From Milano to Sanremo — In Vintage Style
March 2009

From Milano to Sanremo — In Vintage Style

By Simon Kidston

Here’s an event we can recommend to anyone who doesn’t take their rallying too seriously.

I suspect I’m not the only one who spends much of the cold winter months dreaming about all the great places I’ll drive when the sun comes out, and which cars I’ll choose- owned or imaginary- for the trip. This year’s annualMilano-Sanremo historic rally, which I’ve commentated since its inception, seemed like the perfect opportunity for some early blue sky motoring. 

It’s a relatively leisurely event (no 7am starts, rushed lunches or nighttime finishes), taking participants from Italy’s fashion and business capital Milan to the palm-fringed resort town of Sanremo, just along the winding coastal road from the French border and the Italian businessman’s perennial favourite haven (yes, that kind of haven), Monte Carlo.

Timeless Italian design, whether in stone or metal Timeless Italian design, whether in stone or metal
Cars line up for the start in Piazza del Duomo Cars line up for the start in Piazza del Duomo

Those who visit our website on a regular basis will know we have a 1924 Hispano-Suiza H6B for sale- a personal indulgence acquired a couple of years ago to satisfy a long-held ambition to own a ‘Hisso’ and see what all the fuss was about (my uncle lapped Brooklands in his at over 80mph back in 1925). The fact that my wife doesn’t share the same curiosity (British understatement) means the Hispano is earmarked for a new home, but I thought that in the meantime I might as well enjoy it, especially as after all these years I’d yet to enter an event with a pre-war car.

Day One sees 131 teams from 15 countries, including 26 from Russia who you can’t miss, descending on the paddock at Monza for pre-event scrutineering. Most of our fellow competitors, however, are Italian and they’ve brought along a wonderful selection of cars, wives and girlfriends: few nations can match them for style. The entry criteria are fairly relaxed- I’m talking about the cars now- and in the paddock, apart from a plethora of journalists, TV crews and spectators, classic V12 Ferraris jostle for space with diminutive pre-war Fiats, graceful 1950s Lancias, noisy Porsche 356s, surprisingly popular Triumph TRs, just about every Alfa Romeo you’ve ever seen and plenty you haven’t, ranging from an official army team in an off-road ‘Matta’ to a police entry at the wheel of a black 1950s squad car from their museum complete with armour plating and rear sunroof for a standing gunner.

Lamborghini Gallardo Polizia: only in Italy Lamborghini Gallardo Polizia: only in Italy
Refreshments en route for dapper MG WA team Refreshments en route for dapper MG WA team

Best of all, this being Italy, we have a modern police escort too, not just a cavalcade of motorcycle outriders to clear the traffic from our path but even a blue and white-liveried Lamborghini Gallardo of the Polizia Stradale, complete with roof mounted sirens, driven by two tanned young officers who seem to make lots of female friends along the route. 

Driving with me on his first historic event is my new colleague Emanuele Collo, and in the midst of this scene fromThe Italian Job towers our motor car (‘car’ on its own hardly seems adequate) which dwarfs everything else in height, length, weight and engine size: it’s also the oldest car entered, looking menacing in black and attracting plenty of attention including the lycra clad model who drapes herself  over the coachwork to pose for the press. We like this rally already.

Ownership has its benefits Ownership has its benefits
Kidston and Collo en route to another lunch Kidston and Collo en route to another lunch

From the starters flag in Milan’s Piazza del Duomo, under the towering Gothic spires of the city’s cathedral, all the way to the coast where bathers emerge from the sea just metres away and lunches are already al fresco, we encounter almost every imaginable road from autostrada (great satisfaction as we pass a modern car at 100km/h, even if it is a Fiat Panda), narrow dirt tracks through forests (“surely you didn’t come up this road in that?” asks another competitor pointing at our car), passes over rolling hills (on the way down one, an elderly man on his bicycle looks up wide-eyed to see us coming towards him and crosses himself in disbelief) and lovely sweeping, coastal roads which reward drivers with magnificent views.

British-entered Bentley team thunders through hilltop mist British-entered Bentley team thunders through hilltop mist
Lunch in the vineyards above Genova Lunch in the vineyards above Genova

At each major city, we’re paraded through historic piazze thronged with crowds and commentated (after the start in Milan my duties are over until prizegiving) to much fanfare. “Bravissimi” we hear, along with “It’s the Addams Family!” and “What year is it, Minister?” Smiles all round, gifts are piled upon competitors as we pass through, and it’s off again to the next town and another lunch. And our 85 year-old steed? It didn’t miss a beat- I share my amazement with US Hispano authority Jules Heumann, who comments: “Not amazing, it’s a Hispano.”

Tough work but somebody had to do it Tough work but somebody had to do it
RAI TV presenter Francesca Grimaldi in the Alfa Museums one-off 1900 racer RAI TV presenter Francesca Grimaldi in the Alfa Museums one-off 1900 racer

We end our three day adventure with evening drinks on the sprawling terrace of Sanremo’s Royal Hotel, a slightly faded grande dame with old world charm that matches the road stained array of classics resting outside its facade rather well, looking out over the sparkling waters of the Med and- suitably emboldened- wondering if we can find an even older car for next year’s Milano-Sanremo. Suggestions are welcome!