The movie is called Ford v Ferrari, but if you’ve seen it, you know the real conflict is between a pair of racing mavericks and Ford itself.

The story, covering Ford’s effort to win the 1966 race at Le Mans, pits buck-the-system car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and volatile driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) against corporate micromanagers — organization men and busybodies who look for obedient team players and hammer down protruding nails like Shelby and Miles.

The embodiment of all of this pushback within Ford upper management is a fellow named Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), a real person, though not the person whom many who worked with Beebe say they knew. He had a long and varied professional career when he relocated from Detroit to the Philadelphia region, and made many friends here before he died in 2001.

“You ask a thousand people here about Leo Beebe, you’re going to get a thousand positive opinions,” said Ron Jaworski, the former Eagles quarterback who became an entrepreneur when his playing days were over, and turned to Beebe for advice about running a business.

Leo Beebe, third from left, in back of the GT40 Mark II.
crubin@phillynews.com
Leo Beebe, third from left, in back of the GT40 Mark II.

Beebe, when Jaworski knew him, had completed a successful reorganization of the South Jersey electronics firm K-Tron, where Beebe served alongside board member Ed Cloues (later chairman of AMREP Corp and K-Tron CEO), who said he watched Beebe step in to save the faltering company from mismanagement, then return to save it again when the company got in trouble a second time.

“I’ve dealt with a lot of people in the business world, and there’s nobody I hold in higher regard than Leo Beebe,” Cloues said. “He was tough, but a gem of a person. I call him a human engineer. He understood how to get the best out of people, and how to motivate people.”

Beebe’s colleagues and friends are quick to add they haven’t seen the movie (it opens Friday), but were alarmed by advance reviews that describe his character as a “slimy marketing executive” in a “smarmy suit.”

At the very least, they want people to know that he had an accomplished life after moving to the Philadelphia area, living both on the Main Line and in South Jersey. Beebe headed Ford’s racing team in the mid-1960s, then came here to head the area’s Philco-Ford operations. He retired from the company in 1972 but was never idle, and took a job as an adjunct professor at Glassboro State (now Rowan). In short order, he helped establish the business school, and eventually became its dean.

That put him in a position to mentor business owners — one was Jaworski, who had started owning and operating golf courses in addition to other ventures.

“I went to a couple of his seminars, and learned a lot. One thing that Leo said that I always carry with me: ‘Do what you tell people you’re going to do.’ Sounds simple, but it’s great advice.”

It was that attitude that Beebe, by many accounts, brought to his role as head of Ford’s racing team in the mid-1960s. He had virtually no experience in racing (it was the first thing he told gear heads when he met them), but he was a close confidant of Ford president Henry Ford II. Beebe served under Ford in the Navy, training machinists and pipefitters in Dearborn during World War II, and became the kind of man Ford could trust with difficult jobs — a troubleshooter.

Ford lent Beebe out to the U.S. government in the late 1950s to supervise the resettlement of refugees dislocated by the Hungarian revolution — housing tens of thousands at Camp Kilmer in New Jersey, eventually finding them permanent residence in this country. He did the same thing, on loan from Ford, to help with the mass influx of Cuban refugees to South Florida in the early 1960s.

Ford GT40s lined up at the start of the 1966 Le Mans.
Ford Motor Co.
Ford GT40s lined up at the start of the 1966 Le Mans.

When Henry Ford II made it a priority a few years later to beat the unbeatable Italians in international endurance racing — he had a bitter personal rivalry with Enzo Ferrari — he assigned that job to Beebe as well. Ford gave Beebe two things: a handwritten note that said, "You better win,” and a blank check, which Beebe used to pour resources and talent into the venture.

He had several teams of builders and drivers competing to field the best version of the company’s GT40 vehicle, racing the world and each other. In the film, Beebe is shown as being threatened by Shelby’s influence with Ford II — at one point Shelby locks him in an office to secure one-on-one time with Ford.

Frank Comstock, a journalist and former student of Beebe’s at Glassboro, said he spent many hours talking with Beebe about his time at Ford managing the racing team, and has written extensively about it. He knows nothing of that story and has a hard time believing it.

“I knew Leo and talked with him and interviewed him several times and I seriously doubt he would have let anyone do that. I have reviewed materials and find no mention of that,” Comstock said via email.

Cloues said it’s more likely the opposite was true — that Navy buddy Beebe was the kind of man Ford consulted when he needed unfiltered information.

“Leo was the guy that Ford might go to when he really wanted to find out about something. Leo was a guy who could go see him anytime, they had that kind of relationship,” he said.

There is certainly no debate about the fact that Beebe played a central role in the engineering of the infamous finish at Le Mans (stop here if you don’t know racing history and hate spoilers), which in the racing world is kind of like the JFK assassination. The more you read about it the less you know, and even vetted facts must be viewed through a cloud of mystery, conspiracy, and emotion.

It’s the kind of story that’s easier to digest with the garnish of an obvious villain, and its possible that for some folks (and filmmakers) Beebe fills that rule.

Here’s what happened: Ford crushed Ferrari at ’66 Le Mans. So decisive was their performance, so dominant the GT40 that three Fords were 1-2-3 near race’s end, with Miles way out in front. Ford Motor Co. wanted to underscore the Ford dominance by having all three Detroit cars in the victory shot, so Beebe ordered Miles to ease up so the GT40s could finish abreast of each other.

Maybe Miles eased up too much, maybe team rival Bruce McLaren hit the pedal too hard. Reports and opinions vary. In any event, McLaren’s car passed Miles, robbing him of a potentially historic triple crown (he’d already won prestigious races at Daytona and Sebring).

Adding to the controversy was information Ford received after ordering the “tie.” Race officials said a three-way finish would make McLaren the winner, because he was farther back at the start line and therefore traveled a greater distance during the race. (To this day, others assert that the 24-hour endurance race essentially ended as the clock hit 4 p.m. — making Miles the winner).

The infamous finish of the 1966 race at Le Mans.
Ford Motor Co.
The infamous finish of the 1966 race at Le Mans.

Personal feelings muddied the water. The unpredictable Miles was not Beebe’s favorite driver. Beebe, in fact, had admonished Miles and other Ford drivers during Le Mans for racing too hard for the lead after the Italians had dropped out. He didn’t want to risk a wreck that would have diminished the company’s dominant achievement. Beebe acknowledged that he gave the order for a three-way finish, but claimed afterward he had no idea it would cost Miles the win.

A book about the race called Ford: The Dust and the Glory by Leo Levine, which includes extensive interviews with Beebe, quotes him as saying (when he learned that a tie would relegate Miles to second place) “Oh my God, that’s not what we wanted it all.”

That undercuts the film’s assertion that Beebe was vindictive and out to punish Miles. Beebe’s confusion is also credible — the situation was unprecedented, the rules were arcane and poorly understood even by French officials. Earlier in the race, for instance, officials were flummoxed to realize there was nothing in the books to address Shelby’s clever move to swap out the entire brake assembly in the pits, rather than just changing the rotors and pads, giving his hard-driving cars a clear advantage.

The brake episode, part of Le Mans lore, gets an accurate depiction in the film. But Beebe friends are not so confident that the film presents an accurate portrait of Beebe, often shown to be a petty, out-of-his-depth PR guy.

Cloues said that doesn’t square with the man he knew.

“He had this great sense of commitment. If he committed to do something, it would get done.”