The Journey To The Mille Miglia
“For four days, everyone who’s doing it feels like an absolute superstar,” Darren Comber tells What We Seee. “When you race the Mille Miglia — in Itay, the following is so massive that every single street is lined. Every town, every village you go into, the mayor comes out and greets all the cars that come through. You feel totally privileged to be there — it’s almost surreal.”
Many of us will have never heard of the Mille Miglia, but for anyone who has touched on the world of classic cars, this stunning, four-day open-road endurance race is the ultimate aspiration. A race of staggering history and mesmeric glamour, “the most beautiful race in the world” originally ran from 1927 to 1957. Today, the race is reenacted annually and is still one of the most exclusive and exciting races on the planet — holding an almost mythical status for fans.
For Comber, like many, this race was a goal, humming away in the back of his mind. But it was only when an untouched 1956 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint, Series 1, 750b was discovered, after decades of rusting away in a garage in rural Michigan, that the journey to racing his own car in the Mille Miglia really began.
Vintage cars may stir up images of 1950s diners, old movie stars, and glamorous Italian towns, but unless you’re entrenched in that world, it can be difficult to understand just how rare some of these specimens are today. But for Comber, the story sounds something like kismet.
“I had met Darren in the past and he had taken a car for a rally — he did not have his own car at the time, but he was saying to me sooner or later that he’d like to have a car of his own,” Paolo Pedersoli, founder of Scuderia Classiche and one of leading experts in vintage cars, tells What We Seee. “And I said I might have something that suits you — then, just a week and a half or two weeks later, this call happens.”
The call was about a 1956 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint, Series 1, 750b. It wasn’t just the make and model that made the car special — what made this such a rare find was that it had seemingly spent decades untouched. To a layman, a car sitting in a Michigan garage for decades might not sound like a tempting prospect. But when it comes to vintage cars, what might seem like neglect can actually be invaluable.
“Because of the age of these cars, the likelihood is that they have been tampered with over the years, have seen one or even two restorations — it’s quite likely over a long life,” Pedersoli explains. “Whenever you do find a car that has been untouched for the best part of 40 years, just chucked away — that’s fantastic.”
The car had been found in Michigan, where it had been purchased and moved to the UK by the collector who contacted Pedersoli. The owner had a good sense of what he had found. Only untouched cars can truly be returned to their former glory, with the original parts and details — perfect for anyone looking to race in the most prestigious vintage car race in the world.
Soon, Comber purchased the car and it was moved to Lugano, Switzerland for Pedersoli and his team to start the restoration process. When they began to take the car apart, their hopes were realized — the car was virtually untouched. There were signs of superficial repairs to a headlight but, crucially, the chassis and foundational parts remained perfectly intact.
Once the car was found, the process moved quickly. “I said, ‘I’ll buy it, but if I buy it I want to race it in May in the Mille Miglia,'” Comber explains. “So we had a defined deadline.”
The Pride And The Passion
Pedersoli speaks with boundless enthusiasm about the process of restoring a car like Comber’s. It’s clear that it’s more than just a vocation or a passion — and Pedersoli explains the lure of it very simply.
“The best way I can describe this process is giving birth to a child,” he laughs. “That’s how close it is. With a car like this, you really are connecting nut on nut and bolt and bolt — you reach back into its history, try to understand why it was made, how it was made. Every time I restore a car like this, I’ve been told I don’t think of anything else — it’s an involving process.”
This restoration is key, because the bar for the Mille Miglia is incredibly high. There are fastidious experts who check to make sure that the cars racing today are exactly as the cars would have been in the original race, in some cases nearly 100 years ago.
“They have scrutineers and they will look at the car and it has to be pretty much original,” Jeff Hochman, a close friend of Comber and Pedersoli who has accompanied Comber when racing the Alfa Romeo, tells What We Seee.
And despite this painstaking attention to detail and this reverence for the original craftsmanship, these cars are being restored to be driven — even if that means being damaged. While just over 400 of these cars start the race, many don’t finish. For both owners and restorers, sending their creations out into the world can be a nail-biting process.
“More than scary, it’s painful,” Pedersoli says. “But obviously other elements come into play — the pride and the passion. So there is an element of pain, but there is a bigger element of joy. And seeing someone else who will be happy with what you have done. Of course, there’s also the business, the integrity, the pride in what we do — if someone goes out and does what they want to, we take huge pride in them being happy.”
If a car does complete the Mille Miglia, it’s a badge of honour — both emotionally and financially. Cars who complete the race will see a jump in value, as collectors will seek out cars that have made it over the finish line. Though it’s not a risk that everyone is willing to take.
“You know people say to me, ‘Do you really want to race this?’,” Comber explains. “But that’s what I bought it to do. That’s what I did it for. Obviously I don’t ever want to damage it, but quite equally — if you’re not going to drive it, what’s the point of owning it? It’s made to be driven.”
A Brescia Tradition
And if you’re going to drive a car like that, there’s nowhere like the Mille Miglia. Brescia, where the race begins, has a long and passionate history of racing. But in the 1920s the Italian Gran Prix was moved to the newly constructed raceway near Milan — much to the chagrin of locals. In 1926, Brescia moved out from under Milan’s wings and the official Brescia Automobile Club was founded to recognize the local racing tradition — and the first Mille Miglia began just a year later. Enzo Ferrari described the event as “a travelling museum that is unique in the world“.
Today, the race has a huge global following and remains incredibly exclusive. The waiting list can last for years, unless you have a connection to the race, and its huge fan base runs from drivers to collectors to restorers — to those who simply love to watch these beautiful vehicles fly by.
Over four days, the route of the Mille Miglia covers some of the most stunning vistas in Italy. It takes you from Brescia to Lake Garda, Desenzano, Rome, Castiglione d’Orcia, Lucca, Cernusco sul Naviglio, and countless other towns and villages along the way, before finishing in Viale Venezia in Brescia, where it all began in 1927 with the first Coppa delle 1000 Miglia.
There are huge crowds, upscale accommodations, breathtaking views — but despite the seductive glamour of the event, there is also a lot of hard work.
“It was gruelling,” Comber says. “Absolutely gruelling. You’re in the car from seven in the morning until twelve o’clock at night.”
In the original race, navigation was incredibly difficult.
“You’d study the map and then you’d write down every turn,” Hochman explains. “A lot of people would write them on a roll of toilet paper, so you could just roll through — but it was so important, if you missed a single turn then things were impossible.”
Though today’s drivers might not be navigating with loo roll, racing in vintage cars that are in near-original condition is far from the enchanting image many of us have in mind when we picture classic cars.
“Some of the old cars, there are no windscreens,” Hochman says. “These guys are literally wearing ski goggles. And there’s no suspension, so you feel every bump — for hours.”
The Mille Miglia: The Most Unique Event In The World
And yet, despite the arduous driving conditions, despite the prospect of damage and destruction, despite the financial and emotional commitment, there is one thing that remains so striking when you speak to anyone involved in the Mille Miglia or the related races — their limitless enthusiasm and wonder when they speak about the race. They seem almost baffled at their own luck, for just being able to take part.
“Obviously I’m extremely fortunate to be able to work with these cars, but every single time I jump into one of these cars, I have a smile — and I do it all the time,” Pedersoli says. “The people who come to race, the people who only do it five times a year — you should see it, the huge smiles.”
There is something incredible and powerful about a tradition that can bring out this level of enthusiasm, especially among some of the most privileged people in the world. Because even within the almost cultic following of vintage cars, the Mille Miglia is clearly something special.
“I must say it’s the most unique event in the world of its kind,” Pedersoli explains. “It’s situated in a country that warms extremely toward classic cars — a country with a huge history of classic cars. It’s also a country where people are open to embracing guests — there is a mixture of the culture of the place, of the history of the place, combined with the most crazy week we can have in a year.”
For Comber and the Alfa Romeo, the adventure is just beginning. After completing the 2019 Mille Miglia, he and Hochman raced in the Coppa Franco Mazzotti, a race dedicated to one of the founders of the Mille Miglia. He aims to take the car in each of the four founder’s races to pay homage to the race and its unique history — a history so rich that it resonates across the vintage car world and across Italy, even decades later.
“There are similar races perhaps in Germany and in the States, actually — but it’s that emotional engagement in the race,” Pedersoli says. “For decades, this has been a national race, touching many regions of Italy. The generations that will see the Mille Miglia go through today — it sends them to when they were young, when they were children perhaps, and this race touched on their doorsteps. Automatically they’re emotional, they’re connected — that couldn’t be repeated anywhere else.”
You can learn more about the Mille Miglia and the history of the race on the Mille Miglia website. The 2020 edition of the race will be taking place from May 13 to 16.