— Not the real thing, but the Italians loved it
Those of us too young to have read DSJ’s tale of his ride to victory with Stirling Moss in the 1955 mille Miglia when it was first published will never have the chance to see real road racing. For a century, racing on the public road, closed or not, has been the cause of constant argument, and occasional injury. Since the last of these great events, the Targa Florio in Sicily, stopped in 1973, the public appeal of an unfenced course offering free vantage points near the cars (which thus excludes street circuits like Pau and Monaco) has become transferred more and more to the field of rallying. Where once enthusiasts, and for that matter whole families, flocked to see sports-racing Maseratis, Ferraris, and AC Cobras being pushed to their limits on tarmac roads, today’s fans crowd around loose surface stages awaiting the passage of far less elegant but every bit as fast variants of family saloons. Sadly, the events of recent months have proved that the dangers remain, for participants and spectators alike, but that attraction of outright speed and consequent risk also continues, most obviously in the Latin countries.
The machinery, though, lacks the same visual appeal: Metro, Quattro, Delta S4— all are brutish lash-ups to look at. Only the Ford R5200 is individually styled, and that is hardly elegant. Perhaps this is why the idea of a Mille Miglia retrospective has become so popular— it offers a chance to see in action on the public road those rare and desireable sportscars and sports-racers whose spiralling values might otherwise tend to keep them on static display.
Historical gatherings of vehicles of one sort or another proliferate today, but, with the exception of the racing organised by our own VSCC and HSCC, these make little demand on the machinery. The event which the Automobile Club di Brescia and the Musical Watch Car club collaborate over organising, though, is a regularity run over a full 1000 miles route most typically associated with the Mille Miglia itself. However, as this is spread over three days, it is not exactly the strength-sapping dash that the event once represented: Moss’s record time of 1955 was just over 10 hours, missing by a fraction the magical figure of an average of 100 mph. The rules for the present day event, technically speaking, penalise any car which completes any section at over 40 kph, although of course there is nothing (except other traffic as the roads are open) to prevent drivers sprinting through the interesting bits and slowing or stopping to get back on schedule. It is hardly motor racing, but it is nevertheless a rare chance to see beautiful machinery in a more-orless natural habitat.
With this thought in mind, the Alfa GTV6 was loaded up and fettled for the long journey to Italy. We were confident that we could reach our overnight stop in Burgundy in an easy day’s driving, so forsook the autoroute and went via Reims to see what remains of the GP circuit there. The town itself suffers from a new French affliction — piped music in the streets. Trees and lamp-posts carry speakers with a local radio station, some were glad to escape the few miles to the rolling fields which border the old circuit. It is not so much the scale of the huge desolate grandstand which is surprising, as the complete lack of any other signs of the past around the rest of the circuit; the contrast between the permanence of the overgrown concrete control tower and pits and the narrow and unimportant country lanes which comprise the rest of the track is a reminder of how much more amateur (in the best sense ) motor racing used to be.
On the advice of my favoured guide book, we enjoyed an excellent meal and a comfortable night near Chalon-sur-Saone, at the Hostellerie du Val d’Or, Mercurey, before traversing the widely flooded Saone valley and turning towards the Alps via the Rhone valley. We intended to approach Turin by the Col du Mont Cenis, and as the road began to twist and climb, the lovely noise of the Alfa V6 reverberated from the icy hillside. But the pass was closed — had we missed the sign or was the sign missing? — and instead we had to endure 13 kilometers of tunnel at 40 mph behind a lorry. Thank heavens the Channel Tunnel will rely on trains.
Once in Turin we drove to the tower-block HQ of Lancia, where we were to take over a Delta HF turbo, courtesy of Paul Ormond, Lancia UK’s press chief. Despite the sultry heat, we decided that the fact that the electric windows did not work was not a great trial; it was only after 20 minutes of Turin traffic that we realised that the radiator fan did not work either, and that the LCD temperature gauge was flashing dire warnings. Luckily a mechanic was found who tracked down the faulty relay and rectified it. It was while looking for our hotel that it became clear that the Torinese really do ignore red lights as long as their own path is clear. Driving there is quite a tonic: anything you can get away with seems to be acceptable, and while the tiniest Fiats will attempt to head you off at the lights, everyone is prepared to give way the second it is clear they have been bested. The rule seems, rather than rights of way, to be rights of victory.
Finally we reached Brescia in the afternoon before the midevening start, and made our way to the square for scrutineering. Any appropriate car built between 1927 and 1957, the years in which the Mille Miglia ran, is technically eligible, and of course priority is given to vehicles which actually competed. But with some 500 applications being whittled down to 250 entries, the quality of the cars is staggering. In amongst thousands of people crowding the square are three OMs, next door to the treasured Disco Volante Coupe from the Alfa Romeo museum. Two Mercedes 540 SSKs are parked by a cafe where Stirling Moss is holding court; frustrated photographers try desperately to obtain a clear shot of a Delahaye 135 queueing up behind a Bugatti T57, while drawn up at the kerb are a Porsche 550 RS spyder and a gorgeous Zagato-bodied 1953 Fiat 8V. Everywhere the eye rests are examples of the very finest of sporting automobiles; amongst Cisitalias, a Stanga, and several OSCAs are dark green C-type Jaguars, paler Aston Martins (three DB3S0 four silver Mercedes 300 SL Coupes, of which one is driven by Olivier Gendebien, and a selection of Alfa Rome vs amongst which several 1750 Zagatos look insignificant: a 1924 RL SS, Nicola Romeo’s own 1750 GS, and British-entered Monzas driven by De Cadenet, Grist, Mann, Felton and Mayman. In early years, the race was dominated by the Milan marque but its rivals are here in force too: spidery Maseratis of 2-, 3 and 4-litres, slender Fiat-based Bandini and Stanguellinis, and the only MM winner Lancia fielded — the D24 of 1954, being driven by Gino Munaron who drove for Maserati, Ferrari and Cooper in the 50s and 60s, together with the 525, the last racing car Lancia built, in the charge of one-time works driver Gino Valenzano.
As darkness falls this astonishing assemblage tours through the town and congregates in rough lines in the tree-lined road which saw the start of so many Mille Miglias. Here, amongst a milling throng of excited locals and visitors, it becomes obvious that there is one make which outnumbers all others — what else but Ferrari. Starting with the 1947 166 which won the GP at Turin that year with Raymond Sommer up, through to not one or two but live 250 Tour de France coupes; there was the 340 America which Villoresi used to win the event in 1951, the lovely 4.5-litre 375MM — almost every car seemed to have some special claim to fame. Reappearing on the event for which it was built in 1949, was the Fontana-bodied 212 with no screen pillars, just halt-inch thick glass sloping up to the roof.
Where else might one see a D-type sitting unattended by the kerb for half an hour while people walked by? Few spare it a glance; all attention is focussed on the floodlit ramp from where each entrant is sent off accompanied by enormous cheers. For some, the applause and whistles are deafening and ecstatic: the two pretty girls in the Maserati A6 GCS, the tiny Isetta which competed in 1955, Mauro Forghieri in a barchetta Ferrari, Michele Alboreto in a 340LM Berlinetta, while the crowd around No 114 goes almost delirious with joy. It is Clay Regazzoni in a Lancia B20 GT; though it has hand controls, he still manages to sign autographs as he nears the ramp.
There is no difficulty in finding the route out of town for the competitors; it is delineated by solid walls of cheering Italians mindless of safety, leaning within an inch of the cars. This is to be the pattern for the next 48 hours, too. Because we have stayed to watch the later cars depart, we elect to sprint ahead by autostrada to rejoin the cars at Padua and so on to Rovigo and Ferrara, the first night stop. But we don’t make up anything like the time we expect: once back on the long straight roads pounding eastwards, we are still only mid-field, and having to alternate between avoiding traffic slower than our 80-90 mph and making space to let Astons and Jaguar C-types past. This is obviously more than just a regularity rally. Past the Castello at Ferrara and a final sweep through another human corridor into the packed square — floodlights, loudspeakers; and it’s 2am!
Friday starts at 7 am, so there are some bleary eyes, but not for long as the route turns south-east towards Ravenna and the Adriatic coast. These are the fastest stretches where the peakiest of engines is on song, with no fear of being apprehended by the authorities. A brief detour into the tiny republic of San Marino, then back to the coastal resort of Cattolica and on to a glorious, sinuous, undulating section, the Via Panoramica where glimpses of a glittering Adriatic alternate with green folds of inland valleys. The Delta Turbo can be hurled through these bends without worry, sticking firmly to a neutral line and surging ahead in a quiet, urgent fashion which probably outshines many of the road-racers we are mixing with.
By now we have discovered that the only way of keeping in touch with the cars is to join in; with headlamps ablaze and huge MM sticker in the windscreen we are waved excitedly through red lights by grinning policemen. The Mille Miglia is all-important; it is their big moment when Moss’s Maserati and Prince Michael’s 5-type are waved on Everything else has to stop in any case, since the crowds block every crossroad. Perugia is a tortuous tunnel of waving fans; drivers aim for a three foot gap which miraculously expands to a bare car’s width and closes behind the bumper. Support cars and the press clog the descending hairpins out of the town — a Mercedes 300 SL and a Testarossa streak down the wrong side of a series of blind bends. It is actually more exciting than many a circuit race I have seen!
A night-stop in Rome is the prelude to the famous mountain crossings, the Futa and Raticosa passes. Almost every bend is fringed with onlookers, and while it is true that the older cars are hardly being pushed, the honour of the event, and the profits of Dunlop et al, are being upheld by the faster entries. Ferrari camshafts, Aston curbs, and snarling Jaguar exhausts lift children and adults onto new planes of delight. A Porsche 550 RSK spyder is absolutely at home on this extended hillclimb, though less so is the Bentley from Bermuda. It is listed merely as a 4 1/4, but it is a thrill to see that this is that Ernbiricos car designed by Paulin and which inspired the later Continentals.
After this mountain highlight, the cars arrive at Modena where at the Scaglietti body plant they roll one by one past a table at which sits Enzo Ferrari. He bestows a wave on every car, though some drivers cannot restrain themselves from grabbing a handshake from the old man as travel-stained examples of his life’s work parade in front of him.
From here even the lovely towns of Cremona and Mantua become little more than route markers as the light fades and traffic increases towards Brescia. Once more we are sucked in by the human peristalsis that squeezes the cars into the centre of Brescia, only to be spat out into a jam of support vehicles while the competitors enjoy their last burst of glory under the arc-lamps. For some reason, our status as bona-fide journalists seems to have evaporated, and with it our hotel booking, so we are forced halfway back to Turin to find a bed. However, the fact that we missed seeing the main trophy go to Schildbach and Netzer in their Mercedes SSK seems less than important compared to the memory of so many delighted people for whom a love of cars and of speed is in the blood.
I was almost sorry to hand back the Delta; as a non-turbo man I had been impressed by its response in any gear, and by how cruising at 100 mph it would leap ahead to 120-plus when challenged by bigger machinery, but as usual the LCD auxiliary gauges were invisible in sunlight. Its firm damping was not uncomfortable even on the rougher hill roads, and we managed, in relative quiet, to press a 2-litre Maserati which was pushing on hard through a series of uphill hairpins. Such is the contrast in 30 years of motoring.
These Mille Miglia events are getting closer together; from a oneoff, they have become biennial, and the next will be in May 1987 Whether being an annual celebration will diminish the excitement of this celebration of the road-race has yet to be seen, but yes, I want to be there, right in the middle, as a competitor. The car ought to be British, has to be fast, and must be open -the welcome in every town compensated for this year’s cloudburst. Does anyone have an XK120 to spare? — G.C.