We Raced A Tiny Part Of Fiat’s Living History Through Italy’s Mille Miglia
Photography by Afshin Behnia
The original Mille Miglia, which ran from 1927 through 1957, was a grueling race of speed where legends such as Tazio Nuvolari, Alberto Ascari, and Sir Stirling Moss made racing history. The modern Mille Miglia Classic is a tribute to that historic race, but to keep things under control, instead of a race of speed, it is a time, speed, distance (TSD), or regularity rally. A walk in the park? Not by any means.
The allotted times for each leg do not allow for a leisurely pace, and the participants for the most part are very competitive—as can be seen by the numerous fender benders that take place each year, in addition to the (thankfully rare) more serious crashes.
Like most vintage car lovers, and being an Italophile to boot, it has long been a dream of mine to participate in this event—which is nothing less than a living, driving museum celebrating one of motorsport’s greatest heritages. This year, that dream became a reality thanks to Fiat’s generous invitation to be a co-pilot to its Chief Designer, Roberto Giolito, who recently became the head of the newly-created FCA Heritage Group.
Before deciding to participate in the Mille Miglia, it’s a good idea to define your purpose. Do you intend to win? Do you just want to enjoy the scenery in a comfortable cruiser? Or do you experience a car raced by one of your favorite heroes? Defining your mission will guide your decision as to what car to enter. If you want to win, a good bet would be to go with one of the many glorious pre-war Alfa Romeos that were victorious in the historic race. This year’s winner was, in fact, Andrea Vesco and Andrea Guerini driving a 1931 Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 GS Zagato, the same model that was raced to victory by Tazio Nuvolari.
I was therefore very curious to see what car Fiat had in mind for us for the race. Two weeks prior, I meet up with Roberto to get acquainted and to check out our machine.
For being such an accomplished man, Roberto is refreshingly down-to-earth and charming. He takes me to a warehouse where a secret stash of significant Lancias and Fiats from pre-war to Group B racers live, and there in middle of the lot was our car: a 1934 Fiat 508S, also known as the Balilla Coppa d’Oro – not exactly a beastly Alfa Romeo 8C 2900! The Balilla was tiny and intimate – a great way to get to know someone over a four-day, 1000-mile rally for sure, but not a car that exactly inspired a ton of confidence in me. So I asked Roberto the reasoning behind the choice.
“Because at the time it was the Fiat car for everybody, or the car of the people,” Roberto explains. “The Balilla was exactly, in ’20s and the ’30s, the car that represented for the average person, by the size, by the power of the engine, by capability to be different kind of vehicles like trucks, the sedan, the torpedo, the spider; the most versatile chassis, the most versatile engine. Also, it deserved its name: Balilla. That is a nickname like Topolino. ‘Balilla’ was in the time of the fascist movement in Italy, the young guy that was the model student for the nation, the young soldier. Nowadays this makes a loathing because those times made absolutely no sense, but on the other hand the nickname was well deserved because it was the young figure in the car industry.”
According to Roberto, it was also one of the least expensive sports cars at the time, and therefore a popular choice amongst young privateers entering the Mille Miglia. A car that made racing accessible to the average enthusiast? That was more than good enough for me.
On the eve of the start of the rally, upon entering my hotel room in Brescia, I find the most stylish set of racing gear courtesy of Fiat: a vintage-style Sabelt racing suit with period-correct Fiat logo embroidered, matching vintage-style helmet and goggles, four sets of Fiat polos (one for each day of the race), and a pair of racing shoes. For a moment, I was more excited about the outfit than the upcoming rally!
On day one, decked out in our matching vintage outfits with goggles and all, Roberto and I in the Balilla looked uncannily like the sketch that Roberto made when we met. Unfortunately, it was going to rain for the entire duration of Day 1, so we opted to put the top on the Balilla. The Balilla is not exactly a convertible in the true sense. You either commit to having the top on or not. Putting it on or taking it off is not a trivial matter, especially since the car itself has no room to store it once its off.
Off we go in the rain, leaving Brescia for Rimini by the Adriatic, passing through beautiful little towns. The Balilla’s performance surprised me. Keep in mind that this particular example is a museum piece; therefore, it is all-original except for an auxiliary electrical fan that was added just for this rally. Unlike other cars at the race that enjoyed more than a few modern performance-enhancing upgrades, our Balilla had no other extra help, yet its light weight and four-speed crashbox transmission made the 34 horsepower motor feel quite capable. The rain certainly added an extra element of excitement to the trip, and neither of us minded it one bit.
Our first challenge was the Chrono Competition at Desenzano, right on Lake Garda. Our rally chronometer was already programmed with all the timings for Day 1, but neither Roberto nor I had familiarized ourselves with the contraption that had a user interface more primitive than a 1979 VCR. As such, we royally screwed up our first Chrono Competition and were not able to properly reset our rally timer for the rest of the day’s competitions, forcing me to rely on my iPhone’s stopwatch—which is horribly unfit for the task. But that was just the start of our problems. The Balilla, which had performed so well through the first couple of legs, started to lose power on hill climbs or high-speed straights (and by “high speed” I mean a top speed of 75 km/h!). Downshift into third, then again into second, and even first, until we simply had to pull over and stop. Fiat was well-prepared with a very capable support crew following the rally. We called them for help, but it turned out the Balilla just need to cool down a bit and rest. We were off again, and the same ordeal repeated over and over for the rest of Day 1.
The starting order of the rally goes according to the year of manufacture of the cars, with the earliest cars starting first. Our Balilla being from 1934, our starting number was 73 from a total of 435 participants. Because of our many stops to give the car frequent rests, our first day became a journey through automotive history as the cars clustered around us went from early ’30s to late ’30s, to ’40s, and finally, the ’50s. I like to think that we experienced a privilege not given to the faster cars in our group.
Though we only had five hours of sleep that night, Day 2 was a completely different story with the Balilla performing much better and feeling like a new car. With the top off and only a bit of rain in the morning, the rest of the day was spent driving roads that car-lovers’ dreams are made of.
From this day on, we intimately understood why the Mille Miglia is called, “the most beautiful race in the world”. Forget the competition, the Mille Miglia is all about the ridiculous enthusiasms of the Italians, the beautiful cities, and the excellent driving roads with their spectacular scenery. For these four days, all of Italy plus many enthusiasts coming from around Europe become possessed with the spirit of the great race and line the streets and squares to cheer us on. The experience of driving an open pre-war racer and entering a gorgeous medieval city center packed with spectators cheering and waving is simply glorious.
On top of that, car enthusiasts of all flavors mix themselves into our rally at various stages. Remember, we are driving on open public roads, after all. It was a treat to see so many well-preserved or restored vintage Alfas, Lancias, Porsches, Minis, and all of our other favorite marques from various decades drive along with us through parts of our rally. This universal enthusiasm for the race and for driving is by far the highlight of the rally, much more so than the competitive aspects of it.
Don’t worry, I’m not trying to make an excuse for not finishing near the top. Despite all the beauty, it’s still a competition and we do get caught up in the urge to win. Though we had our difficulties with the chrono on Day 1 and our speedometer was way off and useless for the Speed Challenges, we didn’t do so poorly in the end. We placed 272 out of 435. But more importantly, we did it with tremendous style! Two guys in matching vintage outfits in a Balilla just can’t lose. I’m not sure if people found us comical or super cool, in either case, we were a big hit with everyone from little kids to the elderly. Even the times when the little Balilla couldn’t make it up a hill and would stall in front of a group of spectators, in true Italian style we would turn the situation around and walk into the nearest café, get an espresso, and hang out while the car cooled down.
But perhaps our particular highlight was when we arrived into Rome at midnight on Friday. Our Balilla stalled as we were coming out of a busy underpass along the Tiber, and we had to get out and direct traffic using our iPhone flashlights. There we were, two guys decked-out in vintage race outfits complete with helmets and goggles standing next to a tiny pre-war racer. (All the young Roman ladies driving to their clubs or bars would stop and comment on how awesome we were, too.)
The Mille Miglia Classic is a phenomenon that is impossible in the U.S. With our litigious nature and our government wanting to protect us from ourselves, no event remotely similar could be possible on American soil. Can you imagine a police escort making way against oncoming traffic for 435 racers in vintage cars, on public roads?
Fortunately, we have Italy, where a little risk taking is justified in the name of heritage, style, and the love of motoring.