Mille Miglia: The most grueling and gorgeous way to travel Italy

Story by Mitch McCullough

It was midnight in the Apennine Mountains, dark, and quiet except for the cicadas and a light breeze rustling through the pines, when two tiny cars, one Italian, one French, came around a curve and raced down the mountainside, slipping through the wilderness as they headed out of Tuscany toward the lights of Parma sparkling far below.

We’d crossed over the Cisa Pass on the winding Strada Statale 62 after completing a regularity test and were wasting no time getting to the final time control of a long day. Ahead of us was a 1957 Abarth Fiat 750 Berlinetta Zagato dancing through the switchbacks and sweeping curves, tiptoeing as precisely as a ballerina on petite, 12-inch tires, its double-bubble roof silhouetted by a small patch of light thrown from its Marchal headlights. The 747cc Abarth engine revved to 6000 rpm, and the little car flew down the mountain with impressive speed.

We were striving to keep up in a 1957 Alpine A106, its 38-horsepower, 747cc Gordini propelling its 1213 pounds on slender, 145R15 Michelins. We stopped for fuel at the bottom of the mountain, and the little Abarth disappeared stage left, ending our French-Italian ballet. Parting is such sweet sorrow.

Long, Exacting Days

We finished the third day of the four-day, 1000-mile rally in an ancient square bathed in warm light. Though late, a healthy crowd was dining alfresco on one side of the square, enjoying Parma ham, Parmesan cheese and Tuscan wine. 

Occupying the other side of the square was a time control and a crowd of spectators. I waved to the crowd as an announcer boomed our names, “America” and “Alpeen-eh A106” over loudspeakers. Meanwhile, Kim, my wife and co-driver, ensured our time card was stamped and returned. That business concluded, we pulled out of the control section and over to the side, where our service crew awaited to celebrate the end of the longest day of the Mille Miglia.

That day we’d covered 356 miles in 12 hours on back roads through Tuscany. We hacked our way through heavy traffic, wove through ancient castle grounds, and negotiated regularity sections as precisely as we could.

The Mille Miglia starts in Brescia in northern Italy, then heads down the eastern side of the country to Rome, then up the western side back to Brescia, circumnavigating the northern half of the country in a clockwise direction, following the route used from 1947 to ’57.

The stories you have heard are true. Much of it is pleasant. 

Sights you don’t see on every other rally or tour: ancient castles, colorful swans and rear-engine French cars. 

Compared with 1000-mile touring rallies in the U.S., the Mille Miglia is grueling. That’s okay, though, as long as you know that going in. It’s four full days of driving, with the middle two days running 13 hours each. 

Traffic in Italy, like everywhere else, is getting worse, and fighting through traffic is part of the game. Lodging is nice, but you only have time to sleep at the hotels before heading out again. 

The food was improved over previous years, and most of it was outstanding. That was in spite of the fact that organizers were feeding a herd of more than 900. “There are many bad things about the Mille Miglia,” an elderly Italian gentleman told us as I struggled to operate an unfamiliar gas pump, “but overall it’s wonderful!”

Which Cars Can Compete?

The 1000-mile touring rally with timed regularity sections accepted 440 entries this past June, a standard field. The retrospective rally celebrates the open-road race that ran from 1927 to ’57. Crashes involving spectator fatalities led to its cancellation after the 1938 race and again after 1957 when it was banned once and for all. 

Enthusiasts established the touring rally in 1982 to celebrate the beautiful cars of the era on beautiful roads in Italy. The rally grew and grew in popularity, and today the organizers accept only a portion of the reportedly more than 1000 applications they receive. The spectators are still there, but the cars aren’t going as fast. 

Only models that competed in the open road race from 1927 to ’57 are accepted. It’s our understanding, for example, that 1955 and 1957 Ford Thunderbirds are allowed, but not 1956 versions because no one fielded a ’56 model in 1956 or ’57. That makes an F-code ’57 a great Mille Miglia ride and leaves a ’56 here in America for Fourth of July parades. 

To be eligible, the car must have a FIVA card. For this reason, FIVA-approved vintage cars eligible for the Mille Miglia tend to be relatively valuable. Cars that actually competed in the original are practically guaranteed entry and thus are very valuable.

Whether in the ’50s or today, the Mille Miglia attracts swathes of spectators. When you stop seeing them, you know you’re off course. 

Cars start in chronological order, and where you start affects your experience somewhat. Teams in later 1950s models rarely see prewar cars because they’re so far ahead. A handicap system awards earlier cars an advantage over later cars, and prewar cars tend to win the Mille Miglia.

Still, 273 of the 440 teams fielded cars from the 1950s. Speed and comfort were primary reasons. Many participants were couples. 

What seems like a small change in model year can make a big difference in starting order. The 1954 Jaguar XK120 we drove in the 2015 Mille Miglia started 318th, 116 positions ahead of the 1957 Alpine we drove this time, in 2022. 

The Alpine started 434th in a 440-car field, six cars from dead last. We couldn’t help but notice the organizers and police looked tired at the intersections. More than 400 rally cars had already gone by. Even the spectators looked weary.

Every Second Counts

The rally begins with scrutineering at the Brixia Forum, a large facility on the outskirts of Brescia. Route books, roundels and car numbers are issued at the completion of scrutineering. There is no driver’s briefing.

A Brantz RetroTrip analog odometer tracked mileage in the Alpine. Two displays allowed overall and interval mileage tracking, so the co-driver could zero one of the readouts at the execution of each instruction. Staying on course is at times challenging, and the co-driver stays very busy calling the constant instructions, leaving little time for conversation. It’s a challenge for those without navigation experience.

The rally is won and lost in the two dozen regularity tests peppered among the four days. You are free to cruise through these sections and not worry about them, but those with a competitive streak will want to play the game.

The tests require the team to cover a precise distance in a precise amount of time. The average speed to do this is provided in the route book. Distances and times are provided for some tests, only distance in others. 

The rally officials record the time you started and finished the section. Maintaining an average speed perfectly is challenging when the road goes up and down and around. 

Stopping within sight of the timing control now brings a penalty, but you can slow down to a crawl. The finish of the section is often around a corner or over a crest, out of sight. Plus, they string five of these sections together, back to back, so when you’re timed out of one, you’re timed into another. It’s enough to drive you batty.

Fortunately, there’s an app for that: ChronoMaster from Octane magazine is well worth the $65 to download. Once you have the route books, you can plug all the information into the app. Then, the app counts you down to the finish, so you know when to speed up or slow down. 

Mastering “ChronoMaster,” the odometer and rally navigation are the keys to a competitive finish. Some entrants have taken the competitive edge to a new level, mounting a camera to display the front tire as it reaches the timing line; that way, the team can more precisely time the tire triggering the sensor.

Survival Strategy

Once your car is accepted, you’ll need a carnet to ship it from the U.S. to Italy and back. Because it’s a road-legal car that will be driven, you must include a large deposit to ensure you aren’t selling the car along the way. CARS, Cosdel and other transporters can arrange door-to-door shipping and can identify a carnet agent.

Rally organizers require driver and co-driver to have sporting licenses. Italy prefers the driver have an international license, easy to obtain through AAA.

Reliability and comfort are key attributes of a successful Mille Miglia car. A good cooling system is important because the weather can be hot and traffic can be heavy. Good brakes are a must, too. The car should be fitted with a rally odometer, a map light with a red lens, and two or more stopwatches. Brantz, Timewise and Terratrip offer rally odometers.

If you or your co-driver are skilled mechanically, you may be able to field yourself, but it’s difficult, especially the first time. Having a crew support your rally car is better. The minimum should be one team of mechanics that chase your car from a distance. (Having a modern van glued to the back of your vintage car is bad form.) 

Several vintage shops specialize in the Mille Miglia and are very good at it. They prepare cars and provide support from start to finish with multiple teams of mechanics to practically ensure a finish. Among them: FastCars in Redondo Beach, California; Domenick European Car Repair in White Plains, New York; and JD Classics in the U.K. If you don’t have a car, they can help with that, too. 

Classic Mike, a restoration shop in the Netherlands, supported our Alpine. They were already thoroughly familiar with the car, having serviced it for years for the previous owner, Mark Geesink. 

Immediately after we agreed to buy his car, Mark arranged for support by Classic Mike. With his Alpine now taken, Mark ran the rally in his 1951 Siata Daina GS Berlinetta with automotive journalist Ton Roks navigating. Classic Mike employs a half-dozen young, energetic mechanics. We all formed a team, celebrated before and after the rally, and are now great friends.

The Villa Trasqua winery provided additional support for 31 teams. Its representatives checked us into hotels so we didn’t have to stand in line late at night after a long day. They provided wine and beer each evening and treated us to an elegant outdoor dinner the night before the rally.

Sightseeing at Speed

The rally route runs along the sea, over the mountains, through castle yards, by ancient ruins, past famous landmarks, through cities and around racing circuits. We careened around the wide streets of Rome with a police escort past the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, even the “Wedding Cake,” with cars from the 1950s buzzing chaotically about. A surreal experience. 

We took a lap around Monza, albeit slowly, but that gave us time to take it in, and they had an amazing spread for lunch. Winding rural roads were classic and old world.

The journey includes more than 400 roundabouts, most manned by small crowds of cheering fans waving red Mille Miglia flags, old women, old men, schoolchildren, women with babies, young men. Some set up tables and chairs with white tablecloths and held up a glass of wine when we drove by. When we stopped seeing spectators, we knew we were off course. 

Everywhere we went, we were treated like royalty in a celebration of old cars and a bygone era. Awareness of the Mille Miglia is high, akin to the Super Bowl in America. Relatively few Americans run the Mille, and we were welcomed.

The cars are fantastic, rare and exotic. Enzo was right. It is a beautiful race.

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