Living the Mille Miglia Dream
June 2010

Living the Mille Miglia Dream

 

by Doug Nye

 

 

I was nine years old when I first became aware of the Mille Miglia being the world’s greatest road race. I think it was a copy of the British kids comic ‘Eagle’ in which I saw a dramatic drawing of a curvaceous sports car hurtling over a brow, spraying stones and dust from its tortured tyres, and crewed by two crash-helmeted heroes. 

 

One of them had a luxurious beard, while the other had the eagle eyes and sharp features of a world-class athlete. The car bore the racing number ‘722’…  Lips moving, finger tracing the letters, I carefully read the caption. It trumpeted the fact that the British pairing of driver Stirling Moss and his navigator Denis Jenkinson – in a Mercedes-Benz from Germany - had just won the 1,000-mile race around Italy in a stupendous record time, and at a shattering record speed.

 

 

Historic MM scores high on style...this is Italy, after all Historic MM scores high on style...this is Italy, after all
Titanic Blower Bentley thunders into Rome Titanic Blower Bentley thunders into Rome

 

Coo-ee – from that point onward, two things happened. One was that I became really hooked on racing and racing cars. The second was that the Mille Miglia assumed quite a serious significance in my young life.  Seven or eight years later I actually met Denis Jenkinson – the celebrated Continental Correspondent of the British ‘Motor Sport’ magazine, and began working with him on the publication. Through him I got to know my real boyhood hero – Stirling Moss. We all became firm friends, and so I soaked up more and more Mille Miglia lore.

 

In the early 1980s, the first Mille Miglia Retro was run. I remember talking to another hero, the great Italian racing driver-cum-engineer Piero Taruffi, at the Geneva Salon. He was telling me animatedly about the old 16-cylinder Maserati he had driven in the mid-1930s when a very loud, very rude American suddenly butted in. This character bawled excitedly, “Hey Taruffi!  Are you going to the Mealie?”


The Old Boy looked both startled, and offended. “I am sorry”, he said quietly, “I do not understand”.  To which the interloper replied “The Mealie MiG-lee-ah?  Are you goin’ to the Mealie MiG-lee-ah?”


And Taruffi blinked lazily, and retorted “I have no need to. I won the real one…

 

Now that might sound conceited. It might sound pompous. But in those circumstances it was the definitive quiet put down, a genuine road racer, a scarred and battered warrior, dismissing a wannabe – and a rather charmless and ill-mannered wannabe at that.

 

I could never claim any first-hand knowledge of the real-life Mille Miglia, which was first run in 1927, and last in 1957, but I was so steeped in its background and history, and had spent so much time around genuine race veterans, that I never felt the need to attend the Retro as it developed.

 

 

Fast friends: Indy 500 winner Arie Luijendijk and Le Mans winner Gijs van Lennep Fast friends: Indy 500 winner Arie Luijendijk and Le Mans winner Gijs van Lennep
Pink Floyd's Nick Mason leaves driving duties to wife Annette Pink Floyd's Nick Mason leaves driving duties to wife Annette

    
I had driven huge chunks of the proper old Mille Miglia courses – they changed often from year to year - but much preferred to do it in my own time, or with a few friends – never amongst the great organised Historic chattering classes jamboree that the Retro became. 
 
 In 2005 Stirling and Suzie Moss invited my wife and I to accompany them to the event which that year marked the 50th anniversary of the great record-breaking victory. We watched the start in the Brescia dusk, and then returned to the Hotel bar, where we toasted the memory, the Mercedes team who had provided the tools and made it all possible, and we celebrated fond memories of little Jenks, who had died nine years before. It was a memorable trip, which I filed away, and didn’t think again of the Retro.

Until this March, when Michael Bock of Mercedes-Benz Classic astonished me by asking if I’d like to join his firm’s de facto team in this year’s event. Could I refuse his kind invitation? Of course not.

 

A warm welcome for Jay Kay of Jamiroquai, driving his Maserati A warm welcome for Jay Kay of Jamiroquai, driving his Maserati
Drivers push their cars as the road climbs and twists beyond Rome Drivers push their cars as the road climbs and twists beyond Rome

 And so it was that I found myself, as a modern Mille Miglia virgin, pitched-in at the deep end in the starting ramp queue at Brescia. Michael was driver, myself the navigator in Friedhelm Loh’s immaculate (and very genuine) 7.1-litre supercharged Mercedes-Benz SSK.  A sister car – drilled like a Swiss cheese for extra weight-saving – had won the real race in 1931, crewed by Rudolf Caracciola and Christian Werner.  They had averaged 101km/h – 63.2mph – for the 1,000 Roman miles. Twenty-four years later, in another Mercedes-Benz – the 3-litre fuel-injected 300SLR roadster – Moss and Jenks had averaged 97.9mph over a different route, but a matching distance.  Cor!And so it was that I found myself, as a modern Mille Miglia virgin, pitched-in at the deep end in the starting ramp queue at Brescia. Michael was driver, myself the navigator in Friedhelm Loh’s immaculate (and very genuine) 7.1-litre supercharged Mercedes-Benz SSK.  A sister car – drilled like a Swiss cheese for extra weight-saving – had won the real race in 1931, crewed by Rudolf Caracciola and Christian Werner.  They had averaged 101km/h – 63.2mph – for the 1,000 Roman miles. Twenty-four years later, in another Mercedes-Benz – the 3-litre fuel-injected 300SLR roadster – Moss and Jenks had averaged 97.9mph over a different route, but a matching distance.  Cor!
So now we spoke sweet nothings into presenter/ interviewer Simon Kidston’s microphone on the starting ramp, and grumbled away into the Brescia crowd packing the road ahead. We started at 7:41 on the Thursday evening and boomed away into the gathering twilight – the first evening’s leg headingA
And so it was that I found myself, as a modern Mille Miglia virgin, pitched-in at the deep end in the starting ramp queue at Brescia. Michael was driver, myself the navigator in Friedhelm Loh’s immaculate (and very genuine) 7.1-litre supercharged Mercedes-Benz SSK.  A sister car – drilled like a Swiss cheese for extra weight-saving – had won the real race in 1931, crewed by Rudolf Caracciola and Christian Werner.  They had averaged 101km/h – 63.2mph – for the 1,000 Roman miles. Twenty-four years later, in another Mercedes-Benz – the 3-litre fuel-injected 300SLR roadster – Moss and Jenks had averaged 97.9mph over a different route, but a matching distance.  Cor!

 

So now we spoke sweet nothings into presenter/ interviewer Simon Kidston’s microphone on the starting ramp, and grumbled away into the Brescia crowd packing the road ahead. We started at 7:41 on the Thursday evening and boomed away into the gathering twilight – the first evening’s leg heading us from Brescia to brief bed in Bologna.

 

 

we spoke sweet nothings into presenter/ interviewer Simon Kidston’s microphone on the starting ramp, and grumbled away into the Brescia crowd packing the road ahead. We started at 7:41 on the Thursday evening and boomed away into the gathering twilight – the first evening’s leg heading us from Brescia to brief

An early entrant for the 2025 event An early entrant for the 2025 event
Is there a country where classic cars look more at home? Is there a country where classic cars look more at home?


Our preamble had been pretty much a contrast of Mercedes-Benz organisation versus Italian organisational comedy.  I was surprised to find no briefing, minimal paperwork, and the entire field of entered cars housed in a vast and unlovely hangar of a building in suburban Brescia. Old hands assured me this marked a vast improvement over the former practice of period-style scrutineering in the city’s main square “…which took -------- hours!”  Oh well, fair enough.

As we fled into the night most road regulations seemed to have faded into the merely advisory. We passed some runners, some passed us. Into the gathering night WHAM!!! – a service 4x4 rocketed by, wrong side of the road into a blind corner, WHOP!!! WHAM!!! – two more in hot pursuit.  WHOOSH!!! – a TV-crewed camera car flurries by at around 170km/h – and yet our great grumbling SSK is absolutely no slouch, cruising on the rural roads at probably 130-140km/h.  I’m not given to harbouring fears, and Michael was driving beautifully – quick, crisp and well-judged – but I must confess I thought then what I had long suspected: this malarkey is bloody dangerous!

Control checks in towns like Desenzano and Cento concentrate waving, cheering, clapping crowds as we funnel in between the metal crowd barriers and tapes. Yabba-dabba-yabba loudspeakers, bright lights, TV and press cameras – I find gifts being pushed into my hands, tourist leaflets, bottles, sweeties, cheeses – our route card is stamped and we rumble away again with me fighting (and failing) to find space for all these goodies in the SSK’s cramped cockpit. We end up rolling away from each control, spotting the first pretty girl spectator, and stopping to hand her our ‘winnings’. No disrespect nor ingratitude to the organising clubs and their sponsors, just the impossibility of taking so much onboard...

 

As we fled into the night most road regulations seemed to have faded into the merely advisory. We passed some runners, some passed us. Into the gathering night WHAM!!! – a service 4x4 rocketed by, wrong side of the road into a blind corner, WHOP!!! WHAM!!! – two more in hot pursuit.  WHOOSH!!! – a TV-crewed camera car flurries by at around 170km/h – and yet our great grumbling SSK is absolutely no slouch, cruising on the rural roads at probably 130-140km/h.  I’m not given to harbouring fears, and Michael was driving beautifully – quick, crisp and well-judged – but I must confess I thought then what I had long suspected: this malarkey is bloody dangerous!

 

Control checks in towns like Desenzano and Cento concentrate waving, cheering, clapping crowds as we funnel in between the metal crowd barriers and tapes. Yabba-dabba-yabba loudspeakers, bright lights, TV and press cameras – I find gifts being pushed into my hands, tourist leaflets, bottles, sweeties, cheeses – our route card is stamped and we rumble away again with me fighting (and failing) to find space for all these goodies in the SSK’s cramped cockpit. We end up rolling away from each control, spotting the first pretty girl spectator, and stopping to hand her our ‘winnings’. No disrespect nor ingratitude to the organising clubs and their sponsors, just the impossibility of taking so much onboard…

 

You wouldnt expect two recent F1 drivers to just cruisethey didnt You wouldnt expect two recent F1 drivers to just cruisethey didnt
Chic couple: Aston Martin boss Dave Richards with wife Karen in their Fraser Nash Chic couple: Aston Martin boss Dave Richards with wife Karen in their Fraser Nash

 

There are a few navigational wrong-slots, and one or two minor scares – like hitting unsighted raised pedestrian crossings at speed and being fired out of the cockpit to land on the folded hood before plopping back down into our seats. Twenty-three minutes past midnight, finito in the Bologna control. An hour later the Hotel bed beckons, for four hours until morning call and off and away again – for Rome.

It’s a one hour, 39km cruise to the Imola circuit, then 157kms to Urbino, another 145 to Spoleto, 79 to the ski resort high in the Appenines at Terminillo and 96kms back to Roma Saxa Rubra. Long day – good weather, mostly, until the climb to Terminillo takes us first into overcast forests speckled with residual winter snow, then up into rain-filled fog…running on a 3-metre wide roadway ploughed clear between 4-metre high banks of solid snow.  It’s wet, freezing cold and driving blind. WHOA!!! – nearly ran down that flag-wielding marshal who has suddenly loomed up in the fog. Hard left into the Terminillo control. Lovely organisers loom up, a hot kettle in one hand, mugs in another – and hot lemon tea to revive us all.

 

 

Motor racing Royalty: Jackie Stewart and son Paul dazzled Italians with matching tartan ensembles... Motor racing Royalty: Jackie Stewart and son Paul dazzled Italians with matching tartan ensembles...
Mainstream Royalty joined too: good spirited Princess Annette of Holland and equally glamourous co-pilote Mainstream Royalty joined too: good spirited Princess Annette of Holland and equally glamourous co-pilote

 

    We drag into our Rome hotel in the small hours, around 1.30am – bath and bed, for another three hours or so sleep until a 5am call. I'm in a different car the next day, and already miss the big friendly giant SSK with its kick-down supercharger engagement, and the incredible supercharger shriek which slams in like a band saw cutting concrete.

For a lifelong racer there's one habit developed by the latest generation of Historic car hobbyists which raises our hackles.  We repeatedly heard Retro participants constantly referring to it as 'The Race'.  Sorry fellers - but let's be absolutely clear here.  No way is the modern Retro a race - and most decidedly not in the manner of the genuine Mille Miglia when these public roads were closed, all restrictions suspended and it was flat-strap from start all the long, long way to the finish.  From 1927-1957 the mighty Mille Miglia really was a RACE!  Not now, so let's not pretend...


The next day we rejoin the Retro cavalcade – hundreds of fellow-travelling bikers, police riders with their flashing blue lights on stalks and look-at-me-ma blue breeches with mauve stripes – and the first of the cars. Our friends – old and many new – thunder by.    

 

 

If there are better ways to spend three days, suggestions are welcome If there are better ways to spend three days, suggestions are welcome
Spectators still line the route as night falls for the final blast back to Brescia Spectators still line the route as night falls for the final blast back to Brescia

 

  The Mille Miglia Retro is an extraordinary historic motoring experience. It’s chaos and the most enormous fun combined. It provides moments which are heart-stirringly evocative, and others which are gut-wrenchingly dangerous. Near misses and phenomenal avoidances seem part of the menu as idiot drivers of both participating cars and the everyday local traffic prove a potentially lethal cocktail.

 
 

The competitive section of the Retro – which involves average-speed regularity tests of a level little removed from the Sevenoaks & Mid-Kent Motor Club nine-car treasure hunts which I recall from the 1960s – seem to be taken incredibly seriously by some entrants. Friends in another SSK found themselves in one such hero’s path on an impossibly rough road section. Their pursuer was feinting and jabbing to get by, but the road was strictly single-track only, and the SSK’s a big car. They refused to risk shattering its multi-million Dollar structure over the pot holes and ruts, but at the first opportunity pulled hard right and let the – by this time loudly complaining – ‘racer’ scrabble by. He immediately hit a huge puddle which sent a monsoon flood foaming down into the SSK’s cockpit. The parties met at the following control – and peace broke out as both explained the reasons why – protecting the great car from damage versus risking delay which would have been terminal to class-winning ambition.  No compatibility there then – which the organisers might wish to address in future.

A blast around the Ferrari factory test track at Maranello, and as another night rolled in the long final haul through Reggio Emilia, Parma, Cremona and back to Brescia.  That last day’s drive covered some 640kms, more or less 400 miles, largely on rural roads, including the Radicofani, Futa and Raticosa Passes, Rome to Brescia complete. Some runners took more than 17 hours to complete it all. 


And once it was all over, I found myself in a shell-shocked and sleepily silent group, dining upon a cold buffet in the small hours of Sunday morning.  And then Jackie Stewart – three-time Formula 1 World Champion of course – who had just completed the run with son Paul in their Mercedes-Benz 300SL – snapped awake beside me at the ‘dinner’ table and asked “Doug!  How long did it take Moss and Jenks to win this darned race?”

 
“Errr – it’s just a figure I happen to have carved into my brain – 10 hours 7 minutes…and 48 seconds”.

 

And the Clydesider said it all, as he snorted, and declared “Gahd Almighty!”

 

 Doug Nye is a world renowned motor racing historian and long-time Historical Consultant to the Goodwood Festival of Speed and Bonhams auction house

 

Giacomo Bretzel is an internationally acclaimed photographer whose images of the Mille Miglia feature as the central theme in much of Chopard’s advertising: see more of his work, including private commissions, at www.giacomobretzel.com


Main illustration courtesy Denis Jenkinson/ GP Library (from Jenks' scrapbook, including his caption)    (


 

Yorkshire-entered ex- Works D Type harried red rivals at every opportunity Yorkshire-entered ex- Works D Type harried red rivals at every opportunity
Happy 70th birthday: Giuliano Cane gives 1940 MM winning BMW a special present...victory in 2010 Happy 70th birthday: Giuliano Cane gives 1940 MM winning BMW a special present...victory in 2010