Italy is a stunning place. Its scenery is remarkable, its history is unrivaled and its food is positively epic. It also happens to be the birthplace of many of the world’s greatest motoring brands.
Despite all that, it isn’t exactly my favorite place to drive. The relaxed Italian attitude toward the rules of the road is an acquired taste for even the most stalwart of visiting drivers, while frequent traffic snarls and congestion block and impede some otherwise epic roads. And then there are the roads themselves. Italy is festooned with mountaintop citadels and other remote villages that create the kind of Instagram memories all your friends will heart with abandon, but few enjoy navigating the single-lane, mirror-scraping alleyways that access them.
Italy, then, might not seem like a questionable place for a cross-country race covering more than 1,000 miles of those often-congested, frequently narrow roads. But it is the only place in the world where something like the Mille Miglia could happen, an event that combines that Italian scenery with the history and even the food, plus the appreciation for not just the Italian motoring brands, but some of the greatest cars the world has to offer.
The Mille Miglia is an incredibly special thing, and this is what it’s like to run it.
A bit of history
The Mille Miglia was first run in 1927. Its name (literally “1,000 miles”) tells you the most important detail about the event. It was initially a point-to-point race covering 1,000 miles of Italian roads, run at speed and contested by many of the world’s greatest drivers piloting the world’s fastest machines.
Given the distance, it was impossible to police or shut down the entire route, so as the drivers blazed out of Brescia, hitting checkpoints in the south before swinging back north again for the finale, they had to contend with local traffic, pedestrians and even wayward farm animals.
Those open roads meant plenty of danger, and 30 years later, in 1957, a pair of fatal accidents meant the end of the classic Mille Miglia. The organizers tried to bring it back as a limited-speed procession, but that quickly lost steam.
The race went dormant until 1977, when it was reborn as a historic rally, open only to cars eligible to compete in the original Mille Miglia. That is, basically, machines produced before 1957. No longer would entrants be encouraged to go as fast as they liked; now the race would be run as a regulation rally, or a time-speed-distance rally, where competitors aren’t challenged to get from A to B as quickly as possible. Rather, the goal is to drive as precisely as possible, with target times for arrival and penalties for showing up either early or late.
Since 1977, the race has increased in prominence. Today, it is the most prestigious historic rally in the world, with competitors spending tens of thousands of dollars in entry fees and preparation costs just to be in one of the 430 cars accepted to run.
The 2019 running of the Mille Miglia actually covered well more than 1,000 miles — 1,123 in fact, or just over 1,800 kilometers over the course of four days. It included 16 time controls, 110 time trials plus seven average speed trials and 27 passage controls.
What does all that mean? Well, while the main objective is to cover the total distance in the right time, the event is split further into a number of smaller challenges. Time trials are sequences of short intervals (dozens or hundreds of meters) on closed roads that must be covered at precisely the right speed, measured to the hundredth of a kilometer per hour, one time trial coming immediately after another, each with different speeds. Penalties are awarded for being off by a fraction of a second.
The average speed trials are longer sections (upward of 10 kilometers) that again have a very specific speed to maintain throughout. On these, the actual speed check is hidden, so the challenge is maintaining the same pace for the entire duration, even up steep hills and through tight turns.
On those special sections, you’re not allowed to stop or reverse, else you risk being kicked out. However, on the other sections, which make up the vast majority of those 1,123 miles, you’re free to make a wrong turn, stop for fuel or to answer the call of nature — so long as you get to the next checkpoint in time. Check in early or late and, again, that’s a penalty, and nobody likes penalties.
My ride for the 2019 Mille Miglia was this lovely, 1930 4½ Liter Blower from Bentley. Seeing it in the flesh for the first time, surrounded by hundreds of svelte roadsters and the rest of the period competition, it looked positively massive, absolutely purposeful and more than a little steampunk.
Inside the slender cockpit there’s a pair of flat seats with no bolsters, just wide enough for myself and Mr. Robin Peel, Bentley’s head of royal and VIP relations, among the best titles I’ve ever heard and a role filled by a quintessential British gentleman. It would be his job to pilot the Blower across Italy while I handled navigation duties from the left seat.
The car has just one door, on my side, which meant I was always first to get out and last to get in. Inevitably, every time I got seated I reached for the seat belt, which of course wasn’t there. The first time we made a left-hand turn I went sliding across and practically landed in Robin’s lap. This trick, I imagined, must have been well-used by the well-heeled Bentley Boys in the ’20s when cruising with someone special. Eventually, I’d learn to reach for the brass grab handle mounted to the dash before every turn. It wouldn’t help in a crash, but it might just keep my virtue intact.
That grab bar, with its lovely patina, was just one of many period fixtures and gauges festooned across the wooden dashboard, each a wonderful trinket from another era. The newest instrument on the dash was mounted just below it, a ’60s-era Halda Tripmaster odometer that would be considered vintage in any other context. Over the next four days I would spend more time staring at this Swedish contraption than the Italian countryside around us.
I’m not a very good passenger. I can never really get comfortable in a car with someone else driving and I have, for all my life, struggled with car sickness. So, it was with some trepidation (and a bag full of Dramamine) that I engaged on my journey that first day, Wednesday morning in Brescia.
All the cars gathered at the Mille Miglia museum. The parking lot gradually filled, turning into a jaw-dropping collection of classic machinery rarely seen in a single place. But these cars weren’t just here to be admired. One by one, they pulled out and made their way to the start.
With our number of 78 we started ahead of most of the 430 competitors in the 2019 race. We motored away into a cloud of fumes of the sort only produced by vintage machines burning expensive fuel additives and pumping the results through catless exhausts. “Amazing smell,” I scribbled in my notes and tried not to think about what it was doing to my lungs.
The run out of Brescia was largely processional, cars starting three per minute and so running nose-to-tail out of town. Crowds were thick to start with but, as we got farther into the country and the roads opened up, their numbers didn’t diminish much, cheering and waving at every corner, at every intersection, wanting to hear the engines and see these amazing machines.
The roadside fans, young and old, never failed to raise a hand and wish us well. By the time we crossed the last checkpoint I’d waved so much my arm was sore and smiled so much my face was similarly worn out.
But my work wasn’t done. Each night, I needed to go through the time trials and special stages for the day ahead, calculating average times and intervals to ensure that we covered our sectors as accurately as possible. While other cars had thousands of dollars in modern, digital rally computers strapped on their dashes (and were often staffed by teams who spent weeks practicing), I had only my trusty Halda in the cockpit plus a little kitchen timer of the sort I wouldn’t trust to reliably time a soft-boiled egg.
By the second day the charm was starting to wear off and the ominous challenge of the days ahead was sinking in. We were in the car by 6:00 a.m. and wouldn’t finish the race until 9:00 p.m. It’d be another few hours after that before getting through the final checkpoint, maybe finding something to eat and then getting to my hotel. With all my time preparing the previous night, I’d managed less than 4 hours of sleep.
With the excitement of the day before now replaced by exhaustion, the cold began to seep in. Even in May, Italy can get pretty chilly when you’re racing in a roadster, and sadly all those wonderful creature comforts like heated and massaging seats were adopted by Bentley some time well after 1930.
The time trials came thick and fast on Day 2, massive queues of cars lined up to cross the start line at the right time, then precisely hit each of a series of timing strips at precisely the right moment. Each hundredth of a second off meant penalty points. That my timer only read full seconds meant we were fighting a losing battle from the off.
Days 3 and 4 just continued the slide into exhaustion, more incredible roads mixed with frequent bouts of awful traffic and occasionally ill-advised passes and runs through intersections with the frequent help of enthusiastic police officers. It’s all a wonderful blur at this point, leading my handing over the final time card to a man sitting at a table in a nondescript parking area outside of Brescia. I shook Robin’s hand and it was over.
Except that it wasn’t really over. Being an Italian event, it couldn’t end that simply. We then had another short transit over to the ceremonial finish. Before we could climb out of the car and I could get some blissful sleep, we had to wait in another endless queue of priceless machines, waiting our turn to drive up a ramp and receive a small medal and a big bottle of booze for our troubles. The medal is now hanging on the wall of my office at home, the booze I sent home with the Bentley crew. They deserved it for keeping us motoring across all those miles.
But I have to say we didn’t give them much cause for alarm. The biggest issue we had over the four days was when I got fidgety on Day 2 and managed to kick the speedo cable off the back of the gauge. It flopped down onto my restless foot, where it stayed until the next fuel stop, then was quickly screwed back into place.
For a 90-year-old car to cross 1,123 miles without issue is quite remarkable. Factor in the hours and hours we spent idling waiting to get into and out of various checkpoints and the result is all the more impressive.
And how did we finish? We came in 153rd out of those 430 starters. I’d have liked to finish higher, but for a couple of rookies timing ourselves with a bargain kitchen timer, I’m told that result is quite good. I’ll take it.
My time behind the wheel
While I’m proud of myself that I didn’t get sick once while riding shotgun in the Blower (I’d even stopped the Dramamine by the end of the trip), given the choice I’d still rather have been behind the wheel. And so, I was very delighted to take the opportunity to do just that — eventually. Given how late we finished on the last day of the race, and how generally destroyed I was by then, my opportunity had to wait a few months.
So let’s change scene. It’s Pebble Beach and it’s time for the Concours. Bentley, celebrating its 100th anniversary, is incredibly well represented on the lawn. Among the many Blowers and other stately machines sat a certain 1930 4½ Liter Blower supercharged Bentley Blower. No, not the car that I raced across Italy in 2019, but the very car that Birkin himself had entered in the race 89 years before.
After the car spent a day looking stately on the Pebble Beach Concours lawn, its metaphorical keys were turned over to my clumsy hands to take it for a drive. I say “metaphorical” because of course there are no keys. There’s an ignition hidden behind the dash that must be enabled first, followed by a pair of toggles for the magnetos, another for the fuel pump and, finally, the giant brass starter button. The massive racing machine, fitted with an extra fuel tank for endurance but otherwise pared down to its bare essentials, fired to life immediately.
Getting going, though, would take a bit longer. The Blower has a four-speed transmission connected to a shifter that is charmingly situated beneath the driver’s right knee. Ahead on the floor lie three traditional-looking pedals, though with a decidedly nontraditional orientation. The throttle is in the middle, brake on the right. Clutch, at least, is in the correct place on the left.
There are no synchros to aid in engagement nor even any gates to help you find the right place. You’re free to move the shifter in any direction you like — only the sound of very expensive grinding lets you know you’ve chosen a bad one.
Thankfully I had Bentley’s Robin Peel again in the cockpit to help me find my way. He instructed me through the shifting process much like a gymnastics coach would guide a student. Each shift in the Blower requires a certain timing, a specific direction of pressure on the shifter and, above all else, patience.
While I surely made Robin cringe with the early grinds, I eventually got the hang of the one-two shift reliably. The two-three was a challenge, but I realized that if I paused and exhaled while passing through neutral things went smoother. The process of driving this car, worth millions of British pounds, required so much focus that I found it to be an almost meditative experience, far more engaging than any modern car I’ve ever had the privilege of driving.
It’s a remarkable machine and I have immense respect for Robin for hustling its sister car across Italy for four days.
And what about the Mille Miglia itself? It is unique, something that could only exist in Italy, where the appreciation for racing runs deep enough for the public to overlook the risks and inconvenience. But, I worry it won’t exist there for much longer either — not thanks to the Mille itself, but thanks to the numerous hangers-on in modern exotics who chase the race at speed. We were constantly barraged by swarms of modern cars, stickered up with whatever club they belonged, making ill-advised passes and generally showing a remarkable lack of respect. Whenever I saw crashes, and I saw more than a few, it was these cars who were at fault, sometimes with tragic results.
But left to the classics, the right cars for the race, the Mille Miglia is incredible. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever had the privilege of doing, and if this article has whetted your appetite, I’m glad to say you can run almost the entirety of the rally yourself. The Mille organizers have posted the entire routebook online. So download it, plug it into your GPS and go onward to adventure. You’ll have to do without the cheering fans, but running at your own pace you can schedule in all the pasta stops you like, and that seems like a fair trade to me.
Editors’ note:Travel costs related to this feature were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it’s far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. While Roadshow accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews, all scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms.
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