Before his Mille Miglia partnership with Jenks, Moss made three unsuccessful attempts on the race with Jaguar. In 1952 Norman Dewis sat beside him in a C-type: now he looks back with Paul Fearnley
Mercedes had been practising for months: old lags Rudolf Caracciola and Hermann Lang and new boy Karl Kling had completed the 1000 mile lap 10 times each, running back and forth over its trickier sections. The first major event for the gull-winged 300SL, the 1952 Mille Miglia, was evidently a serious, serious business, and a dozen or more white-overalled mechanics glided over, under, in and around them.
Ranged against the Mercs were 27 Ferraris, a seething mass of national pride and testosterone. Alberto Ascari was away trying to conquer Indy for Enzo, and Luigi Villoresi, winner of the previous year’s Mille Miglia, had been ruled out by roadcrash injuries. But the Scuderia was still a potent force: three-time victor Clemente Biondetti, Piero Taruffi (aka ‘The Silver Fox’), the dashing Marzotto brothers, Vittorio and Paolo, the young charger Eugenio Castellotti — and the wine-glugging Biella industrialist Giovanni Bracco, the inspired eventual winner aboard the experimental 3-litre V12 250S coupé originally slated for Villoresi.
And Jaguar? It mooched into Brescia a couple of days before the start. Two cars: a C-type and a MkVII. Four men: Norman Dewis, Jag’s chief development and test engineer, and Dunlop technician Harold Hodkinson togged up in the sports-racer; team boss, publicity manager and occasional racer Bob Berry and mechanic/fitter Frank Rainbow in the comfy saloon. The following day its star turn, a young and still-hirsute Stirling Moss, flew into town. And that was it.
“It took us just under two days to drive from Coventry,” says Dewis, today a dapper, nifty-on-his-pins 80-something. “And they didn’t have the Mont Blanc Tunnel in those days so we had to drive over the top — in five or six inches of snow. Hard work in a C-type.”
The crew was welcomed, as all foreign entries were, into the villa of race founder Count Aymo Maggi. There wasn’t much time to enjoy his hospitality, though, for this was a small team with a big plan.
Those innovative Dunlop disc brakes had worked in the controlled surroundings of MIRA, kept Moss out of trouble in a six-lap handicap at Goodwood, and seen Dewis safely around innumerable Alpine hairpins, but what they really needed was a true test — say, on the world’s most incredible road race. The scrutineers couldn’t quite believe it.
“They looked at the disc brakes and were astonished,” says Dewis. “They had never seen anything like it. We told them it was a new development, a development of the aircraft principle that had been fitted to a car, and that it was working efficiently. Once they had seen its operation we got through all right.”
With Le Mans just over a month away, legendary Mercedes team boss Alfred Neubauer had a good nosey around his rival’s (no longer) secret weapon. It would be Jaguar, however, that left Italy running scared.
This was one of Dewis’s earliest outings with the marque, having not long left Lea-Francis. It would be one of his most memorable, too, for he was to sit alongside Moss on the event. A very capable, occasionally works, driver himself, Norman is, by his own admission, not a good passenger. But he was prepared to make an exception on this occasion.
“I had first met Stirling in 1949 when we were both racing 500s,” he explains. “We got on well and I knew what he was capable of: very fast, but very safe. Had it been anyone else I would have said no.
“In his turn, Stirling knew my capabilities. As well as the works cars, I looked after the Tommy Wisdom-owned Jaguars that he raced. He knew that I was very competitive and that I wouldn’t treat the event half-heartedly.”
But both men were acutely aware that this was unlikely to be enough. “Oh yes, our preparation wasn’t anything like good enough,” admits Dewis. “We hadn’t driven around the lap once. We had made some alterations to the car — stiffer springs and rollbars, a full-width screen — and the C-type was a tough machine, perhaps better suited to the event than the D-type, but we both knew that we were up against it.”
At 6.19am on May 4 — with a bar of chocolate (soon to melt), a flask of freshly-squeezed orange juice, a packet of Player’s untipped, a set of plugs and points and a tool roll stuffed around them — Moss and Dewis rolled up to the start. But they did not mount the new-for-1952 ramp. “While we were waiting to go, a spectator came up and told us that the ramp’s angles were too sharp and that cars were knocking off their exhausts or fouling their sumps on the road,” explains Dewis. “So I told Stirling to start from alongside it. I shouted up to the flag marshals, gave them a signal and — after a bit of arm waving — they let us go.”
It was pouring down, as it would for the first two hours, but things started well and some earlier runners — cars started at one-minute intervals — were picked off. But then the rear rear offside tyre threw its tread. Not long into the change, Karl Kling’s 300SL sped past. It had started four minutes behind the Jaguar. Moss’s mind began churning. His mood wasn’t improved any when another Mercedes — Dewis reckons Lang’s — passed them on a wind-blown, rain-swept straight not long after. That one had started seven minutes behind. Hmm.
After Pescara, the crews slotted right into the Appenines and towards Rome, via Popoli, Rieti and Terni. The C-type arrived in the capital, just over halfway at 576 miles, holding a creditable seventh place, 17 minutes behind the leading Mercedes of Kling. Its fuel tank had sprung a minor leak and the dampers were sagging, but its British crew was confident it could improve its position over the meat of the event: the ancient Via Cassia to Siena and the Futa and Raticosa passes between Florence and Bologna.
They actually dropped a place during the 140-mile section on to Siena. Less than 50 miles later, however, they were fifth, thanks to the retirement of the new leader — Taruffi’s Ferrari 340 suffered a gearbox failure near Poggibonsi — and the second-fastest time on this section, just 23 seconds slower than Bracco, a man teetering between brilliance and madness on his day of days. On the twistier roads Moss was able to make his talent, and the disc brakes, count. His new stoppers were holding up well, perhaps aided by the cool, damp conditions, but they almost caused Moss’s downfall.
The Jag had caught Caracciola and Moss was determined to turn the tables on Mercedes. “We got by him going into this very tight right up in the mountains,” says Dewis. “He was braking and we shot past still flat. But Stirling left his braking too late and we went wide. We were right on the edge of this bit of road, no fence, and Stirling was on top of me almost, looking down. It must have been a good 100-foot drop. He shook his head and motioned that he wanted a cigarette.” Dewis used up a box of soggy matches in getting it lit.
The drama wasn’t over. The summits of both the Futa and the Raticosa were covered in low cloud. There had never been any suggestion of Dewis providing pace notes during the event, but his extra set of eyes was to prove useful now: “I knelt up on my seat, peered over the windscreen and shouted my instructions down to Stirling. We kept up a fair old pace that way.”
Indeed, they would probably have arrived in Bologna in third place, having been less than two minutes behind the amazing Lancia Aurelia GT of veteran Luigi Fagioli at the Florence control. And after Bologna only a fast, 140-mile run to the Brescia finish remained. But with the worst of it over Moss made the fatal error, understeering off and clouting a roadside stone on the descent to Bologna. “It impacted across the steering and broke the rack off its brackets, sheared them off the subframe,” says Dewis. “I tried to wrap it in place with a big roll of copper wire I had with me, but it was no use.” They were out.
But the story was far from over. Back in Brescia, Moss sent a cable to Jaguar: “Must have more speed for Le Mans.” This demand set in motion a sequence of events that kiboshed Jaguar’s 24 Hours attack that year. A new low-drag body, complete with droopy nose, was fitted in order to keep up with the 300SLs along the Mulsanne Straight. It was an alteration that demanded a change in the C-type’s cooling arrangements… All three works cars would boil dry and retire during their opening stints. It was a disaster that Dewis believes was caused unnecessarily.
“Yes, a Mercedes did pass us on a straight, but we were still accelerating at the time,” he explains. “I’m confident that if the straight had been long enough we would have hauled him back in. I wasn’t worried about it. But Stirling was.
“The team had already left for the Le Mans test day by the time I had repaired the car and driven it back, and when I got there they were already having trouble with the new cooling system. I asked why we had changed it and they said it was because Stirling and I had discussed the speed of the Mercedes on the Mille Miglia. But I hadn’t spoken to him about it.
“I’m sure we would have won Le Mans that year if we’d left well alone. Mercedes won, but they set a conservative pace, slower than Stirling had predicted. He really shouldn’t have dropped that bombshell when he did.” And he still owes Norman for a pair of Italian sunglasses!