How the Mille Miglia made us all safer

Italy's most raucous road race was as dangerous as they come, but it led to something that would change the world.

Jaguar
Roadshow
ctfa16coverposternobar.jpg

See more stories from CNET Magazine.

Michael Muller

The first Mille Miglia was a sort of protest. In 1927 after the Italian Grand Prix moved from Brescia to Monza, race drivers Count Aymo Maggi and Franco Mazzotti set up the event to show that their hometown was still numero uno in Italian motorsport.

At first, the rules were simple. A prospective driver could enter any unmodified sports car at a cost of one lira. The route left Brescia in northern Lombardy at the foot of the Alps, headed to Rome and turned around again, taking in a little over 1,000 miles. Each car left at a specific time (their start time denoting their race number), and the vehicle to take the least amount of time won. Like I said, simple!

Today's race is much different. It's slower and saner, but it's still an amazing ride. I did it last year in a car that made both Miglia and automotive history.

A test bed for new car tech

The original Mille Miglia ran from 1927 to 1957, interrupted by a nine-year gap between 1938 and 1947 for World War II (except for a one-off race in 1940). Taking in the length of a country at breakneck speeds, it was a magnificent show. But with no speed limits and cars without impact protection, it wasn't a model of driver safety. Cars were designed to go very quickly in a straight line and steer, but not necessarily stop. It was a problem that Jaguar attempted to remedy in the lead-up to and during the 1952 event.

Jaguar at Mille Miglia 2015, Italy

Here's a C-Type on the banking at the race track in Monza, Italy.

Jaguar

Jaguar that year entered a C-Type racer with a full complement of experimental disc brakes developed with Dunlop. (See sidebar.) At the time, no other manufacturer was using disc braking, and Jaguar wanted an advantage on the track. Better stoppers would do that, and since testing them at an endurance race like Le Mans (where cars race for 24 hours straight) would be too risky, the Mille's long distances would be a perfect place. British Formula One driver Sir Stirling Moss was in the hot seat (Moss would go on to win the Miglia in 1955 driving a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR), with Norman Dewis, Jaguar's chief tester, in the navigator's chair.

The C-Type was the competition version of Jaguar's XK120 sports car, then the fastest car in the world. It was bred to take on the power racing teams and cars of Germany and Italy and, of course, sell more road cars the world over. It ran a 3.4-liter, six-cylinder engine that produced a little over 200bhp. Built from 1951 to 1953, the XK120 Competition Type (to give it its full name) won the 24 Heures Du Mans for Jaguar twice. Malcolm Sayer, a Jaguar designer with a genius gift for aerodynamics, designed the body, and it's safe to say that few things even approach its good looks. Inside it's a sparse affair -- after all, it's a racing car. There are no carpets, no exterior door handles and no modern conveniences. It's there to go fast, not make you comfy.

The C-Type almost missed out on being allowed to enter the 1952, event thanks to its unseen new brakes. The event scrutineers were unsure whether the new tech was permitted in the event. After some heroic battles with the competition and proving that the Jag's disc brakes were far, far superior to the drums run by other teams, Moss and Dewis had a race-ending accident around 100 miles from the finish. The brakes, after more than 11 hours of flat-out driving, were shot, but had worked well.

Jaguar at the 2015 Mille Miglia

Advanced for its day...

Jaguar

It's no surprise that with the experimental technology, silly speeds and little focus on driver safety, the Mille Miglia was put on ice after too many people died in the 1957 event. Even with the game-changing tech innovation like disc brakes, cars were getting faster, but not much safer. The Mille didn't return until 1977, but in a much different form than the dangerous days of old.

The Mille today

In 2015 I got to ride along in a C-Type in the Mille Miglia and, even though the current iteration of the event is less frantic than before, it's still insane. "My" C-Type, lovingly dubbed "Pug," has been in the hands of its current owner, Ben, for more than 20 years. Though it had never competed in the Mille Miglia, it had been on the current iteration before and many other rallies as well.

Today's Mille Miglia still requires competitors to drive 1,000 miles around Italy's stunning landscapes, but it's not an event to take flat out. You must go through regularities (average speed sections placed one after the other) and time trials, keep consistent speeds and make sure you don't drive too fast, lest you get penalty points thrust your way. The thoroughly modern Mille is about points, not seconds. The more points you have (earned though millisecond-perfect timing and smooth driving), the better chance you stand of winning -- though it still helps if you're Italian. And what's really cool? All cars originally eligible for the Mille Miglia are permitted to enter.

Jaguar at Mille Miglia 2015, Italy

A Long Nose Jaguar D-Type in Italy. Pretty.

Jaguar

You have to recalibrate your brain to understand how the modern Mille works. You don't drive normally; instead, you're permitted to dart in and out of moving traffic that has nothing-to-do-with-your-silly-car-rally all the while lane-splitting like a motorcycle and speeding as much as you like. You're given a free pass to drive like you're in a super-expensive game of Gran Turismo. Though the thousand miles are spread over four days, you're still often running late and driving like a mad person to get to your next checkpoint.

Competitors are advised not to do anything silly, though we're waved through red lights by police and encouraged to speed through small villages by the crowds that line the entire route. Along the route, it's obvious that Italy loves its cars -- even when you're in the middle of nowhere, there are still people watching the cars go by, cheering us on and enjoying the spectacle of a multimillion-dollar moving motor show parping its way by their front door. It's bizarre, and a huge rush.

We drove the C-Type hard, pushing it to its limits in some cases -- not just handling-wise, but also technologically. We had to ensure the car didn't overheat. After all, it wasn't designed for heavy traffic, but couldn't run its fan for too long, else we'd drain the battery and be stranded. Entrants' cars have to be stock, as they were during their heyday. In our case, that meant no alternator to keep the battery charged. Naturally, we had two onboard. But the main battery kept conking out just as we were going to drive on stage to be presented to a tiny Italian town, causing Ben to leap out and change it in front of a bemused crowd, which was a bit odd considering the provenance of the event.

Jaguar at Mille Miglia 2015, Italy

Italy sure is pretty.

Jaguar

And the Mille isn't just tough on cars. One of my shoes melted, and Pug also destroyed the hearing in my left ear from the exhaust. I learned two things as a result of that: You can change the exhaust on a C-Type in a car park in less than an hour, and it takes about four months to get your hearing back properly after 300 miles of sitting above a knackered exhaust.

As an event, the Mille Miglia is utter madness and unlike any sensible driving you'll ever do. It's physically and mentally exhausting. After all, you're concentrating on not having the world's most expensive crash, getting your time trials bob on, and navigating at the same time. It is, however, one of the greatest events on Earth.

Give me a brake

The 1950s were a huge turning point for European cars. They were getting faster and faster, but couldn't really stop due to outdated, inferior drum brake technology. It's thanks to Jaguar working in the same part of England as Dunlop, which worked on the disc brake system for aircraft, that we got discs on cars in the first place.

Dunlop's "plate brakes" for aircraft worked a treat, and Jaguar wanted a system for its race cars. The tech would need testing, though -- you can't simply scale down a plane brake and call it a day. They had to be hardy, cost-effective and last more than a few months before needing to be rebuilt or replaced. Testing was a dangerous process as the brakes had to be tested above and beyond their limits; 100 mph-plus brake failure wasn't uncommon, but thankfully Jaguar's chief tester, Norman Dewis, took that kind of thing in stride.

Jaguar at the 2015 Mille Miglia

Imagine having your brakes fail at 100 mph. Because of the C-Type, that's far less likely today.

Jaguar

After getting them to a workable state, Dewis and Sir Stirling Moss trialed the new brakes on the 1952 Mille Miglia. Though they crashed out, they discovered that the brakes were superior to their competition's. Jaguar then used the brakes at the 1953 Le Mans 24 Hour race and took home a victory.

The rest, as the hideous cliche goes, is history. Motorsport inspired better road cars once again. Jaguar first offered disc brakes on the XK150 sports car as an option from its launch in the late 1950s, and not one customer didn't take them. Now unless your car is 1) quite old, or 2) extremely cheap, you probably have a set of discs onboard. Why? Because Jaguar wanted to go faster by stopping better.

Close
Drag
Autoplay: ON Autoplay: OFF

This story appears in the fall 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.

CNET Magazine

CNET Magazine looks at tech from every angle: from its impact on society, to the people and companies who think up the next big thing, and the gadgets and services that really matter. We invite you to explore, share and -- most of all -- enjoy the stories brought to you by the reporters and photojournalists of the world's biggest tech news site. Here's just a sampling of what you'll find in our quarterly magazine. To get all the stories, head to cnet.com/magazine to subscribe.

All CNET Magazine Stories