Chasing Mille Miglia Dreams In A 1955 Peugeot 203
Photography by Courtney Cutchen, photos without Petrolicious watermark provided by Beat Sutter
My story with the 1955 Peugeot 203 began before I was born; when my parents married in 1960, they drove to the church in their own 203, so I suppose you can call this destiny or DNA or what have you. However, I’d say that my quest for one of these French sedans began in earnest back in 1999.
At the time, I was studying marketing in Berne, Switzerland, and it was common for me and my friends to talk about our plans and futures and dreams after our schoolwork was finished for the day. But rather than miring ourselves thinking about the doldrums of fiscal responsibility and nuclear families, we often landed on the subject of car racing, and specifically, the Mille Miglia. Of course, we knew there was no way to reverse time to the event’s golden years of Alfas and Ferraris and Porsches careening through the narrow streets as they barely avoided the treachery that befell so many competitors in that dangerous test of endurance and courage, but the mythos of the past excited us about the prospect of entering into the modern day Mille. So we got to looking at eligible cars.
Scanning the list, a certain model jumped out from memory, the Peugeot 203C. The car my parents were married in was also allowed entry into one of the greatest historical races in the world! So, with the past influencing what I hoped to be my future, I set off a few years later in pursuit of a Peugeot and in a neat little bit of numerical harmony, I found a suitable 203 in 2003, in Switzerland. And by I, I should say that the car was purchased by myself and some friends. We effectively formed a collective ownership of our Peugeot that allows all of us to share in its charms around the world. The car travels, competes, and generally makes us all smile, but it was a long road to actually getting it approved for the race that inspired us to buy the car to begin with: the Mille Miglia.
In our efforts to understand the car’s history at the race, we set off collecting as much information as we could from archival sources and anecdotes passed down through the decades. Somewhere along the way, we discovered Roger de Lageneste, a well-regarded French racing driver who had raced a Peugeot 203 of his own at the Mille in ’56 and ’57. After reaching out to him through some friends, we were thrilled to learn that he was interested in meeting us too, so we took our car to his home for a reunion. It was fascinating to hear him recount his experiences in Brescia, but it nothing revealed his lasting, genuine enthusiasm like seeing him inspecting our 203 out in the driveway with the vigor of a much younger man. Indeed, the car is not a streamlined prototype or sports car, but it doesn’t try to be, nor should it; it has a compelling history of its own.
The 203 was the first car Peugeot produced after the Second World War. The American pre-war classics served as a design template, and the big-bodied cars from the States were clearly inspirations for the overall look of the car, but also present is the refining touches the French manufacturer made to form. It has no airs about it, and this simplicity and modesty is perhaps why people still today are drawn to it. It is of the era, but it is not a gangster getaway car loaded up with Tommy guns.
Once you get in and start driving it, the first thing that you’re likely to notice is how easy it is to control. Cars from the 1950s are rarely as forgiving and as intuitive feeling as the 203. Furthermore, and despite an incident at a Mille requiring a sock as an air filter, the thing is extremely reliable and easy enough to work on in the rare instances that it requires it. Driving this Peugeot is like being in a bubble, and for the few hours at a time that I drive it I am transported not to a different world, but just away from this one. There are no phones to check, no emails to catch up on, no pinging reminders or deadlines. This is probably the same feeling many have in their vintage car experiences, but it doesn’t make it untrue in my case just because it’s common. I truly do think of this car as existing separate from everyday life. The other thing my mind often wanders to when behind the wheel is trying to imagine how Roger de Lageneste managed to race such a car—with drum brakes no less—for 14 hours over the course of 1,000 miles. I know that it was likely a bit more intense than the drive my parents had in theirs on the way to get married!
Anyway, back to the Mille Miglia. Since 1999 and those initial dreams of entering, I have been at least a spectator of the race, but it took quite some time before the 203 was allowed in. In fact, after acquiring the car in 2003, it took ten years of applying before finally, in 2014, we received the answer we’d been chasing for so long: we were in! We’ve participated every year since then (lest they change their minds!), and each running has been memorable in its own right. We’ve done roadside repairs at night lying on cobblestones and we’ve met countless friends that’ve made it so enjoyable in addition to the goosebumps-giving atmosphere.
Last April, in 2016, I even joined the Club Mille Miglia Coppa Franco Mazzotti, which is a great honor for a foreigner. We had taken the car all around Germany, Austria, and Italy for events and shows before we were entrants in the Mille, and while all worthwhile and something we plan to continue, there is simply no topping the race that was the genesis for all of this to start with. My goal is to continue to enjoy and participate in the myth of the Mille Miglia every year. As a driver, staff member, or just a spectator. I’ve learned that being there, no matter the circumstance, will always leave you with lifelong memories.
And while the racing and the traveling and the history of motorsport is all well and good, I still remember the humble beginnings, like my parents as they drove up to the church to start their family. I also remember when I first showed my mother, Martha, our 203 shortly after we bought it; she could not understand why I’d want to buy old car, and one we’d already owned at that. But then, after she saw how owning the Peugeot produced so much happiness for our group of friends, she smiled too, and now she understands it completely. When I picked up my parents one Easter, on the way to lunch, her smile was all I needed to know we’ve come full circle.