Miles ahead

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 40, Autumn 2014

Page 16

Miles ahead

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 40, Autumn 2014

Page 16

Miles ahead

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 40, Autumn 2014

Page 16

Dreamt up by two Italian playboys, the Mille Miglia was the most glamorous fixture of the motoring calendar. Richard Williams tracks its illustrious – and heart-stopping – history

One evening in December 1926, a pair of Italian aristocrats and a couple of their friends sat around a table in the Vecchia Cova restaurant in Milan, sharing their ideas for a new long-distance motor race. They could not have imagined that they were laying the foundations of a legend.

The race dreamt up over dinner by the two young counts, Aymo Maggi and Franco Mazzotti, both keen amateur racing drivers – along with Renzo Castagneto, a successful motorcycle racer, and the journalist Giovanni Canestrini – was to be a thousand-mile contest for sports cars around the northern half of Italy.

A few months after that initial discussion, the entrants for the first race were assembling in a square in the middle of Brescia, the home of Maggi and Mazzotti. Six years earlier, the city had held the very first Italian Grand Prix, an honor swiftly usurped by a new circuit laid out in Monza's royal park. Here, perhaps, was a chance to reclaim some prestige. It was Mazzotti who noted that their proposed route was roughly 1,600 kilometers. Imperial Rome's legions, he pointed out, measured their distances in miles. Why not call it the Mille Miglia?

From 1927 to 1957, with a wartime break, the race started and finished in Brescia, its renown growing with each year. Success or heroic failure in such an epic adventure added luster to the reputations of heroes from Tazio Nuvolari to Stirling Moss. Enzo Ferrari, whose cars won eight of the 11 post-war editions, once wrote: "No driver could say that his laurels were complete if he had not achieved victory in Brescia."

The public thrilled to the sight and sound of high-powered sports cars hurtling along the closed roads of their towns and villages, winding through mountain passes and shattering the calm of some of the world's loveliest scenery, a proportion of the gleaming machines destined to end up wrecked against a stone wall or crumpled at the bottom of a ravine in the Apennines.

Although the exact course of the thousand-mile route changed from time to time, the race always started and finished in Brescia, and usually took in the sights of Cremona, Bologna, Ferrara, Ravenna, Florence, Siena, Pescara and L'Aquila. Run anti-clockwise in the early years, it switched direction after the Second World War.

But one stop was immutable: Rome was always the half-way point, where cars made the most public of several brief stops for petrol, tires, water and refreshment – and, for the ill-fated Spanish nobleman Alfonso de Portago in the very last race in 1957, a kiss from his girlfriend, the Hollywood actress Linda Christian.

If Ferrari had a stranglehold in the later years, Alfa Romeo was the dominant force before the war. However, the very first race had resulted in a clean sweep for a home team: cars built by Brescia's own OM factory – the initials rather unromantically standing for Officine Meccaniche, or 'Mechanical Workshops' – came first, second and third.

Originally founded in Milan to manufacture railway engines and rolling stock, Officine Meccaniche had moved into the motor business with the purchase of Züst, a Brescia car builder, in 1917. In 1925 and 1926 the cars had swept the board in the two-litre class at Le Mans. Designed by an engineer from Verona named Ottavio Fuscaldo, the OM Superbas were neat roadsters with engines smaller than many of the Lancias, Alfa Romeos and Fiats that were among the 77 entries which set out from Brescia on March 26, 1927. The competitors departed in descending order of engine size, at one-minute intervals, led by the largest car in the race, the massive seven-litre Isotta Fraschini driven by Count Maggi himself. The fastest time over the giant circuit would determine the winner.

Policing the route was a mammoth task and 25,000 soldiers were hired to stand guard, in addition to the regular carabinieri. Count Gastone Brilli-Peri was the fastest to Rome, in a time of just over seven hours, but when his Alfa Romeo's engine failed in Spoleto, the Florentine ace established a pattern that would give rise to a famous saying: "He who leads in Rome will never win the Mille Miglia."

OM's Tipo 665 – as the Superba was more formally known – might not have matched the speed of Brilli-Peri's Alfa, but it proved itself to possess the best combination of qualities required for such a grueling event, strong and agile enough to fill the podium positions, with Nando Minoia, a much decorated veteran, at the wheel of the winning car. The cars in second and third places were driven by the Danieli brothers of Brescia. Maggi's Isotta finished sixth, its thirst necessitating 11 refueling stops en route.

OM's place in history was assured by that victory alone, and the Mille Miglia success encouraged the company's engineers to expand the engine capacity of later models in search of more power. In 1930, when the supercharged Alfa Romeos of the great rivals Nuvolari and Achille Varzi fought for overall victory, OMs dominated the three-litre class, led by the 2.3-liter Tipo 665 SS MM Superba of Aldo Bassi, another Bresciano, with his co-driver, Carlo Gazzabini.

That particular car, offered by Bonhams in September's Goodwood Revival Sale, was also driven to 10th place in the Targa Florio by Minoia and to ninth in the Irish Grand Prix at Phoenix Park by Giulio Ramponi that same year. It was then brought to Britain by OM's British agents, L.C. Rawlence & Co of Sackville Street, off Piccadilly.

Stored in the Midlands until the 1960s, it has been carefully restored and is a familiar sight in historic events, including the annual Mille Miglia Storica, which covers a large part of the original route, drawing crowds comparable to those who witnessed the original race.

The beauty of the Mille Miglia was that it attracted cars of all shapes and sizes. Once the decision had been taken to reverse the starting order – with the smallest now starting first – and the entry had risen to more than 600, spectators could revel in the sight of tiny Fiat Topolinos and Isetta bubble-cars being gobbled up by 200mph factory racers from Ferrari, Mercedes, Maserati and Jaguar. Moss's win in 1955 entered legend after the Englishman completed the course in just over 10 hours, at a record average speed of 98.5mph, guided by his passenger, the journalist Denis Jenkinson, who competed with the blare of the Mercedes' straight-eight engine as he shouted instructions from a roll of pace notes compiled during two reconnaissance runs.

Two years later the 50-year-old Italian driver Piero Taruffi achieved his life's ambition by winning the race at the 14th attempt, alone in the cockpit of his Ferrari. He got out of his car in Brescia to learn that his team mate De Portago's body was lying in a ditch outside Guidizzolo, a village near Mantua, alongside his shattered car, his dead co-driver and nine spectators, mown down when a tire blew at around 150mph. They would be the last of the 56 victims claimed by the race's 24 editions.

A godson of King Alfonso XIII, the 28-year-old Marquis de Portago had competed in the Grand National, the Cresta Run and the Olympic bobsleigh events; this was his first Mille Miglia. The outraged headlines that followed the catastrophe on the road to Mantua – from the following day's edtion of the Corriere d'Informazione: "The Mille Miglia: a graveyard of children and men. Enough!" – would bring an end to the era of long-distance racing on the open roads of mainland Europe.

However OM continued to build cars for racing and the road, until a takeover by Fiat in 1939. The company's efforts were redirected to making trucks and busses and its identity was gradually absorbed. Today the name appears only on a successful line of forklift trucks, all of which still carry a modern version of the badge worn by the sleek and speedy Superba, a machine that is part of the legend of the great race around Italy.

Richard Williams has written several books on motor racing including Enzo Ferrari: A Life and The Last Road Race.

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