Glimpse from DSJ's seat

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216

Twenty years ago, Stirling Moss returned to the Mille Miglia. His lucky navigator caught a flavour of Denis Jenkinson’s experience in 1955 – but only by mistake
Writer Simon Taylor

Sixty years ago I was a damp-eyed 10-year-old boy, incarcerated in a traditional prep school 100 miles from home. To cheer me up, when my father had finished reading his monthly copy of Motor Sport he rolled it up into a tube and posted it to me. It took me most of the month, between Latin lessons and the loathsome rugger, to read every word, from WB’s introductory leader via DSJ’s Continental Notes to the last classified ad. I kept every copy, and they became the seedcorn of the run of bound volumes I maintain today.

The June 1955 issue took longer to read than the others, because I was mesmerised by DSJ’s incredible 9000-word article With Moss in the Mille Miglia. You will understand why when you read it, if you haven’t already (it is readily available via our online archive).

It was clear to me even then that Jenks – as I somehow already knew DSJ was called – had written this immense piece of work entirely from memory, because during the race itself he was otherwise occupied.

I wanted to preserve the article but didn’t want to mutilate my magazine, so I wrote to my father (telephone calls weren’t allowed except in cases of near-fatal illness) and asked him to get me a second copy. When that arrived I carefully cut out the huge blocks of tiny type – almost totally devoid of paragraphs, because Jenks didn’t do paragraphs – and pasted them into a school exercise book. On the front I stuck the oval picture from the cover showing Moss and Jenks after their win, faces streaked with oil and dirt. Over the past 60 years I have kept that exercise book too.

I was already a fan of Stirling Moss, of course, but now he became my hero. Jenks, too, was elevated to almost god-like standing. Many years later I was privileged to be able to call them both friends. So in 1995 I reminded Stirling it was the 40th anniversary of that great victory.

I suggested that Mercedes-Benz should get the 300SLR out of their museum and he and Jenks should do the Mille Miglia Retrospective, which covered most of the original route as a three-day regularity event. In those days Mercedes didn’t use the 300SLR, number 722, as a publicity machine as much as they do now, but I knew Stirling’s request would not be denied. “Good idea, boy,” said Stirling. “I’ll talk to Jenks.”

Next morning he was on the phone. “Jenks says he did the real thing, and why should he want to ponce around with rich old men in their shiny red Ferraris. You’d better come instead.”

Which is how I came to spend three days sitting in Jenks’s seat beside Stirling, in burning sun, in drenching rain, in darkness as well as day, as he hurled the 300SLR up steep mountain passes, through towns and villages, and along straight, narrow roads at 150mph between solid walls of waving people. And when we paused I got Stirling to tell me tales of those 10 full-throttle hours on May 1, 1955. The trip into the straw bales approaching Pescara, which dented the front but still dealt with an obstructive Gordini. The comfort stop Stirling had planned at the Rome control, not realising that since the recce a huge grandstand had been built and he had to perform in front of several hundred people. Passing a competing Isetta bubble car on the final flat-out run into Brescia, with a speed differential of 130mph. And many more.

Before Stirling and I caught the plane to Malpensa I called Jenks, to ask him for some guidance. Grudgingly he agreed to meet me at his local pub, the Derby Inn in Bartley Heath, “Just for 30 minutes. I’m very busy.” (Maybe he was doing a gasket change on the Fiat 500 engine he’d bolted to the floor in the front passage of his ramshackle cottage, to power the electric light.) As instructed I arrived at 5.30pm, just as his little bearded figure drew up in his regular transport, an ancient Morris Minor. This had all the seats removed, apart from the driver’s, so that he could more easily carry a Duesenberg engine block or an Alta cylinder head when required. He’d brought the famous ‘bog roll’, the neat little metal box with a perspex window through which he read the detailed pace notes made during their pre-race recce. He generously took me through the whole route, embroidered with many tales, and he was still in full flow when the landlord chucked us out at closing time.

So to Italy and the start at Brescia. As Stirling and I drive over the starting ramp on Thursday evening, the crowds seem as large as in all the contemporary photographs of the event itself, and of course Stirling and the 300SLR merit a special cheer. The little passenger seat is narrower than the driver’s, with much reduced legroom, but I feel ecstatic at the prospect of spending three days and much of two nights there. The engine lies almost on its side, which means that the transmission is towards the left, and Stirling sits with his legs wide apart straddling the clutch housing. Level with my right ear are the two mighty, unsilenced pipes from that glorious straight-eight.

The route is more or less the same as the 1955 original, but punctuated with regularity sections and secret checks, which are timed to 0.01sec. So if you are a hundredth early or late, that’s a penalty point. My job is serious: the ultra-competitive Stirling always wants to win anything he attempts, even if it’s a game of tiddly-winks. Modern electronic aids are forbidden, so on my knee I have a board with four old-fashioned stop watches, plus the road book and the extra notes I scribbled down listening to Jenks in the pub.

I would never have made a competent rally navigator, and almost at once it’s all a blur anyway, because I’m too busy revelling in the throaty urge of the big 300SLR and watching the 65-year-old on my left, totally relaxed, arms and feet moving in lightning-quick harmony over the narrow, twisting, bumpy roads.

Day two, and we’re running into heavy rain now. We’re loping along at a steady 90mph: my roadbook is turning into a sodden pulp, my notes are running off the page. The stopwatches on my knee are ticking away, measuring the overall time since this morning’s dawn start and the time in our current series of sections and checks.

An hour ago I told Stirling that, thanks to his relentless progress, we were going to be disgracefully early for the next time check.

So we bumped the 300SLR onto the pavement outside a village bar and went in for a coffee, to the astonishment and delight of the regulars. Now we’re back in the cockpit, turning inland from the Adriatic coast and climbing into the Abruzzi mountains – a wonderfully tortuous, narrow road of tight hairpins and steep diving curves across sudden valleys, still with winter snow piled beside the asphalt.

It’s now that I realise, checking the watches and prising apart the dripping pages of the roadbook, that somewhere in my calculations I’ve got into a comprehensive muddle. We shouldn’t have stopped for that coffee. I put my mouth close to Stirling’s helmet and shout the awful truth: we have 14 minutes to do the next 16 miles. Up here in the mountains. In the rain.

He gives me a brief look of annoyance, and then his eyes go hard, like pebbles. He changes down a gear, and the racket of the straight-eight becomes a shriek. He leans back in the cockpit, head slightly on one side, in that serene position familiar from a thousand Grand Prix action shots from the 1950s. His gloves are light on the steering wheel as it shuffles rapidly through his hands, back and forth. His right foot just by my left is flashing from throttle to brake, brake to throttle, his right hand snicking the big gearlever across its open gate.

We’re twisting downhill now, the Mercedes squirming like a wild animal as he teases it into a front-wheel slide, catches it, holds it on the throttle, pushes it onward. There are of course no seatbelts. I’m being flung around by the g-forces, my stomach and leg muscles taut with the effort of keeping out of Stirling’s lap. The rev-counter tell-tale is up to 7100rpm – that’s 84mph in second, 101mph in third. I have absolutely no fear, except of Stirling’s ire at my mistake: only a bubble of joy and delight rising in my throat as he summons back his superhuman skills of four decades before.

We burst into a mountain village, and Stirling’s foot spans throttle and brake as he double-declutches down the gearbox. His thumb is on the button that simultaneously sounds the horn and flashes the lights. We fishtail across a cobbled square that is lined with cheering, waving locals, and I glimpse a priest on the steps of his little church raising his arm in blessing. Then we’re back in lush green country again.

Over a brow, and suddenly here’s the control. We slither to a stop, neatly astride the line. The watches tell the story: we’ve made up all but 37 seconds of the lost time. Stirling has averaged 66mph over those wet, steep mountain lanes. But, thanks to my foolish clanger, we’ve earned a bundle of penalty points. Stirling switches off the engine, and in trepidation I pull off my helmet. I’m for it now. But all I get is a reassuring grin: “I rather enjoyed that, boy.”

There is more of the same as we encircle Italy: the Futa Pass, the Raticosa, the historic piazzas of Siena and Florence, flat out along the arrow-straight stretches of the Via Emilia. And always the cheering crowds: it seems the whole of Italy is out to see us. The welcome Moss receives at every halt is extraordinary. Flowers are thrown into the cockpit, and gifts we have no room for: cheese, toys, a picture of a local beauty queen, a cake. Old men push through the crowd to shake his hand and tell him how they watched the 1955 race. Girls want their photo taken with him, which Stirling permits with undisguised enjoyment. Small boys who learned the legend at their grandfather’s knee queue up for his autograph: one, evidently well-informed, notes my lack of beard and says, “Dov’è Jenkinson?”.

It is late on Saturday evening when we reach the finish back at Brescia. More crowds, more interviews, more pictures. We’ve spent 32 of the past 48 hours in the car. Our grimy overalls have been repeatedly drenched with rain and dried in the cockpit’s oily heat. But we go as we are into a restaurant for our first square meal since Thursday. As we walk in the other diners, recognising Stirling, stand and clap. I fall a few paces behind him, and I clap too. I’ve been privileged to watch an old master practise his art again, and he’s given me three days I shall never forget.

All that was 20 years ago. Stirling still appears at the Mille Miglia with 722: he doesn’t do the full route any more, but the adulation of the crowd is undiminished.

It seems there isn’t a person in Italy who hasn’t heard about what that young man did on May 1, 1955, and how, helped by a little bearded chap with a roll of paper in a box, he made motor racing history and set a record that will never be broken.

Footnote: Jenks told me that, back in Italy a few months after the race, he was in a village bar and heard an old man say: “That young Moss, you know why he won the Mille Miglia? He had a priest in the car with him, a bearded priest, and all through the race the priest was reading to him from a bible on his knee. I saw it with my own eyes!”

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