Nothing left to chance

Painstaking planning and hard graft were the foundations of Moss and Jenks’s Mille Miglia win, as our Continental Correspondent’s diary helps recall
Writer Doug Nye

In mid-August, 1954, the prototype Mercedes-Benz 300SLR was just being built as the seeds of Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson’s 1955 Mille Miglia victory were sown.

On August 15, the non-championship Pescara Grand Prix in Italy was being run on the 16-mile Abruzzi circuit. This was Jenks’s first visit, and he had driven down in his Lancia Aprilia with two friends, aeronautical engineer Dick Cawthorne and his wife Nan.

Stirling Moss was driving his personal Maserati 250F, which had been adopted as a works runner at the preceding German GP. Tragically, works driver Onofre Marimon had crashed fatally there, further elevating Moss’s importance to Maserati. And he promptly qualified on Pescara pole, fully 21 seconds faster than his closest rival. He then led the race until an oil pipe parted.

Meanwhile, Maserati had brought down an A6G sports car for him to learn the circuit. After Saturday practice he was about to run in it when Jenks asked if he could accompany him “…and after one exhilarating lap he stopped, expecting me to stagger out and be sick from sheer fright, instead of which I was grinning and said ‘That was terrific, can we go round again?’”

Fearless Jenks had served as sidecar star Eric Oliver’s intrepid passenger in winning the class’s inaugural world championship in 1949. His personal diary entry for Saturday, August 14, 1954 at Pescara reads: “Went for a lap in A6G with Moss. Terrific.”

Stirling “…did not forget that chance occasion, and the following winter, when he was planning the 1955 Mille Miglia with Mercedes-Benz, he asked me to go with him.”

Come September, at Monza on the Monday and Tuesday after the Italian GP, Jenks watched Mercedes-Benz testing the prototype 300SLR. He would later muse: “Little did I imagine that I was going to be part of that programme. Watching with me was John Fitch, who had driven in the Carrera PanAmericana for Mercedes. When he saw the SLR he said: ‘That car could win the Mille Miglia. Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Maserati couldn’t beat that’.

“We discussed John’s idea for ways of overcoming the Italians’ natural advantage in the Mille Miglia by it being run on their own roads. The second person in the car should not be a spare driver or a mechanic, but a full-time ‘navigator’. The idea interested me, for I had done part of the 1954 Mille Miglia with George Abecassis in an HWM-Jaguar. I soon realised there was much to be gained from a navigator who knew where he was going.

“While John waited to hear from Mercedes about their 1955 driver team, we went ahead on planning a ‘navigational system’ and spent a lot of time poring over large-scale road maps, as well as planning reconnaissance runs in his 1100cc Fiat, as he was living in Italy.

“At New Year 1955, when Mercedes-Benz settled their programme, all they could promise John Fitch was a works reserve drive and an entry in a 300SL Gullwing to join the GT class.” Jenks would have been thrilled to accompany the American in a works Gullwing, but then “… Stirling Moss telephoned to ask if I would like to join him for the Mille Miglia now that the Stuttgart firm had confirmed his place. When I told John Fitch he said ‘Even using our system we couldn’t hope to win outright with a 300SL, but Stirling in an SLR could. Go and join him and take our system with you, and good luck to both of you’.”

Jenks's diary

Friday February 4, 1955 “Went to London in Aprilia. Met Moss for lunch [at The Steering Wheel Club]. Mille Miglia is definitely on.” That same day’s entry continues: “Went to Motor Sport in afternoon. Good possibility of getting a Porsche!” That was a pretty darned good day for DSJ.

“[Moss] was already thinking along the same lines of using a ‘navigator’ and had asked me because he was certain that I was ‘mad’ and ‘fearless’. As he said: ‘I’ve seen you riding with Eric Oliver… so what more could I ask?’

“When we pooled our accumulated knowledge and ideas a great deal of ground work was covered. From three previous Mille Miglia races with Jaguars Moss had gathered together a good quantity of notes, about bumpy level-crossings, blind hill-brows, dangerous corners and so on, and as I knew certain sections of the course intimately, all this knowledge put down on paper amounted to about 25 per cent of the circuit…”.

Now, in Mercedes-Benz reconnaissance, they were to learn the other 75 per cent.

Thursday February 10 “Alan [Southon of Phegre Engineering – a long-time friend] picked me up at 8am. Went to Heath Row [sic]. Met Moss. Flew Viscount to Geneva-Milan. Alan took Aprilia home. By 170 Mercedes to Brescia. Saw 300SLR ready for practice. Stayed Hotel Brescia.”

Friday February 11 “Left Brescia 7.30am in 300SLR. Kling & Herrmann in 220 – Kosteletzky” [sic – very senior engineer – really spelled ‘Kostelezky’] “& mechanics in 220. After plug check near Peschiera got to Pescara by 1pm – lunch – Aquila – Roma – Viterbo by 5pm. 145-150mph cruising. Stayed night.”

He reported, “….no intention of going fast, for the object was to see how the [SLR] stood up to 1000 miles of rough Italian roads. It was the prototype that was given to us with instructions not to exceed 170mph in fifth gear, always fill the tank with Agip Supercortemaggiore petrol, not to hurry, to take two days, and not to drive in the dark.

“After a preliminary plug check we got into our stride, our personal object being to make notes about the road conditions as we went along. Moss soon found this rennsportwagen was quite happy cruising between 145 and 155mph amid Italian traffic. Acceleration from 50 to 150mph gave the feeling of being absolutely constant, no kick in the back, no sudden surge forward, but a constant increase of speed, while the suspension was so comfortable and the roadholding such that the rev counter reading and gear lever position were the only guides to mph. Quite literally, anything under 100mph was a pace at which to make notes and regard the scenery, while waiting for the road to clear so we could go on into fourth and fifth.

“The brakes retarded the car with a deceleration that was as deceptive as the acceleration, accompanied by the most vile smell of burning brake linings, for with inboard brakes all the heat and smells waft up into the cockpit. On two occasions Moss had to make rapid stops and then the cockpit filled with blue smoke from the linings and hot drums.

“While we were not going at racing Mille Miglia speeds, for Moss refused to take any chances – at no time using more than his own half of the road and never squeezing through gaps – we were still averaging over 90mph, including obeying traffic lights, and going round all the islands. Having reached Pescara by lunchtime, the average still being well in the 80s, we stopped to eat, the car not protesting at all in being driven around the town in search of a reasonable restaurant, and then being parked outside between an Aprilia and a Fiat 1900.

“By this time, of course, the populace was delirious and Luigis, Giovannis and Vittorios were appearing from all directions. We were forced to lunch in semi-darkness as the windows of the restaurant were blacked-out by inquisitive faces eager to see the ‘Inglese, Sterlinee Morss’.

“Soon on our way again, we wound up into the mountains around Popoli and on the way to Aquila we cruised for many kilometres across a plateau at just over 160mph. It was a most fascinating experience to look sideways at the driver at this speed, to see his youthful face looking as relaxed as most people’s do when sitting in front of the fire after a good meal; but behind the goggles the eyes had a comforting look of complete concentration and confidence. There was nothing for me to do except give a quick look at the instruments, do some sums to convince myself we were doing more than 160mph and then watch the scenery go by.

“Naturally, over the mountains the average speed was forced down, for even Moss in a Mercedes-Benz cannot average much more than 60mph, but down into Rome the roads improved, as they did out again, northwards to Viterbo. There, the light was beginning to fade so we packed up and once more motored about relatively quietly looking for the pre-arranged hotel, for the 220 Mercedes-Benz cars were now about three hours behind us.”

Saturday February 12 “Left 8am – clutch slip after Siena – Waited for 220s. 3/4hr delay. Set off again. Firenze-Bologna 1hr 4min. Brescia by 5.10pm. Police chase in Modena. Evening at Hotel. Bed early.”

Jenks recalled: “That day provided for me one of my most memorable motoring experiences. It is not difficult to find someone to drive you along a straight road at 150mph, or for that matter to do it yourself, providing the conditions are favourable, but to be driven over three really arduous mountain passes in a car of the potential of the 300SLR by a driver whom I can only describe as an artist, is something to which mere words cannot do full justice.

“The Mercedes-Benz’s handling calls for sharp corners to be taken with the power on, which provokes rear-end breakaway, and this is counteracted with the steering wheel. [Moss] threw the SLR round the hairpins and through the multitude of S-bends in a series of controlled flicks and slides, and on dry roads the car skated about as a Morris Minor would on snow at 20mph driven by a rally driver. We crossed the mountains in this manner, the car being whisked round the bends and corners, with the driver complete master of the machine.

“In no time at all it seemed this living with the gods was over and we were in Bologna, though actually it had taken nearly two hours, and all at an average of over 60mph. Our overall running average had been nearly 75mph… Never once did I press my feet on the bulkhead or clutch wildly at the scuttle.”

A second full lap was to be attempted next day.

Sunday February 13 “Up by 10am. Left again at 12am. Padova in 1hr 2min. Ravenna by 2.45pm – less 32 min for lunch. Split rad near Rimini. Patched it up and stopped in pouring rain at Pesaro. Phoned Brescia for new rad. Bed early.” A footnote adds: “140 miles @ 93.15mph – BRESCIA-FERRARA.” [104 miles on today’s road system] And all on roads in public use…

Monday February 14 “Car repaired by 5am. We left 8am in snowstorm! Rain, hail, snow all down Adriatic coast nearly to Pescara. Hopeless to go fast. Good to Aquila. Lunch and on to Rome. 40km on at Monterosi sheep jumped in front of car. Spun into ditch and wrecked rear axle. Kling & Herrmann arrived later. Left 300SLR at Agip station. Went on to cold, damp Hotel at Montefiascone. Stayed night.”

He recalled how, “We struggled on for another 200 miles in weather [ranging] from hail to three inches of snow on the roads, with ice forming on the windscreen and goggles faster than we could rub it off. Nearing Rome the weather cleared up and conditions were perfect once again, but shortly after Rome we were passing a flock of sheep at 70mph when the attendant shepherd struck one of them with a hefty stick and it leapt sideways into our left-hand headlamp. While the dead mutton flew up into the air we spun and, in going into the ditch, a rear wheel struck a low concrete bollard, and that was that.”

In the evenings, the duo discussed the roads and Jenks would transcribe his scribbled ‘Chinese’ notes. They concentrated on locations that might break the car, then logged and graded all the more demanding corners, then slippery surfaces. Jenks noted each plus or minus distance from a kilometre-stone reference. They also logged ‘flat-out feasible’ places. They refined their corner assessments, making allowance for higher approach speeds on race day than in reconnaissance against oncoming traffic. On another lap Jenks selected recognisable landmarks visible whether driving into the sun or in pouring rain.

Tuesday February 15 “Left 7.30am in 220. Snow over mountains otherwise good run to Brescia by 5pm. Evening at Hotel.” And next day: “Herrmann drove us to Milan in Neubauer’s 220. Lunch and caught afternoon plane to England. Heathrow 7pm. Snow & rain. Stayed night at [his sister] Monica’s.”

Jenks wrote: “We sorted out our notes and had them typed out into some semblance of order, and before leaving England again I spent hours with a friend” – Nan Cawthorne – “checking and cross-checking, going over the list many times, finally being 100 per cent certain that there were no mistakes.” His diary, Wednesday, March 2: “Got up late. Went to ‘Bramleys’ [the Cawthornes’ house in Fleet, Hampshire]. Read through Mille Miglia notes with Nan. Then went to Farnham to try & sell Aprilia...”

Tuesday March 8 “Called for Bod 9am in Aprilia. Went to Heathrow, he took Aprilia, I flew to Stuttgart via Zurich – Viscount & DC3 Dakota. Porsche collected me in VW. Saw 300SL. Bought Porsche 1500. Frankenberg [Richard von Frankenberg, German magazine publisher and Porsche figure] took me to Stuttgart town.”

Wednesday March 9 “Went to Mercedes. Spent morning with Neubauer. Lunched with Frankenberg. Collected new Porsche in afternoon. Motored at 3000rpm on Autobahn to Colne [sic – Köln/Cologne] – 250 miles in 5 hours. Had supper & drove on to Bruxelles by 1am. Stayed Gare du Nord.” Next morning he: “Got up early. Went to see Masuy in morning [Marcel Masuy, his motorcycle sidecar rider after Oliver]. Left Porsche with Pilette. Flew home Sabena. Went to MS…”

He already had quite a story to tell, and the following week he flew back to Brussels, collected his shiny Porsche and drove it proudly home via the Dunkirk-Dover ferry.

Monday March 21 He was off again, this time via Porsche in Stuttgart to the Turin GP on Sunday 27, when he: “Left immediately afterwards and motored to Brescia on Autostrada. Cruised 95-90 [sic] with Aurelia. Met Moss & Mercedes Benz at Hotel.” Next morning: “Left at 7am in 220a of Moss and motored at 58mph average to Rome. Spent night there…” Distance covered in the 220 saloon was especially fruitful, as it allowed discussion. Jenks accumulated some 17 pages of detailed notes, while Moss’s confidence in him slowly grew and Stirling had the now famous aluminium roller-map box made, into which Jenks loaded his final strip, its pencil notes readable through a perspex window sealed against possible rain with Sellotape.

Tuesday March 29 “Up at 7am and returned to Brescia. Stopped for lunch only. Evening at Hotel. Fangio arrived.”

Wednesday, March 30 “Left at 7am in pouring rain all way to Pescara. Fangio passed in SLR after Popoli – Kling in SL at Antrodocco. Stayed night at Viterbo.” Thursday, March 31 “Left at 9.45am in sunshine back to Brescia. Called at Maserati on way.” And Friday, April 1: “Left Brescia 6.30am in 300SL – Herrmann in 300SLR. Averaging 78mph – Crash with Army lorry at Forli. All day sorting things out with M-B technicians. Home in 220a by 1am.”

Saturday April 2 “At garage in morning. Mercedes-Benz dept in afternoon. Moss returned to England. Afternoon in Brescia. Evening on own.”

Saturday April 16 “Left Cannes 10.30am. Wonderful trip over Col du Tende, through tunnel. Porsche terrific in mountains. Went to Turin. Did 74 miles in hour to Milan. Arrived Brescia in evening.” After a quiet day that Sunday, with Stirling arriving that evening, the two Brits prepared to complete their reconnaissance.

Monday April 18 “Left 7am in SL and drove to Florence. 1200 kilometres. Terrific fun helping driving on blind corners [to give Moss confirmation the winding road ahead was clear for ‘9/10ths’]. Stayed Hotel Select (Phew!). Fangio passed in Verona. Herrmann later, in SLRs. Met Herrmann at Ravenna with fuel pump trouble.”

Tuesday April 19 The pair enjoyed “…another good dice back to Brescia.”

Wednesday April 20 “Left 7am in SLR. Broke crank drive at Rimini. Kling with no brakes. He passed later. Waited 3-4 hours for mechanics. Went on in 220. Fangio had broken SL. He arrived in 300S. Followed him down coast – dicing. Went over mountains to Viterbo!”

Thursday April 21 Jenks and Moss set off for the Bordeaux GP, and from there on Monday, April 25: “Up at 7am. Airport. Plane to Paris, more writing. Plane to Zurich, more writing. Plane to Stuttgart. Met by Furst von Urach. Went to M-B racing department (fantastic). Fitting for seats. Supper party at Solitude with M-B…”

Tuesday April 26 “Up at 7.30am. Collected to M-B. Went to Hockenheim in SLR behind Kosteletski [sic] in 300SL – PanAmerican winner. All morning testing. SL truck [the high-speed transporter], W196. SLR. SL!! 7500 in 5th. On return along Autobahn saw new BMW-SL. Left factory 4pm. Moss went out with girlfriend. I worked on route for MM. Bed early.”

They had experimented with airstream baffles around the cockpit, and juggled windscreen form and dimensions. They practised changing wheels and spark plugs, fitting the temporary aluminium aero-screens that could slot ahead of the standard transparency should it get smashed, they studied the Bosch fuel-injection system, the fuel pumps, the electrical system. They were taken through the spares to be loaded and became imbued with growing confidence. Nor were they alone – their team-mates received matching attention.

Wednesday April 27 “Went to M-B for photos. Airport. Flew to Zurich – 2 hour wait. Flew to Milan. Collected 220 and drove to Lecco to see Sally Weston! [Stirling’s long-time girlfriend] I drove her Fiat to Brescia. Supper and bed.”

Thursday April 28 was spent in the garage and at Mille Miglia scrutineering, “…most of time with John Fitch. Bed early.”

Friday April 29 “At garage in morning. Then to official M-B verification. To Calino for lunch. Went in special SL with Uhlenhaut. 150 on Autostrada and 500rpm [sic – surely ‘5000rpm’?] in top. Usual Count Maggi luncheon. 150 on way back. Tried out SLR with Moss for windscreen tests. Supper with M-B and bed early.”

Saturday April 30 “First test of SLR on Autostrada. Rest of day in Brescia at scrutineering in morning. Bed early.” They tried further windscreen mods to minimise buffeting and improve hot air extraction, while Moss tried the gearchange lock-out mechanism – a sliding gate hastily created since Stirling had sometimes been crossing the gate from second to fifth instead of third, and back.

Sunday May 1, 1955 The great day then dawned and – after so much work, so much preparation, so much commitment – Jenks’s tired and weary entry for that momentous day speaks volumes: “Up at 6am for race day. WE WON. Party in evening with Mercedes-Benz. Bed at 1am” [the way the ‘1’ is formed, it might be ‘7am’, but I doubt it]. Mission accomplished – proof, yet again, that the harder one works, the ‘luckier’ one gets.

Jenks's map maker
The lady who made sure that vital Mille Miglia roll was right for 1000 miles

Several unsung heroes contributed to the 1955 Mille Miglia victory. One is Jenks’s long-time firm friend, supporter and occasional rock – Nan Cawthorne.

Today Nan is a delightfully bright and vivacious 89, and she still remembers clearly how Jenks arrived on her doorstep at ‘Bramleys’, the house she shared with Royal Aircraft Establishment (Farnborough) engineer husband Dick in Church Crookham, on the Hampshire/Surrey border, that spring day 60 years ago.

“He came in with a bundle of notes and notebooks, fresh from a Mercedes reconnaissance with Moss and told me how they needed to condense and transcribe it all onto a continuous roll of paper, which would fit into a little map-box that Stirling was having specially made.”

Every weekday, at a quarter-to-two in the afternoon, the BBC Light Programme would broadcast Listen with Mother. Nan and Dick’s daughter, Frankie, was barely two then, the programme part of her daily routine. It would begin with the lady presenter asking “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin,” and Frankie would sit and listen with her Mum, while Jenks – who just didn’t ‘do’ infants – fussed over his paperwork, unconcernedly impatient with Nan’s rival priority…

But as the programme signed off at 2 o’clock, Frankie would go for her nap and Nan could devote full attention to Jenks and the Mille Miglia notes. As an early member of the hyperactive Hants & Berks Motor Club, she was (and still is) an assiduous organiser with a sharp eye for fine detail. Jenks and Nan spread out all the paperwork on her living room floor, and they carefully collated, cross-checked and painstakingly transcribed selected notes onto a condensed short-list that Jenks would then hand-write in pencil (so errors could be erased and recorrected) onto his final paper ‘roller map’. He would go on fine-tuning his ‘map’ until race eve in his Brescia hotel room.

Nan recalls: “Dick and I had met Jenks years before at Holly Birkett’s nearby house, at Pondtail, in Fleet. Holly was the local vet, and a complete car enthusiast. He had a Bugatti and several Austin Sevens and helped found the 750 Motor Club. He was profoundly eccentric, something of a Walter Mitty – a fine pianist, a very clever and capable vet and a quite Bohemian character, as we all were to varying degrees. At one stage we formed a little jazz band at ‘Bramleys’ – known as ‘The Seedlings’, in which Jenks played clarinet.

“Holly had got to know Jenks and Bill Boddy when the pair worked at the RAE Farnborough, during the war. As a vet he had a petrol allowance, and they were always helping him use it up… Dick often worked with Holly on his various cars. Jenks was away racing motorcycles when we first heard about him from Holly in the late 1940s and early ’50s. Then he just arrived at Pondtail one day. We were all rather in awe of him – he just didn’t conform to anything, really. He wouldn’t think twice about arriving at your house at 10.30pm and knocking on the window to announce himself – then he’d more or less take over.

“In the early ’50s he lived over a garage space at Stratfield Lodge near Odiham. He’d converted the loft space into living accommodation with a stairway and tongue-and-groove cladding. He was very good at that kind of thing. When we updated our house he helped Dick do a lot of work in it. We all three got on really well, and Dick and I accompanied him on several Continental trips – the first with Dick and I on our Sunbeam motorcycle and Jenks on his Norton. Then in 1954 we met him at Friedrichshafen and drove with him in his Lancia Aprilia down to Senigallia and Pescara. We met Dan Margulies at Senigallia racing his Jaguar C-type, and Dick worked on it with him as a makeshift mechanic, then at Pescara Jenks got him working for Prince ‘Bira’ on his Maserati 250F.

“But I think Jenks’s analytical powers really shine through where the Mille Miglia roller notes are concerned. He succeeded in distilling a thousand miles of conflicting danger and opportunity onto less than 20 feet of paper. And then on race day he signalled it all to Stirling with I think only one or two harmless errors. That took some doing – and it’s a tribute to his powers of concentration and focus.

“And do you know how he thanked all of us who’d contributed a little bit to their success? He drove around in his new Porsche to visit each of us with a barrel of Marsala wine on the back seat, and he gave us all a drink to toast a great job, well done. We were proud to be a very minor part of it”.