Following the Mille Miglia
By Wayne Batty
A thousand miles in the tyre tracks of the greats
In its original guise, the Mille Miglia involved the bravest of drivers racing a thousand miles from Brescia to Rome and back, on public roads, sometimes in almost total darkness. It was thrilling, but fraught with danger.
Over 24 events, held between 1927 and 1957, the Mille Miglia legend grew, thanks in great part to Moss and Jenks’ sterling run in ’55, and the race became one of the most prestigious events on the motorsport calendar. According to the organisers, Enzo Ferrari called it, ‘the most beautiful race in the world.’ Although no longer a point-to-point speed race, it lives on today as a regularity race for historic cars and is one of the finest opportunities available to see some remarkable machines in action.
As part of its centenary celebrations in 2010, Alfa Romeo chose the Mille Miglia as a promotional tool for its [then] brand-new Giulietta hatchback. Knowing the historical significance of the event, I jumped at the chance to drive the newcomer alongside the 6Cs and Giulietta Sprints of yesteryear.
Day One: Brescia – what a start!
You don’t have to go far in Italy to get a sense of the way things were. Ancient ruins, domed cathedrals and thousand-year-old walled villages are the norm here. But it’s not just in the architecture. When the opportunity arises, Italians themselves display a profound sense of respect for history and heritage – and they’re especially proud of the Mille Miglia.
Above: The Piazza Vittoria in Brescia, an ideal venue for a pop-up classic car museum. Image credit: Michele Lupini
I’m standing in the Piazza Vittoria staring at a row of Aston Martins from the era before they were beautiful, as well as several Ferraris from the era before they were ugly. All around me, the Brescians have gathered to pay homage to beloved Ferraris, Maseratis, Cisitalias, Alfas, Lancias and Fiats of yesteryear. I witness the generational transfer of automotive fanaticism, as a grinning grandfather, with flag-waving grandson in tow, lovingly caresses a Fiat 8V Zagato with his eyes.
Above: A Type 35 Bugatti passing through the Piazza Vittoria on its way to start the great race. Image credit: Michele Lupini
Rain begins to fall and umbrellas pop to the whirr of vintage starter motors willing old race engines to life from the parking lot beneath the Piazza. A matt silver BMW 328 Mille Miglia Touring Coupe barks then burbles by on first-gear overrun. I wade through the excited crowd, passing what are essentially hand-beaten aluminium bath tubs with drivers frantically fitting tonneau covers. Other barchettas are being reverse parked the neck-straining old-fashioned way, with co-pilots on essential umbrella duty. Whenever a car’s bonnet is opened, people flock to catch a glimpse of when engines were works of art, not plastic-clad kilowatt factories.
I find shelter at a nearby ristorante and just absorb the atmosphere. In front of me a row of glorious Alfas – a triple red-lamped 1930 6C 1750 Gran Sport, a 1931 8C 2300 Le Mans, a 1938 6C 2300 Mille Miglia, and a youngster in the form of a 1900 C Super Sprint from 1955. Feeling automotive sensory overload, I look up towards the Duomo Vecchio and marvel at the setting.
The first car is only set to leave the traditional Viale Venezia in Brescia at 7.30pm and is expected to arrive after midnight in Bologna. Wisely, we set off much earlier on the Autostrada, settling on an early night and a morning rendezvous with the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari at Imola, just outside Bologna.
Day two: Bologna to Rome
We arrive at the gates of the famed racing circuit just ahead of the first cars and watch as two OM 665 Superbas and a flurry of Bugatti Type 35s and 37s make their grand entrance. Many more cars burst in through the gates and it’s not long before the pit-lane entry point becomes an avatar for chaos. Flustered officials set about re-ordering the 350-plus bunched-up cars, not helped by AWOL drivers on toilet forays. A heady mix of brake fluid, oil and petrol fumes sets in as the cars wait to be released onto the track. One by one they start up again, some as quiet as a Prius, others like giants coughing up phlegm.
To get a sense of how things are going I edge closer in and listen as competitors swap notes on how much fuel their highly-strung machines are gulping and when next they’ll need to replenish tanks. Generally though there are smiles all round and a tangible sense of privileged camaraderie. After all, you have to be pretty well heeled, or at least well connected, to take part. The entry fee alone is 6,060 Euros, and that’s after the huge sum you’ll blow acquiring and maintaining an eligible car. Unless of course you own something like the 1954 Citroën 2CV AZ that sneaks by. Gosh it does look awkward in this company.
Above: 1954 Citroën 2CV AZ not the fastest across Italy, but certainly offers the most supple ride. Image credit: Michele Lupini
Rather fortunately, an overheating Ferrari 212 Export Barchetta has been abandoned with its bonnet removed, spotless 2.6-litre Colombo V12 on display. Fine proportions, exquisite curves and scalloped flanks mark it out as the only Barchetta bodied by Carrozzeria Fontana. So it’s extremely rare and to my eyes better-looking than the more-favoured Vignale and Touring examples.
Above: 1951 Ferrari 212 Export Spyder Fontana, with bonnet still in place - captured just prior to the start.
I spot Jay Kay, of Jamiroquai fame, cigarette in mouth, posing for the snappers while pushing his Maserati A6G/54 into position. He reaches into the front seat, grabs his camera and snaps back.
After milling around a flock of Merc 300SLs and a lone BMW 507 as they head off on a ‘hot’ lap, it’s time to set the Giulietta’s navigation for the picturesque hilltop setting of Urbino and the promise of lasagne.
A beaming David Coulthard and tartan-clad Sir Jackie Stewart are the men of the minute at the buffet in Urbino. My colleague is desperate to ask Sir Jackie if his trademark trousers are tax deductible in Scotland – really, you can’t take him anywhere. Celebrities abound: BMW Group Design Director Adrian Van Hooydonk, two-time Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk, Jan Lammers, Miki Biasion, Mika Häkkinen, Prodrive’s David Richards, Prince Leopold of Bavaria, Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason and über product designer Marc Newson are just some of the VIPs competing this year. Nothing like a bit of glamour to go with the grease.
Above: Prince Leopold of Bavaria in conversation with Sir Jackie Stewart. The Mille Miglia is never short of A-listers.
Post lunch, I’m keen to drive through one of the many village time checks. For once our official stickers do the trick and we’re allowed to follow several Porsche 356s, a Lancia Aurelia B24 and a 1957 Giulietta Sprint Veloce. Fascinated onlookers, bewildered tourists and Mille Miglia faithful line the tight streets. As each car passes through the control point it is introduced to enthusiastic applause. As modern interlopers, we’re officially ignored, but the public really take notice. With the windows open for maximum atmosphere absorbance, ‘Bella nuova Giulietta’ is a frequently heard cry.
I know it sounds like a Eurovision song title, but the long and winding road up to Terminillo is a steep test for these cars, especially the older ones. We fly past some of the slower competitors as the road rises to more than 1,900m above sea level. Nearing the summit we hit snow! The temperature has dropped dramatically and visibility is down to about 20 metres. We let a very determined 4.5-litre Bentley ‘Blower’ go by, its occupants suffering a severe bout of open-air discomfort. It’s clear the teams in fixed-head coupes are coping better. On the descent, we park the Giulietta and stand by the side of the road listening to the glorious gunshots of mistiming, backfiring old bangers as they explode down the mountain, brakes squealing in protest at the hairpin below. In between all the aural mayhem there’s a moment of serenity as a Jaguar XK120 roadster flashes by, its 3.4-litre straight-six singing through the trees around us.
Above: A lone Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 Gran Sport being passed by a gaggle of BMW 328s.
We enter Rome around 11pm, a full three hours after the first cars were scheduled to arrive. The sat-nav lady is tired and confused, but eventually leads us through the labyrinth of streets to a hotel full of paintings depicting English fox-hunting history. Weird, I know. I go to bed in a red and black carpeted explosion and fall asleep counting laps of the Trevi fountain in a Disco Volante.
Day Three: Rome to Brescia
It’s a 6:30am start for the drivers, as the organisers have laid on yet another buffet lunch at Buonconvento. We plan to intercept the cars just beyond the lunch stop and follow them through the famous Futa pass, but poor navigation on my part takes us over the mountains alone. What a blast! The deserted road we end up on is 25km of twisting rollercoaster.
We fall in line behind the first cars as they head out of Fiorano. It’s one of the 6C 1750 Gran Sports again, with its peers in tow. All’s well until the entourage drives into a roundabout where some industrious local has nicked the direction board as a souvenir. Much frantic waving ensues as we go round and round. I check the route book, but it’s probably only useful in the hands of an Italian boy scout.
Reggio Emilia will be our final stop before Brescia, so we make the best of it, parking as deep into the university town as permitted and walking towards the noise. It’s Saturday evening and the residents are out in force, cheering, waving flags and quaffing prosecco like there’s no tomorrow.
Above: It’s all cheering, laughter and drinking as the cars squeeze through the streets of Reggio Emilia. Image credit: Michele Lupini
The finish at Brescia is a late-night warzone, with Mille Miglia cars racing through intersections from all angles, each one assuming right of way regardless. We hear the next morning that an Alfa finished second and that car No. 88, a BMW 328 Mille Miglia Touring Coupé, has won. Serial winners Giuliano Cané and Lucia Galliani have clinched their ninth modern Mille Miglia victory together in a fairytale 70th anniversary tribute to BMW’s 1940 triumph. It’s just the way things were.
Above: Giuliano Cané and Lucia Galliani, victorious in their BMW 328 Mille Miglia Touring Coupé
Article by Wayne Batty