Ninety years ago, four young motor racing enthusiasts, passionate about Le Mans 24-hours and Formula One racing, came up with the idea of a 1600 km race around Italy.
Count Aymo Maggi, Franco Mazzotti, Giovanni Canestrini and Renzo Castagneto threw down the gauntlet and challenged cars and drivers to race to their limit.
The first race, staged on all types of road surfaces, even gravel, took place in 1927, Brescia to Rome and back again; the final race was held in 1957 when Marquis Alfonso crashed 25 miles from the finish, killing himself, his co-driver and 10 spectators. Until that tragic accident, the danger had not really been seen as a concern, to drivers or the thousands of spectators lining the route.
The first winner completed the course in just less than 21 hours and 5 minutes, averaging nearly 78 km/h (48 mph) in his 2-litre OM. The fastest race was recorded by Moss and Jenkinson in a Mercedes Benz 300 SLR in just 10 hours, 7 minutes and 48 seconds: the famous #722 set the event record at an average of 157.650 km/h (97.96 mph)
The race crowned the drivers competing heroes and the cars desirable right up to today, as a car with a Mille Miglia history will fetch well over the market value.
From 1958 to 1961, the event resumed as a rally-like round trip at legal speeds with a few special stages driven at full speed. This, too, was eventually discontinued.
Since 1977, the name has been revived as the Mille Miglia Storica, a parade for pre-1957 cars; it takes several days, involving time trials and special timed stages.
The next entry was in 1935, when two privateers entered with works car LM17 and Ulster B5/549/U (loaned by the works). Unfortunately only the Ulster finished in 8th overall and 2nd in class.
In 1936 Clarke and Faulkner’s Aston Martin 1.5 litre Ulster was the only non-Italian car to start the race that year but did not finish, owing to a fuel feed failure, even though it won the class.
In 1937 Aston Martin was promoted by Dutch enthusiast Eddy Hertzberger in a two-litre speed model; Eddy had spent much time preparing the car for what
he was expecting to be a challenge; the Aston suffered a number of braking problems even before the race started. He ended up finishing a respectable sixteenth and second in class.
Owing to the Second World War, racing took a back seat, until 1950 when Tommy Wisdom piloted the lone Aston Martin DB2 in the 18th Mille Miglia race as a private entry.
The car was the personal property of David Brown; VMF 64, which had been loaned to Tommy, was prepared by the Service Department at Feltham for the race.
Tommy was well in touch with the leaders and finished a respectable eleventh overall, some two hours after the winning Ferrari, and the champion in the 2000cc class.
In 1951, out of the eight cars which made up the British contingent of the 246 entries, two private entries (Ernest Stapleton in his Speed model and Tom Wisdom in the DB2) were Aston Martins.
In 1952 Aston Martin was better prepared, with the works team and privateers Tommy Wisdom and Ernest Stapleton. The latter was perceived to be just an enthusiast returning for the enjoyment, but Tommy Wisdom in his dated DB2 was taken more seriously.
The works team consisted of Nigel Mann in a DB2, Reg Parnell in a DB2, and George Abecassis in a DB2. Only Tommy Wisdom and Reg Parnell finished first and second in their class. Parnell commented after the race that “a British car and driver could win this”.
Tommy Wisdom completed the race at an average speed of 71.92 mph; not bad for a privateer!
With the growth of Aston Martin’s production and patron David Brown’s racing policy of selling cars, Aston Martin was pushing itself to the front of the sports car market, so it became more important to win some serious races.
The Aston Martin field in 1953 consisted of Peter Collins in a DB3, Reg Parnell in a DB3, George Abercassis in a DB3; bringing up the rear, privateer Tommy Wisdom, the most consistently successful Aston Martin driver in a lightweight DB2, XMC 77. Unfortunately Tommy did not finish the race, owing to a rear axle failure.
With Parnell finishing fifth, Collins taking 17th place (in a car which looked like he had been off-roading) and Abecassis crashing out in Florence, time was of the essence, as all three cars had to be ready for the June Le Mans line-up.
Only two Aston Martins took part in the 1954 start line; a respectable fifth place was achieved by Peter Colons in the modified DB3S, but without any class positions.
The famous 1955 race with Sterling Moss beating all records saw Peter Collins in the DB3S, Paul Frere in a DB2/4, and (back in his DB2/4), Tommy Wisdom. No Aston positions or indeed entries were claimed for 1956 and 1957.
Due to a number of fatal accidents, and concerns over spectator safety, the race was stopped. From 1958 to 1961 the race was turned into a timed rally, but the original organisers were reluctant to participate any longer and the event lost its sparkle.
The Mille Miglia Retrospective was first held in 1987 and is now a premier classic motor racing event. Owners of Mille Miglia type-cars (cars which have competed before 1957) drive at top speed over an itinerary close to that used for the original road race and with a police escort. It may not claim the death toll of the original race, but it remains a dangerous event and at least one competitor (or, should we say, “entrant”, as drivers are not supposed to be competing with each other) has been killed so far.
To date, a number of Aston Martin cars have been entered and with 17 out of a 460-strong field being Aston Martins, it is quite a good overall turnout.
Only once has an Aston Martin finished on the podium: that was in 2011, in a 1933 Short Chassis Le Mans.
Aston Martin entries come from all over the world: France, Austria, Italy, Holland, Germany, Spain, Poland, Japan and USA.
Once you have competed, you have to admire those outright racers, with standard cars racing over some of the worst road conditions with very little assistance and in a car which had been driven to the event.
Even the long-term future of the Retrospective must be uncertain, so let’s enjoy the event while we still can.
If you would like to know more about Aston Martin cars at the Mille Miglia or the event, please contact: