Stirling Moss, the legendary English race driver, muscled the Mercedes 300 SL into third and gave the throttle a stab. I white-knuckled the stopwatch. The Gullwing snarled, its rear end sliding out. "Swing axle tends to oversteer," said Moss as we rocketed down a two-lane Adriatic coast road slick with hailstones. "If you're not careful, it can bite you—hard."
Closing fast on a sweeping righthand turn, Moss banged the car into third again and then jumped back on the power. "Pass me another sweet, will you, old boy?" he said as the speedometer needle climbed toward 150 mph. I handed the man behind the wheel our last piece of licorice and went back to hanging on for dear life.
Our outlandish velocity was really my fault. I had miscalculated the mileage to our Ancona checkpoint, and we had lingered too long over scampi and black risotto in Pesaro. Now—to compensate—Moss was going all-out past the beach cabins dotting the Italian roadside. We were bearing down on Car No. 221, another gunmetal-gray 1955 Gullwing. At its wheel was International Rally champion Ari Vatanen from Finland.
B-e-e-e-e-p! Moss stiff-armed the horn, flashed his lights and crossed the solid white line, intending to pass. Vatanen either didn't see us or misread Moss's speed, because suddenly and wildly he careened into our path, apparently trying to avoid rear-ending a sluggish Isetta. "Silly sod," said Moss, even as he weighed the prospect of playing bumper tag with Vatanen versus joining the bug collection splattered across the grille of an onrushing tour bus. Moss gunned the throttle and drove the tachometer needle well beyond the 5,500 redline. Whooooosh. The backwash of the speeding bus was all that hit us as we blew past Vatanen's car. "How many coats of paint do you reckon we left back there, Stirl?" I asked. "A couple." Moss said, obviously well pleased with himself.
November 6, 1989
During this three-day, breakneck odyssey this spring, as I rode shotgun, we broke enough speed limits, ran enough red lights and bolted the wrong way up enough one-way streets to earn life sentences in a Sicilian slammer. The carabinieri, however, were willing accomplices to these infractions and urged us on every foot of the 1,000-mile way. The Mille Miglia is a law unto itself. Begun in 1927, the Mille Miglia was the most dangerous and most glorious of the great Continental road races—as its name implies, a 1,000-mile loop of northern Italy. Europe applauded the car that won Le Mans but idolized the driver who won Mille Miglia. But in 1957 the Mille Miglia was canceled after Marquis Alphonso de Portago—sportsman, playboy and godson of King Alphonso XIII of Spain—crashed his Ferrari at top speed, killing himself, his navigator (American Ed Nelson) and nine spectators. In 1982, Brescia's Musical Watch Veteran Car Club, an assemblage of vintage-automobile buffs, resurrected the Mille Miglia as a rally for cars built from 1927 to 1957, the years the race had been run.
Unlike motor races on closed tracks, in which speed is the object, rallies demand pacing, endurance and precision timing, pitting driver-navigator teams against one another for days on remote roads. Departing at 25-second intervals in the Mille Miglia, each car is given the same amount of time to travel a specified distance. For example, the 120 kilometers between Ferrara and Rimini are to be covered in 2:23:59, no more, no less. In theory, the revived Mille Miglia rewards steely minds rather than lead feet. In practice, however, so long as you arrive on time at each checkpoint you can race as furiously as you like in between.
Now Moss was reliving his finest hour, retracing the 1955 Mille Miglia. Three-and-a-half decades ago, Moss and his navigator, English journalist Denis Jenkinson, averaged a record 97.9 mph over switchback mountain roads, through the tight confines of Vatican City and Florence and over the Italian countryside. Motor sports fans still refer to Moss's drive as "the greatest road race of all time."
In that '55 race, Moss made only two pit stops—totaling one minute and 28 seconds—while covering the 1,000-mile circuit in a breathtaking 10:07:48. This time, with a leisurely 2½ days to complete the course—48:25:55 driving time, to be exact—Moss satisfied his appetite for bravura by traveling flat out from checkpoint to checkpoint, thus leaving plenty of time to sample the local trattorias, catch roadside siestas and sign autographs for some of the estimated 10 million spectators.
Through all this I was attempting to play the same role as Jenkinson. Compared to "Jenks," a former motorcycle sidecar champion as well as a motor sport journalist, I am an automotive illiterate. I neither own a car nor wear a watch. Moss, however, assured me that all I would have to do was squint into the wind and tell him when he had enough room to pass.
The rally began on a misty Friday evening, in Brescia, an hour east of Milan. Beneath blinding floodlights our Gullwing, Car No. 282, took its place toward the back of the long queue of cars awaiting the countdown. Adding Euro-glam to the driver roster were Ornella Muti, Italy's answer to Jacqueline Bisset (in a 1954 Ferrari); Queen Elizabeth's cousin, Prince Michael of Kent (1936 Lagonda, followed by bodyguards in a 1988 Range Rover); Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason (1930 Alfa Romeo).
Moss surveyed his instrument panel, reacquainting himself with the Mercedes. In age, shape and suspension geometry, the sleek Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing he was driving was kindred to the lightweight, open-cockpit 300 SLR he had piloted in 1955. Moss travels with the tools of his trade. From a briefcase he took a large rearview mirror and affixed it to the dashboard. "The little mirrors in these cars are useless," he said, settling into the cockpit.
At precisely 12 minutes and five seconds past 10 p.m., the steward lowered the Italian flag in front of Car 282, and we rolled down the starting ramp. With horn blaring and lights flashing, we began plowing through a corridor of hollering Italians. "The start is always a bit dodgy," said Moss, master of overdrive and understatement. In glorious defiance of sanity, the Italian race fans stood in the drizzle bellowing, "Morse!" "Starelink Morse!" "Avanti, Morse!" They were four-deep by the roadside, and near the outskirts of town, shouts turned to percussion. Fans twanged our wipers, gonged the roof and drummed our fenders like bongos—anything to play a part in racing history.
Lonato, Desenzano, Peschiera, Bussolengo, Verona. Vicenza: We whizzed through the towns along the Mille Miglia route. Forty-six checkpoints scattered over the 1,000 miles. At various checkpoints teenagers offered us prosciutto sandwiches, cake, wine, umbrellas, T-shirts, pears, carnations, neckties, cassettes, pens, chocolate-coated almonds and reams of brochures promoting pizzerias and dry cleaners.
Our first evening took us to Verona and into Padua, on roads whose cobblestones were already ancient when Shakespeare was writing Romeo and Juliet. Racing through the star-cross'd lovers' trysting grounds, Moss began reciting what he calls "Shakespeare's pro-England speech" (from Richard II): "Ah, this royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle...this demi-paradise...this precious stone set in the silver sea—" The verse came to a screeching halt when Moss braked to dodge a 19-horsepower '38 Jawa Minor.
"Stupid bastards," Moss said, easing back into third and shifting the conversation. "Jenks and I came whapping down this road at full song, 170 mph. The SLR had a great snarl. Neee-miaowwww! The noise rattled the plaster off the walls."
Saturday morning: On the Ferrara starting line, at the beginning of our 13:59:55 passage to Rome, Moss looked puffy-eyed. He didn't blame his insomnia on our late-night pit stop for cappuccino and gelati outside Rovigo. He accused the party in the next bed, his raucously snoring navigator.
Outside Portomaggiore we hit a squall and the Gullwing nearly capsized in the rooster tail of a Jaguar XKSS. Moss squinted through the foggy windshield and cursed under his breath. "Hmmph! Sod's Law again," he said. "If one wiper on a car doesn't work it's always the driver's." That said, we plunged on with no noticeable decrease in speed.
After stopping in Rieti for a gargantuan antipasto luncheon—which according to my stopwatch, we ate in 29 minutes flat—we were back on the highway to Rome. In 1955, Moss and Jenkinson's first pit stop had taken but 28 seconds. They probably hadn't ordered seconds on baked apples.
We arrived in Rome at midnight. Moss ran between street lamps, hustling our luggage to the hotel in a grocery cart he had appropiated from a nearby supermarket. Looking like a cat burglar shopping for Samsonite, he was determined to get some rest. The only detour was for a stop at the hotel banquet table, from which Moss spirited away a bottle of vino. In the room he took a couple of slugs before crashing into bed.
To the strains of the Sunday-morning bells of St. Peter's, Moss revved the Mercedes engine and patiently waited for our 8:57:05 departure for Brescia. A race official informed us that we had fewer penalty points than any other non-Italian team. That was all Moss needed. On the road again, we began to pass cars at a furious pace. Moss nodded sympathetically out the window when we roared past a Lotus 11 stalled on the gravel shoulder. "See those bungy cords on the Lotus's luggage rack?" he said jokingly. "That's all that's holding the car together. Driving a Lotus is a triumph of bravery over intelligence." Moss won more than a dozen races in various Lotuses during his career.
Of the 305 cars that had rolled down the starting ramp, only 208 were still in the running. Even in this supposedly tamed-down version of the race, attrition was taking its toll. From Siena to Brescia the route was strewn with wreckage: blown pistons, stripped gears, cracked engines and deflated egos. As the evening's sun dissolved in the Lambrusco vineyards of the Po Valley, we were escorted by a deft motorcycle cop down the ancient Roman Via Emilia to Ferrari headquarters in Modena.
"For anyone who likes fast red cars, this place is Mecca," said Moss. Later, as we pulled out of the factory parking lot, Piero Lardi-Ferrari, the late Enzo Ferrari's only surviving son, presented Moss with a commemorative Ferrari valve burnished and mounted on mahogany. "I would have preferred the whole car," said Moss as we surged off to Brescia.
On this final sprint in 1955, Moss and his SLR had outrun a twin-engine plane buzzing the highway at 165 mph. "I was younger and braver back then," he said. "Mind you, I must have been bloody mad too."
Shortly after 9 p.m. we stopped for tortellini Bolognese near Guidizzolo, where a small monument on the edge of town memorializes de Portago, Nelson and the nine villagers who died in the 1957 crash. Our dinner conversation turned to the dangers of vintage-car racing and the accidents at Mexico's La Carrera Classic two months earlier. Racing in excess of 140 on shoulderless two-lane blacktop, two cars, in separate incidents, crashed and burned, killing two participants and injuring a third. The race organizers came under attack because neither driver was race-trained, nor were the racers required to wear fireproof clothing or have their cars equipped with roll bars. "Times have definitely changed," said Moss. "Obviously we have to change with the times and can no longer accept into a vintage race anybody with enough money to buy a car. Yes, I'm for tough safety regulations in vintage racing...but against roll bars. It spoils the look of the cars."
At the Mille Miglia's conclusion late Sunday night, we parked in a half-mile-long concrete cattle pen outside Brescia, waiting to pass the last time control at 10:25:50 p.m. By more luck than navigational skill, our times through the preceding 45 checkpoints had put us near the leaders. Now the possibility of winning stirred Moss. He quit signing autographs and closed the car door to unwind. With four minutes to go he stared at the dashboard and ignition. Suddenly a cold, white dread crept across his brow as he said, "The keys, old boy. Bloody hell. They're gone!"
Moss flung open his door and began rummaging on the pavement. I reached over and picked the key chain off his black leather seat and dropped it in his palm. He exhaled a lengthy sigh.
With a minute and 100 meters separating us from our final checkpoint, Moss cranked up the engine and depressed the clutch. "Keep your bloody finger on that stopwatch button," he said. "We don't want a cockup now." Shooting to cross the line at 22:25:50, I counted Moss down against my stopwatch: "Thirty-five, 40, 45 ..." We crept forward, slowly gathering speed: "... 46, 47, 48..." With 15 meters to go, he goosed the engine. It rasped and recovered just in time: "...49, 50!"
"Bang on!" shouted Moss as we hit the electronic tape and the crowd engulfed us.
The next morning the Mille Miglia competitors and hundreds of Italian dignitaries were seated for the award ceremony in Brescia's Salone Vanvitelliano, a high-ceilinged Palladian marvel hung with medieval tapestries and 18th-century portraits. Moss beamed when the race officials announced that we had placed first among the 161 non-Italian entries and 21st overall. First prize overall went to another Gullwing, driven by two Brescians, a factory-owner and a middle-aged lawyer who had driven to Rome and back, supposedly singing Verdi arias to each other.
Accepting his trophy, a silver platter the size of a manhole cover, Moss said with cheeky grace, "For an Englishman this award is the highest of honors." He grinned impishly. "In an Italian race, without an Italian car or an Italian name, you can't expect to finish better than best non-Italian."
Stewart McBride is a free-lance writer living in Paris.