Not quite la dolce vita, but it’s hard to resist 1,000 chaotic miles in a rare Alfa

Italy’s Mille Miglia is a badly managed exercise in sleep and food deprivation, but when you get a chance like this you have to let your heart rule your head

Wed, Jun 19, 2013, 01:00

There was a time when Italy had a 1,000-mile road race from Brescia, in the north, down to Rome and back. Fifty-six people were killed in the Mille Miglia by the time it was shut down, in 1957, by which time it was such an attraction that more than 10 per cent of the population of the country lined the roads to watch a sport whose popularity surpassed even the football of today.

The Mille Miglia is still run, revived in the 1970s and open to any car that could have competed in the original. It is no longer a race, but few in the modern Mille Miglia seem to appreciate that, and fewer still know how to win it, or care.

Its route reads like a tour guide for Italian villages and cities, from the impossible romance of Verona to Ferrara, Ravenna, the mountain republic of San Marino, Assisi and Rome. It turned north to Siena, then Florence and a charge over the ancient Futa and Raticosa passes to Bologna, then motor valley central in Modena before a crazed blast across the Po Valley flatlands back to Brescia.

Among the Mille Miglia crews this year were the writer Greg Kable and myself in a 1954 Alfa Romeo 2000 Sportiva, wheeled out of Alfa’s museum just for this event. Only two were ever built.

It’s a car Alfa should have produced, with 101kW of power out of its 2.0-litre four, fed by a pair of side-draught Weber carburetors and driving through a five-speed gearbox. Decades ahead of its time, the Sportiva had a hand-beaten aluminium body that looked far longer than its 3.6m and weighed just 900kg.

Day 1: Brescia to Ferrara
It is raining hard with night falling when we start, at 8.30pm on a Thursday, and our windscreen wipers quickly prove they are purely decorative. Worse, we have no headlights.

You can see Alfa’s dilemma. It could update its Sportiva or leave it as original as possible, as a museum piece. It chose the latter, and we choose to drive around its issues, promising circumspection.

Minutes after being waved off the ramp in pouring rain we’re slicing through Brescia, trying to keep the Alfa above 4000rpm, because the engine works better there. And the higher revs make the crowds wave harder, which generates its own enthusiasm inside the car – and, suddenly, the sight of other priceless artifacts sliding between the barriers, the noise of people screaming “Alfa!” and pointing and clapping as we pass. It’s a sensory overload, and, by agreement, circumspection disappears.

It’s madness, and we aren’t the only culpable ones. The motorcycle police are in the thick of it, encouraging it, and the public actively expects it.

But there is so much rain that they cancel the intricate stages around Verona, and, lacking contingency planning, the Mille Miglia grinds to a halt as Romeo and Juliet central becomes a static motorsport museum. For hours. We arrive at Ferrara at 3.30am, then have to check into a hotel. There are no spectators left, there is no food, and we get to bed after 4am.

Day 2: Ferrara to Roma
Daylight means we can finally see out of the windscreen, which means we can explore the car’s terrific, strong heart with more confidence. That engine and gearbox gain our respect. It pushes along beautifully between 4000rpm and 6000rpm, and its shifts are slick and sharp.

Back in the day, Alfa claimed a top speed of 220km/h for the 2000 Sportiva. We see about 170km/h, and the car would be happy to go faster. The police rider with us would be happy to see it go faster, too, along with the spectators along the road and other cars. The only ones who don’t want to go any quicker are Greg and I, who are, coincidentally, the only ones who know how much road we’d need to stop from this speed. We calculate on it needing plenty, cubed.

By now we are among the 15 factory-museum Benzes directly in front of us. More interesting are jaw-droppingly beautiful cars like a 1955 Ferrari 750 Monza, a Ferrari 375 MM Berlinetta and a host of Alfa and Cisitalia coupés and C-Type Jaguars. And all of them are being thrashed as hard as our Sportiva.

Night falls again long before Roma arrives, then Italian organisation has us spending two hours in a dusty layby on the city’s outskirts. When we are finally escorted, slowly, around some of the most important sites in the western world, we can muster only indifference. By now it is 2am, we’ve been in the Alfa for 16 hours and we need to be back on the start line at 7.28am.

Day 3: Rome to Brescia
The third day is the biggest. According to the road book we’ve got 16 hours of driving ahead of us. We need to be in Brescia at 23.28.

Fortunately, apart from petrol fumes burning our eyes and a brake that feels like the pads are like roller skates on wet marble, we’ve gained confidence in the little Alfa.

It has a heart like a racehorse, full of enthusiasm and strength. But it is the trustworthiness of the ladder-frame chassis that impresses us the most. We get used to the floppy steering and drive around it. We get used to the lack of brakes and use understeer instead.

It is a chassis we can throw around the mountains with a confidence that frightens plenty of faster cars out of our way. Passing a Ferrari MM 375 Berlinetta on the outside of a sweeper is a buzz, passing a Maserati 200 S is another, and hacking our way through the squadron of SL Benzes – repeatedly – is another.

One jaw-droppingly beautiful Italian mountain-top village passes into another as we cross Tuscany, with the little Alfa humming joyfully, happy to be galloping out of captivity, and then it’s the Futa Pass. The ancient road from Firenze to Bologna, it crosses two mountain ranges and is one of the great drivers’ roads of the world.

The roads are still hedged with people when we arrive, and everybody wants to be part of the show, which is what it must have been like in the 1950s.

It seems like every car club in Europe is here: Austin Healy clubs, Ferrari clubs, Maserati clubs, Ferrari clubs and, of course, Alfa Romeo clubs. There are also MGs, a fleet of Mercedes-McLaren SLRs (including two 722 Stirling Moss editions) and a host of Paganis, and they all do their best to dive out of the way whenever a Mille Miglia car looms large. These people make the Futa Pass special.

Reinvigorated by their enthusiasm, we punch the Alfa past two police escort riders and uncork it. Rising 60 years old, it responds to the Alfa Romeo club, gathered at the top of the Raticosa Pass’s hotel. They roar wildly, flags waving, as the Alfa baps down a gear, rolls on its rear springs and squats hard under full power, diving down the mountains into Bologna.

Then, past Bologna, I inadvertently giggle at driving through the Ferrari factory and out on to the Fiorano circuit, even though I was unofficially banned, years ago, by the car company that thinks it’s a country as public enemy number one.

And then, after nightfall, 200km from Brescia, the Alfa coughs and spits and dies. Our support crew fiddles with a new battery behind the seats, and we climb back in, with the warning to follow them and not to use the lights under any circumstances.

We follow their 159 Sportwagon. You’d be shot for trying it anywhere else in the world. You’d be shot several times for what Kable does next. With no lights on and with his codriver now holding an Exposure mountain-bike light out of the passenger window, he’s decided we are running out of time, and he overtakes them.

Then he realises he can’t see. Then he realises the oncoming cars can’t see us. But he perseveres, until we are passed by one of the Mille Miglia sweep cars with awesome headlights.

This guy knows what he’s doing and, more importantly, quickly figures out what we’re doing. Then he sets sail at about 130km/h with his lights on high beam, braking early when needed, indicating early where needed until we’re in Brescia, where we scramble over the finish ramp, second last, of the 2013 Mille Miglia.

The aftermath
The Mille Miglia leaves us with two conclusions. First, if Alfa wants to return to the emotional hold it had in the 1960s, the upcoming 4C needs to be the spiritual successor of this very car and deliver an incredibly strong powertrain, faithful chassis poise, light handling and crisp gearbox – and be a bloody good drive.

Second, the Mille Miglia is the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done in a car. It’s a badly managed exercise in sleep and food deprivation, and, if it’s the driving you love, there are other events that let you do more of the kind of driving you’ll enjoy.

I’d have to think very hard about doing the Mille Miglia again, if asked. The sensible part of my brain says no. But my heart knows what the real decision would be.

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