Mille Miglia Rally

Latin spirit

It is true that the current Mille Miglia retrospective is merely a historic regularity rally, but clocking in to controls at the specified time is of little importance to most entrants; they are here to give their sports-racers some exercise on the sort of roads the cars were built for.

Many cars are only brought out for this one event, so this travelling museum is a chance to see some of the rarer sports-racing vehicles still around, in healthier surroundings than any static collection. The packed Brescia square where scrutineering always took place for the real race is still one of the most evocative settings in which to wander between rows of competition machinery, perhaps due more to the eager crowds rather than the self-important municipal architecture in this otherwise handsome and historic town, and the evening scene at the start-ramp on the Via Venezia cannot help but stir any Castrol in the blood.

As this stream of fine sports-racing cars winds its way around Italy following one of the routes of the one-time race, it is bowled along by a wave of enthusiasm which is the antithesis of the recent shift we have seen in Great Britain against fast cars and their associated advertising. Old ladies, priests, school children and lorry drivers happily stop what they are doing to gaze at C-type Jaguars, 550RS Porsches and DB3S Aston Martins. Yet this is not without its equivalent here; one has only to walk into Clocaenog forest at 4am during the RAC Rally to see real dedication to motorsport, as hundreds of people wait in the frost to see their rallying heroes. The RAC Brighton Run, too, brings ever bigger crowds, as does the Norwich Union Classic run; but there are no heroes in these sedate journeys for the autograph hunters to pursue.

The 315 cars allowed to start are only about a third of the hopefuls who apply. It helps to be an Italian film star, but a recognised Mille Miglia past for the car should be an advantage. However, though it may have been the translation, the programme had difficulty in distinguishing between "a car of the type which" and a car which was claimed actually to have been a Mille Miglia entrant.

Alfa Romeo easily rivals the Ferrari name as the favoured marque in the Mille Miglia meeting: 50 of the Modenese cars and 42 hailing from Milan made up almost a third of the total entry. The earliest car entered was Bruce Owen's 1924 Alfa Romeo RL, built for the Targa Florio that year, while another RL SS with Mille Miglia history was said to be the car pictured in the famous photo of Enzo Ferrari watching from a bend on the Futa Pass. From Beaulieu came the 1500 Alfa driven to victory by Campari and Ramponi in 1928, while fresh out of Paul Grist's restoration shop was Kato's long-chassis 2300 Le Mans car, looking exceptionally handsome in gloss black. Grist himself took his Monza as usual, with son Matthew alongside, while Chris Mann left his at home and brought a Zagato-bodied 2300 for some extra comfort. Sadly it ran a big-end bearing at Rome. The Louwmans brought another Le Mans car from the Netherlands, the long-chassis Chinetti car which later won the TT.

James Lindsay was grateful for local help when his Alfa Monza broke a wheel-bearing in a tiny village in the Appenines. A local garage dug through its stocks, found a replacement of the same dimensions and got the car going again. It completed the route, though not classified. Two 8C 2900 Alfas were present; Donhoff was giving an early outing after a five-year restoration to his 2900A, rare even for an 8C, with slender cycle-winged competition body. This was Pintacuda's car in the 1936 MM, while another team-car from the following year was the Farina car of Simeone/George, notable for its Alfa-built body, if possible even more attractive than the short-chassis Touring examples.

Many Alfas had some sort of factory blessing, but there were also two post-war four-cylinder gems from the museum: the 1954 1900 Sport Spider and 750 Competizione of a year later, driven by Marco Caiani, president of Alfa's historic racing arm Scuderia del Portello. Ferraris began with a 166MM and ran the gamut of four, six and twelve cylinders: the delicate 500 Mondial and 750 Monza with their similar Scaglietti bodies contrasting with the the brutish 375 MM built for the 1956 event. There were Testarossas in 500, 625 and 250 form, five Tour de France berlinettas, and a 121 LM, the six-cylinder development of the Monza, this one driven at the Sarthe by Maglioli and Hill. The latter was present, too, driving the 41/2-litre Bentley which he used to own before it passed to his companion for the event, John Bentley. David Harrison, more usually seen handling his huge Edwardian Renault in VSCC meetings, was at the wheel of his 1926 8C Maserati, which began to spray oil into the undertray and thence on to the tyres, making the wet sections especially interesting, while at the other end was the 41/2-litre Maserati which Moss drove for so few miles in the last Mille Miglia.

The Lancia museum entry was a modest Aprilia, though there was an apparently private D24 (Lancia's only MM victor), plus several interesting specials such as a 1947 barchetta-bodied Aprilia. Amongst the small Italian racers was a 1952 one-off, a bimotore built by Monaci with two 1000cc Fiat blocks end to end under a Zagato body originally made for a record car driven by Elio Zagato. His son Andrea, now MD of the coachbuilding company, drove a Fiat Topolino-engined Moretti 750, with, naturally, Zagato bodywork.

Rob Walduck was on his first outing with his 1954 Osca 2000S, though the title is not strictly correct: it was discovered in ruinous state minus its engine. None of the correct 2-litre sixes have survived, buts letter to the Maserati brothers revealed that they had a prototype twin-plug 2.4-litre Grand Prix unit in a hangar. That 1957 engine is now in the car, and it performed faultlessly over the event; unfortunately the gearbox rejected the transplant, breaking near Rome.

British makes included Terry Cohn's 1934 Lagonda, a Le Mans team car, while closely pursued by a modern Aston Martin Zagato carrying a detective, Prince Michael of Kent and Victor Gauntlets shared a strikingly bodied Lagonda Rapide with external exhaust pipes. "Steady" Barker was navigating Ian Fraser in a Bristol 400 with MM history — 13th overall in 1948 with Count Lurani and John Aldington.

Yet again an Isetta bubblecar was entered, vying with the Topolino for the biggest cheers from the spectators. Another small-capacity entry was the first from Eastern Europe, a Jawa Minor from Czechoslovakia with 615cc two-stroke engine and rather attractive touring body. A big surprise was the weighty Chrysler Saratoga saloon from the States, but sure enough one of these cars contested the 1953 MM, Paul Frere gaining a class win. A sunk carb float brought it to halt in one of the short special sections, but some hasty repair work with tape and glue kept it going.

Amongst the Porsches, the 550RS of Hampton/Cory Smith was doing its third reliable tour of Italy. This transitional model, with the head-fairing of the later A, would seem to have been the Paris Show car, and still shows traces of blue paint. The favoured star transport was again a gull-wing Mercedes 300SL: Stirling Moss, Olivier Gendebien, Ari Vatanen and Jacky Ickx all appeared in the silver coupes, though the latter car, belonging to Karl Friedrich Scheufele (whose Chopard watch company was one of the main sponsors and gave gold key-rings to every crew) finished the event minus a clutch. The Mercedes museum sent one of the 1952 prototypes of this sophisticated machine, a Carrera PanAmericana car, with smooth-sided body and intermediate-length gull-wing doors.

As always the first section was a short night stretch to Ferrara, where the cars assembled in the handsome square, cheered by hundreds of onlookers even at 2am. But the excitement was dampened on Saturday, which began with torrential rain and hail, making things very hard for those in skimpy open cars over the very fast road to the coast. It had cleared by the time the cars reached Rimini and turned inland to San Marino for some special test sections, so drivers were drying out over the marvellous Via Panoramica coast road.

Turning west from Pescara, the cars headed for Rome, not into the crowded centre but to a suburban stadium and a night stop, before striking north for the Radicofani and Futa mountain passes where keeping to time becomes hard work. Not many drivers looked impressive here, but one trio using their cars hard were Grist and Ibing, their Monza Alfas sandwiching Jeffrey Pattinson's 4-litre Talbot Lago (Robs Lamplough co-driving) as the three streaked uphill between the trees, pressing on northwards for Brescia.

Finishing positions hardly matter, but it was notable that big-engined cars tended to dominate the overall classifications, due to their ability to keep time in hand for crossing the control lines. Valseriate/Favero took top marks in a 300SL, an OM (Bacchi/Mosti) headed the vintage class, with a Fiat 500 collecting the post-vintage honours. The Ladies cup went to Violati/Ornella Muti, presented by Countess Maggi, and Moss/McBride were top foreigners. GC