There’s a gap, inexplicably the yellow Ferrari 750 Monza isn’t travelling flat out, so I pull out and make the first of many multi-million manoeuvres I’ll undertake over the next four days. A quiet country road, save for the blaring of that Ferrari’s Lampredi-designed four-cylinder 3.0-litre engine, it’s like we’re in a time worm hole, right back to the Fifties. I’m in a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, its 3.0 has two more cylinders, its fuel-injected straight-six not as vocal, or as powerful, as the Italian, but here, now, it’s got the upper hand.
The Mille Miglia. It’s not a race, say the organisers, but tell that to the driver and co-drivers of the near 500 priceless classics that roll up to the Brescia start line every year. I’ve been fascinated by it since I witnessed the start 15 years ago, driving it four years ago in the Mille Miglia Tribute, that runs modern Ferrari and Mercedes-Benzes on the same 1,000 mile route around Italy before the classic cars. I’ve always wanted to drive it in a classic, eligible cars having to have been built/competed in the race in the 24 times it ran from 1927 to 1957 before it was stopped due to safety fears.
Rightfully, perhaps, with as many as 5 million spectators lining the roads back then, the cars driving past at big speeds deaths weren’t uncommon. Stirling Moss famously won the 1955 race, his Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, with journalist Denis Jenkinson covering the 1,000 mile route in a scarcely believable 10 hours 7 minutes and 48 seconds. That equates to an unbelievable average speed of 98mph. Just think about that for a while. Helping make that possible was Jenkinson’s pace notes, the journalist giving Stirling the upper hand by having route details hand-written on 15ft long roll of paper attached to the dash of the Fifties Mercedes-Benz.
One of the unsung heroes of Stirling’s incredible result is John Fitch, an American racer, who was originally to partner with Jenkinson. In preparation Fitch had made reconnaissance runs of the 1,000 mile course to create the pace notes. Jenkinson switched to Moss’s car and Fitch said to use the notes for the British driver. The American would run the same race, with countryman Kurt Gessell taking the passenger seat, the pair finishing fifth overall in a stock production 300 SL. The first standard production car over the line, trailing Moss’s works race car by just 1 hour 22 minutes, his achievement is arguably as impressive, if not even more so than Moss’s celebrated record.
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I met Fitch once, a few years before he died, frail with age his eyes still sparkled the energy of a younger man as he regaled tales of driving classic road races like the Mille Miglia and Carrera Panamericana. His life before and after racing was equally as interesting, flying Mustangs in World War II, designing cars, and, after witnessing the Le Mans disaster of 1955, inventing the Fitch Barrier safety system that is still used all over the US Highway network to this day.
It’s a replica of Fitch’s car I’m driving, the 300 SL being dark grey and wearing his original 417 start number in large white lettering on its flanks, bonnet and bootlid. Even with a book of notes describing the route, there’s no way I’ll get close to matching Fitch’s time around Italy, not that I’d want to. The 300 SL is quick, though it’s very much a car of its era. There are drum brakes, which approximate stopping in comparison to modern brakes, their lack of bite in contrast to the straight-six’s impressive performance. It’s pushing out between 215-240hp, which sounds like nothing in a world accustomed to double and even triple that from sports and super cars, but the 300SL was very much a supercar of its day.
Along with the poor braking performance there are no seatbelts, that concentrating the mind when running alongside the modern traffic. The Italian Police help here, the Mille’s classics occasionally picking up determined Polizia motorbike riders wearing Mille stickers that are complicit in moving the fast-moving Mille through the pinch points on the route.
Those riders stop and split traffic, close junctions, ignoring traffic lights to keep the classics moving, driving behind them a unique thrill the usual dread of seeing a blue flashing light replaced by pleasure in the easing of your progress through congested towns. The streets here and on the remote country roads are lined with spectators, the Mille’s route taking in countless stops as it meanders around its 1,000 miles, the timed points, as well as average speed challenges on closed roads are all part of the ‘regularity trial’ it’s officially banded as, these deliberately punctuating the route in a somewhat fruitless bid to keep things sensible.
Brecsia is always the start and finish, with the route varying slightly each year. The key cities stay the same, the destination on day 1 being Milan, day two being Rome, Bologna next before completing the loop to Brescia. It takes in beautiful towns like Siena, Assisi ad more between the overnights, this very much the best Italy has to offer in some of the world’s most beautiful cars.
Old cars though, and the distances call for long days on the road, 10, 11 hour days normal, it as exhausting as it is exhilarating, the Mille unlike anything else I’ve ever driven.
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The 300 SL is perfectly suited for it, quick, capable, it must have felt like a spaceship when it arrived in the Fifties. There’s plenty of grip, though the swing axle at the rear on less than perfectly-smooth Italian country roads needs some skill. The rear bounces around and needs constant corrections at the large steering wheel ahead of me. It’s a beautiful thing the 300 SL, not just to look at with its gullwing doors and wind-cheating shape, but the detailing, the interior is exquisite, the instruments and controls all jewel-like in their looks, and having that Germanic over-engineered feel in their operation.
The four-speed manual transmission is a joy, the need to drive it properly, rev matching by heel-and-toe downshifting, using the engine braking as much as possible to conserve those already inadequate brakes, it’s demanding, engaging and exciting. The engine feels strong, its performance building, it revving with enthusiasm, feeling quick by modern standards, so back when it was new it must have truly shocked.
Over 1,000 miles it never misses a beat, taking us back to a simpler time, where driving was demanding, challenging, but incredibly satisfying. And dangerous. The Mille is unique, seeing so many stunning, often irreplaceable and outrageously expensive classic cars being used as they should, and would have been back in the day, is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced, though on returning to Brescia I’m both glad I’ve done it, and glad it’s done. If you have a qualifying car it’s a must-drive event, if you don’t it’s worth visiting for the spectacle alone.