C
ar fanatics the world over regularly scan the news for the latest automotive offerings; they search for updates to races like the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where cutting-edge racing technology housed in cars like the victorious Audi R18 e-tron wow the media as well as the passionate spectators. Modern automotive whizzbangery, once thought figments of the future — like launch control, seven-speed dual clutch transmissions and magnetorheological suspension — are advancing at a blistering rate and, even more impressively, making their way into everyday production cars that mere mortals can get their hungry hands on.

But “the past is never dead”, as William Faulkner put it. As fascinating as the present potency of automotive engineering, Mr. Faulkner’s foreboding statement is absolutely true when it comes to cars. Not only are vintage wheels as coveted as ever, but the motoring past lives on today in races like the Mille Miglia Storica, where leather helmets and goggles, exhaust-filled open air motoring and cars that echo glorious racing histories remind us that, although we can’t time travel, we can marvel at what once was the pinnacle of automotive racing.

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To understand the Mille Miglia (or “thousand miles” in Italian), it’s vital to first understand the impetus behind it. In 1921, the Italian Grand Prix moved from Brescia, Italy to the Monza track in Milan, just a short 60 miles west. Two men, Count Aymo Maggi and Franco Mazzotti, capable racers in their own right, were upset by this. They sought to bring auto racing back to their home town of Brescia, and that’s exactly what they did in 1927, establishing the first Mille Miglia with the help of some wealthy supporters. This was no normal race. It was run from Brescia to Rome and back, just over 1,000 miles in total — hence, the name.

Brescia was just the place for such a race to start. Ettore Bugatti laid down some of the earliest racing rubber in the town in 1899, taking first in the Verona-Mantua-Brescia-Verona race in his three-wheeled Prinetti & Stucchi. Moments like this instilled a deep-seated passion for racing into the people of the region, and it became true that living in Brescia meant loving both the speed and the subculture of all things automotive; it led to an astounding number of automotive races based out of Brescia (more than twenty) by the close of the 19th century. And if that wasn’t proof enough, no fewer than six car manufacturers claimed their home operations in Brescia not long after.

375 entrants from all sorts of classic makers — Alfas, Ferraris, Mercedes, Lancias, Bugattis, Fiats — adorn the streets and roads for salivating spectators.

Calling the Mille Miglia a race would be like calling a climb up Ana Purna a light hike. Imagine driving in open-top cars, in all manner of weather, on a giant figure-eight course between Brescia and Rome. We’re not talking about a straightaway where you can point and shoot. Throughout the course, there was undulating stones, dirt, and the occasional smooth pavement. The likelihood that you could buy the farm overshooting a turn or nailing an errant cow was just as high as any mechanical failure that could kill you. Still, the desire to win, a passion for motoring and the quest to become an automotive legend drove brave racers to push the limits. In fact, the likes of Tazio Nuvolari, Stirling Moss, Rudolf Caracciola, and perhaps the greatest race car driver in history, Juan Manuel Fangio, all cut their petrol-soaked teeth at the Mille Miglia.

So exactly what did these motoring men drive on this quest for victory? No driver in his right mind would cram himself into a standard, wildly uncomfortable race car for anything more than a couple of hundred miles. All of the Mille Miglia entries fell into the category of grand tourers, far different from standard from standard race cars of the time, which were fast single-seaters that were woefully painful and essentially single-purpose cars designed for speed. GT cars, on the other hand, had reliable and powerful engines and cabins that ensconced the drivers in a degree of comfort not seen in standard racing.

These cars were not permitted to be modified in any way — they were to be strictly production models, relying on original design and engineering for victory. Cars such as the Alfa Romeo 6C 1500 Sport Spider Zagato and the sleek and powerful Mercedes-Benz SSKL proved that drivers could get through hours of otherwise grueling endurance racing in relative comfort. What the race did for brands such as Ferrari, Maserati, BMW and Porsche is hard to quantify, but the Mille Miglia regularly drew crowds along the route in the millions, a number that utterly humbles modern races and clearly had some effect on the popularity of these racing brands. Moreover, the cars themselves were the forefathers of modern GT autos; if you see a car with “GT” in the name, you have the steeds of the Mille Miglia to thank (please leave the Pontiac Vibe GT out of this altogether).

As capable as these GTs and their drivers were, accidents happened and (many) people died. The race was banned twice, once temporarily and the second time for good. In 1938 Benito Mussolini banned it temporarily due to fatalities (ironically); in 1957, it was banned permanently after a Spanish driver by the name of Alfonso de Portago crashed his Ferrari 335 S, killing himself, his co-driver and nine people in the crowd who’d been watching the race on the roadside. Five of the fatalities were children. A second fatal crash that same year in Brescia proved to be too much, bringing the death count over the 30-year race to an astronomical 56. The town’s passion for racing, the level of competition brought to the race by the famous racers and cars, and the high profile of the race was insufficient to keep it going under the immense shadow of lives lost. The Mille Miglia, as a race, was officially finished.

Cars that echo glorious racing histories remind us that, although we can’t time travel, we can marvel at what once was the pinnacle of automotive racing.

A full two decades later in 1977, the legacy of the Mille Miglia race was brought back to life in a different form. It would be called the Mille Miglia Storica, and it would be a throwback to the glorious days of automotive yore — running from Brescia to Rome and back. But instead of a race, it would be an opportunity for the storied grand tourers that once participated to show off on the road for all the world to see. 375 entrants from a wide range of classic makers — Alfas, Ferraris, Mercedes, Lancias, Bugattis, Fiats — adorn the streets and roads for salivating spectators. Thousands of car lovers line the streets between the two cities for a few days of glory.

The rules for this revived race initially dictated that every entrant must drive a car that once raced in a Mille Miglia race, but passion for vintage cars runs so richly that new criteria have since been implemented, allowing non-Mille Miglia cars to make their way to Brescia, too. The organizers decided that, as exclusive as the Mille Miglia Storica is, the event, as well as the racers and spectators, would benefit greatly from a wide array of automobiles participating in the race — ensuring that the spectacle of fine vintage racers is emphasized alongside the legend of the race itself. Of course, priority continues for the race cars that actually participated in any of the Mille Miglia races from 1927 to 1957. Provenance here is key, and participants must provide official documents reflecting that. You can’t just take a vintage Ferrari and enter as some highfalutin poseur. Additional participants outside of this illustrious circle must pass a strict set of criteria on top of the requirement that each car must have achieved a high level of motoring accomplishment within three decades of the actual Mille Miglia race period. The variety is kept “fresh” via a scrutinized and carefully chosen rotations of cars.

The event brings the automotive-loving throngs, the wealthy and privileged, and journalists from just about every automotive media outlet not just to see the 375 participating cars drive the Brescia-Rome route, but also to see a thousand vintage exotics from the world over at the Brescia Paddock. And the event doesn’t just bring the cars. Drivers and participants attend in all their vintage racing regalia, adding a flavor like none other. It is an event that echoes some of the finest eras in racing — and for a brief few days, everyone is living past-present. Gone is the dark cloud of tragedy that ended the official race, while only the beautiful lines of great automotive design, the roar of the engines, the cheers of the adoring crowds and the still-beating heart of the Mille Miglia legend prevail.