By Our Continental Correspondent
As the Mille Miglia is a difficult race at which to spectate and a dull one from the Press grandstand, I decided that it would be more interesting to take part in the.event. Also it would provide the opportunity of satisfying a schoolboy ambition, to ride as a racing-mechanic in the most fantastic of all races; a desire that was born in the early days of the Ulster T.T. and from photographs of Mille Miglia Alfa-Romeos studied avidly under cover of a history book — the real reason for utter failure in all examinations. Another desire was to sample the 150-m.p.h. speeds that are spoken of lightly by people “in the know” these days. Not long ago it was 100 m.p.h., but now you do that with all the family on board and a sports car must do 150 m.p.h. So I was prepared to try it, not just up the by-pass, but in the Mille Miglia. By a sequence of coincidences and misunderstandings I finally settled to ride with George Abecassis in the H.W.M.-Jaguar, a motor car in the true sporting tradition, no frills, no sleek coupé top, but a blood-and-thunder sports car of this present age. Independent front suspension with transverse leaf-spring and wishbones, tubular chassis frame, de Dion rear suspension on torsion-bars, brakes from the Formula II cars and an all-enveloping body topped by a curved Perspex Windshield. The cockpit was spacious and the closely-fitting bucket seats allowed one to see just over the windshield but not in the airstream.
Meeting the H.W.M. equipe in Brescia a few details were added, such as drinking bottles with long rubber pipes, a bracket made to keep a tin of sweets and some oranges in place, a block of wood on the floor for me to brace my feet against, a little “bungy” rubber padding, a second handhold on the tail of the car, and we were then ready for a trial run on the Autostrada. The only indication of speed was the large rev.-counter and the position of the gear lever, for 4,500 r.p.m. in top meant 120 m.p.h. as the car was geared for 26.9 m.p.h. per 1,000 revs, in top gear. Having never travelled at more than a genuine 110 m.p.h. on the road before, I viewed “4,500” with interest, but could not help taking a rather blasé view of the speed. Then the needle went up to 5,000 and on up to 5,400 r.p.m. — that was different; I was very conscious of being in a realm about which I had no experience and the feeling was odd to say the least, and I began to pay very close attention to all about me. Then some traffic appeared and we were back to a cruising 100 m.p.h. Yes, I was quite certain I was going to enjoy the Mille Miglia.
Dawn had broken and a dull grey sky was overhead as the over-2-litre sports class lined up on the main road out of Brescia, and above the general clamour I could occasionally hear the rasp of a racing engine and the rising crescendo as a Ferrari or Lancia roared away towards Verona: We were last in the row of cars; when we had gone, at 6.13 a.m., the organisers could go and have breakfast and the crowds go to sleep. In front of us was Tom Meyer’s light green Aston Martin coupé, and as he mounted the starting ramp and was given the signal to start I set my watch to 6.12 and then we drove up onto the ramp, surrounded by a sea of cheering faces and waving hands. An official gave me our control card that had to be stamped eight times during the next 1,000 miles. Castegnato and Count Magi, the two most important men in Brescia, the real brains behind the Mile Miglia, were there smiling, and it was 6.13 and we were away. Gently down the ramp and then accelerating away through the gears. In front of us was a solid block of people but Abecassis had done many Mille Miglias and he just drove straight at them with the speed rising to 80 and 90 m.p.h. When they were petrifyingly close the crowd swayed back to let us pass, and for the next 20 or 30 miles it seemed that we must sweep them down by the hundred, but they always moved aside in time. The greatest difficulty was that it was quite impossible to see any of the corners or bends because the crowds covered everything, and I thought how infuriating it must be to learn the course on a normal day and then try to remember it under these conditions. Everyone had had the same trouble, for the number of marks on the road from panic-braking were unbelievable, and every corner showed signs of one of the 373 cars in front of us having had a dodgy moment, with black marks up onto pavements, signs of locking wheels, and so on.
Once clear of Brescia the road straightened up and “5,000” and more was showing on the rev.-counter in top as commonly as the average car shows 50 m.p.h. on its speedometer. It was not long before we saw a speck in the distance, that was number 612 and at nearly 130 m.p.h. we went past; by now the crowds were thinning out, though the villages and towns were still packed. In Peschiera the crowd were nearly delirious and their attempts to slow us down were fascinating, one man even running straight at us waving a chair. Round the next corner we saw the reason for all this pandemonium. No. 606 was well and truly wrapped round a tree and a quick look at the list stuck on our dashboard showed it to be Farina. I exchanged a wry look with Abecassis just before he opened out and we got back into our 130-m.p.h. stride. Out of Verona the road ran dead straight but was lined with people, most of whom seemed to have bicycles or umbrellas, and at 140 m.p.h. we drove through this sea of “ants” with only a three-foot space on each side of the car, the only consolation being that they were all interested in the Mille Miglia and were probably looking towards us. On 120-m.p.h. bends in the open country there would still be a crowd of people standing right on the apex, exactly at the point where a car would leave the road, presumably all quite oblivious of the danger.
Once away from Verona “5.200” came up and after a while had the feeling of being satisfied with having done 142 m.p.h. on the open road and was quite prepared for Abecassis to ease back to a sedate 100 m.p.h., but as far as the eye could see the road ran straight and was completely clear, so there was no reason to ease off and for mile after mile we cruised at 142 m.p.h. Eventually a blind brow necessitated the throttle being eased back and the speed dropped to around 120 m.p.h., but only for a fleeting moment and we were back to our maximum again with nothing but straight flat road in front of us.
In Vicenza the road was very bad and on one corner we hit a bump which threw us almost onto the pavement, the crowd stepping smartly backwards as one man. Out of the town we accelerated up to three figures and soon realised something was wrong for the car was wandering about at over 120 m.p.h. and clearly the big bump in Vicenza had broken something, probably a shock-absorber or part of the rear suspension, for on corners the car was behaving most peculiarly. After a time we became used to the snaking above 120 m.p.h. and as there was no one immediately in front of us we had all the road to play with. We had caught 612, 611 did not start, and 610 we had seen by the roadside a long way back. No. 609 was Peter Collins with the works Aston Martin and, now that we could not corner very fast, obviously we could not catch him.
After Padova a thick mist developed which reduced visibility to less than 100 yards and limited speed to a bare 100 m.p.h. and less in places, for the H.W.M. now had a very small safety margin and panic-braking was quite out of the question. This poor visibility continued for more than 15 miles and when it finally cleared the roads were in a very greasy condition. Conditions were not good and we had dropped more than 10 minutes behind our self-imposed schedule and, being unable to motor on full throttle, the engine started to fuss and one cylinder stopped working. This was getting depressing and just after Rovigo the recent floods had washed about two miles of road completely away and a loose cart-track had been built to replace it. Over this the surface limited us to second gear and we took the opportunity of discussing the situation, deciding to continue to the first control at Ravenna, about 30 minutes farther on. Having dropped speed considerably we were re-passed by Meyer in his Aston Martin and we followed him down to Ferrara. It was now raining spasmodically and the roads were like sheets of ice at more than 100 m.p.h., and in addition Abecassis had to cope with a car that was unstable at high speeds. Approaching a fairly sharp right-hand bend we were both suddenly aware that the Aston Martin in front of us was not going to get round it and, sure enough, the front wheels broke away and the car slid straight on. The next few seconds were very full for Tom Meyer while all we could do was to slow down and watch. The car ran along the left bank, bouncing so high that the sump was in full view, missed all the spectators and trees, slid back onto the road, spun gracefully round in front of us, struck a tree with its tail and fell on its side in the ditch at a very low speed. As we passed, the door opened and the passenger O’Hara climbed out and helped the driver out. Thinking very deep thoughts about tyre adhesion we contiuued on our way.
Eventually we arrived at the control at Ravenna, had our card stamped and pulled over to our pre-arranged pit. The misfire proved to be something obscure in one of the Weber carburetters, while the damage at the rear was that the complete end of one of the telescopic shock-absorbers had broken off and was quite irreparable. As we were now 20 Minutes behind schedule, with no hope of making up any time, only losing more, it was decided to retire, very reluctantly for the Mille Miglia only happens once a year and there really is nothing to equal it. A further trouble had become obvious in the last 20 miles into Ravenna and that was that the public were considering the race finished and were quite justifiably driving off home along the road on which we had been trying to race. We were the last starter and they had allowed us a certain measure of time and then considered the event finished. We had got behind this time allowance and it was going to be impossible to regain it. We had covered 200 miles and the race for us had hardly started; there was another 800 miles to cover, so we removed our crash-hats and went and had coffee. For the 200 miles from Brescia to Ravenna we had averaged 87 m.p.h. and that was too slow to justify continuing — a solemn thought indeed.