After Motor Sport republished Jenks’s 1955 epic, you’d think there wasn’t much more to be said on the subject of the Mille Miglia. Jenks himself would always remind you that this wonderful motor race came to an end in 1957, never to return. He had no time for today’s historic event, even though it follows the same route. In his view it was nothing more than a jolly for rich old men with nice old cars, and should never have used the same name.
I have reason to be grateful for his trenchant views. In 1995, the 40th anniversary of Moss’s great victory, Mercedes naturally wanted Stirling and the famous 300SLR to take part, and Stirling asked Jenks to accompany him. When Jenks responded with a brisk negative, Stirling asked me to go instead.
Rally rather than race maybe, and my fumbling efforts with route book and watches to keep The Boy on (rather than ahead of) schedule made a poor contrast to Jenks’s hugely significant, and brave, input. But it gave me three days I shall never forget: drama, noise, speed, cheering crowds, parching heat and freezing rain. I was riding in an icon among racing cars, my face blackened with brake dust just as Jenks’s had been, my head ringing with the raucous straight-eight whose twin open pipes exited just below my right ear. Beside me, the big woodrimmed wheel held lightly between his fingertips, was one of the greatest racing drivers of all time, doing just what he’d done 40 years before: storming up and down mountain passes, rocketing away through the gears from each control, howling flat-out along the pencil-straight Via Emilia, weaving frighteningly to move the crowds back as we rushed through rural villages. We usually arrived early at the controls: then Stirling would park a few metres from the line and doze. I had to scan the watches, wake him up at the right time, and count him down so we crossed the line on the second.
This year, the 50th anniversary, DaimlerChrysler decided it was the last time the now literally priceless old car would be allowed to tackle the full 1000 miles. In future it will live quietly in the factory museum and only be allowed out for displays and demonstrations. Nowadays the Mille Miglia starts from Brescia on Thursday evening. Stirling, as full of beans as ever at 75, was due in Monaco on the Friday for a weekend’s work at the Grand Prix, but he and Susie flew to Brescia anyway. There were photo shoots, TV interviews and endless autograph sessions in the Piazza Vittorio, which was crammed with marvellous cars and excited people for the wonderfully disorganised scrutineering, just like 50 years ago. In an emotional little ceremony Moss was handed an indelible pen and signed the car’s engine cover: “We did it together. My thanks and affection. Ciao, Stirling.”
Then, in front of cheering crowds, he took the start over the traditional ramp and roared off into the evening light. But a couple of miles later he handed over to Jochen Mass, who knows the SLR well, and with a German industrialist as lucky passenger the old campaigner thundered away towards Bussolengo and Verona. By 6am next day, as the cars were leaving Ferrara, Stirling and Susie were in a chauffeur-driven Maybach, making for Monte Carlo.
My wife and I had flown to Italy with the Mosses to witness all this fun. But we also wanted to take in, as normal spectators, more of an event which I’d only ever seen from the busy cockpit of the 300SLR. So we hired a car and set off south to meet the cars coming north from Rome. Our goal was the tortuous Futa Pass through the Apennines north of Florence, always a crucial part of the original race. Watching with the crowds up in the hills reminded me how much the Italians love their motorsport and appreciate the finer points of its history. Most of them weren’t born when a 160mph puncture sent Fon de Portago and Ed Nelson into the crowd north of Mantova. On that day 13 people died, and it spelt the end of the true Mille Miglia. Yet this year thousands of them had bagged the best vantage points, hours before the cars came through.
Up on the Futa they cheered and waved for every car, clearly able to tell their Erminis from their Stanguellinis. Others, unhelpfully, were storming up and down the Futa among the competing cars, in boy-racer Giuliettas and Puntos — some seemed to have let their tyres down to increase the amount of crowd-pleasing tyre squeal — or astride Benellis and Ducatis. A shiny, and rather carefully-driven, Ferrari Enzo got a somewhat derisive cheer: they voiced greater approval for an elderly and breathless Fiat 500, whose youthful driver seemed to be able to take every corner without lifting. After all the Mille Miglia cars had come through — the SSKs, the vintage Bentleys, the big Ferraris and Maseratis, a happily-grinning Jochen in the 300SLR — we turned north for Brescia, feeling we’d been present at a proper Italian motorsporting event. Jenks was right, of course: today’s Mille Miglia can’t be compared in any way with the utterly challenging flat-out road race of the 1930s and ’50s. Except in one thing, perhaps: the unbridled enjoyment of the crowd, who so appreciated the sight of great cars being put to good use, and cheered just as they or their parents cheered Moss and Jenks 50 years ago.