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Mille Miglia classic car race is more than just a musuem on wheels

by Jennifer Clark

Two European royals, a tv chef, a former Miss Italia, and an internationally-acclaimed designer will be among those driving 450 of the world’s most precious classic cars though Italy’s stunning landscape and the streets of medieval hill towns in the 90th edition of the Mille Miglia road race.

In the race’s current incarnation, it is mostly an opportunity for drivers of classic cars built before 1957 to get out of the garage and strut their stuff before enthusiastic street crowds and adoring photographers in its 1,000-mile stretch from Brescia in northern Italy to Rome and back.

The start of the race yesterday was a spectucular event, as the priceless automobiles by Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Lancia, Fiat, BWM, Porsche, Jaguar, Bugatti, Aston Martin and Mercedes cram together in the grassy space in front of the thousand-year-old Saint Eufemia al Fonte monastery on the outskirts of Brescia.

The day before the race, the 450 cars and their teams undergo a rigorous check at the Fiera di Brescia to make sure they qualify for the strict rules governing the competition. Not all of the 705 requests from 43 countries qualified.

The regularity race hasn’t been a speed contest since 1957, when it was abolished for being too dangerous. All the same, the four-day race is still demanding. The first overnight stop is in Padua. Then its down through Umbria on to Rome, where the cars parade through the city and down the Via Veneto of Dolce Vita fame. On Saturday they leave from Rome and come back up through Tuscany, taking time for a swing through Siena and the Piazza del Campo. The final day they race across Lombardy back to Brescia.

Il Sole 24 Ore’s own Simonluca Pini is driving in the race , behind the wheel of a Porsche 911.

“In every city we passed through there were enormous crowds, a band playing music, and excellent food and wine,” recalled Formula 1 pilot Mika Hakkinen, who in 2011 drove the Mercedes Benz 300 SLR that won in 1955 with Stirling Moss. “One year when we were driving really fast the windshield came unstuck and flew off. It can happen with such an old car.”

The mix of celebrities, expensive cars and beautiful scenery makes the even a showcase for Italy. But its roots are what give it a pedigee that goes beyond the gloss and glamour. They reflect Italy’s post-war industrial development, when a defeated nation was transformed from an agricultural economy to a world power with the help of the US Marshall Plan and copious doses of its own hard work and ingenuity.

The race taps a deep vein of pride from local enterpreneurs like Lodovico Camozzi, whose family owns a major manufacturer of automation and machine tools called Camozzi Group.

“The race is not just about cars, but is about craftsmanship, passion and engineering genius, as well as an expression of beauty,” said Camozzi, who is also the Museo Mille Miglia vice director. “Since Brescia was one of Europe’s industrial centers, it had an automotive knowhow.”

And its first edition in 1927 was one of those moon-landing-type milestones that announce the start of a new age, given the breakneck speeds and technical ability shown during the race. Drivers clocked an average speed of 77 kilometers per hour across winding, unpaved roads. The race was over in just 20 hours, stunning the press and even its own organizers.

“Even a non-stop train would have been soundly beaten,” wrote Corriere della Sera on March 28, 1927. “The automobile travelled across Italy’s roads like an absolute conqueror of time and space.”

In 1930 the average time had already risen to 100 kilometers per hour.

“Half of the roads were unpaved,” recalled Giovanni Battista Guidotti, who won the 1930 race that year aside Tazio Nuovolari driving an Alfa Romeo. “Tazio skidded around every curve, correcting the turn with the steering wheel. And all of this on the narrow tires of the era.” 

Enzo Ferrari chose the Mille Miglia in 1940 to debut his first car, an 815 Auto Avio Costruzioni. He couldn’t use his own name due to a contractual agreement with former employer Alfa Romeo.

The fact that the race ran through towns and cities gave the automakers huge publicity making names like Alfa Romeo, Ferrari and BMW into household names in an age before mass communications had taken hold.

The Mille Miglia was dominated by Italian cars and drivers, but BMW mounted a significant challenge through the years. The German automaker debuted at the Mille Miglia in 1030. A year later it came roaring to the front to win with drier Rudy Caracciola with the 720 SSKL. Designed by Ferdinand Porsche, this powerful car was the first to break the dominance of Alfa Romeo in the race.

Mercedes would have to wait until 1955 to clock another vistory, but what a victory it was. Stirling Moss, driving a Mercedes Benz 300 SLR, won the 1955 race in 10 hours, 7 minutes and 48 seconds, with an average speed of 157 kms/hour -- setting a speed record that has never been broken since.

“The Mille Miglia was the only race that really ever made me afraid,” Moss recalled in an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport published this week. “I started thinking about it 10 months before the start. And it really worried me because that was the only race where you risked your life. Not because of the roads, but because of the speed you needed to win.”