Piero Taruffi: The incredibly versatile Silver Fox racer

You couldn't invent Piero Taruffi - no one would believe you. He was the most versatile racer of all time and one of the most successful Phil Llewellin recalls his astonishing 35-year career

Piero Taruffi 1956

Taruffi: one of motor sport's most diverse racers

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Like many schoolboys in post-War Britain, I had an insatiable appetite for stories about a character called Wilson. He’d swim the Channel before breakfast, score a pre-lunch century against the Australians, then win Olympic gold medal for the mile in the afternoon. Piero Taruffi was no comic-book superman, but his record for versatility stands supreme and his story easily be mistaken for a work of fiction.

The surgeon’s son had more than his fair share of strength, stamina, dedication, and determination. From 1923-57 he competed in 206 events, in cars and on bikes, scoring 66 wins plus 44 seconds or thirds. The sport’s supreme all-rounder was good enough to win a world championship grand prix as well as the Targa Florio, Mille Miglia and Carrera PanAmericana. No one can match that record. And in his career he raced Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Bugatti, Itala, Maserati, ERA, Delage, Cisitalia, Lancia, Ferrari, Cooper, Thinwall Special, Oldsmobile, Mercedes, Ford, Vanwall and Chevrolets as well as AJS, Guzzi, P&M, Norton, OPRA, Rondine and Gilera bikes.

And that’s not all… In 1937 he became the fastest man on two wheels and would go on to claim 53 international bike records. Another 37 fell to cars he designed himself. And during the early ’50s he combined his racing with running the Gllera team whose star, Geoff Duke, was virtually invincible. On the morning of 27 May, 1951, he masterminded Gilera’s effort at the Swiss GP, then boarded his Ferrari, battled through torrential rain and finished second only to Fangio. In younger days he was a racing oarsman, played tennis, wrestled, represented Italian universities in international ski contests and came fourth in 1933’s French slalom championship.

Piero Taruffi 1953 Carrera Panamericana

At ’53 Carrera Panamericana – he would finish second

I met him in 1976, when the fuel crisis prompted Mobil France to organise a high-profile economy driving contest. Taruffi and I were in the multinational Fiat team. He stooped a little, his legs never quite recovered from an almighty accident in 1934, but the silver-white hair, swept back from the broad, bronzed forehead, was as thick and glossy as ever. Muscles rippled in arms and shoulders that had tamed big, brutal cars in such races as the Targa Florio, with 602 corners to every 45-mile lap.

“’My Nurburg’ accident made me think, I must admit” Piero Taruffi

A lesser man might have treated the event as a free holiday, but the flame still burned. He told me that he would check-out the 200-mile route on the day before the event and science may never create a machine clever enough to measure how little time it took me to say “Yes” when asked if I would to join him. That drive was an education, as well as a privilege, because the maestro’s diligence recalled Enzo Ferrari’s comment about the meticulousness that made his name a by-word. Pin-sharp navigation was essential, because we would be driving solo, so he made careful notes about landmarks and sections where time might be lost and clawed back. That evening we skipped dinner to discuss tactics after transferring all the information to map and roadbook. He won his class, of course, and deserved most of the credit for me finishing second in mine.

Taruffi was born in Rome in 1906. Seventeen years later, he won the Rome-Viterbo time trial in the family’s Fiat 501S tourer. It was a modest start, but in 1928, he bought a Norton, won eight of the nine races he entered and became Italy’s 500cc champion. Beating demi-gods like Tazio Nuvolari and Achille Varzi gave him as much satisfaction as anything he achieved in later life. Taruffi was soon offered a drive by Ferrari, then head of Alfa’s competition department, but switched to a Type 59 Bugatti for the 1935 German GP. At about 125mph a universal joint failed, twisting the back axle and locking the brakes. The Bugatti flew over a hedge, he escaped with a bruises and trudged back to the pits.

“My Nurburg’ accident made me think, I must admit. But enthusiasm gave me strength and I determined to press on. In racing one must never show one is scared, or draw back when things first go wrong. You just shrug it off and have another go,” Taruffi wrote in his autobiography, Works Driver.

From the archive

In 1946 he became manager, consultant, chief tester and number one driver for Casitalia whose single-seaters were based on Fiat 1100s. They were good times, but in 1951 he joined Ferrari and finished third in the following year’s championship, behind team-mates Ascari and Farina. Later that year he and Luigi Chinetti shared the Ferrari 212 Inter that won the Carrera PanAmericana, storming over 10,000-feet-high passes, averaging almost 90mph for nearly 2000 miles. This made Taruffi a legend in Mexico. He was dubbed El Zorro Plateaclo The Silver Fox and taxi drivers pinned his photograph in their cabs, alongside the F Virgin of Guadalupe. He was then 45, but 1952 was his busiest season and his 16 races included a victory in the Swiss GP. He also masterminded Gilera’s capture of the world titles for riders and manufacturers. When I met Geoff Duke, 40 years later, he had nothing but praise for the shrewd, cool, deep-thinking Italian.

Two finishes from ten starts tell the story of 1953 with Lancia’s 2.9-litre V6 sports-racers. Finishing second in the Carrera Panamericana should have been the highlight – notes taken during a characteristically thorough recce enabled him to drive through fog at a 120mph but it turned to ashes when his team-mate, Felice Bonetto, was killed. Lancia got it right the next year when our man won the Targa Florio and Circuit of Sicily, which he regarded as an even tougher race. He won the Giro di Sicilia again in 1955, this time in a Ferrari, and also had two drives for Mercedes, finishing fourth in the British GP and second, hard on Fangio’s heels, at Monza. No wonder his Technique GiMotor Racing is one of the best books ever written on the subject.

The Silver Fox promised his wife Isabella that he would retire when he won the Mille Miglia. Taruffi’s record went back to 1930, but victory had proved as elusive as dreams so often are. Isabella regarded the promise as her indomitable husband’s way of saying he would never call it a day.

Taruffi leads von Trips across the line in a formation finish

Taruffi leads von Trips across the line in a formation finish at ’57 Mille Miglia

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In 1957 he was offered a Ferrari 315S with 370bhp to send it bellowing down the straights at to 175mph. He knew every inch of the course but went over it again before the race, memorising any feature that could help bring victory. Others carried a co-driver armed with pacenotes none more famous than this magazine’s Denis Jenkinson but the Silver Fox was also the lone wolf whose rivals included hard-charging youngsters such as Stirling Moss, Peter Collins and Wolfgang von Trips. There were problems. Well before Rome, the halfway mark, the transmission started making ugly noises, forcing Taruffi to use the higher gears as much as possible. Rain near Bologna demanded a ballet dancer’s touch on the throttle, because the Ferrari could spin its wheels at 125mph in top. But after ten hours 27 minutes and 47 seconds he crossed the line first, three minutes ahead of von Trips. The real Mille Miglia was never run again, because the swashbuckling Marquis de Portago had crashed, killing himself, his co-driver and several spectators.

Taruffi thanked Ferrari for the use of the car, pocketed his share of the prize money — “Less than I won this weekend,” he told me in 1976 — and retired after 34 years of racing and breaking records.

He had become involved in the quest for speed after taking a job as assistant to Carlo Gianini, the chief engineer of a company dedicated to building motor bikes and experimental aircraft. Together they designed the four-cylinder, 500cc Rondine. Carefully streamlined and ridden by Taruffi, it took the world’s flying mile and kilometre records at over 150mph in 1935. Two years later, hunching those broad shoulders into the aerodynamic bubble of a supercharged Gilera 500, he bagged 34 more records, including the flying mile at 169.05mph and the hour at 127mph, which remained unbroken until 1953.

From the archive

After the war he applied his aerodynamic knowledge to cars, and in 1948 built the first Tarf — the name was derived from his own which looked like a pair of wheeled torpedoes joined by wing-like central spars. A variety of car and bike engines were used and the Tarf’s triumphs induded becoming the first vehicle ever to cover 200 kilometres in an hour with a 500cc power unit. At the other end of the scale, a Maserati engine with a twostage supercharger punched the same car to almost 200mph.

We talked far into the night. He had raced against most of the legendary heroes, and beaten many of them at least once. Who was the greatest? A difficult question, he mused, if only because it was difficult to compare drivers from different eras. But the first he mentioned was Bernd Rosemeyer, the ex-biker who tamed the fire-breathing Auto Unions in the ’30s, followed by Nuvolari and Varzi. Ascari, Fangio and Moss were outstanding among those with whom he duelled towards the end of his career.

He recalled that blood-curdling incident at the ‘Ring in 1935 — we had, coincidentally, met one of the Bugatti team’s mechanics earlier in the day — but added, with wry smile, that it had not been his worst accident. In 1934 he entered the Tripoli Grand Prix in a Maserati whose supercharged 4.5-litre V16 cranked out 350bhp. Tripoli was a superfast circuit, and the Maserati was good for 165mph, but on the fifth lap the brakes suddenly locked solid in a nightmare of smoke and melting rubber. Taruffi was hurled from the wreck, breaking his left arm and smashing a leg so badly there was talk of amputation. He spent three months in hospital, tended by his father who kept the promise he had made at the start of Piero’s career; “If you ever come to grief, I’m always here to sew you together again.”

Italian racing driver Piero Taruffi driving his 'Double Torpedo' car, designer by Maserati, as part of a world record attempt, Terracina, Italy, April 5th 1952. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Taruffi engineered cars for land speed records as well as competing in grands prix – seen here at Terracina in 1952 in his ‘Tarf’

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The great man chuckled as he finished the story; “When I went off the track I hit a big sign advertising beer. While I was in hospital I had a letter from the beer company, hoping I was making a good recovery.., and enclosing a bill for the damage to the sign! When I went back to Tripoli, the next year, the scene of the accident had been renamed Taruffi Corner. I was very flattered, but that is not the best way to become famous.”

We met for the last time in 1987, when more great drivers than a strong man could shake a stick at in a month of Sundays gathered at the Imola circuit to celebrate one of Ferrari’s many anniversaries. Blue eyes still twinkled beneath the silver hair, and the smile was as warm as ever, but Old Father Time was approaching with his remorseless, pitiless scythe. When the Silver Fox died in 1988, I recalled Mark Anthony’s tribute to Brutus; “This was the noblest Roman of them all.”