Mille Miglia 2017 – a 90 year young classic car event
The Mille Miglia has always been one the most magical events in the car world, and this year’s edition had an extra special ingredient, as it is 90 years since the very first Mille Miglia race. Indeed, from 1927 to 1957 the Mille Miglia was a race proper, thereafter being turned into a celebratory event. Because of this important anniversary, or perhaps simply because the event is now in the hands of a new team of organizers, the Mille Miglia 2017 saw more pre-war cars taking part than in recent years, and there can be no denying that this made the event, already special, even more appealing. Apart from some brief, cold showers adding a touch of pathos, the weather was mostly kind, and for an event like this, where you spend something like 16–18 hours a day in the car, this really counts! The route through the Abetone Pass brought the greatest extremes, as it saw the teams leaving behind warm and sunny conditions in Montecatini and Pistoia, where it was 26 degrees, and exchanging them for rain and hail in the mountains, where the temperature plummeted to 5 degrees. When the sun came out again on the approach to Modena, more than one team took a break to give the drivers, whose hands were almost too cold to handle the steering wheel, a chance to warm up!
Mille Miglia 2017 – the route
This year the route of the Mille Miglia took the drivers further north east than usual, which can be seen as a positive development, as it led to the discovery of some new places. Verona, of course, was beautiful to look at but a nightmare to drive through. The addition of some extra traffic police, just a dozen or so, appropriately positioned, would have been enough to make everything easier, both for the entrants and the cars. Then, as always, on reaching San Marino, the steep hill climb to enter the old city, coming after numerous hours of driving, created some issues with clutches and engines overheating. Here, the marshals were wonderful, trying to keep the road as clear as possible for the entrants. Despite their best efforts, however, this single-lane road remained rather congested. The drive across Rome was chaotic; this was due not so much to organizational shortcomings, as to the effects of an unforeseen hailstorm, which coincided with the rush hour. Viterbo was fantastic, one of the most beautiful parts of the whole MM, and the stretch from Viterbo to Siena was, as always, simply unforgettable.
The warmest welcome was provided by Radicofani, where the steps of the church provide a perfect “grandstand” for onlookers. This was certainly a surprise for Mille Miglia newcomers, a number of whom stopped (usually staying in the car, or just getting out briefly) to take photos in order to preserve the amazing moment. Personally, I am a real fan of the Futa and Raticosa pass, and to my mind, a Mille Miglia that does not go through it is not complete. The Abetone pass is cute, but it presents some steep climbs that penalize the smallest and oldest cars. What is more, the road is so narrow that there is very little room, preventing both drivers and spectators from really enjoying the experience. For this reason, it is way down on my list of favorite mountain passes! The fourth and final day (the addition of a fourth day is a recent development) was an opportunity to drive through some beautiful town centers and enjoy the adulation of the waving crowds, but from a driving point of view, it had little to offer.
Punzonatura or Sealing?
The Mille Miglia is an Italian event, and this is probably one of the main reasons for its popularity. Indeed, no one has ever tried to translate its name. After all, the “One Thousand Miles” simply doesn’t have the same ring! The “punzonatura” ritual is one of the event’s most iconic traditions. As the cars pass through Piazza della Vittoria in Brescia they are given a lead seal, which is usually attached to the steering column. Originally this was done as a means of guaranteeing that the cars returning at the end of the race were the very same ones that had set out from Brescia. Today, the ritual has purely symbolic value. Indeed, the seal is evidence that a car has participated in this prestigious event, and therefore becomes a sort of status symbol. In short, the “punzonatura” procedure continues to be a magical moment. Why the organizers this year decided to rename it “sealing” was a mystery to many, and to see the tent set aside for this purpose named this way was rather odd to say the least. It left a number of teams, including English-speaking ones, wondering if they were driving to the right place. Let’s hope the original term “punzonatura” is soon restored!
Some friends at the Punzonatura of Mille Miglia 2017
The “punzonatura” procedure is important for another reason too. We have already explained its origins, but there is also another, and for us equally important, reason for going along to watch it. The Mille Miglia attracts over 450 cars, which adds up to convoy that can take as long as 4–5 hours to pass any given vantage point, making it almost impossible to see it all. But since all the cars have to converge on Piazza della Vittoria to collect their lead seal, all you need to do is take a seat and take in the 30 years of automotive history gathered there. What is more, being a relaxed moment, the drivers and co-drivers are more willing to spend a few minutes chatting to onlookers, and it is also a great opportunity to bump into old friends.
We spotted Ellen Lohr, one of our team mates from last year, when we were part of the Mercedes-Benz Classic team. This year, Ellen was driving another 300 SL; this time it was red, whereas last year she was in a black one. I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of envy as she and her team mate prepared to take part in another MM. We also met the Louwman family, who were there with two amazing pre-war cars: “Dad” Evert was as delighted as ever to be setting out on Mille Miglia 2017 (this was his 24th time), once again accompanied by his “daughter” Quirina in one their favorite cars, a 1929 Mercedes-Benz 710 SSK, probably the most original SSK in existence, while “mom” Josine and her long-time partner in crime Marielle Vehmeyer were driving a 1931 6C 1750 Grand Sport.
English collector Clive Beecham brought along his 1956 Jaguar D-Type (the only D-Type participating in the Mille Miglia 2017) and met old friend Brenda Vernor. Miss Vernor, known simply as Brenda to the classic car community, was an English girl living as an “exchange student” in Modena in the early 1960s when became Mike Parkes’ girlfriend. Soon afterwards, she started translating Ferrari’s official papers into English. She was later appointed Enzo Ferrari’s personal assistant and became a key figure in the company, taking care of many of the administrative needs of the works drivers. She is, to many racers, the sweetest memory of their time at Maranello, always able to provide help when required and to help them in their (sometimes tricky) relations with Enzo Ferrari. Jodie Kidd, for the first time competing in a BMW after some editions with Jaguar, added some glamour: “After the Jaguar XK, the BMW 328 is giving me the chance to try a Mille Miglia in a pre-war car,” she commented, “and to appreciate the big differences brought about by 30 years of automotive evolution. The 328 is definitely lighter (she was driving a Touring bodied open version), and definitely moves more than the XK. As long as it doesn’t rain too much, it’ll definitely be fun…”.
One collector, two cars
The Mille Miglia is mainly an event for “thoroughbreds”, but there are also numerous entrants driving “regular steeds”, in some cases sporty models, and in others very normal cars. That said, the entrants in the 2017 edition included a rare 1952 Panhard & Levassor Dyna X86 (2 cylinders, 745 cc, 35 Hp) and a 1953 Simca Aronde (4 cylinders, 1-2 liters, 45 Hp), which can hardly be described as everyday racing cars. “They are part of my collection of French cars,” says Robert Reeven from the Netherlands. “I tried to register them for the MM hoping to be accepted. Indeed, to increase my chances of taking part, I registered them both, and to my great surprise they were both accepted. Rather than choosing which one to use, I recruited the help of a very good friend, and so we will be entering with two cars.” As the saying goes…what are friends for?
Today, the Mille Miglia is no longer a competitive race, but a great excuse to drive classic cars on wonderful roads through some of the world’s most beautiful settings. However, things can go wrong, and it is indeed part and parcel of this event to see cars parked by the side of the road waiting for assistance. The youngest cars eligible are today 60 years old, and most of the entrants are a good 10–20 years older than that. Hiccups are therefore absolutely to be expected, however well you prepare. Luckily most of the problems are easily fixable, and when they are not, the mechanics following the race are often able to perform miracles, with the result that most of the cars taking part make it back to the finishing line in Brescia. We spotted a 1947 Fiat 508 C Berlinetta Ala Oro at the side of the road just after Verona, not that far from the start: “The brand new, just replaced rubber equilibrator of the transmission cardan has gone!” explained owner and driver Paul Ockers from the Netherlands, taking part in his first Mille Miglia. “Luckily we kept the old one as a spare, and we are re-installing it. Fifteen minutes and we’ll be back on the road.” This same car took part in the 1947 Mille Miglia where it DNF, and so we were happy when we saw Ockers and his team mate back in the car, driving and enjoying their adventure. The 1955 Fiat 8V Zagato driven by Belgian Marc Behaegel and American Lorry Rosenblum, on the other hand, was more complex to fix. The car, a Mille Miglia veteran, having been an entrant in 1955 (12th in class) and 1956 (13th in class), suffered a broken gearbox on day 2. What might have been a definitive breakdown became a race against time: the team of mechanics managed to replace the complete gearbox, and, even at the cost of skipping some special stages and sections of the route in order to rejoin the convoy, the car was able to finish the event.
Quality of spare parts
The story of the breakdown of the Ala Oro is a familiar one. Indeed, more and more, I hear of collectors suffering breakdowns due to new spare parts failing to last even a fraction of the time the original one was installed. Interestingly, the reason is never because they have chosen the “wrong” supplier, in the hope of saving money; rather, the problem seems to be due to the fact that the average quality of parts is declining rapidly, sometimes falling short of what might be considered acceptable. This is an important issue that needs to be addressed, given the implications for the safety of the car, and also the fact that it in some cases a supplier can be the only available source of an item, making it impossible to “shop around”. Some collectors are lucky, because manufacturers re-produce spare parts and, in branding them, ensure that they are subject to the same quality controls as modern components; other collectors, however, do not enjoy this kind of support. All in all, this is an interesting topic, and I think we should all start a debate on it.
The value of a spare tank of fuel
We spotted them just before the Gola del Furlo. In fact, it was impossible not to spot the 1936 Aston Martin 2 Liter Speed Model “parked” on the side of a dual carriageway exit – hardly the best place to be! This is how we met David Freman and Russel Busst, English professional racers “on loan” to the classic world for their very first MM: by almost running over them! We quickly discovered the reason for their stop: old Aston Martins tend to need fuel in the tank to proceed, and they had simply run out of it. Unfortunately our modern press car was a Diesel and so the spare can of fuel I always keep in the trunk wouldn’t have been much help, while the extra can for gas, which I always tend to take to classic car events just in case – trust me, I know what can happen! – was already empty. It took us less than 5 seconds to decide to abandon our target of reaching the Gola del Furlo in time to shoot some pictures. Instead, we drove to the nearest fuel station to fill up the can. In our haste, like absolute novices, we forgot to memorize, on our sat nav or phones, the exact location of the Aston. But, although it took rather longer than it might have done, we managed to find the Aston and send it on its way again. We missed the Furlo pass, but the upside is we have two new friends and a cold beer waiting for us in London!
The Pied Piper
We met Roderick and Elisabeth Jack in completely different circumstances. We were following the convoy of classics when they overtook us, leaving us absolutely captivated by the amazing sound coming from the exhaust of their 1933 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Monza. The loud, powerful voice of their car had a magical effect on us, and we simply decided to follow them for a while keeping the windows down. It might sound silly, but it was absolutely exhilarating, and we both agreed that the innocent, childish pleasures of this kind that the “race” allows you to indulge in are perhaps the real secret of the Mille Miglia’s success. When, after some time, the Jacks had to stop for a refill, we stopped too, just to say thank you for the “music”. We then discovered that this was their first Mille Miglia. As Elisabeth put it, “it is like being in a dream, made up of classic cars, fantastic scenery and amazing people, a multitude cheering us on and waving to us. We even spotted a nun joining in.” We told them we looked forward to seeing them other time, and we couldn’t help noticing how their smiles broadened.
#CatchMassimo catches on
Last year, when Mercedes-Benz Classic kindly gave us a car to drive in the MM, we invented a hashtag, #Catch Massimo, and invited spectators along the route to send us pictures of our car. We figured this would be the best, and perhaps only, way of documenting our adventure in pictures. The idea worked: far more pictures than we had anticipated were sent to the dedicated site. To promote our initiative, we printed a good number of postcards (100% biodegradable) and threw them out of the car as soon as we spotted a photographer. This year, it was gratifying to see that at least three entrants copied our idea. Here are the ones we managed to “catch” and, naturally, we have already forwarded the pictures to them.
All photos © and courtesy of the author Massiomo Delbo.