Here’s What The Mille Miglia Is Like From The Driver’s Seat Of An Alfa Romeo 1900 Touring Superleggera
Photography Courtesy of Holly Martin
David Martin is a man who has made his mark on Los Angeles. There’s barely a building in the Downtown area that he, or his father and grandfather before him hasn’t had a hand in creating. He’s a distinguished designer, a remarkable driver, and someone who is truly, passionately involved in keeping the passion involved in classic motoring alive. This year he partnered with our friends at JD Classics to restore a remarkable 1900 Superleggera to Mille spec, and this is his story.
Ted Gushue: Tell me about the car that you drove in this year’s Mille Miglia.
David Martin: Well, it was an Alfa 1900 Touring Superleggera. It’s a 1953, and we can trace the history back to when it was bought by a fellow from Terni, an Italian city. The car moved to Rome, then Germany, then England, and I got it in England. The car raced the 2015 Mille Miglia; it was black, and when I bought it, I really wanted it to have more panache, so we said, “Let’s do an Alfa red, tan, kind of a classic leather interior and we’ll have it done properly by the guys at JD Classic”. I’d always wanted a 1900 Alfa.
TG: Why did you choose this particular one?
DM: Well, because I knew I could get an entry into the Mille Miglia.
TG: It had been raced last year but had it been raced in the original race?
DM: No, that type of car was raced in the original race, though. In period, [the 1900] was driven by Juan Manuel Fangio. The first of the series of the 1900 ones was given to Fangio, so it had been raced and had been winning in the 1900s from ’51 up to ’57.
DM: So, it’s a car that’s very familiar to that race when you look at the history.
TG: When you approached JD Classic, was it a car that they already owned that they could bring up to the spec that you wanted?
DM: No, they had it, they had it for sale. There was a fellow out of Chicago that raced it, I don’t know him, his name is Jeff Urban, financial guy, he raced it in 2015 and I guess decided not to take it to where he lived, so JD had it for sale.
TG: Is this something JD does, they basically tailor a whole experience around a car for you for a race?
DM: Absolutely, they’ll do it for Goodwood, do it for the Mille Miglia. They had nine cars this year, in fact, they starred in their 2016 video, with a beautiful shot of our car in there. They did do everything the way I wanted it, and I got a man named Peter Marshall involved who is a living expert on 1900s from ’53-’54, and Peter was great in helping me understand what might be original and might not be.
TG: There’s a guru for every niche.
DM: He is the guru. I actually, this is great, I kept emailing the guy saying, “What about this, what about the taillight,” that type of stuff, I’m sure he was irritated with me so finally I said, “I’m gonna be in London to look at the car, would you like to go out there with me?” And he said sure. At JD it was like bringing in a celebrity, because this guy is such a big deal when it comes to this era of Alfas.
TG: So they had the car there and you basically are able to say, “I want this grade of interior, this type of leather, I want you to do XYZ to the engine, I want this much horsepower…”?
DM: Well, you have to be careful, because it’s supposed to be original. I didn’t have them take the engine apart, they had the engine from 2015, but now I am having them take it apart before I bring it back to California. The engine, there were, let’s call them annoyances. That car, first of all, the handling was fantastic. You drove the BMW, so you know. There was something then called the “Magic Axle” that BMW had figured out that they ran in their cars all through the ’30s. Alfa Romeo brought that in in the 50s.
It’s basically a triangulated rear suspension bar, in fact, I’m putting it on my roadster it’s so good. Alfa had a superior rear suspension and the front suspension was state of the art for ’53. So, that car is amazing because the power was good, 120 horsepower, and really good suspension, so we would be out, the wonderful moments of the race is, you know, when you’re with only old cars, no Ferrari pit vehicles or anything in the way, and you’re flying along and we could be with anybody of our period, the Ferraris, the Fraser-Nashes, the Jaguars, the Cisitalias, one might be faster than the other but basically, all bad brakes, all skinny tires, not much power, and just having a ball, slip sliding along.
TG: I found that too, along the mountain roads, you’re riding alongside some Cisitalia roadster you’ve never heard of before, and the guys are wearing period correct uniforms and they have big smiles on their faces, it transports you back to that day.
DM: To me, that was the highlight in Tuscany. There were a few moments when those backroads between Sienna or Florence where we were alone with a string of five or six cars and man, going like crazy, that was so cool.
TG: What’d you think of all the time trials?
DM: Steph and I, my navigator, we had no way to envision what that was like so we were initiated by fire. I loved them after a while because…you mean the ones that were 1 kilometer long?
TG: Yeah, you had to do them in a certain time.
DM: Well, she got so that she could do a backwards countdown very accurately, so that when she said 5 4 3 2 1 0, if I could get those wheels on the line at 0 we would get a good time, so that became a good time and I had no idea what to expect. We went in with Apple iPhones and apps, rally navigator apps, egg timer backwards counting stopwatches and all this stuff…and after the first turn we got rid of all that stuff; we had the computers, two odometers, and an average speed thing and that’s all we used for the rest of the trip.
TG: You’re very well traveled, obviously. How many towns had you been to before we drove through them?
DM: I’m an architect, so I’ve been to a lot of the towns, but no, there were, I’d never been to San Marino, I’d only read about Ravenna and the Cathedral at Ravenna which I saw for 30 seconds.
TG: It must’ve been torture for an architect to drive through these architecturally fascinating towns at speed.
DM: Yeah, y’know, we’d be going along and she’d say turn left in 500 kilometers or whatever, and there’d be some town you just want to stop…and they were everywhere.
TG: San Marino is really special.
DM: Were you in the fog?
TG: Yeah. It was really great.
DM: It was cool, it was amazing.
TG: What number range were you guys in?
DM: We were 274, so ahead of us was an $8 million Ferrari which was just gorgeous, behind us was a Lancia, and we were clustered with some really special cars. there was another 1900 a few cars back, in front of me was a Fraser-Nash and then the big hot rod Lincoln and that was fu, ,because at every one of the spots you kind of met the same guys.
TG: You end up bonding with this of people around you. What other highlights do you remember from the trip?
DM: The other thing that cracked me up and I mentioned it to several people, you are encouraged to break every traffic law that you could imagine, so, speeding, running red lights, passing, driving on the sidewalk, racing a policeman.
TG: There’s this third lane of traffic that develops only for the Mille Miglia that is fascinating.
DM: And then there was the one that Steph and I called the Triple Bypass.
TG: Explain that.
DM: That’s when you’re passing the car in front of you but you’re passing them close to the sidewalk.
TG: Sure, yeah.
DM: Yeah, and I had heard about that, and it kind of scared the hell out of me until we all participated and the police were so supportive of our silly driving.
TG: You almost don’t really have a choice. If you are to the side you get kind of chewed out. But yeah, wasn’t the police participation fascinating?
DM: I thought those guys were phenomenal, they were all incredible bike riders.
TG: Very talented.
DM: Of course, the Italians, everywhere, encouraging you to go on but the other thing that we found out that was really fun that if you had to hesitate and ask them for directions, they loved it, because then they’re involved in the game.
TG: You say “Which way?” and they start screaming and pointing and smiling.
DM: They love to be involved, the fact that all the cars are thoroughbred is just really great. I said, it’s not really nostalgia because everyone’s trying to win but it’s cool.
TG: How would you compare it to other events you’ve participated in?
DM: All I could think of is my experience racing the Baja 1000, even though they’re two different classes of people. Lots of people, everyone in a hurry, it’s a big group, I don’t think it’s any comparison to a Villa D’Este or D’Este or Pebble, this is, in fact, I’d make the note that there’s no way to describe it, you need to do the journey to understand.
TG: I’d say it’s almost a really appropriate “screw you” to that straw hat crowd. That’s me personally, I feel like I might share that through experience, but it takes something that is so special, these cars are so very unique, the only two places you’ll see them is on the roads at Mille Miglia or on the grass at Pebble Beach or Villa d’Este. Priceless cars, cars that couldn’t be replaced. To see them being driven properly.
DM: Beat up.
TG: Just thrashed, crashed, scratched, dented, just driven like they were being driven by Fangio or Nuvolari back in the day, that’s what makes it so magical. These cars aren’t static, they weren’t built to be static, they were built to be seen in a blur going 100 miles per hour. That’s something I think a lot of the world misses that the event really captures.
DM: To me, it’s like you haven’t lived ’til you’ve done it if you’re a car nut. For us, it just went well, we had a big gang there.
TG: How’d you find the logistics of everything? Getting everyone around, explain how the JD setup works for mechanics.
DM: That was incredible. The two guys Josh and Lawrence who put the car together, it was their assignment to make the car what it is. They had a radio finder, GPS tracker. They had a tracker device in our car so the knew where we were at all times and they were following us, but we never saw them, which was fantastic. They weren’t trying to keep up with us and so on, so we’d see them once in a while, but when we did have one or two problems, one problem was we couldn’t turn the windshield wipers off, which could’ve ultimately defeated us, could’ve burnt things out.
TG: Couldn’t turn them off for the whole race?
DM: During the rain, there was no way to turn them off. We got a hold of them—they were there, fixed the problem. We didn’t have any serious problems. The other logistical thing that was good is that there were things that needed adjustment in the car, and they would do that at night. We’d give them the car, they had a camp with a pit stop and all that, it was a thrill to work with those guys.
One of the things that was really funny, quite often in conversations there’s a lot about apology, for example, some guy goes up to another guy and he says, “You know, you drove me off the road, I almost went into the lake yesterday but I think you’re a great guy” or one of the Italians came up to me, “I really got mad at you yesterday, we get emotional us Italians, please excuse me,” but then he said, “…your blunder cost me 300 points!” There’s a lot of sportsmanship, nobody goes away really pissed.
TG: I found that on day one, people around us and vice versa were frustrated with each other which was it was really a factor of the weather, day two, we were all on the same team and day three it was even more so, so that you would see someone making a mistake and you’d laugh knowingly.
DM: You can tell by how they drove about what they’re like.
TG: Will you be back next year?