Once a year, the Mille Miglia Storica stirs the beautiful Tuscan countryside in Italy. It’s an experience not to be missed.
The scene: a normally quiet T-junction on the old Sienna-Florence road that is about to become a whole lot busier.
Away in the distance the hee-haw of klaxon can be heard. Decibel by decibel, the blare rises until into sight swoops a posse of Polizia motorcycles and cars.
Following closely is the first of nearly 400 historic sports racing cars, representing a total worth well in excess of $200 million.
The classy convoy’s arrival stirs a traffic cop into action. He steps out, halting other traffic leading to the T-junction.
In Italy, at Mille Miglia Storica time, race cars have right of way.
Mille Miglia. The very mention of the name should send the benzina in any true-blooded enthusiast’s veins surging, for in its hey-day this 1000-mile (1600km) road race through the heartland of Italy was the stuff of legend.
It began in 1927, a saga covering 13 pre-war editions and 11 from 1947 to ’57, highlighted in 1955 by one of the all-time classic drives by the inimitable Stirling Moss, teamed with journalist Denis Jenkinson in a Mercedes 300 SLR.
They won in record time, comprehensively beating the great Juan Manuel Fangio driving solo in another SLR.
The intrepid pair in their famous #722 completed the course in 10 hrs 7 min 48 secs to average a tad under 100 mph (159.65 km/h, in fact), which would go down in history as the fastest ever on this 1597km variant of the course.
However, the end of the Mille Miglia was only a question of time away, for racing became increasingly riskier as the cars evolved more powerfully and faster year by year.
The tragedy of 1938, when 10 people died in a crash near Bologna, repeated in 1957.
This time an accident at Guidizzolo claimed the lives of driver Alfonso de Portago, his co-driver/navigator and nine spectators.
The crash was said to have been caused by a blown tyre. The manufacturer was blamed and sued, as was the Ferrari team.
The Italian Government banned road racing as a result of the deaths.
Some, however, were not ready to let the ”most beautiful race in the world” slip into obscurity.
In 1958, a substitute was formulated, a regularity race similar to a modern rally; however, this flopped.
In 1967, another event – the Dieci Miglia – commemorating the 10th anniversary of the last race, also proved unremarkable.
Yet again, those true believers never gave up and, in 1977, on the 50th anniversary, a keen group of Brescians were entrusted with the commemoration.
A fitting bestowal; after all, Brescia was the start and finish of the Miglia Mille.
By 1982, the Mille Miglia Storica entry listed topped 150 vehicles of the era 1927-57, many driven by past and present luminaries.
At first the retro Mille Miglia ran bi-annually, but such was its popularity – 15 million watched the 1984 event pass by – that in 1986 more than 500 entries were received, prompting change to an annual running.
These days, the Mille Miglia Storica continues not as a race, but as a regularity event involving ability trials, time controls and fixed-time stamp controls, with the average speed and time calculated to make break-neck speed unnecessary.
Indeed, competitors must observe the road code and event officials and traffic police are instructed to halt and fine offenders. A second offence brings disqualification.
Interestingly, the regularity nature of the modern Mille Miglia has allowed the less powerful cars to come into their own.
For example, winners have included a Stanguellini 1100 S, Fiat 1100 S MM, Renault 750 Sport, Lancia Aurelia B20 and Abarth 750 Zagato. The mouse gets to roar…
But back to that Toscana taverna and the 2006 Mille Miglia Historica, where diners seated under the vine-covered pergola raise their glasses of chianti in tipsy salute to the passing cars.
Goggled competitors wave back warmly, just as they might have back in the halcyon days should they have found time to take one hand off the wheel — a la Moss.
A 4.5 Le Mans Bentley rumbles through, followed by an Alfa Romeo 6C 1750. Then comes a flash of French blue – a Bugatti T35A – and a host of Mercedes-Benz 720 SSKs.
British Racing Green in the form of an SS100 Jaguar turns heads, as the Leaping Cat is wont to do, ditto an Aston Martin Le Mans, while a BMW 328MM coupe catches the eye with its svelte outline.
Speed is not of the essence to all – a pair driving a 1935 Alvis 4.3 Special pauses for a casual chat with a bystander.
Later, a newly-hitched couple also pulls over in their 1955 Lancia Aurelia B20, ‘Just married’ written on the rear window and bridal bouquet still mounted on the bonnet.
Said stop must have been anticipated, for one of the characters from the taverna carries a tray with bottle of chilled sparkly and two glasses across the road to them – a pit stop with a difference.
His wobbly jay-walking brings a glare from the traffic cop.
The mighty motorcade of memorabilia continues.
Various models of Ferrari, Maserati, Aston-Martin and Porsche are easy to spot.
Bearing the Prancing Horse crest are Types 212, 225, 250GT and 500 Mondial; those with the Trident badge include 150S and 450S.
Among the Alfas are numerous 1900 Supers and 8Cs; Porsches on parade include 550 and 356 examples.
The sight of numerically rarer Cisitalia, Healey Silverstone, Nardi Danese and Siata Motto Daina Sport is an additional treat.
This, of course, is what the Mille Miglia Storica is all about, at least for the spectator – a chance to observe and hear some of the most delectable machines imaginable on the road instead of static in a museum.
When’s the last time you saw a 1954 Autobleu 750 MM, 49 Veritas RS2000 or 55 Ermini 357 Sport? Or a 36 Auto Union Wanderer, 48 Gilco 1100 Sport or maybe a 38 Deutsch Bonnet? But there they were.
Then you have cars that briefly graced our race tracks, but no longer call Australia home: Aston-Martin DB3S, Jaguar C and D Type, Lotus XI, Bugatti T35 and 37, the list goes on. . .
Any year is a vintage year to watch the Mille Miglia Storica.
The beauty of spectating at this event is you need no costly, pre-booked ticket to a grandstand.
Roadside viewing is instead de rigueur, just as back in the days when Moss’ SLR was but a silver bullet barreling past.
For a comprehensive close up look at the cars, the start and finish in Brescia is the obvious place, along with the overnight stop in Rome.
Or the major centres through which they pass: Ferrara, Sienna, Florence, Modena, Bologna. . .
Then there’s the legendary mountain passes on the return leg, Ratticosa and Futa, where the motorcade snakes its way along some of Italy’s best driving roads.
Or, you could make like the locals and find a little taverna by the roadside in the middle of somewhere/nowhere.
There’s one at Monteriggioni, between Florence and Siena, where you can watch the bright, red cars under deep, blue Tuscan skies pass within touching distance, that I can recommend.
You could say I’m on first names with the waiter there.