A brief history of the Mille Miglia

Saab’s two top executives are currently driving in the 2010 Mille Miglia, a touring recreation of the motoring rally that was stopped (in a competitive sense) in the mid-1900s.
Ron C visited the Mille Miglia museum a few years ago in September 2008. After doing so, he wrote the following article for his local car club magazine. It a great, brief history of the Mille Miglia and goes a long way to showing the unbridled spirit of the race. It’s this spirit that makes it such a popular re-creation event today, with four times as many applicants as there were spaces for competitors.
My thanks to Ron for sending it on and I hope you enjoy reading it. You should also take a quick look around the Mille Miglia Museum website.
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Motoring Monks
MMmuseum.JPG In the town of St. Euphemia, near the city of Brescia which is to the southwest of Lake Garda in Northern Italy, there is a monastery on which building was begun in A.D. 1008 – one thousand years ago. The two Ms in the title to this piece and the figure of one thousand are of particular significance to the monastery of Sant’ Euphemia della Fonte; for though the Benedictine monks are long gone, the monastery is now home to a museum dedicated to what became known as “the most beautiful road race in the world”, the Mille Miglia.
The first competitors set out from Brescia on 26th March 1927 on a course which would cover 1000 Roman miles, (roughly 1500km / 1650yds). The figure of eight course was to take them to Rome and back and the winner completed the race in just under 21 hours 5 minutes. The top three places that year going to drivers of local marque, OM, with cars made in the Brescia Officine Meccaniche. The race was run twenty-four times from 1927 to 1957; thirteen before the war and eleven from 1947. During this period the race followed twelve other routes of varying total lengths.
291.jpg Although Monza is associated with the Italian Grand Prix, it was first staged in Brescia on 4th September 1921, only moving to the newly built course at Monza the following year. Wishing to retain motoring associations for their home town, two of the Brescian nobility, Aymo Maggi, 23 and Franco Mazzotti, 22, approached, in December 1926, another Brescia citizen, Renzo Castagneto, 34, secretary of the Regio Automobile Club d’Italia and along with Giovanni Canestrini, 32, a journalist for the Gazzetta dello sport, (one of the first journalists to specialise in the automobile), they founded the Mille Miglia.
Such an event inevitably collects stories of inspiration, daring and unfortunately, also tragedy. The 1930 race was won by Tazio Nuvolari in an Alfa Romeo. He started after his team mate and rival Achille Varzi, but was comfortably leading the race time wise, though behind him on the road. In the poor light of early dawn Nuvolari tailed Varzi with his headlights off, thus not visible in the latter’s rear view mirrors. Approaching the finish at Brescia, on straight roads he pulled alongside Varzi, flicked his headlights on and overtook his rival.
By 1937 the success of the event was such that the organisers were forced to institute a new category, Tourism, which allowed fans to take to the road with a mass produced car, leastways something low cost for the period. Unfortunately a serious accident in Bologna involving an Aprilia with two amateur drivers cost the lives of ten people. The race of 1940 covered a triangle of fast, straight country roads with Brescia, Cremona and Mantua being the points of the triangle; a circuit which had to be traversed nine times to obtain a total 1485km. This race was notable for the arrival of a new team Auto Avio Construzioni, led by one Enzo Ferrari.
In 1954 Hans Herrman had a lucky escape. When approaching a level crossing at speed, the barrier started to descend. Calculating that he could not stop in time, he smacked the helmet of his co-driver Herbert Linge to warn him to duck and then careered underneath the looming wooden barrier before the fast train to Rome arrived.
1955 – Stirling Moss and navigator Dennis Jenkinson ran a total of six reconnaissance laps beforehand, enabling “Jenks” to make course notes, (pace notes), on a scroll of paper 15 feet long that he read from and gave directions to Moss during the race by a coded system of hand signals. Although this undoubtedly helped them, Moss’s innate ability was clearly the predominant factor. Indeed, it should be noted that Moss was competing against drivers with a large amount of local knowledge of the route, so the reconnaissance laps were considered an equaliser rather than an advantage. After 10 hours 7 minutes 48 seconds they arrived in Brescia in the Mercedes- Benz 300SLR, with the now famous No. 722, setting the event record at an average of 97.96 mph which was the fastest ever and not to be beaten in the remaining two years.
The race was banned after a fatal crash in 1957 took the lives of driver Alfonso de Portago, his co-driver / navigator Edmund Nelson and ten spectators at the village of Guidizzolo. One of the tyres suffered a blow out. The manufacturer was blamed and sued for this, as was the Ferrari team, which in order to save time, had not changed tyres.
From 1958 to 1961 the event was resumed as a rallying like round trip at legal speeds with a few special stages driven at full speed, but this was discontinued also. An isolated event took place in 1967, the 40th anniversary year, but it was not until 1977 that the name was revived as Mille Miglia Storica, a parade for pre 1957 cars that takes several days, which also spawned the 2007 documentary film “Mille Miglia – The Spirit of a Legend”. This is the event which continues to this day.

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