Fiat Topolinos And Cal Spyders Cruise The Golden State’s Sweetest Roads On The California Mille
While my childhood friends revered the Super Bowl, I grew up worshiping another yearly competition of the greats which also happened to be two words: Mille Miglia. Now, I’ve spent my entire life as a California kid living everywhere from San Francisco to San Diego and in between, so when I was invited to participate in the California Mille by our friends at Chopard it was quite literally the best of both worlds.
Kicking off the festivities at the Fairmont in San Francisco not only had me feeling all sorts of nostalgia for my hometown, but also one of my favorite movies growing up – The Rock. While I didn’t get to fling a Ferrari 355 Spider through a window while chasing Sean Connery in a Humvee, I did get to photograph our entry with Chopard for the rally across the Golden Gate Bridge (which frankly, caused some traffic but was totally worth it) – this 1957 Porsche 356 Spyder immaculately restored by the gurus at Road Scholars.
As we cruised up the 101, I spotted what would become my absolute favorite car participating, the 1959 Fiat Topolino, being swallowed whole in Friday morning traffic thinking to myself, “they’ve got b****.” More on why in a bit. As we ventured further and further inland we began stumbling on a stellar mix of roads from tight switchbacks, to sweeping corners, and mountain passes straight out of European hillclimbs.
To commemorate the 29th running of the event, Chopard debuted a bespoke California Mille edition from their Classic Racing Series with only 29 units produced which were swiftly lusted after by rally participants (and me too).
In this episode of the California Mille, you’d see clumps of cars that included the likes of eight Mercedes 300SLs (in all specs and flavors), 2 California Spiders (one of which was an alloy body), and the aforementioned fan-favorite – Fiat Topolino. I had to chat with its courageous driver, Jim Juranitch, to learn more.
“12.6 screaming, Italian, angry horsepower. There’s a lot of beautiful cars, with a lot of horsepower and performance. In my mind, a good a driver drives to the engineering limits, whatever it is, so if you’re not on the edge you’re taking up too much room. Real men need Topolinos.” Just epic stuff.
Jim continues, “We had to a push like hell to get to stages on time, we sucked on uphills, okay on straights, but we were hell on wheels on downhills. We came into one turn pretty hot, and then I realize its a decreasing radius, so now I’m like ‘holy s***’, should I go in the other lane? should I just hang on?’ and all of sudden it drifts. It 4-wheel drifts. My wife – the Queen of the Topolino – and I look at each other, and say ‘did we just drift a Topolino?’. I mean that car’s got heart. Everybody needs to have one, everybody needs to race one.”
What a legend.
As most of us can attest, driving savory roads in great weather is obviously an incredible experience, but what shines about more intimate events like California Mille is getting to meet and bond with other enthusiasts. Cliche, I know, but even in a field of over 60 cars, you start recognizing people and a sense of comradery in the group quickly emerges. Participants became fast friends, and I was generously offered rides in some pretty epic machines.
Familiar faces included previous Petrolicious feature, Robin Grove, in her stunning 1962 AC Bristol alongside former Shelby factory driver Allen Grant (who has raced at places like the 12 Hour of Sebring among others).
My first stint was riding shotgun in the automotive equivalent of an actual shotgun, this Kurtis 500S Roadster. A car that could hold weight with C-Type Jags and period Ferraris, the Kuris is loaded with a small-block Chevy motor and NASCAR Jericho four-speed making it by far, the bad boy of the California Mille. Also featuring wicked sidepipe exhausts, it really is a Cobra killer (and also an ankle burner if you’re not careful). Any car you can poke your head out of and gaze at the suspension doing its thing is always a treat.
Ears ringing and adrenaline pumping, I migrated from the Kurtis to a much more refined open-top experience – a once barn-find ’53 Aston Martin DB2 first owned by Laurence John Cadbury of Cadbury chocolate fame. Found in Hawaii by its current owner, Jeffrey Long, the car has been mechanically overhauled but cosmetically preserved in the shape he found it. An absolute time machine.
Last, but in no way least was the car I’d been ogling since I arrived as my bias for Alfa Romeos was in full effect. Zagato-body 1954 Alfa Romeo 1900 SS. The 1900 platform has rich rallying pedigree, and the Zagato versions were lightweight due to measures like the alloy body and plexiglass windows. In true Zagato fashion, this did not compromise aesthetics as the details on this car, both inside and out, are absolutely breathtaking. It’s truly one of those cars you can eternally come back to and admire a new detail or a new interpretation of its shape in various light. I have to apologize once again to its owner Jeff Pope for the mass amount of drool I may or may not of have emitted all over the car (joking). Bliss.
Above all, the California Mille was a lucky and humbling reminder of how incredible this state is and I left with a desire to dive deeper in the backroads and find new adventures. Having also participated in the Italian Mille Miglia, I can say its interpretation by the Swig family has a beautiful contrast to its inspiration, find a balance of intimacy and laid back attitude which is quintessentially California.