Boarding a plane from California to Detroit just days before Ford Motor Co. would make its racing debut at the 24-hour Le Mans to hopefully beat perennial favorite Ferrari in 1966, Mose Nowland of Dearborn Heights had a brief moment of panic.
Nowland, an engine expert who worked in Ford's newly created racing program at the time, was the last person to make adjustments to the engines of the six Ford GTs that would be shipped to France for the race. If something happened, it would be on him.
"You didn’t want to be the last one touching the engine and not have it perform like it should," said Nowland.
Luckily, Ford didn’t just perform at Le Mans; it dominated. The carmaker finished first, second and third at its first Le Mans appearance and continued to dominate through the end of the 1960s. And Nowland was there to see it all with the pit crews as Ford’s designated “engine man” if a problem came up.
As the story of Ford's racing program and its crusade to beat Ferrari at Le Mans plays out in movie theaters across the country starting Friday in the new film, "Ford v. Ferrari," Nowland, now 90, looks back at that magical time in his life with wonder.
It was both a job and an experience, said Nowland, who is still building cars and engines to this day in his spare time.
"I’ve had such an interesting career and vocation," said Nowland, sitting in the sun porch of Henry Ford's home at Fair Lane where he's now a volunteer helping with restoration efforts. "I've really been blessed. It hasn't been work at all."
For 57 years, Nowland worked for Ford, building engines and working on the company's racing program. Nowland worked with racing legends such as Jim Clark, Colin Chapman and Ken Miles. Miles is depicted in the movie by Oscar-winning actor Christian Bale.
Nowland made several trips to famed car designer Carroll Shelby's studio in California before Le Mans. And while the movie depicts a sometimes contentious relationship between Miles and Shelby, portrayed by Matt Damon, Nowland said that's not what he saw.
"I never knew or heard of a cross word between Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby," said Nowland. "They were so respectful of each other and so professional."
But even with what Nowland calls some "Hollywood" thrown into the movie, he believes the public will enjoy it, especially the high-octane racing scenes.
"It's going to come across to the public that racing is really fun," he said.
Nowland, who saw the film at the Toronto Film Festival in September, said one thing the movie didn't show is how the technology developed in Ford's racing program eventually found its way into production cars.
That "was very important while we were racing that innovations that endured race standards be transferred to production cars," said Nowland.
These days, Nowland, who retired in 2012, is devoting himself to Ford in a different way — as a volunteer at both The Henry Ford Museum and the Henry Ford estate at Fair Lane in Dearborn, where he helps out five days a week. Using skills he learned during his racing days, he replicates parts that can no longer be found, rebuilds light fixtures and more.
Conservator Tamsen Brown at Fair Lane said he's been an invaluable help.
"His metal knowledge is bar none," said Brown. "And also replication. One of the biggest things we deal with here is problem-solving, because everything is 100 years old and we’re trying to make it look new and it’s not. And everything in 100 years has been modified or changed. And his problem-solving skills and his vast knowledge of all the different materials is so useful."
Even after giving 57 years of his life to Ford, Nowland didn't think twice about continuing to work for Ford in his retirement.
"Ford was awfully good to me," he said.
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Nowland grew up in New Boston about 20 miles southwest of Ford's headquarters in Dearborn. His father, whom he describes as a farm boy, was incredibly handy, which he shared with his son. And Nowland himself said he's always had a passion for figuring it out how things work.
After working at gas stations in high school, Nowland shifted to working on heavy equipment after graduation, fabricating and building motor cranes and truck cranes.
"It was quite an eye-opener from changing tires and greasing cars," he said.
It was a childhood friend, Robert John Litogot, though, who helped Nowland find his way to Ford. Litogot, a relative of Henry Ford's mother, had gotten a job with Ford out of high school. As Ford geared up to do a big hiring in 1955 for engine mechanics, Litogot pushed his friend to apply. Nowland did and got a job.
Nowland started working on experimental engines — engines about five years out of production.
But a year and a half into his time at Ford, the military called. Nowland was drafted. He served for two years but always had his eye on returning to Ford. When the military encouraged him to take an officer's exam, Nowland declined.
"I knew I had a good job waiting for me," he said.
Back at Ford, Nowland returned to working on experimental engines just as Henry Ford II announced the company would start a racing program. Nowland's first job was working on engines for the Indianapolis 500, where he met legends like Clark and Chapman. Clark won the Indianapolis 500 in 1965 in a Lotus-Ford car.
For Le Mans, Nowland was designated as Ford's engine man. He made several trips to California to make engine adjustments and said Shelby's team didn't mind that Ford had sent him to do engine work.
"They were wonderful people and very appreciative of not having to go into the engine," Nowland said. "They were engine people, of course — I’m not taking anything way from them — but the rule come out of Dearborn was 'We want our guy to do it.' I worked beside people who were as qualified as I was. But I met some wonderful people."
At Le Mans, Nowland stayed up for more than 30 hours, ready to make adjustments if necessary. When asked if there were shifts for the race, he laughs.
"We had one shift," he said. "That was it."
Only once during the race in 1966 did one of Ford's six factory cars have an engine issue. A driver pulled into the pits, saying he was losing power. Nowland could hear a sound that wasn't there before and knew almost immediately what it was: a rockerarm screw that can affect valve timing. He replaced it and the car got back into the race.
"Anywhere I was needed on those six cars, I was on the engine," said Nowland. "If there was an engine question, they’d come and get me and I’d help them out."
When Ford returned to Le Mans in 1967, even though the carmaker was supposed to bring a different team of engines folks, Nowland's supervisor again asked him to work on the race. Nowland said he'd go again on one condition: He wanted to bring his wife, Marcia. His manager agreed.
Looking back on it all, Nowland, now a father to two grown children, two grandchildren and one great-grandchild, said his racing days put him into contact with people and experiences he never expected.
"It was great to be around the Ford family and other world champions as far as drivers, and have exposure to people I’d only read about," he said.
Retired but still working
When it was time to retire, the last thing Nowland wasn't about to just sit still. He retired on a Friday in 2012 and started volunteering at The Henry Ford in Dearborn the following Monday.
Eventually, Mark Gervasi, head conservator at the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House, invited Nowland to Fair Lane and asked if he'd like to start volunteering there in 2015.
“I brought Mose with me because he’s just so good," said Gervasi. "His enthusiasm is remarkable and he’s a wealth of knowledge. I’ve learned so much just being alongside him. I just really like being in the shop with him.”
Today, Nowland spends two days a week in the conservator's studio at Fair Lane — the former enclosed porch overlooking the Rouge River with a large portrait of Henry Ford — working on everything from replicating drawer pulls for the kitchen to light fixtures for the bowling alley.
During a recent tour of Fair Lane, Nowland pointed to a pair of torcheres, a type of lamp carved from wood and gilded in gold, in the front foyer which he helped recreate because several were missing. He took one of the originals apart and created silicone molds to recreate the 11 components for the lamp. He then cast the parts with polyurethane and a type of wood fiber. A visitor would never know the difference between the original and the copy.
Brown, the conservator, said no project stumps Nowland: “It might make him stop and have to think, but nothing stumps him.”
"There’s a diversity in challenges" at Fair Lane, said Nowland. "Today you’re working in bronze, tomorrow you're working in glass, the next day you working in plastics. The next day you’re working rubber moldings."
And his racing career has helped with all of it.
"I learned a lot of skills during my racing days, replicating parts," said Nowland.
And Nowland is still making cars. With a friend, Jim Dunham, they've built three race cars with leftover parts Dunham purchased from the Ford GT, including a flashy orange car the duo built in 2017. But Nowland said he isn't big into racing himself, "I like to build them."