The Mille Miglia was the dream of a 23-year-old northern Italian aristocrat Count Aymo Maggi, and three of his racing friends. The discussion came about as they were concerned that Brescia, the birthplace of car and cycling daredevilry in Italy (the city held its first “Speed Week” back in 1904), was losing its edge. The Italian Grand Prix had moved to Monza a few years earlier and Brescia had fallen behind. So Maggi and his friends came up with something extraordinary.
They would stage a road race to Rome and back. It is a loop of a little more than half of Italy, 1,600km of twists and turns. The event which runs in a huge teardrop from Brescia, across to Ferrara, down the east side of the country to Rome and up the west side via Siena, Florence, Modena and back to Brescia. The original Mille Miglia ran just 24 times between 1927 and 1957 and was won by an Italian car 21 times.
Millions stood on mountain passes to see the Mille Miglia in its full, swerving pomp and to revere the Italian drivers who mastered it: Clemente Biondetti, who won the race four times after breaking 24 bones in a motorcycle accident; Tazio Nuvolari, “the Flying Mantuan” and inventor of the four-wheel drift, who liked to turn his lights off to catch his rivals by surprise.
However it was not an Italian but an Englishman in a Mercedes who brought the Mille Miglia to its greatest heights in 1955. Stirling Moss, racing against 520 other competitors, completed the course in a frankly impossible time of 10 hours and seven minutes. Moss and his navigator, Denis Jenkinson, drove the course four times in preparation, grading hundreds of corners as either “saucy”, “dodgy” or “very dangerous”. During the race they ran over a sheep in the process and maintained an average speed in the final race of almost 98mph. “Looking up,” wrote Jenkinson, in his account of the drive, “I suddenly realised we were overtaking an aeroplane.”
The Mille Miglia has been banned, twice. First, in 1938, when a Lancia Aprilia took off from a level crossing outside Bologna and killed 10 spectators, and then, for good, in 1957 – just two years after Moss’s historic drive – when the 17th Marquis de Portago, the godson of the King of Spain, lost control of his Ferrari at 165mph, not far from Brescia. The car cut a telegraph pole in two, ploughed through the crowd and ended up in a small canal. Eleven people died, including the Marquis, his co-driver, and five children. This open-road race took the lives of 56 people in 30 years and after Alfonso De Portago’s terrible crash in 1957 it was condemned by all, including the Vatican, and banned.
It returned as a rally with special stages for three years around 1960, and again as a three-day classic car parade/regularity in 1977. Since 1987 in its latest reincarnation, the Mille Miglia has been, most emphatically, not a race. Instead, it is the world’s flashiest classic car cruise. Vehicles that could have run in the original 24 races are eligible to enter, and only the most distinguished are chosen (415 were included this year). Wealthy enthusiasts queue up to take part and carmakers use it to showcase their favourite old racing cars alongside the new models from manufactures.
Photo Credit Pavel Novitski