It was with a small fit of protest and a bit of anxiety that I agreed to write this week’s entry. As you are well aware, I am a guest on Andilit, and Andi has been a very gracious host to me. She agreed to let me spew forth my words of nonsense about subjects which likely hold very little interest for her these past 9 weeks. It was this Wednesday when she told me the news. “My 1,000th blog post is this Friday!”

I knew that stealing her spotlight on this milestone occasion is the writing equivalent to allowing my dog to relieve herself on Andi’s carpet. It would be awkward. It would be there for all to see. It could prove quite difficult to sweep under the rug. Most of all, it just wouldn’t be right. Nevertheless, she demanded that I write something for her to commemorate this great moment. Believe me when I tell you that it was with great humbleness that I took fingers to keys for the following piece. If you choose to continue reading down this page, please think of Andi and this accomplishment. Drop her a line. Send her a card. Deposit cash into her account. Let her know how you truly feel. (within reason)

A thousand entries. May it continue for many thousands to come.

Felice Mille, Andi!

On Saturday I took a load of people on what is turning into an annual tour of sorts. We pack our Colemans full of Good Time Ice (despite the overly-festive name, it really is the best I’ve found), and all pile into the mighty white Sprinter van to head north in search of artisan butchers and cheese makers. (Personally, I don’t like calling them artisans, since neither they nor I truly know what that means.) It takes all day and much of one’s checking account. We return that evening weary and worn, reeking of curds and a bit drunk on fruitwood smoke.

That day, on the back roads of Berks and Lehigh counties, I felt most at home. A man of Germanic descent driving a van of German origin on roads that appeared for the world like a ribbon of asphalt weaving its way through the Schwarzwald. Bank barns of limestone foundations lined the road as it emptied out from the black canopy of trees and into the knobs of earth that formed the farmland. Steep hills gave way to flat floodplains containing sweet pastureland that would make the corners of any dairyman’s mouth curl slightly in modest approval. The rises and falls and twists and turns of these roads are a wonderful pleasing experience to drive on. Stomachs churn and hearts race over this terrain. It leaves you wanting more. It got me thinking about driving them in an aggressive manner and how challenging they could prove. Don’t get me wrong—the Sprinter chassis is far more capable than anyone gives it credit for and, in the hands of the right driver, can leave most cars in its very large wake. I found myself short of sick bags, so I saved my passengers from potential embarrassment and kept it to a spirited, but pedestrian pace. Instead, I thought of machinery that would make this jaunt the most rewarding. I longed for something with a responsive attitude and steering with Swiss-watch precision. It should also exhibit a slight deficit in power to require thought and precision in the cornering lines. A Porsche 912 would do the trick, as would an Alfa Romeo GTA. Some of the steeper hills would require a quick rev-matched downshift to keep momentum–a lost art in modern motoring. In my mind, nothing impresses the ladies quite as much as a crisp double-clutch down change. (Remember…this is in my mind only.) I could be in my own little blissful world–My Mini Mille Miglia.

The real Mille Miglia was not a dream, but often a harsh reality for those that participated. It pushed men to their limit and tested the stamina and determination of all who entered. Started in 1927, the race course was mapped out over public roads for 1,000 Roman miles, beginning in Brescia, in northern Italy. Red arrow signs helpfully pointed out the correct path to follow at intersections. The participants raced all the way to Rome and back, which turns out to be just over 1,000 of our current miles. (1,005 to be exact) The course took the cars around sweeping turns cutting through fields of freshly planted spring wheat. Arched stone bridges dating back to the ancient Romans now carried these modern chariots across the waterways. Thousands of Italians were coaxed out of their homes to watch by the gruff growl of an Alfa straight-8 and would stay under the thin veil of safety provided by barriers constructed of stacked straw bales.

The fee to enter the race was only a single lira, which seems insignificant by today’s standards, but in 1927 terms it was the equivalent to the price of an entire paperclip. The real cost was the toll it took on the men that entered the race. Racing flat-out over public roads for over 20 hours tends to wear ones’ nerves down to the breaking point. Picture yourself driving very aggressively on some gratifying roads. Now imagine that route continuing for 1,000 miles instead of just 5. Envision doing it with no power-assist in the steering or brakes. Legs and arms would burn from fatigue within minutes, with many hours to go. More often than not, the cars were of an open-cockpit design, which meant that wind, rain, bugs, and whatever the car in front kicked up had to be dealt with. When the drivers reached their destination they often looked like weary raccoons, with just their eyes kept clean by the goggles and their paws in need of a good washing, too.

Nearly every driver employed the talents of a co-driver. (The great Juan Manuel Fangio chose to drive the Mille solo) While the circuit favored local Italian drivers with knowledge of the roads, co-drivers were still a necessary part of the equation. Machinery broke down on a routine basis, and when it would, it was up to you and the co-driver to get it back on the road as soon as possible. Teamwork and co-operation were often crucial keys to the success of the winners. Co-drivers weren’t just self-propelled jacks. They were also useful for their navigating skills. Sir Sterling Moss and his co-driver, Denis “Jenks” Jenkinson, attempted to even out the road knowledge advantage enjoyed by the locals. (Italians had won all but 2 of the events up until this point.) In 1955 they took 6 laps of the route in an effort to get to know the terrain. Over those 6,000 miles Jenks took careful notes of curves, bridges, and intersections that they would encounter. He wrote them all down on a long scroll (over 15’ in length) that he could easily manage during the bumpy event. As good as the notes were they would be of no use to Moss, since the wind noise would prevent Jenks from communicating any details to him. A solution was found in a creating a short-hand sign language with gestures to represent specific hazards or directional changes that lay ahead. It likely appeared to the spectators as though the two Brits were playing an animated game of Rock, Paper, Scissors as they passed by. (Moss was only concerned about Rock.) Whether it was these key notes of Jenkinson or the car control of Moss, their teamwork paid off with the win that year.

There were dangers on the course, too. While the roads were closed for the event, the threat of injury or death was constantly looming for the participants. In 1938, Mussolini shut down the race, due to a particularly nasty crash that killed spectators. He feared for the well-being of the public, ironically. The race restarted in 1947 (after the war) without any formal protest from Mussolini, who remained strangely silent on the issue. Several drivers were killed during the 24 years the Mille was run. The final fatalities resulted in 1957 in with one accident taking the life of Joseph GÓ§ttgens and another incident claimed the lives of driver Alfonso de Portago and his co-driver Edmund Nelson, along with 9 spectators, including 5 children. That would be the final year of the race through the countryside.

With risk, there did come some reward. The technologies utilized by cars grew by leaps and bounds because of the Mille Miglia. Horsepower was important, but so was fuel economy. Tires had to last in those brutal conditions far longer than they did before. A broken car is not a fast car. The antiquated lighting systems had to be upgraded and manufacturers were constantly looking for ways to improve the candlepower and reliability of the headlights and taillights. A blind driver is a slow driver. Building a dedicated racing car is relatively easy, but building a car that is fast, lasts, and is streetable for 20 hours is an entirely different proposition. The automobile changed because of this race.

“When I talk about the Mille Miglia, I feel quite moved, for it played such a big part in my life. I knew it as a driver, a team director and a constructor … and was always an admirer of its champions. In fact, the Mille Miglia not only provided enormous technical advances during its three decades, it really did breed champions.

I was present at every one of the twenty-four Mille Miglias that were run and was numbed by the tragic accident in 1957 when the marchese de Portago was killed driving one of my cars, causing the race to be banned.

In my opinion, the Mille Miglia was an epoch-making event, which told a wonderful story. The Mille Miglia created our cars and the Italian automobile industry. The Mille Miglia permitted the birth of GT, or grand touring cars, which are now sold all over the world. The Mille Miglia proved that by racing over open roads for 1,000 miles, there were great technical lessons to be learned by the petrol and oil companies and by brake, clutch, transmission, electrical and lighting component manufacturers, fully justifying the old adage that motor racing improves the breed.”-Enzo Ferrari

The Mille Miglia was about adventure, conquering the countryside, and pushing man & machine to the limit. As Mr. Ferrari so aptly pointed out, it improved the breed–whether he was referring to the man or the machine, I cannot say with certainty. The race was a graceful spectacle for all participants. It cost some their lives,while others were fortunate to escape with theirs. I must confess that I would love to see another race like this emerge today. Whether it be on a loop that would include Routes 143 and 125 in central Pennsylvania and Route 33 in western Virginia, or a more remote location like the Road to Hana on Maui, I would find a way to take it in. Sadly, I do not believe I will ever see it come into fruition. The costly logistics of road closures and constant threat of lawsuit would prevent even the most determined organizer from attempting a feat of this magnitude. It’s a shame, since I believe a great number of people would grow to anticipate the unique event each year. Locals could spend the day picnicking and relaxing, taking a break from the day devoted to their family just long enough to watch the racers go by. It would be just like the Tour de France, but the only whining you could hear would be emitted from the straight-cut gearsets of the cars.

Jansen Herr lives in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania with his loving Norwegian Elkhound, Mika. When not writing, he occupies his time attempting to save old European rolling stock from the jaws of the crusher, as well as from himself. If not ruining fine machinery, he is likely found in the saddle of an obscure motorcycle. He also attempts to play bass, cook, and is usually successful staring at walls.

Jansen Herr