Race Through Time & Against the Clock on the Mille Miglia

Among the most romantic events in all of historic motorsports is the old Mille Miglia. Comprised of a gnarled and twisting route through central and northern Italy’s verdant hills, arid plains, mountain switchbacks, seaside cliffs, and ancient, twisty cobblestone streets squeezed tight between the crumbling old homes and shops of myriad sleepy, sun-bleached villages, the Mille is chock full of breathtaking sites and fascinating history.

Originally run 24 times between 1927 and 1957, with a long break forced by the ugliness of continental war, the race was conceived by two young Brescian contes as a response to their hometown losing the Italian GP to Monza. Running from Brescia to Rome and back, across 1,500 km (or 1,000 Roman miles), it’s this massive distance for which the event is named, "Mille Miglia" meaning literally "one thousand miles". Later races would follow various routes of differing lengths, but with the same Roman and Brescian milestones.

The inaugural Mille Miglia left Brescia on March 26th, 1927, with 77 starters, all of whom were Italian. Initially limited to unmodified production vehicles, of which 51 ultimately finished, it was won by Giuseppe Morandi, who took just a hair over 21 hours from start to finish averaging a blistering (for the day) 48 MPH in a two-liter OM. (Incidentally, OM was Brescia-based and swept the first MM’s top three places, a cause for much celebration in the region.)

Morandi’s OM was kept company by a steady slew of incredible race-winning cars—machines like Alfa 6 and 8Cs, a mammoth, supercharged Mercedes SSK, and for a six-year stretch beginning in 1948, Ferraris of varying displacement. Legendary drivers, in no particular order, included Moss, Fangio, Caracciola, Ascari, and Nuvolari, who won the 1930 MM within its very last few yards—he’d been trailing teammate Varzi in his Alfa 6C 1750 Zagato Spider, lights off in the early pre-dawn, thus remaining invisible in Varzi’s mirrors, when at the last moment upon the road’s opening into a straight, headed towards the finish line, Il Maestro deftly passed and sped onto the narrowest of victories.

For their 1955 win behind the cowl of the famous number 722 300 SLR, Moss and co-driver Jenkinson, or “Jenks”, were aided by an 18-foot-long scroll of pace notes coded through a system of 15 distinct hand signals that the two wrote during six (!) total reconnaissance laps. Moss and Jenks crossed the line a little of 10 hours after setting out, setting a scathing record of 98 MPH—recall the narrow, cobblestone streets mentioned in this story’s intro and imagine what that must’ve looked like behind a dainty, wood-rimmed steering wheel.

Two years later, a fatal crash involving Ferrari driver Alfonso de Portago, his co-driver Edmund Nelson, and nine unfortunate spectators, as well as another deadly crash that killed Triumph TR3 pilot Joseph Göttgens, resulted in the cancellation of all future MM runnings. In total, 56 people lost their lives to the Mille during its 24 times held as a competitive race. From 1958 the event was resurrected as a highly-controlled rally run mostly at legal speeds, but was quickly ended again in 1961.

The Mille Miglia Storica, as it’s known today, was born in 1977 as a timed rally event, ostensibly with a much greater eye towards safety—things still get quite competitive, however, and seeing as entrants are restricted to pre-1957 cars, skill, perseverance, mechanical sympathy, and extreme care are requirements needed in equal measure. Today the Storica represents by far the most prestigious vintage rally in the world, dripping as it is with glamour, history, danger, and speed—a dream goal for any serious Petrolista.