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Mille Miglia – the romantic soul of Italian motoring

© Peter Atkinson
June, 2011

The Mille Miglia car race is a part of the romance of motoring history not only in Italy where the race took place but everywhere in the world where there are people who think that cars can be more interesting than mere transportation. It encapsulates the passions of an era when cars were allowed to be exciting and racing on ordinary roads was free to stir the spirit.

The Mille Miglia was conceived as an open road race, that is, it was held on ordinary roads through the villages and countryside of Italy. The spectators felt that they were an integral and important part of the event as they watched beautiful machines going at the fastest possible speeds through their own villages, past their own front doors and down their familiar lanes. The Mille Miglia brought together the Italian people, the Italian scenery and the legendary cars that took part into one memorable event.

The first Italian Grand prix race was held near the city of Brescia, in northern Italy, in 1922 but the Royal Automobile Club of Italy decided to move it to a circuit near Milan. This decision enraged the motor racing enthusiasts of Brescia who retaliated by thinking up an alternative event that would be at least as noteworthy. They wanted an event that would support the Italian motor industry by taking the cars to the people by running the race on ordinary roads and by demonstrating the durability and reliability of the products through holding a long-distance race that would be a test of endurance as well as speed.

There were a number of people who were involved but the main movers and shakers were “the four musketeers” Franco Mazotti, Count Aymo Maggi di Gradella, Renzo Castagneto and Giovani Canestrini. The race was to cover a large area of Italy and would follow a route that went from Brescia to Milan and back to Brescia by a different way, a distance of about 1600 kilometres. When they came to choose the name, one of them pointed out that the distance was approximately 1,000 miles and though Italians customarily used the kilometre as their unit of measurement the Romans used the mile. They felt that by naming the race the “Mille Miglia” they would be invoking the ancient traditions of Rome which was a popular sentiment among the people involved many of whom who were supporters of Mussolini’s Fascist party which often referred to the glories of Italy in the Roman period.

Fortunately, among the first organisers there was a lot of expertise and useful experience so the first Mille Miglia event, which took place in 1927, was a great success and attracted a lot of attention. There were only three entries from outside Italy but the event succeeded in its aim of publicising Italian car manufacturers. The race was so successful that Mussolini himself ordered that it should take place annually.

From 1928 to 1938 the race was held very year and it was one of the spectacular world annual motor racing events, which like the Le Mans 24hours, the Targa Florio and the Carrera Panamericana, helped established the great names of the grand touring car manufacturers like Ferrari, Maserati, Alfa Romeo, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Jaguar and Aston Martin in the public mind. These pre-war years were beset by difficulties though. The world economic crash of 1929 affected many of the participating teams and sanctions imposed on Italy after Mussolini’s decision to occupy Ethiopia in 1936 led to a severe shortage of petrol and tyres. However, the Mille Miglia grew as a motoring legend with such stories attached to it as the story of Tazio Nuvolari’s win in 1930. Nuvolari was driving at night behind the leader and kept his lights turned off for a long distance so that his opponent, Varzi, would not see him coming. He only turned them on again once he had overtaken Varzi and went on to win.

The race being an open road race where the racing cars mixed with the everyday traffic always had always been a safety concern from its very first days. In the 1938 race tragedy struck. A car left the road in Bologna killing ten spectators, seven of whom were children. Mussolini intervened immediately banning the race from ever taking place again.

However, the spirit of the Mille Miglia was too powerful and Mussolini revived it once again in 1940 after the outbreak of World War Two as a propaganda tool in a hollow attempt to show the world that despite the war, life continued as usual in Italy. The race was not held on open roads but a circuit of public roads which had been closed for the occasion and the competitors completed nine circuits of the course. Most of the cars were entered by Italian teams but a few French and German participants were there. The Italians found themselves completely outclassed by the BMW entries from Germany. A BMW won the race and its team mate came third. It was alleged that the second BMW had slowed down on orders from Berlin so that the Italians would not be completely humiliated by their war allies.

After the end of the war, the new democratic government was eager to show that they could run things at least as well as the Fascists and revived the Mille Miglia once again in 1947 thus allowing the event to outgrow the political taint of its origins. It was a problematic undertaking at first because Italian roads and bridges were in a very poor state as a result of the war and there were even bandits at large in the mountains who would attack road traffic. Despite these early difficulties, the race quickly became popular once again attracting international entries.

In 1949 a novel way of numbering the cars in the race was introduced. The smaller engined, slower cars began first leaving Brescia at one minute intervals from nine in the evening. Cars would be leaving all through the night until the most powerful ones would be leaving the following morning. The car’s number was the time it left Brescia so, for example, a car leaving at 7:22 am would have the number 722 and one leaving at 10:30 the previous evening would have the number 1030. This system made it easy for spectators to see how well the cars were doing in the race.

The Mille Miglia and other racing events helped to stimulate a new confidence in the Italian motor industry after the war. Not only were the mainstream manufacturers there with a strong presence but there were also a host of tiny sports car manufacturers often affectionately known as the ‘etceterinis’ These small manufacturers built small sports cars mostly from Fiat components and managed to make them exciting machines which had their following not only in Italy but also in the United States. Among the more substantial of these marques were OM who went back to the early days of the Mille Miglia and Cisitalia whose 202 model styled by the great Milanese car designer, Pnin Farina, was hailed as the very cutting edge of car design when it appeared in 1947 and was exhibited at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Other smaller firms such as OSCA and Stanguellini were also staffed by real enthusiasts who made wonderful little machines. Abarth began as one of the etceterini companies before it was swallowed by Fiat and turned into their in-house high performance department.

The Mille Miglia was always an open road race with the participants undertaking not to break any of the Italian rules of the public road though it was always hard to see how they could take part in a race without doing so. It was not until 1953 that the whole of the route was closed to public traffic while the race was taking place. Memories of the dreadful crash of 1938 were swept under the carpet but tragedy struck again in 1957. A Ferrari driven by the Spanish driver Alfonso de Portago left the road in the village of Guidizzola near Mantua killing the driver, co-driver and nine spectators including five children. This time common sense intervened and the government banned all racing on public roads.

Though the glory days were over the Mille Miglia would not go away. In the years 1958, 1959 and 1961 the organisers ran a Mille Miglia Rally as a kind of endurance test with cars keeping to the speed limits and other rules of the road in between trial stages. The public did not respond to this way of doing things which was seen as rather unexciting and they lost interest.

Still the Mille Miglia was a strong memory in Italian culture and it was revived once again in 1977 as a classic car rally limited to cars made in the period when it was a full-blown race, that is, between 1927 and 1957. This even has many participants from all over the world and the cavalcade of hundreds of impressive classic cars is, in it s own way, as stirring a sight as was the original race. It is now, perhaps, more about entertainment and tourism than it is about motor racing but it shows that the motor car can still be a thing of beauty and capture the imagination just as it did in earlier times.