Mille Miglia, Italy


It is ten years now since silence descended upon Brescia, the home of the Mille Miglia, that most fascinating and important of all Italian road races. All attempts to revive the race have failed, and perhaps this is not surprising when we compare the state of the roads today and the present volume of traffic with conditions in 1927, when the first 1,000-mile road race 'round Italy took place, almost thirty years ago.

The first Mille Miglia was held on the 26th and 27th March, 1927, over a course of 1,618 kilometres, some 43 miles short of the "Thousand Miles" that gave it its name. From Brescia it struck south to Parma and eastwards to Bologna, then into the mountains, crossing Tuscany by way of Pistoia, Florence and Siena, down to Rome where it headed northwards again by way of Terni to a second Bologna control, and thus back to Brescia. The regulations laid down minimum average speeds that must have seemed modest even in 1927: 12 mph for the 1100s and 30 mph for the 8-litres. However, the cars had to be strictly standard and fitted with an effective silencer. The latter, said the Regulations, must "give the impression of a muted, continuous sound, in which the individual explosions are not readily to be detected." Silencers were to be tested upon a piece of road covered with dust or sawdust to make sure that the exhaust pipe, which had to be horizontally mounted, would not stir up any commotion.

The entry fee for the race was one lira, and this included insurance against damage to property and third parties. The prize money totaled 132,000 lire, of which 50,000 went to the outright winner. The race was sponsored by the Milan newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport, and thanks to the good publicity given it in that paper, attracted a great deal of interest. The political climate in those days was favourable, too. As one newspaper put it, "The Mille Miglia embodies the dynamic' spirit of the New Italy, which knows no obstacles either in time or space." This, however, was not how the race appeared to its four originators, Franco Mazzotti, Aymo Maggi, Giovanni Canestrini and Renzo Castagneto. They had put it forward as an alternative to Grand Prix and formule libre racing, both of which were at rather a low ebb. They reckoned that a straightforward event like the Mille Miglia, with its simple regulations, would attract new competitors and touch off new trains of thought. And they were right. The first race exceeded all expectations. Of the 77 starters 55 duly finished at Brescia, while the winning drivers (Minoia and Morandi in a 2-litre OM) put up the seemingly incredible average of 77.238 km/h, or roughly 48 mph. No one had dreamed of such a speed-even in Brescia where the OM and its drivers came from that first race brought out all sorts of makes-Itala, Bianchi, Fiat, Amilcar, Ceirano, Diatto, Lancia and, at the last minute, a Peugeot; it also created overnight that wonderful, exciting, intense atmosphere so characteristic of the entire series: the great crowds lining the route, the fantastic rumours because official information was so fragmentary and so vague. Race headquarters and Press box were in a cafe. It is no wonder that exaggerations and distortions crept in.

Right from the very start, moreover, the dead hand of bureaucracy tried to make itself felt. The authorities wanted to write a clause into the regualtions requiring competitors to "obey the Highway Code"-a piece of official buck-passing that left the drivers pretty cold.

The second edition, in 1928, attracted greater factory support. The first supercharged entries appeared (2.3 Bugatti and 1500 Maserati) handled by famous G.P. drivers, for the previous year's publicity had sent designers scurrying to improve their engines and chassis. The Mille Miglia had already made its influence felt, as great races should. The experimental nature of many of the entries was reflected in the greater number of retirements - 42 cars out of 83 starters, but in spite of almost impossible weather towards the end, the winners, Campari and Ramponi in a 1,500 cc Alfa Romeo, knocked almost two hours off the previous year's time, averaging more than 52 mph. In 1929 the same car and drivers won again with a supercharged 1,750 cc engine giving 90 bhp at 4,800 rpm (51 bhp per litre, and an all-up weight of 16 cwt [cwt= 1131bs.]) over a slightly different course, owing to road works. It was a memorable affair. Despite the poor roads Campari and Ramponi managed to average very nearly 90 km/h (55 mph) after stopping to deal with 7 flat tyres-five of them between Bologna and Feltre on the way back to Brescia. What is more, no fewer than eight finishers beat the previous year's time. The high speeds now possible with the new generation of engines (even the side-valve 2-litre OM now had a blower and gave 85 bhp for a weight of 19 cwt), were causing incredulity and dismay. Borzacchini, driving with Ernesto Maserati, averaged over 60 mph as far as Terni, and nearly 58 mph all the way from Brescia to Rome. By 1930 the Mille Miglia had "come of age"or at least had attracted its fi rst works entry from a big foreign manufacturer-Caracciola and Werner in a 38-250 Mercedes-Benz, although they me with no great success. An effort was also made to sort out the professionals and amateurs, so that everyone could benefit from the race. There was already a risk of the Mille Miglia's becoming purely a manufacturers' benefit.

Alfa Romeo, meanwhile, had refurbished the blown 1750 by stiffening the chassis, moving the engine farther back to improve the balance, and fitti ng larger-section tyres. After these modifications the little Alfa held the road better than ever and 1930 saw another Alfa Romeo victory. Nuvolari and Guidotti covered a slightly lengthened course (1,635 km) in little more than 16 hours; Alfas took the first three places in the general classification despite the efforts of OM whose remarkable side-valve six had been increased to 2.2 litres.

The following year, 1931, however, the series of Italian victories was to be interrupted. Caracciola and his Mercedes, profiting by lessons learned the previous year, returned to Brescia this time with Sebastian as passenger. The blown sixcylinder, with 225 bhp at 3,400 rpm and a top speed of over 125 mph despite a weight of 32 cwt, became the first foreign entry to win the Mille Miglia. They also broke the record for the race, averaging 62.7 mph (101.15 kmfh) and although on paper this is less than half a mile an hour faster than the previous year's Alfa Romeo, it represents a lead of nearly seven miles after 1,000 miles of racing.

This year too saw the first of many entries by British cars and drivers, when Charles Goodacre turned out with a supercharged Ulster Austin Seven-a novice at roadracing among so many stradisti but he managed to average 48 mph, or nearly as fast as the first winning one.

A car that could well have beaten the Mercedes was the new straighteight, 2.3-litre, twin-overhead cam Alfa Romeo developed directly from the 1750, of which it retained the wheelbase and track. In this, its first race, where it was driven by Nuvolari and Arcangeli, it probably gave 150 bhp at 5,200 rpm, and weighed about 22 cwt. This year was notable, too, for the transit of Varzi to the Bugatti camp. He was offered a choice of a 4.9 or 2.3-litre and drove the smaller machine, though without much success.

From 1932, in fact, until the outbreak of war the Mille Miglia was virtually an Alfa Romeo preserve. The 1932 race was won by Borzacchini and Bignami in a "two-three", although Varzi and Nuvolari had little luck and retired after 200 miles. Caracciola, now free-lancing because Mercedes had temporarily withdrawn from racing, drove a works Alfa and was leading the field at Rome having averaged nearly 72 mph. The impact of the new straighteight was seen, too, in the race average, which rose in one year by 5 mph to 68 mph, a speed which remained unbeaten the following year, because Nuvolari and Compagnoni won at a canter, with no-one to force the pace except possibly Manfred van Brauchitsch, whose big Mercedes gave up the struggle quite soon. An interesting British entry in 1932 was the Hon. Brian Lewis who enjoyed himself in one of the fast, uncannily silent Georges Roesch Talbots. In 1933 the British sent a team of three brand new 1,100 cc supercharged K3 MG Magnettes which won their class at 56.89 mph (Eyston and Lurani) while their mobile tender, a big Mercedes driven by C. Penn Hughes, won its class also-the sole 8-litre entry. The MGs won the Team Prize.

For 1934 the twisty sections in the Venetian Alps were eliminated with the idea of making the race faster, which it certainly did, aided no doubt by the now historic duel between those great rivals Nuvolari and Varzi, the latter on an Alfa with 2.6 engine developed specially by the Scuderia Ferrari, Nuvolari in an ordinary 2.3. The battle raged furiously almost until the end, when Varzi managed to build up a lead. As he pulled into the Imola control he was advised (by Enzo Ferrari himself and the invaluable Sig. Bazzi) to put on special "sliced" wet-weather tyres and change to "harder" plugs for the fast run~in to Brescia. It was a good recipe, and Varzi romped home for the Scuderia at 71 mph, a speed pushed even higher in 1935 by Pintacuda and Della Stufa on a faster circuit and using a 2.9-litre Alfa closely based on the Gran Prix monoposto. British amateurs Maurice Faulkner and Tommy Clarke won their class for Aston Martin. The 2.9-litre Alfa was succeeded in time for the 1936 event by the 2900 A with twin superchargers and independent suspension all 'round. The engine gave 220 bhp at 5,300 rpm in a car weighing 15 cwt. With it, Brivio and Ongaro set a resounding new record at 121.6 km/h-75 mph. For the Italian man-in-the-street this was a rather muted Mille Miglia, with petrol scarce owing to sanctions over the Abyssinian war, and a special class for cars running on "alternative liquids." Pintacuda won again in 1937, this time with Mambelli as passenger in a furtherimproved 2900 able to cruise at 125 mph. He set a new record for the fast piece between Brescia and Bologna, which he covered at 107 mph. The weather was vile, with muddy roads and thick mist; the winner's battery went flat, so that for the last few miles he drove by the lights of Nino Farina's car. The course was much altered in 1938, as from Florence to Rome it now followed the autostrada and the coast road. After Rome it cut across to Foligno and the Scheggia Pass, only rejoining the old course on the Adriatic. The winners were Biondetti-Stefani in a 3000 Alfa derived from the 2900, at a resounding 135.4 km/h-over 83 mph. It was a triumphal Mille Miglia: Pintacuda amazed everyone' with his 112 mph average as far as Bologna, and was cruising at. 124 mph on the autostrada FirenzeMare linking the Tuscan capital with the coast.

This event proved to be the last in the pre-war series: Storm clouds were gathering, and the 1939 race was cancelled. In 1940 a token event was held. As it was not practicable to close 1,000 miles of road, a 102.5-mile circuit was marked out linking Brescia - Cremona - Mantua - Brescia. This course had to be covered nine times, and although the distance did not fall far short of 1,000 miglia, the atmosphere most certainly did. The event, sometimes called "Coppa Brescia" to mark the distinction, was won by the 2-litre
BMW of Huschke von Hanstein and Walter Baumer at an average of 103.5 mph.

Proper racing was resumed in 1947, with much goodwill and a determination to recapture the great days of the Mille Miglia. The organization was confused and somewhat sketchy. Biondetti, pre-war record-holderforthe course, joined forces at the last minute with a Brescian driver named Romano who had lavished much careful preparation upon a de-blown 2.9 Alfa, and the pair of them won, to the surprise of most people, at an average of just on 70 mph (112.24 kmjh). The irrepressible Tazio Nuvolari was second, driving an 1,100 cc coupe of a new postwar make, the Cisitalia. Another Cisitalia handled by Bernabei came third. This was also the first race of a Ferrari car running under its own name.

The circuit had undergone important changes. Instead of going to Rome by way of Emilia and Tuscany it went by way of the Adriatic coast. The itinerary was now Brescia Padua - Ferrara - Ravenna - Forn Terni. From Rome it returned via Civitavecchia, Grosseto, Siena, Florence, and thence back by way of Bologna, Alessandria, Turin, Milan and Bergamo to Brescia. The changed political outlook and a rapid increase in the number of car-owners even so soon after the war brought a flock of would-be competitors. The 1947 event attracted 151 entrants. The following year there were 187. Amongst them was a 2-litre Ferrari, which notched up the first Mille Miglia for the new make and the third for that modest native of Tuscany, Clemente Biondetti, a first-class road-racing driver. A surprising second place went to a Fiat 1100 driven by Mr. Comirato and his Signora; but apart from this, and Biondetti's whining speed of 75 mph, the race will always be remembered with emotion as the tremendous "swan song" of Tazio Nuvolari. Driving a 2-litre Ferrari the great little Mantuan performed prodigies, even for him, and seemed set for another victory. At Modena he was 25 minutes ahead of Biondetti, but alas, just outside Reggio Emilia, with 800 miles behind him, the car broke its left-hand rear spring. Nuvolari, utterly exhausted, had run his race. It was the great man's last appearance. He had been in failing health for some time and it was time to retire-and retire he did, after one of the most memorable drives in that extraordinary career.

By 1949 entries for the Mille Miglia totalled 302, including H.J.Aldington (Frazer Nash), Donald and Geoffrey Healey (Healey) and John Gordon (Delahaye). The race brought Ferrari his second and Biondetti his fourth Mille Miglia victory, at a speed of 131.5 km/h (81.5 mph). This time the return leg of the course, after Rome, struck north to La Spezia, then crossed the Appenines by the Cisa Pass into Emilia, passing through the cities of Parma and Piacenza. The following year the itinerary changed again. After touching at Leghorn it headed but at Bologna they were 7 m. outside it, partly because it came on to rain, and also because the Ferrari's ZF differential was in trouble. The Englishmen's team-mate, Piero Taruffi, was also having trouble with shock absorbers and rear end; he was in fact on the point of giving up when he reached the Bologna control, but was persuaded by Enzo Ferrari to press on, and managed to achieve his life's ambition: victory in the Mille Miglia. Taruffi's average was almost exactly 95 mph, and he finished 2 m. 1 s. ahead of that excellent sportsman Wolfgang von Trips. Both were driving 3.8-litre cars. It was a splendid victory for Taruffi especially as he was fifty-two at the time. It was also destined to be the last Mille Miglia. Twenty miles from the finish, the Spanish driver Alfonso de Portago, driving in his first Mille Miglia, had a terrible accident when the lefthand front tyre of his Ferrari burst. The car left the road, injuring many spectators and killing ten of them. The Marquis de Portago and his American passenger, Nelson, were also fatally injured. Predictably, the race came under indictment. There were questions in the Italian parliament, and the "wowsers" had their way. Some people believe that the race had been living on borrowed time for years, and that it was kept alive partly through stubbornness and false pride on the part of the organizers. Proud the Brescian club certainly was, and is. Rightly so. The Mille Miglia was a stupendous creation, without doubt the greatest series of real road races ever held. It provided a wonderful proving-ground for Italian sports cars, which thanks to this shop window in the home market were enabled to win such races abroad as the Belgian 24 Hours at Spa, the RAC Tourist Trophy and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. There was indeed some hubbub when the race was won not by an accepted "sports car" but by Pintacuda's "monoposto with mudguards", but what a testimony to the toughness of the Alfa Grand Prix design! A very similar British-owned monoposto Maserati in "touring" guise later broke the unofficial record from London to Cambridge with a time of 47 minutes. Without the Mille Miglia there would never have been cars like that.

With a run of victories broken only once between 1928 and the outbreak of war, Alfa Romeo have reason to be grateful for the Mille Miglia, and so do their customers who bought 1.5-litre, 1750, 2.3 and 2900 models, the development of which owed nearly everything to the Brescian event. The single Mercedes victory in 1931 was the kind of tour de force expected of Caracciola, who also placed his 38-250 third at Monaco, of all improbable circuits. Britain, alas, manufactured not a single potential winner during the Mille Miglia age, except possibly the Speed Six Bentley in 1930. By 1931 the "two three" Alfa had arrived.

To British drivers the Mille Miglia was an outing, a challenge, and the opportunity, taking practice periods into account, for a de luxe Continental tour. How else would Englishmen ever have driven beside the Adriatic at 175 mph or, like Reg Parnell and Louis Klemantaski, hurtled full-bore across a mountain pass controlling speed by the ignition switch?

A few stalwarts discovered the Mille Miglia before the war and competed en amateur. The MG K 3 Magnette made its debut-and its name-in the 1933 race, winning the 1,100cc and the team prize with an expedition that included Earl Howe, George Eyston, H. C. Hamilton, Bernard Rubin, Sir H. R. S. Birkin and Count Johnny Lurani: Penn Hughes's drive in the Mercedes-Benz tender was a bit of an epic in itself.

Had the series ceased in 1938 much fine motoring would have been missed. British drivers rediscovered the event in 1949, and by the early 1950s had turned out in force, introducing the Continentto such makes as Healey, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Cooper (Wharton, 1953) and HWM. Some found it habit-forming, like Tommy Widsom the journalist, who started in 1950 and drove every race until 1957 in Aston Martin and AustinHealey cars. Next most faithful were Donald Healey and his son Geoff (Healey and Austin-Healey) who ran five times. So did Stirling Moss, whose first mount was a Jaguar in 1950. He won, of course, in 1955, at record speed, and might have done well the following year if the brake-pedal had not snapped off short a few yards from the start, leaving Moss and Maserati no chance.

Leslie Johnson took part in four post-war races, as did George Abecassis. The Passenger's Trophy, if there were such a thing, would undoubtedly go to Louis Klemantaski, who rode five times in all: with Reg Parnell (Aston Martin) in 1953 and 1954, and with Paul Frere (Aston Martin DB 2/4) in 1955. In 1956 he partnered Peter Collins into second place and helped the same driver to put up the fastest run ever recorded from Brescia to Rome in 1957, the last race of all. Not only that. It was Louis who dreamed up the "Klem-Bronco" system of route-marking on a roll of paper: and found time in each race to take excellent photographs from the passenger's seat, one of which illustrates this article. Another itinerant reporter was Gregor Grant, editor of Autosport, who covered two races from behind the wheel of his MG.

The motor racing boom hit the United States too late for many of its citizens to have taken part in the Mille Miglia; but John Fitch did splendidly for Mercedes-Benz in 1955, driving a closed 300 SL into fifth place (and winning his class) the year the race was won by Moss, but there can be few other American members of the Mille Miglia Club. Such a club does exist. Opponents point to it as a "bad thing".

Membership was open to any Mille Miglia finisher, and it is suggested that many "boy racers" took part merely to earn the badge. But as only finishers could join, and completing the Mille Miglia course implies more than mere showing off, the club probably did far more good than harm.

The Mille Miglia itself did a tremendous amount to raise the standard of Italian driving, just as it kept Italian road-engineers on their toes, and earned publicity for Italian cars. Every race in this greatest competition of all was won by an Italian car, except the two that went to Mercedes-Benz. Alfa Romeo won 11 races, Ferrari 8, with one each to OM and Lancia. On the human side the Brescian long-distance event produced new champions of its own, and confirmed the titles of others. Clemente Biondetti, a road-racing driver if ever there was one, won on no less than four occasions, more than any other competitor. The respect with which he treated his cars, which was probably the main reason for his success, was due not only to an innate love of machinery, but more fundamentally to a lack of private means. Clemente Biondetti never in his life owned a racing car of his own, or if he did it was only by dint of tremendous sacrifices. When, therefore, he was given the chance of handling a work's car, he did so with a tremendous sense of obligation and a firm conviction that "the least he could do was not bend it." Biondetti stands out as the archetype of the driver whose passion for the sport transcends all considerations of personal gain. He never had much money and died a poor man, after a long illness.

The exact opposite of Biondetti was Giannino Marzotto, the quintessence of "gentleman driver" the "man in the 'gents' natty suiting," who won the Mille Miglia twice and then quietly dropped out of motor racing and returned to a Big Business life in Venice, letting the record speak for itself. Between these two drivers, so individual and so dissimilar, lay a whole skein of true professionals - men answering to such names as Nuvolari, Campari, Varzi, Caracciola, Borzacchini, Villoresi, Castellotti, Moss, Ascari and Taruffi. None of these, oddly enough, won a Mille Miglia while still a young man, except Castellotti and Stirling Moss. With drivers, as with cars, apparently, the Mille Miglia required toughness and, above all, a lengthy development period.

Author: ArchitectPage

the founder members of the race in 1927 Aymo Maggi, Franco Mazotti, Giovanni Canestrini and Renzo Castagneto
Peter Collins 3.5 litre Ferrari 1956
Circuit 1951
Mercedes-Benz 1931
Modena 1931
Panaro River Bridge
Moss winning in 1955
Castellotti winning in 1956
Taruffi winning in 1957 with Taffy Von Trips second the last year the MM was held following two years of spectator deaths