It is 27 years since the last pure road race was run. The Mille Miglia – a thousand miles of full-throttle bravado, crossing Italy by mountain passes where the penalty for a mistake was instant, thundering through small towns thronged with people whose only protection was a few straw bales and the drivers’ skill. All along the route people turned out in their thousands, heedless of danger, to cheer their heroes through 10 or 12 hours of non-stop driving from Brescia in the North across to Padua, down the Adriatic coast to Pescara, thence across the Abruzzi mountains to Rome. From Rome the raucous sports-racing cars would streak northwards through Florence, thundering up over the mountains and hurtling down the other side, and on to Bologna and Modena from the final section which would take them back to Brescia.
It was an extreme test, and inevitably there were accidents. A current of discontent began to be felt, until in 1957 everybody’s fear became fact. On the very last section stretch before Brescia, a wheel collapsed on the Ferrari driven by the Marquis de Portago while he was travelling at 150 mph. The toll of the resulting horrific accident, and others during the race, was 15 deaths, and after some months of bitter argument the Italian government finally banned the race.
One of the English participants in that last race was Michael Reid, a regular competitor in British club racing. That he should ever have considered entering at all was the result of reading DSJ’s article on winning the ’55 event with Stirling Moss, and the idea of attempting the famous event matured during a successful year’s club racing with a brand new MGA, culminating in winning the 1956 MOTOR SPORT Trophy, plus a cheque for £50. That cheque was a valuable contribution towards the cost of competing; as a privateer, Reid was on a tight budget which was stretched even more when he ran the bearings at a club meeting at Goodwood less than two weeks before departure. In the end, the only work there was time for was fitting a new crankshaft and clutch, and the addition of an oil-cooler, while the Abingdon Competitions Department made available five tough 60-spoke wire wheels. There was no time to fit a larger tank, which was to prove a problem…
When, on May 10th, 1957, Reid and his co-driver Jeff Sparrowe arrived in Brescia and saw the elaborate preparations that the works teams were making, they began to feel out of their depth. Their intention was merely to finish, but suddenly the unmodified MGA, with few spares and only two spare tyres, one of which was an odd size, seemed thoroughly inadequate. In addition, the brake-drums had distorted on the drive down through France, and Reid had developed ‘flu.
It was a low-spirited pair who finally drove on to the starting ramp in the Via Rubiffione in Brescia on Sunday morning. But at 3.53 a.m. when the flag fell and sent them off through the floodlights and into the darkness, the national fervour soon affected them and dispelled their anxiety.
Unlike most crews, Reid and Sparrowe had had no practice at all, so the entire route was driven blind relying on flag-waving marshals and the concentration of the spectators to warn of particular dangers. Almost immediately, however, it became obvious that the MGA was leaking oil, and that the planned five stops would not be enough, even if the oil on the tyres did not send them spinning off the road.
Through countless small towns and villages they pressed on, passing smaller cars and being passed by the faster runners who started later, using any delays as an opportunity to pour more oil into the engine. Fuel, too was a worry, and it was only by using the spare can that the MGA made it to the refuelling halt at Pescara. Here Italian loyalties saw to it that Peter Collins’ Ferrari, in the lead at the time, was attended to at the expense of the British cars both at the control and at the Shell pit where furious words were exchanged. On again towards Rome, the brakes started to pull badly to one side, making the Antrodoco Pass even more harrowing, but when Rome was reached, their average was still over 70 mph, enough to be classified as finishers. More fuel and oil, but now there was rain to contend with over the next mountains passes; into Bologna and on to the flat straight roads past Modena and Mantua, the two privateer Englishmen allowing themselves to hope that they might just complete their 1,000 miles in one piece and within their time limit. Then, almost within sight of Brescia, they passed the remains of Portago’s Ferrari, a grim reminder of the risks of road racing. The sight slowed them for a while, and in any case the oil pressure was dropping again, but one last sprint brought them, oil-stained, weary and soaked, to the final control-point. In a standard MGA with few spares and no outside assistance, they had competed alongside the fastest cars and drivers in the world, and managed to achieve a placing in their class.
The loss of the great road races has been bemoaned by enthusiasts ever since, and over the following years the organisers, the Automobile Club di Brescia, ran a number of reliability rallies over parts of the course, these however were no reflection of the atmosphere that once existed. Then, in 1982, the ACB and the Musical Watch Veteran Car Club Brescia decided to assemble a Silver Jubilee gathering of cars built between 1927 and 1957 which were, or could have been, raced in the Mille Miglia. Michael Reid was one of those who participated, and was surprised to discover that he and Jeff Sparrowe were the only pairing to have also driven together in the event itself, and in the same car. This made the two Englishmen celebrities in a small way, something which continued throughout the three-day event. The format covered a good deal of the 1957 route, but run in the reverse direction, incorporating two night stops, and a system of arrival times measured to one-tenth of a second, with penalties for being early or late. This feature was not particularly popular amongst the crews, who were quite frank about sharing a simple desire to drive their cars as fast as was prudent along the famous roads.
Although speeds were hardly on a par with the last race proper, the completion of the route was as much of an achievement, since the youngest of the cars was 25 years old, and some dated back 55 years. 125 vehicles participated, exemplifying all the great marques of the relevant years, Ferrari, Lancia, Maserati, Alfa Romeo, Jaguar, Bugatti, Porsche, Mercedes, and many more; and all gathered together, not merely for a concours, but to be driven.
One of the vital elements of the Mille Miglia was always the tremendous enthusiasm of the Italians for cars and speed, and there was no lack of that for the 1982 event, which in places drew crowds to rival those on the race itself. The whole project was such an immense success, enabling those who did not see the race in the fifties to relive something of the Mille Miglia spirit in the eighties, that the two clubs have organised another for this year.
Starting on May 24th, it will again be a three-day regularity event, based of course in Brescia, but the number of cars has been expanded to 180. Unfortunately the number of applications which had been received by the February closing date was more than twice that, with entries not only from Europe, but also America, Australia, and the Soviet Union. The route will include the Raticosa and Radicofani passes and other roads now side-stepped by the autostrada, and there are hints that some stretches will be very fast indeed.
Hotels in Brescia and Ferrara, the first night stop, are already fully booked, but those wishing for detailed information can write to:
Musical Watch Veteran Car Club,
Via Somalia 8/A 25100,