Readers Write In #256: Ford v/s Ferrari is the most fun branding history lesson ever

Posted on August 31, 2020

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(by Madan Mohan)

I set out initially to compare the refreshing and invigorating approach to retro Hollywood that Ford v/s Ferrari laid out versus the grey and laboured approach of Irishman or Joker that is the more commonly favoured tone in retro films (you also see this in J Edgar).

But I decided a deep dive into the car industry sub texts playing out in the film would be a more interesting tack instead.  At least for me as a one time auto industry guy.

I had a fairly long stint with an auto major.  During the entire time, I never encashed their car perk because I didn’t drive.  I have changed that during the lockdown as Mumbai got paralysed like never before and now I am not driving one of their cars but an old I20.

And before this I20, we had a Ford Fusion which felt amazing for the first couple of years until its suspension absolutely went to pieces and developed a whole other set of issues.

That kind of epitomizes the American car experience.  It lacks definition, in essence, unless you live in America and get to drive a fuel-guzzling SUV on its massive highways.  It offers neither the reliability of Japanese or Korean cars nor the build and performance of European cars.  Not surprising then, that Ford barely hangs on in India while GM exited it altogether.  This is not only to do with where the Indian market is at, because Ford exited its investment in Jaguar Land Rover during the 2008 meltdown and we know who bought it.  Their international fortunes have been rather turbulent outside China.  But it need not have been this way…

And this is the sub text of Ford v/s Ferrari.  The ostensible battle to build a machine that can match Ferrari’s best at Le Mans also has another dimension – a battle between giants who mass assemble soulless ‘products’ and boutique makers who craft cars. When Lee Iacocca visits Ferrari’s factory, the executive showing him around proudly shows off how they have one worker working on one component of the car at a time and describes the car as ‘handmade’.  This would be laughed off as anachronistic in Ford’s gargantuan scheme of things but Iacocca tells a smug Ford VP Leo Beebe that Enzo Ferrari will go down as the greatest carmaker in history, not because he makes the most cars (he doesn’t) but because of what his cars stand for.

The Iacocca interlude in Ford captures a phase during which the behemoth reluctantly grappled with this business of standing for something.  The Ford Mustang designed by Iacocca’s team became one of its most iconic brands and remains beloved to this day. It was also Iacocca who got the elephant to get into car racing and not just in the comfortably American confines of NASCAR but the brutally demanding Le Mans circuit.

Notice also who brought up the top 3 all Ford finish at Le Mans in 1966 – top two places belonged to the Shelby American team and the third to Holman-Moody.  Shelby, Holman and Moody were all race car drivers who moved onto designing cars and brought a car performance-oriented perspective to otherwise sleepy Ford. In other words, Ford needed the specialised talent of the very boutique operators it regarded scornfully to stand a chance of competing with Ferrari and others.

It is not known whether the scene that takes place in the movie really happened – where Beebe actually suggested to Henry Ford II that they should have all three Ford teams finish together to have a Ford-Ford-Ford photo –  but you can imagine them feeling impressed about a pathetic stunt like that.  And yet, they are extremely mistrustful of not only Carroll Shelby but also his mercurial but talented driver Ken Miles (who is, aptly enough, deprived of a joint first finish by a technicality).  In the movie, even as Miles learns with dismay that he won’t get the Daytona-Sebring-Le Mans triple after all, the legend Enzo himself offers a salute of admiration to him in acknowledgment of his talent.  As an aside, I wonder what Enzo would have felt about Michael Schumacher and team orders (allowing that he was like the movie version of Enzo, that is)!

Miles’ bete noire then understands him better than the team he is a part of.  In the end, Enzo’s insult “that Henry Ford II can never be THE Henry Ford” seems to have a stronger basis than personal animosity alone – how can a man who thinks a Ford-Ford-Ford finish is a branding coup ever match a pioneer like the original Henry Ford?  Even though Ford tried gamely to swim in turbulent waters (and survived by dint of its sheer size and American advantage), it managed to commodify even the sport of car racing…and piss off its most passionate exponents. The elephant would only go this far and no further.

And so it was that Iacocca was fired by Ford II in a year which Ford recorded a $2 billion profit. For perspective, its operating income last year was $574 million and its net income a paltry $47 million.  In Ford II’s time, his warning of what the sound of the Ford Motor Company shutting down would be like never came true but they came scarily close during the meltdown. As their joint lobbying with big oil failed to halt the march of Tesla, it remains to be seen whether the elephant will continue to trundle on or collapse from its own sheer unbearable weight.

The best part is, all of this (except the last para) is covered in a racy, rip-roaring narration that is beautifully shot and does more than adequate justice to capturing the thrills as well as the dangers of car racing…whilst also delivering a familiar but effective indictment on corporate America.