14.06.20 Liveryman Chris Mann

An Italian adventure

How a late-night conversation resulted in the rebuild of an XK120, and a 1,000-mile high-speed drive round Italy

It all started on 7th September 2013 after an informal car rally I had organised for the Guild of Motoring Writers, writes Liveryman Chris Mann. At the post-event barbeque, fellow competitor and ex McLaren F1 team co-ordinator Jo Ramirez and I were bemoaning the bubble occupied by modern-day Formula One stars, totally remote from the rest of humanity. This was, we agreed, a far cry from their predecessors, legends like Nuvolari, Varzi, Ascari, Fangio and Moss, giants of the sport who, as well as competing in Grands Prix, raced alongside fellow professionals, rich playboys and enthusiastic amateurs in sports car races, rallies and high profile events such as Le Mans, the Targa Florio and the Mille Miglia.

Those halcyon days may be long gone but the Mille Miglia, once described by Enzo Ferrari as ‘the most beautiful race in the world’ lives on, now run as a retrospective and one of the hottest tickets in the classic car competition world. During the course of my conversation with Jo, it turned out that the Mille Miglia retrospective was at the top of both our ‘bucket lists’ and so, following a few more glasses of Gamay, we decided to try to obtain an entry for next year’s race in my 1953 Jaguar XK120 Roadster. This model had competed in the Mille Miglia ‘proper’ and was, therefore, eligible to run in the retrospective but obtaining an entry for this high-profile event was notoriously difficult, akin to finding a winning lottery ticket. It occurred to me, though, that having Jo Ramirez on board (Jo having worked for Maserati, Ferrari and Lamborghini back in the 1960s and something of a legend in Italy) might help matters.

The Mille Miglia ‘proper’

First staged in 1927, the Mille Miglia was a 1,000-mile road race which ran from Brescia, heading east to the Adriatic coast then south to Rome, up the Mediterranean coast and back across the Appenines to Brescia. Competitors ranged from weekend warriors in their FIAT specials to the top professionals of the day. Just to take part in the Mille Miglia was a huge challenge but to win required unprecedented levels of skill, stamina, courage and luck.

After an interruption during the war years the Mille Miglia re-started in 1947 and the following year the recently established Ferrari marque won the race for the first time. Ferrari went on to win eight of the 11 post-war Mille Miglias, its stranglehold on the event only broken by Ascari’s Lancia in 1954 and, most famously, when the 300SL Mercedes of the late, great Stirling Moss and navigator Denis Jenkinson triumphed in 1955. Moss and Jenkinson completed the race in 10 hours 7 minutes and 48 seconds, not only annihilating the previous course record but also beating second-place man, the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio in another 300SL, by nearly 40 minutes.

Just two years later the outcry following a horrific crash in which Scuderia Ferrari driver the Marquis de Portago, his navigator Ed Nelson and nine spectators lost their lives, led to the race being banned. In the 1980s, though, the Mille Miglia was revived as a retrospective event for historic cars and has since become the world’s most exclusive classic car competition, a magnet for celebrities and aficionados alike.

The story of an XK120

I had bought ‘my’ XK some 10 years ago from fellow motoring journalist Ray Potter and it did have period competition history (an important factor in getting an entry for the Mille Miglia) in the hands of then-owner Michael Brook. Brook’s family were Yorkshire-based industrialists who owned Brook Motors, then the world’s largest producer of industrial AC motors. Michael had been given the XK as a 21st birthday present using it, he said ‘for courting during the week and racing at the weekend at long forgotten Yorkshire circuits such as Marston Moor, Full Sutton and Rufforth’.

Since Michael Brook’s ownership, though, the car has clearly had a pretty chequered career and despite an ‘every expense spared’ rebuild in the 1980s was now pretty tired, fine for pottering round on a Sunday afternoon but in no fit state to take part in a 1,000-mile high speed thrash round Italy. To achieve our objective therefore, we not only needed to obtain an entry for the Mille Miglia but also to have a car capable of completing the race. I did not wish to emulate the embarrassment suffered by celebrity chef James Martin who, having spent a fortune on rebuilding a Maserati to compete in the 2008 Mille Miglia, retired ignominiously and expensively within a few miles of the start.

Bureaucracy rules

Having spoken to a friend on the Mille Miglia organising committee, Jo called me up to say that our chances of getting an entry looked good, so I set about completing the long and complex Mille Miglia entry form. This was a major challenge and demonstrated in spades that Italy’s reputation for arcane bureaucracy is fully justified. Included in the 20 pages of information demanded by the organisers was the requirement to provide a vast array of photos of the car, shot from every angle known to man. Entries had also to be accompanied by a FIVA historic car passport, available in the UK through the Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs (FBHVC) which turned out to be very helpful and accommodating, returning the XK’s FIVA passport in double quick time which enabled me to include it with the Mille Miglia paperwork before the now looming entry deadline.

Sorting the car was now the most urgent priority and on the advice of my friend and noted Jaguar guru Philip Porter I had approached XK specialist Simon Hemsley, who looked after Philip’s own impressive stable. Simon was enthusiastic about the project, accepted the challenge and agreed a schedule. Due to pressure of work Simon could not start on my XK until December but provided me with a ‘to do’ list in preparation for the rebuild, as well as suggesting that I replace the standard ‘vee-screen’ and bench-type seats with competition-type bucket seats and aero-screens such as were available in period as Jaguar works options.

First steps

Simon had suggested approaching Aldridge Trimming for the competition seats and Leaping Cats for the screen cowls, whilst an old friend (ex D Type owner and well-known historic racer John Guyatt) recommended Bedfordshire based T&L Engineering for the engine rebuild. I finally set off in the XK from my home in Long Marston to Simon’s workshop in Herefordshire on December 12th, a delightful cross-country drive which reminded me just how enjoyable these cars are to drive, even in the tired old state that mine was in.

Gathering pace

By early February Simon had removed the engine and gearbox and I had delivered the former to T&L who were to regrind the crank, replace the big-end and main bearings, carry out a re-bore and replace the pistons, as well as carrying out various other necessary tasks. This included the fitment of a new oil pump supplied by Coventry Auto Components who proved an efficient, user friendly and reasonably priced source of XK parts, as well as expert advice and information, highly recommended.

In the middle of the month we finally heard, to our great delight and considerable relief, that our entry had been accepted by the Mille Miglia organisers. Simon, meantime, was forging ahead and T&L were well on the way to completing the engine rebuild. Aldridge Trimming was busy making the new competition seats and tonneau cover, as well as producing a complete interior trim kit to replace the somewhat scuzzy door trims and carpets fitted during the car’s previous rebuild.

It turned out that the Mille Miglia organisers were insistent that cars presented for scrutiny must be exactly as depicted in their FIVA passport and entry-form photos. This was a potential disaster, as the FIVA form and photographs I’d submitted showed the car in its standard form, so we were going to need to produce a new set of photos as well as a revised FIVA passport if we were to avoid risking the ignominy of being thrown out. Fortunately Simon had already fitted the cowls and aero-screens and I was able to collect the competition seats and trim kit from Aldridge, less than three weeks after ordering them. This enabled us to shoot a complete new set of photos mid-rebuild, showing the car in its ‘competition’ guise, an awkward and time-consuming task which Simon, fortunately, took in his stride.

Meantime I had explained the problem of the FIVA passport to the ever-helpful Rosy Pugh of the FBHVC and downloaded another application form. This had to be countersigned by a suitable marque authority to confirm the car was ‘exactly what it said on the tin’ but, fortunately, good-old Philip Porter did the necessary and I was able to express mail the completed and countersigned form to the FBHVC in double quick time.

It was now March and my stress levels were going through the roof, whilst the contents of my wallet were heading rapidly in the other direction. Simon though, despite the off-piste shenanigans with the photographs, was still making good progress and the engine rebuild was also going to plan. I then had a call from FIVA to say that my ‘new’ passport might be delayed. It seemed that the FBHVC had run out of passport blanks and were awaiting a new delivery from FIVA so, to placate the Mille Miglia organisers, Rosy Pugh kindly sent me a ‘to whom it may concern’ letter confirming that my revised passport was being processed.

Two steps forward, one step back

Just as my stress levels were returning to normal, I had a call from T&L to tell me they had hit a last-minute snag. A minor crack in the block had been discovered when they were carrying out the final pressure test. They could stitch the block and cure the leak but the engine would have to be dismantled and the block stripped. This was going to throw out our schedule but after consultation with Simon I decided to authorise the necessary work. The repair completed, I collected the rebuilt engine from T&L at the end of March and delivered it back to Simon’s Worcestershire workshop, but the delay meant that it would be touch and go as to whether the car could be completed in time. Simon worked flat out and, two weeks before our scheduled departure, the car was ready for its initial road test. Ten miles into Simon’s shake-down test-run, disaster struck as a core plug blew out of the cylinder block, inundating the engine bay – and Simon – with boiling water. It turned out that the post-repair acid-dip to strip the block had compromised the integrity of the new core plugs fitted during the engine rebuild. There was no alternative but to remove and completely strip the engine, replace the core plugs (this time with competition-type retaining straps) and then put everything back together, normally a week’s work. Fortunately, Simon managed to enlist help and complete the task in just two days, a herculean effort for which I will be eternally grateful whilst T&L, horrified at what had happened, were very professional and arranged to cover the cost of the extra work entailed by Simon.

Final preparations

My friend Chris Connelly, the boss of Thame Crash Repair Centre, had kindly offered to transport the XK to Italy in his smart new Brian James race-shuttle and act as manager of the Mann/Ramirez IBIS Mille Miglia Team. Chris and I were due to depart for Italy on Sunday 11th May, having arranged to meet Jo in Brescia late the following day, in time for ‘scrutineering’ on the Tuesday. A couple of weeks before the off, though, I was contacted by the organisers of a select ‘style and elegance’ concours, Franciacorte in fiore, being held in Brescia the Sunday before the Mille Miglia, It appeared that the ’50 most beautiful cars contesting the Mille Miglia’ were being invited to the event, my XK among them! The invitation was a great accolade but my acceptance meant that we would have to depart for Italy two days earlier than originally planned. Despite the core-plug disaster, Simon met the challenge and early on Friday 9th May Chris and I Ioaded the newly completed XK into his race-shuttle and departed for Dover, catching P&O’s midday ferry by the skin of our teeth.

The trip to Italy

Our journey to Italy was relatively trouble free, although we managed to get totally lost in France despite (or probably because of) the AA’s route planner instructions. Chris and I eventually made it to Chaumont late on Friday and even managed to find secure covered parking for our 12m long equipe at the Grand Hotel de France (very French, not very grand). The following morning, after breakfast, we went to retrieve the Range Rover and race shuttle only to discover that the latter had sustained a puncture, a legacy of hitting a kerb in the narrow streets of Chaumont the previous evening. After fitting the spare wheel we headed for Italy, abandoning the AA instructions in favour of a map and made it to our Brescia base, the Hotel Cristallo, without further incident late on Saturday afternoon. Whilst basic, the Cristallo was clean, comfortable and, at 43 Euros a night, a bargain. The owner’s son Alessandro was extremely helpful, spoke excellent English and allowed us to park the Range Rover and XK-bearing race shuttle in the hotel’s forecourt. After a terrific meal at a nearby restaurant recommended by Alessandro, Chris Connelly and I retired to our respective beds, both sleeping like logs despite the noise of the trains from the nearby railway station.

The Sunday concours

We had to make an early start on Sunday as we were required at the Palazzo Piccolo Maggi for the Franciatore in fiume concours by 11am. Other participants included an assortment of pre and post war Aston Martins, a TriumphTR2, assorted Ferraris, Maseratis and OSCAs and various 1950s Mille Miglia specials, as well as an enormous 1957 Oldsmobile Rocket 88. This had been driven by its owner across the USA from his home in San Diego to Savannah, then shipped to Genoa and piloted from there to Brescia to compete in the Mille Miglia, impressive indeed.

When one was eventually bored by the cars, the beautiful palazzo and the excellent food provided by the organisers, there was a display of elegant and expensive watches provided by Mille Miglia sponsor Chopard to lust after (you could tell they were expensive by the young, elegant and perfectly groomed sales staff, plus the looming presence of uniformed armed guards on hand to deter any potential miscreants tempted to do a runner with the stock or, possibly, the sales staff).

Following the presentations (in Italian and interminably lengthy) we listened to a talk on the history of the ‘original’ Mille Miglia and the Palazzo, the family home of Mille Miglia founding father Count Maggi, This was also in Italian but greatly enlivened by a translation provided by Joska Biondetti, the great-nephew of Count Maggi, who was even more elegant than the Chopard sales team and spoke better English than David Attenborough..

Monday – getting ready

On Monday morning Chris Connelly and I set about the task of putting the sponsors’ signage on our race shuttle, a job we naively assumed could be completed in a couple of hours. In the event, it took all day and we eventually finished late in the afternoon, just as Jo arrived, having flown in from Spain with his girlfriend Ursula. As we were standing around admiring our handiwork, our attention was attracted by the unmistakeable yowl of a V12 Ferrari. A travel stained British registered Ferrari 275GTB4 screeched to a halt right next to us, its occupants staring balefully at the GPS app on their iPhone. ‘We’re lost’ they said ‘we’re looking for the Ambassador Hotel which the sat-nav, says should be here but there’s no sign of it’. I sought out our new best friend Allesandro, who smilingly showed the relieved occupants the rather grand hotel opposite, almost completely hidden by the trees lining the street. Thanking us, the Ferrari’s driver made a tyre squealing U-turn in the street and parked his £2 million classic on the double yellow lines outside his hotel. Here it remained until the following day, its owner clearly untroubled by concerns over parking tickets, thieves or vandals.

Scrutineering – and socialising

The following morning we set off to join the rest of the 451 Mille Miglia competitors who were gathering at the Brescia Fiero for scrutineering, and to complete the seemingly interminable paperwork required by the organisers. Despite our fears the process was remarkably casual and the two days spent at the Fiero proved relaxed and enjoyable. There was a large British contingent, augmented by a dozen cars entered by Jaguar Heritage whose boss, Tony O’Keefe, kindly invited us to its team dinner on Wednesday night. This gave us the chance to socialise with the likes of Martin Brundle, Bruno Senna and the actor Jeremy Irons (who seemed totally bemused by the whole affair) as well as supermodel and historic racer Jodie Kidd, AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson and Jaguar designer Ian Callum, along with the charming Jay Leno, well-known petrol-head and chat-show host.

The race

At 4pm on Thursday 15th, May 2014 Jo and I set off with our fellow competitors from the Brescia Fiero to wend our way to the Mille Miglia start line, a chaotic 5km drive through Brescia’s rush-hour traffic. The first competitor, a Swiss/German crewed 1930 OM, was due to depart at 6pm and our Mille Miglia adventure was scheduled to begin at 7.27pm, a few minutes after Jeremy Irons, Jodie Kidd and Jay Leno, all in XK120s, and Brian Johnson in the Jaguar Heritage C Type. Jo took the first stint in our XK, the commentator giving us a great send off from the iconic Mille Miglia start ramp, seemingly far more excited by Jo’s presence than that of the preceding ‘A’ list celebrities.

Leaving Brescia we turned east towards the Adriatic coast, part of an ever-evolving high speed crocodile of classic competition cars cheered on by the thousands of spectators lining the streets as we threaded our way through the picturesque towns and villages of northern Italy, enthusiastically waved through red traffic lights, by the local Polizia. Every so often we would be diverted on to a timed section which required us to travel a series of set distances in specified times, measured to 1,000ths of a second. These were, it appeared, critical to success (well, the main sponsor was Chopard). Even though a sophisticated rally meter had been fitted to the car, neither Jo nor I could work out how to use it and, lacking a computer literate nine year old to sort us out, our time-trial efforts rapidly descended into farce. Despite this, the scenery was superb, the evening was balmy and the car was running sweetly (thanks Simon). We were having the time of our lives, arriving at our first-night destination, the resort of Thermae Abano Montegrotto just beyond Padova, shortly after midnight,

Other than our time trial travails, we had completed the first leg of the 2014 Mille Miglia without drama having acquired a full set of control stamps in our race-card. We parked up in the piazza in front of our hotel and retired for some well-earned rest, having made a mental note to ditch the ‘in case of emergency’ waterproofs and sheepskin flying jackets taking up valuable stowage space behind the seats, a decision we were later to regret.

Friday – apres nous le deluge

After what seemed like about five minutes our slumbers were shattered by the alarm and we swiftly showered, shaved, repacked and met up for breakfast with Chris Connelly. In stark contrast to our relatively trouble-free run it turned out that Chris had suffered the ‘evening from hell’. Directed off-piste in his support car, with no route directions, a non-operational sat-nav and on his own Chris found it impossible to drive AND read his support crew pace notes which resulted in him getting totally lost. Eventually he was befriended by another support crew who continued with him in convoy to Montegrotto, where he arrived very late, very tired and very cross.

Day two was bright and sunny and, after checking the XK’s oil and water levels, Jo and I set off on the second leg of the Mille Miglia, a 775km marathon down the Adriatic then inland to Rome. Unfortunately our pre-start ministrations to the car resulted in us leaving 40 minutes late, one of the last cars to get away. Good progress was made, however, and we headed south through Rovigo, Ferrara and Ravenna to San Marino where we joined a high-speed train convoy heading up the steep approach into the mountaintop microstate that is the Most Serene Republic of San Marino. As we parked up for our lunch stop, former GP ace Bruno Senna bounced over to greet Jo and take a ‘selfie’ having arrived just behind us in the works long-nose D-Type Jaguar he was sharing with fellow ex-F1 pilote Martin Brundle.

Keen to make up time we decided to skip lunch and set off to mess up the next series of time-trials, before travelling to Ancona where the BMW mounted Polizia Stradale looking super-cool in their slim-line uniforms and mandatory shades escorted us in a 70mph convoy through the town centre, something I couldn’t imagine happening in Andover! Leaving Ancona, we went on to cock-up more time trials en-route to Casale then headed inland to the beautiful medieval city of Ascoli Piceno. Missing lunch had helped us to claw back much of our lost time and a quick stop to check fluid levels and fuel up left us ready to attack the next sector, Ascoli to L’Aquila. The weather, though, was beginning to turn, the hitherto blue skies now turning a menacing shade of grey. As we left the servicio following our fuel stop, we felt a few spots of rain but, hoping this would soon pass, we headed off into the mountains towards Teramo.

As dusk descended the heavens opened. Within minutes we were soaked through and frozen, our decision to ditch the waterproofs and flying jackets now clearly a grave error. The driving rain rendered vision non-existent so, slowing to a crawl, Jo removed his goggles to see if that would improve things. It didn’t, so I tried leaning across to wipe the rain off Jo’s aero-screen but this, too, proved unsuccessful. We then attempted ‘Plan B’ which was to fold back the aero-screens, which failed to improve matters, merely resulting in our faces taking the full force of the ice-cold driving rain.

Freezing cold, wet through and unable to see further than our noses, we crawled on through the darkness for hour after hour, our misery compounded by an engine misfire as water found its way into the distributor. Eventually the rain eased, although the misfire persisted until, in the last stages of hypothermia and exhaustion, we finally arrived in Teramo and the penultimate control stop. It was now 11.30pm and we had been on the road for nearly 16 hours.

‘How long will it take us to get to Rome?’ Jo asked the control marshal as he stamped our soggy route book. ‘About three hours’ he responded. Our hearts sank, there was no way we could drive for another three hours. We recalled seeing signs for the Rome autostrada a few miles back so decided to retrace our steps and get to Rome as soon as possible via the autostrada. This turned out to be a grievous error as it took us nearly two hours to reach the motorway and, when we did, we compounded our problems by ignoring the servicio assuming that Rome was now just a hop and a skip away.

The Jag was now noticeably down on power, struggling to exceed 50mph as we ground on through the night, the rain still falling but lighter now and intermittent. There were plenty of Roma signs but no indication of our distance from the eternal city and no servicios. By now our fuel level was running perilously low and, even though we had a spare petrol can in the boot, we were now seriously concerned that we might not make it.

After what seemed an eternity we finally reached the end of the motorway, the outskirts of Rome and, joy of joys, an open servicio. By this time Jo, who had been driving for most of the evening, was frozen stiff, suffering with serious cramp, and could drive no further. We refuelled and applied copious quantities of WD-40 to the distributor as we watched other competitors drive past, clearly having made the same daft decision as us.

Just then fellow competitors Ralph and Brigitte Dolega arrived alongside us in their tiny Mille Miglia Bianchi-Panhard, equally cold, equally wet and equally lost. A few minutes later an official Mille Miglia service vehicle drew up and we asked the two-man crew if they could direct us to our Rome destination. Neither spoke English and both were unimpressed by our total lack of moral fibre. Jo’s Italian eventually softened their stance and elicited the information that we should get onto the Rome ring-road and head anti-clockwise, taking the aeroporto exit. The Dolegas asked if they could follow us in their Bianchi-Panhard as neither spoke Italian and both were understandably concerned that if they got lost in Rome in the middle of the night they would really be in trouble. We happily agreed and our soggy convoy set off round the Roma ring road, eventually seeing the welcome signs for the aeroporti (note the ‘i’). Jo immediately realised that ‘i’ suffix indicated that there was more than one airport but which one did we need? We took the decision to take the first exit, for Ciampino but, after driving for several miles past increasingly deserted industrial estates, it became clear that we were on the wrong track. Eventually we came upon a group of teenagers who looked highly dodgy but turned out to be incredibly helpful. One of them used his phone to Google our hotel, the Sheraton, and gave us directions. It transpired that we should have taken the Fiumicello airport exit, not Ciampino.

It was now well past 2.30am and our sense of direction had by now totally deserted us. Back on the ring road but lost once more we eventually came across a taxi lurking on the hard shoulder, its driver relieving himself nearby. We ground to a halt and asked if he could lead us to the Sheraton. ‘No problem’ he grinned, zipping up his trousers ‘just pay me the meter fare’. It turned out that this time we’d gone way beyond the Fiumicello turn off so, following our new-found friend, we continued to the next exit and made yet another U-turn, the Bianchi-Panhard still glued to our tail. We eventually arrived at the Sheraton car park at 3.20am, paid the taxi driver (the best 25 Euros worth of the whole trip) checked in, took the shuttle bus to our rooms (yes, really!) stripped off our wet clothes, showered and fell into bed, setting the alarm for 7am – some time past our scheduled departure time but essential given our physical state.

Sometime later, reflecting on the day and having read the description above, Jo wrote to me thus. ‘Chris, what a brilliant account of our joy and tribulations in the “most beautiful race in the world”. If anything you were perhaps too lean over what really happened over the Aquila Mountains before Rome. You put it in Technicolor, when it really was a very dark black and white! I felt like I was dying like never before, even now, as I was reading, I felt bloody cold again!

Back on track

After what seemed like about 10 minutes sleep the alarm went off. We threw on our still-damp clothes, staggered downstairs, grabbed some breakfast, deposited our bags in the car and headed for the start line. It was way past our scheduled departure time and the usual crowds lining the street had long since left for their morning espresso. Within a few kilometres we were once again well and truly lost but were fortunate to be befriended by a helpful local who directed us back onto the correct route and the Ronciglione checkpoint where, once again, we were greeted by cheering crowds and a commentator who could have given Murray Walker lessons in enthusiasm. A lengthy interview with Jo followed but eventually we escaped to the nearby Bar Parco Airone and the first time-trials of the day, another opportunity for us to demonstrate our ineptitude in this discipline.

The Saturday weather was glorious, as were the open sweeping roads and fabulous scenery en- route to Viterbo, both Jo and I feeling remarkably chipper given the trials and tribulations of the previous day. It was now late morning and the XK was back on song, the six-cylinder yowl from the competition exhaust system music to our ears and, it appeared, those of the crowds lining the route as our high-speed convoy snaked its way through Gallina and San Quirico D’Orciato to the next control point in Buonconvento’s beautiful Piazza Garibaldi. Our next stop was the breathtaking medieval square of Il Campo in Siena, location of the legendary, and totally bonkers Palio horse race. Control duties completed, we inched our way through Siena’s narrow streets, Chris Connelly hard on our heels. Such was the crowd congestion that the lack of an electric fan was now making itself felt, so we decided to stop at a nearby piazza, grab some lunch from a nearby market stall and give the car a chance to cool down.

We plotted our next move, concluding that the problems of the previous day combined with our less than stellar efforts in the timed sections, meant that we were not going to be troubling the leader board. We were doing this for fun, not to prove that we had the endurance of Bear Grylls and did not want another stupid o’clock arrival at our hotel. We also wished to experience the spectacular trans-Appenine Futa and Raticosa passes in daylight, so decided to omit the next section of the official Mille Miglia course, which was to take in Volterra, Pisa and Lucca, travelling instead directly to Florence from where we would pick up the official route via Futa and Raticosa.

Jo knew these roads like the back of his hand, a legacy of the 1960s when, as one of the first employees of Lamborghini, he had pounded over the challenging roads of Emilia Romagna in Lamborghini prototypes with his erstwhile colleague, test driver Bob Wallace. The weather was glorious and the sweeping roads a joy to drive, our pleasure marred only by the occasional time-trial. The crowds, too, were out in force in the evening sunshine, with what seemed like half the population of Emilia Romana cheering and waving their Mille Miglia flags, as enthusiastic for the humblest Isetta bubble-car (yes, they really did compete in the ‘proper’ Mille Miglia) as for the most iconic of Ferraris.
We arrived in Bologna soon after seven o’clock, the crowds now of epic proportions, and came to a final halt just ahead of the works Jaguar C-Type of journalist Mark Dixon and AC/DC’s Brian Johnson. It turned out that they, too, had had a hellish Friday having been stranded for six hours with a puncture but, like us, had loved their Saturday stint. ‘Just brilliant’ said Brian as he was overwhelmed by hordes of AC/DC fans eager to meet their hero. Half an hour or so later the event officials waved us off to process through Bologna to our overnight stop at the Piazza Maggiore.

The most beautiful race in the world

On Sunday morning, much refreshed, I turned the XK out of the Piazza Maggiore for the final leg of the 2014 Mille Miglia. Once more the Italian weather was glorious and the crowds out in force as we headed, via San Giovanni, to the first time-trials of the day. These completed and duly cocked up we drove on to Modena where Jo enthusiastically pointed out the apartment block where he had lived back in the 1960s, and the Albergho Real-Fini hotel where, “all the drivers used to stop while visiting Ferrari, Maserati, Osca, Stanguellini, Bizzarini, Drogo, or any of the dozens of carrossiers, chassis and engine builders at what was then the heart of motor sport know-how, before Colin Chapman and John Cooper took it to England”.

Just two blocks from the Real-Fini once stood the Palace Hotel, where Jo had occupied a ‘box room’ back in the early 1960s, whilst his great friend Ricardo Rodriguez lived there in style, in a suite, with his wife during his time as a works Ferrari driver. Back in 1962, Jo had had the grim task of clearing Ricardo’s effects from his suite at the Palace following his death in a practice crash at the first ever Mexican GP. The Rodriguez family had bequeathed Ricardo’s spare race suit to Jo, along with his iconic yellow crash helmet complete with Scuderia Ferrari logo and Mexican flags, the very helmet that Jo wore during our Mille Miglia adventure, as a mark of respect to his lost friend.

The Rodriguez brothers

Ricardo and his older brother Pedro had grown up with Jo Ramirez in Mexico City. Ricardo and Pedro were the sons of one of Mexico’s wealthiest businessmen, Don Pedro Rodriguez and had been encouraged and bankrolled in their racing ambitions by their father. Both successful on motor bikes, when Ricardo was just 16 and Pedro 18 their father decided that the next step in their planned rise to the top should be for the brothers to go to Europe and compete with the big boys. Accordingly, he ordered the latest Ferrari sports-racer for the boys (as one does) and entered them for the Le Mans 24 Hours race of 1958. The race organizer turned down the entry, though, claiming that at 16, the younger Rodriguez could not possibly have sufficient experience for such a race, probably unaware that as a result of the more relaxed age-rules in Mexico the brothers were already racing veterans.

By 1961 Ricardo in particular was showing remarkable speed and skill in top-line motor racing, to the extent that he was co-opted into Ferrari’s Formula One works team for that year’s Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Here, he proceeded to put his car on the front row of the grid but retired from the race, unfortunately remembered for the accident in which the car of Ricardo’s Ferrari team-mate and world champion in waiting, Count Wolfgang Von Trips, rammed Jim Clark’s Lotus and flew into the crowd, killing himself and 16 spectators.

A full-time member of Ferrari’s works F1 team the following year Ricardo, desperate to drive in his home Grand Prix, had been offered a seat in Rob Walker’s Lotus 24 after Enzo Ferrari had declined to enter works cars in a non-championship race on the other side of the Atlantic. After his provisional pole position time had been beaten by John Surtees, Ricardo had gone out once more in his Lotus but crashed to his death in an attempt to beat Surtees’ time. He was just 20 years old.

How good was Ricardo? Jo, who later worked alongside such legends as Jackie Stewart, Emerson Fittipaldi, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, told me that he rated Ricardo as the equal of any of them, potentially one of the greatest of all F1 drivers. Pedro, in his brother’s shadow until the latter’s death, later blossomed, winning Grands Prix for Cooper-Maserati and BRM along with the World Sports Car Championship titles of 1970 and 1971 driving for Porsche. Tragically Pedro was killed the same year, when his Ferrari crashed in a sports car race at the Norisring circuit in Germany

We headed out of Emilia Romagna across the plains of Lombardy in the Sunday sunshine, at last able to relax and savour the unique atmosphere of the Mille Miglia as we drove through Reggio, Suzzara and on to Mantova, where the statue of Tazio Nuvolari evoked memories of the town’s most famous son.

Tazio Nuvolari

Regarded by many as the greatest driver who ever lived, Nuvolari had twice won the Mille Miglia in the1930s driving Alfa Romeos. In 1947, in his mid-50s and by now in poor health, Nuvolari entered the race once more, this time in a tiny 1100cc Cisitalia. At half distance he somehow led the field, remarkably holding off the Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B coupe of Clemente Biondetti. Unbelievably Nuvolari still held the lead at Modena but then ignition problems resulting from torrential rain delayed the Cisitalia, allowing Biondetti past. Despite this reversal, in the final run into Brescia, Nuvolari somehow slashed the gap to Biondetti to finish the race in second place. Nuvolari finished just 16 minutes behind the massively more powerful Alfa, winning his class and recording one of his greatest ever performances.

From Mantua Jo and I motored through Castiglione and Pozzolengo, where we endured yet more infernal time trials before leaving for the final leg of our journey and the finish line in Brescia. On this concluding run our lives were somewhat complicated by the fact that the XK was now losing coolant at an ever increasing rate, but regular top-up stops to replenish the radiator enabled us to reach Brescia without major dramas (it transpired that the water pump bearing had died so we were lucky indeed that it held out until the end – a reminder of just how narrow is the gap between success and failure). As we entered Brescia once more the crowds were out in their thousands, spectators of all ages clapping, cheering and waving their Mille Miglia flags. The Mille Miglia must be a major inconvenience to those not directly involved but every Italian in Italy appears to be an enthusiastic supporter, willingly accepting the inevitable aggravation as a price worth paying to be a part of a glorious spectacle.

Our Friday trials and tribulations well and truly behind us, Jo and I arrived in Brescia to the acclamation of the crowd and with smiles a mile wide. We had successfully completed ‘the most beautiful race in the world’ an experience we will never forget, and I have the Chopard watch to prove it!