An island race

Bill Boddy recounts the growth of the Targa Florio from one man’s dream to everybody’s idea of a road race adventure

The early Targa Florios have had their place in motor racing history obscured by European grands prix. That’s a shame, because this daunting event was perhaps the greatest road race of them all. The low average winning speeds of these grim contests over the Sicilian mountains and unmade roads, compared with those of the classic grands prix of the same period, confirm the challenge the Targa presented. For example, the first such 277-mile race had a winning average speed of only 29.07mph; the 770-mile French Grand Prix of that same year was won at 62.89mph. The Targa’s average did not rise above 40mph until 1924 – even though the cars involved were of GP calibre.

There might have been no Targa Florio had Vincenzo, the younger son of Ignazio Florio, not been keen on all things mechanical. His wealthy father, who was very influential in Sicily and used to entertain European royalty at his Palermo estate, died when the boy was only eight years old, and his brother, from the age of 23, became the head of the family. It was he who, in 1898, bought a very early De Dion motor tricycle in Paris and brought it home. This was of immediate interest to Vincenzo, who had tried all of the latest pedal bicycles from England and Europe; they were discarded when the new form of propulsion arrived.

Ignazio, named after his father, also became interested in motoring, acquiring not only a primitive Peugeot, but an equally primitive Benz, he and his brother having visited the Paris Motor Show. A Fiat was added to the collection of cars in the stable block, and naturally a mechanic was sent to tend their latest purchase. He happened to be Felice Nazzaro, who was working at the factory in Turin under Vincenzo Lancia. He and the younger Florio got on well, and Nazzaro, later to become one of Italy’s star racing drivers, was persuaded to stay on to service the family’s cars and act as its chauffeur.

Vincenzo got his series of races under way in 1906. It was run over the notoriously demanding, 92-mile Big Madonie circuit, which was to be covered three times. The route consisted of roads so rough as to be apparently suitable only for mule carts. It twisted, turned, rose and fell over two 3000ft mountain passes and through the narrow streets of several villages. And then there were the brigands and mafia – threats not to be discounted lightly! Communications, essential in the event of accidents, were almost absent It was primitive in the extreme, but Vincenzo, who had driven in a few races, with a Panhard-Levassor and his Mercedes 60 in which he was third behind Lancia and Georges Teste in a Brescia race — refused to give up. And with encouragement from the non-driving editor of L’Auto, the influential magazine owned by the ACF, he went ahead. To organise a major race normally requires the foresight and experience of a prominent club. In faraway Sicily, Vincenzo was very much a one man band; I understand that he had virtual control of the island.

That first race was run on May 6. There were only 10 starters, but some well-established racing drivers were among them. (There would have been a better entry had strikes in France not prevented some notable cars and drivers from arriving.) Competitors were to pass through Cerda, Caltavuturo, Castellana, Soprana, Castelbuono and Campofelice — and back to the start/finish on the Messina-Palermo main road. After 9hr 32min 22sec, and having started at 6am, the calm winner was Alessandro Cagno, who was driving a big Itala with a 130x140mrn engine. He’d been passed by Ettore Graziani on another Itala on lap two, but reassumed the lead to win by 30min. History relates that his car stripped its crown wheel as soon as the race was over.

The Targa Florio had been launched. It was intended for near-standard cars, of which 10 of each had to have been made — but this was not strictly enforced. Behind the victorious Italas came Paul Bablot’s Berliet. The only other finishers were two more Italas, driven by Victor Rigal and Pierre de Caters, and a Hotchkiss, which Hubert le Blon brought in after more than 12 hours, his wife riding alongside him. The renowned Maurice Fournier, on a Clement-Bayard, exceeded the time limit set for this unique race, while those who retired were Lancia on a Fiat, the celebrated Henri Foumier on another Clement-Bayard and George Pope’s Itala.

In spite of its car-breaking and dangerous nature, the race attracted 50 entries in 1907. The starters left at 3min intervals, and there was a minimum car weight of 1000kg; as in horse racing, weight penalties were imposed, cars over 130mm bore having to carry 20kg per mm. Thirty drivers got home in time, 16 retired. Fittingly, it was Nazzaro on a Fiat who prevailed, at an average of 33.4mph, from Lancia’s Fiat. The two companions who had worked together back at the Fiat factory were extremely consistent: Nazzaro’s time difference on his first and second laps was only 23sec, it was said, before he lost 5min changing a puncture, while Lancia’s time varied by only 19.2sec on his last two laps, astonishing over such a circuit.

For 1908, the race was over two instead of three laps, and starters were down to 13, of which six retired, including Nazzaro’s Fiat. A voiturette race over the same distance had a remarkable outcome. Giosue Giuppone won on one of the astonishing single-cylinder, six-valve Lion Peugeots, and he and the next three finishers, all De Dions, were faster than the first four in the main race. In fact, in winning the Targa, Trucco’s Isotta-Fraschini had taken 7hr 49min 26.6sec, an average of 35.46mph. He was followed by Lancia’s Fiat and Emesto Ceirano’s SPA. Florio himself took part in the voiturette race, but his De Dion didn’t finish. (He had competed over the circuit before, but only in very minor events that he tended to organise for his friends. He had won two of them and finished second in another.)

In 1909, just one lap of the Big Madonie circuit was used, because the Messina earthquake had disrupted things. The winning speed was 34.0mph, set by Francesco Ciuppa’s SPA, the runner-up being Florio himself in his Fiat, followed by Guido Airoldi’s Lancia. The Targa voiturette race of ’09, held over two laps, developed into a battle between Jules Goux and Giuppone in Lion-Peugeots. They finished in that order, with a De Dion third.

For 1910, the voiturettes ran with the Targa Florio cars, and the race provided a small-car triumph, Georges Boillot, soon to be the greatest, heading a Peugeot 1-2-3. The cars in the main race were outclassed, the Franco of Tullio Cariolato ‘winning’ at 29.1mph.

Florio was by now becoming interested in the new flying machines, for which he organised meetings, and the status of the motor race he had created was, to a small extent, diminished. The full three laps of the main circuit were reinstated for 1911, however, and Ceirano’s SCAT won, also at 29.1mph. Mario Cortese’s Lancia was second, a Mercedes third, ahead of another SCAT.

The decision was made to adopt a new round-Sicily race for 1912. The circuit laid out was of 599.6 miles, with its start in the centre of Palermo. The drivers were mostly unknown, the field embracing American Ford, Overland and Flanders.A SCAT won at 24.3mph.

The same pattern was followed in 1913, and this time Nazzaro took the prize in a car of his own devising, beating an Acquila-Italiana and a De Dion, the winning speed now up to 31.04mph.

The Targa Florio retained its place in the racing world after WWI. It resumed in November 1919, with 24 lined up for four laps of the Medium Madonie, which cut out the Caltavuturo loop of the full course. With drivers of the calibre of Andre Boillot, Carlo Masetti, Rene Thomas, Giuseppe Campari and Antonio Ascari, in cars of GP-type, a fresh flavour was imparted to the famous race.

Boillot won for Peugeot from the Itala of Antonio Moriondo and Domenico Gamboni’s Diatto. It was a very dramatic race. Despite the fact that Boillot had been off the road six times – and almost over a cliff once! – the lead battle was between him and Thomas’ Ballot. With the roads drying out after three laps, Thomas changed treaded tyres for more suitable ones, and was told that his faster car could beat the Peugeot…

Boillot was weary after eight hours of driving and, braking hard 30 yards from the finish, spun into the wooden grandstand. He and his mechanic were helped back into the car and, in reverse, Boillot drove across the line. A cry went up that this act might disqualify him. Thomas, meanwhile, had gone missing. He had been ahead of Boillot on the road, if not on time, when he lost it at one of the 1500 or so corners. His team patron Ernest Ballot, who had accepted defeat, told Boillot and his mechanic to get back in their car, drive those 30 yards, turn and cross the line properly. Once they had done so, legend has it that Boillot then fainted, with the words “C’est pour la France”upon his lips.

After Guido Meregalles Nazzaro had won in 1920, from Enzo Ferrari’s Alfa Romeo, a professional aspect entered the race. Giulio Masetti’s Fiat won in 1921, at 36.2mph, from Max Sailer’s Mercedes and the Alfas of Campari, Ugo Sivocci and Ferrari the works cars were moving in.

This trend continued in 1922. Mercedes entered a strong team of two revised 1914 GP cars, now with front-wheel brakes, two supercharged 28/95s and, most importantly, two new supercharged 1.5-litre racers. Although these were driven by the likes of Christian Lautenschlager, Otto Salzer and Ferdinando Minoia, they would be upstaged by the privateer Masetti, who was in another of the revamped Lyons GP cars. Opposition came from the Alfas of Ascari, Campari, Sivocci and Ferrari; Alfred Neubauer drove an Austro-Daimler. Ballot relied on the impressive Goux and Giulio Foresti. Out of the field of 45, Masetti came in first, at 39.2mph, ahead of the Ballots.

The following year Sivocci, soon to be killed testing the P1, won for Alfa Romeo, only for Christian Werner to put Mercedes back in the winner’s circle in 1924. Hard pressed by Alfa Romeos and Fiats, Werner was the first to average more than 40mph.

The Sicilian race was at its height, with enormous fields and a large contingent of German supporters. But it would be France that would dominate in the coming years, courtesy of Bugatti.

Meo Constantini scored the first win for Ettore’s cars, in 1925, from the Peugeots of Louis Wagner and Boillot. He won again in ’26, supported in a 1-2-3 by Minoia and Goux. Emilio Materassi made it a Bugatti hat-trick in ’27, ahead of Caberto Conelli, Maserati’s eponymous car and Boillot’s Peugeot. The run continued in ’28, with Albert Divo victorious. Campares Alfa Romeo was second, but Bugattis, barring Luigi Fagioli’s Maserati in seventh, filled out the rest of the top 10. Divo won again in ’29, with team-mate Minoia second.

Italian pride was restored by Achille Varzi, who broke this Bugatti ascendancy with an Alfa Romeo in 1930, winning from the Bugattis of Louis Chiron and Conelli. Tazio Nuvolari was fifth in an Alfa.

This comes to my favoured vintage cut-off point – but the Targa Florio had scarcely run its course. From 1931, it was won by Nuvolari (and again in ’32), Antonio Brivio, Varzi, and Brivio again – all in Alfa Romeos. This run was broken by Magistri’s Lancia in 1936, whereupon the race moved to the short Favorita Park circuit near Palermo. Maserati won all four races here, courtesy of Francesco Seven, Giovanni Rocco and Luigi Villoresi (twice). This switch in venue had a lot to do with the fact that, as from ’37, Vincenzo Florio, the race’s driving force, no longer held an official position in the Sicilian Automobile Club.

The race resumed in 1948 (using the Tour of Sicily course) and extending almost into modern times as a round of the world sportscar championship. We should never forget how Stirling Moss, in spite of having to be hauled out of a ditch, was able, by his superb driving and that of his co-driver Peter Collins, to win in ’55, at a record 59.8mph, with the Mercedes 300SLR. Nor should we forget the other great British victory of this period, Franco Cortese’s win of 1951 in a Frazer Nash. This race marked the return to the Madonie after a 14-year absence. In the main, however, the Targa in its later years was a straight fight between Ferrari and Porsche, and occasionally Alfa Romeo. And it was the German manufacturer that won the ‘war’, recording no less than 11 victories in the period 1956-1973 ; Ferrari won five times, Alfa Romeo once.

The event continued for four more years thereafter, the last race being won by a Chevron, but 1973 had marked the end of its championship status, after which its demise could only be delayed. Il