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A Rally to Remember

Even at lollygagging speeds, Italy's Mille Miglia road show stirs nostalgic hearts

Like many women in italy, 72-year old Maria Naldi watches the world from a window framed by dark green shutters. Through it, she looks out on a quiet piazza fronted by a 15th-century church. Beyond the church, the golden fields of Tuscany are sectioned by cypresses and crested by hilltop villages. Though the town, called Radicofani, boasts a thousand-year-old castle, it has no priceless Michelangelos or Raphaels. Yet one morning each year, Signora Naldi gazes upon masterpieces. Beginning at 10 a.m., four-wheeled works of art cruise in single file past a boisterous crowd gathered outside the Church of San Pietro. The artists’ names are well known here and to car buffs everywhere: Lancia. Mercedes-Benz. Porsche. Ferrari. In colors as loud as their engines, more than 300 classic automobiles roll by. Yet unlike the crowd waving small flags on the church steps, Signora Naldi doesn’t seem excited. The cars are all molto belle, she says, but it’s not like the old days. Back when she was a girl, they came through Radicofani as they do today. Back then, she remembers, they weren’t going only ten miles per hour.

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In Italian, mille miglia means one thousand miles. Yet in Italy itself, the words mean much more. From the heyday of Mussolini to the dawn of la dolce vita, the annual Mille Miglia was Italy’s World Series, Super Bowl and heavyweight championship bout all rolled into one. Often touted as the greatest car race in the world, it sent foolhardy drivers dashing along winding, punishing roads. In their goggles and leather helmets, some of the world’s best piloti thundered through little towns at lunatic speeds. Cars careered around turns at 80 mph and roared through human tunnels of cheering fans. Drivers became legends, inspiring even more reckless heroics in the next Mille.

A tragic accident ended the race in 1957. For the next 20 years, as drivers in new cars won other races and got the plaudits, the older automobiles of the classical age sat in museums and garages, appreciated mostly by collectors. But then the Mille Miglia came to life again in 1977, not as a reckless suitor for the crowds’ adulation but as an aged, elegant lover still able to turn heads in the piazza. Now, each year, when spring brings scarlet poppies to the fields of central Italy, the Mille Miglia brings smiles along 1,000 miles of road. Sleek silver Mercedes slip under medieval arches. BMWs zing past Roman ruins. Sporty red Lancias snake through tiny towns with elegant names—Buonconvento, Sansepolcro, and Radicofani. And all along the course, up to a million people cheer the drivers, ogle the cars and remember.

Running on nostalgia rather than bravado, the Mille Miglia remains the greatest antique car rally in the world, even if the average speed is only 30 mph. And at exactly that speed, with occasional sprints to catch up, photographer Enrico Ferorelli, who was born in Italy, and I set out last May to chase the 2001 Mille Miglia. In a new station wagon, we doggedly followed the pack of priceless cars, sampling 1,000 miles of Italy in 48 hours. Florence, Siena, Cortona, Arezzo—town after town appeared in our windshield, whipped by our side windows and vanished in our rearview mirror. The Italians have a phrase for such a tour—fare un giro, “to take a spin.” And our 1,000-mile spin showed us this timeless country as it often sees itself—stylish, finely crafted and racing ahead without a care.

On a Thursday morning, two days before the Mille Miglia passed Maria Naldi’s window, crowds begin assembling in the Piazza Vittoria in Brescia, an industrial city in northern Italy. It was here in 1927 that four members of the local automobile club started a race to draw attention to their town. Since the 1890s, wild cross-country car rallies had been popular throughout Europe. Paris to Bordeaux. Paris to Berlin. Paris to Madrid. Several countries had banned such “races of death,” but that did not deter Italians. Here, the love of fast cars is matched only by what historian Jacob Burkhardt called Italy’s “national pastime for external display.” And on a sunny May morning, crowds line the Piazza Vittoria for a display called “the scrutineering.” One by one, 371 cars, some of the finest ever made, pull into the piazza to be scrutinized, registered and admired. 

In the piazza, cars with running boards and spoked wheels sit behind cars that look like bullets. And big, beefy cars with top speeds of 83 mph stand beside low-slung rockets that cruise at 150 mph. Each Mille Miglia has a few famous people—our year the lineup included Formula One race car drivers, tennis star Boris Becker, and Miss Malaysia—but the cars themselves are the real stars. Cars like these do not have price tags; they have charisma. Yet even in a lineup of celebrities, some stand out. And so, even as a 1955 Porsche Spyder, the kind of car James Dean died in, rolls past the check-in, the local paparazzi focus on a Mercedes 300 SLR whose hood is stamped 722. 

This was the very car British driver Stirling Moss took for a spin in the 1955 Mille Miglia. With his codriver consulting a long list of the race’s every turn, Moss saw all of central Italy between dawn and dusk. Out of the corner of his eye, Moss followed his codriver’s hand signals, enabling him to take tight corners in a blinding blur. Sometimes outpacing small aircraft above him, Moss hit 177 mph on some straightaways. Once, when his copilot failed to warn him of a bump, his car took off and flew for 200 feet before making a perfect four-point landing. Moss drove the 1,000 miles of impossibly twisted roads in just over ten hours, averaging about 98 mph, easily the fastest Mille ever.

Now, as number 722 pulls into the Piazza Vittoria, crowds gather round it, snapping photographs, peering into the cockpit, treating it with the awe earlier worshipers granted to holy relics. Moss’ Mercedes is followed by another fourwheeled celebrity. And another. And then, that evening, the cars line up again, this time at the starting line. In a pouring rain that drenches drivers in open cabs, the gorgeous old vehicles roll one by one down a ramp and set off for two days of punishment. It’s as if a lineup of supermodels strode down the runway of a Paris fashion show, then each put on sneakers and set out to run a marathon.

“The Mille Miglia created our automobiles and modern motoring,” observed the late Enzo Ferrari, whose cars won seven of the past ten races. “It enabled us to produce the sports cars that we now see all over the world. And when I say ‘we,’ I’m not just referring to Ferrari.” The old race was the ultimate test of driver and machine. Nearly a dozen drivers died, and the toll on cars was even worse. Cranked to the edge of engineering performance, some simply fell apart. Gearshifts snapped off in drivers’ hands. Axles broke. Brakes overheated. Transmissions failed, forcing drivers to finish the race in fourth gear. And those were just the cars that stayed on the road. In the wake of many a Mille, the lovely Italian countryside was littered with crumpled cars and shredded tires. But with every mile and every accident, the race’s fame grew, as did the names of a few drivers.

Every modern Mille entrant knows he or she is driving the same roads taken by Stirling Moss and by the race’s other legend, Tazio Nuvolari, the “Flying Mantuan.” In more than a dozen Milles, Nuvolari won only twice, but his heroics made him Italy’s answer to Babe Ruth. Handsome and absolutely fearless, he drove “like a bomb,” Italians said. Fans still debate whether he won the 1930 Mille by passing the leader in the dead of night with his lights off. And they still talk about the year he tossed his broken seat out of the car and drove on, perched on a sack of lemons he’d brought for nourishment. The car’s hood had flown off into the crowd. One fender was crumpled by a collision. His codriver pleaded with him to stop, to remove a dangerously hanging fender, but Nuvolari just shouted “Hold on!” He then aimed his car at a bridge and veered at the last second, neatly winging off the fender and speeding on. That was the old Mille. The new one is altogether more sane, if considerably less spicy.

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