantly breaking down on and off the set, Johnson needed to put Damon in something that would hold up to multiple takes from all different angles, day in and day out, until they got the shot.
“We were originally considering an Aston Martin DB4 for Matt for the opening scenes—and we could procure one—but the owner was like, ‘Uh, you can take it up to 30 or 45 miles an hour,’” Johnson says.
So he ditched the Aston Martin idea. Then he remembered that he had multiple 356 Porsches—replicas built with Mazda Miata chassis—back at the Willow Springs track. He had been using them as fillers for some of the scenes filmed there.
“We had to think about what was available, and we knew we had three Porsches we raced in Willow Springs. They were on set, and they were reliable: Boom! We got it!” Johnson says. “That might not sound like the purest path, but at the same time, Porsche isn’t a second-best choice, either. They played a huge part, even in the Southern Californian racing era, so why wouldn’t there be a Porsche around?”
Ford v Ferrari opened in theatres on Friday, November 15. Ford, it should be noted, is still making the GT.