Mille Miglia 2014

First a little background info. Ven and Nick Fonte are members of AONE and have steadily been building an impressive collection of vintage Italian cars — mostly Alfa, with Maserati and OSCA and an Abarth 695. Both of the cars in this story are kept in Italy. Ven has owned the 1750 for several years now and runs it extensively in the many vintage rallies in Italy. It is well sorted and has been completely reliable. The 2500 was acquired last fall and, while it has had some attention, it has not yet had the full Fonte treatment — in fact, the Mille Miglia was its shakedown run.

The Fontes have run the Mille Miglia twice before, in 2005 with their Maserati A6 and in 2010 with the OSCA. This year, they had two cars accepted so they needed two navigators to accompany them. Nick asked Jonathan Kirshtein and me. It was a no-brainer — we were packing our bags for Italy.

Ven and Andy in the 6C 1750 GS (click for larger view)

The black 6C 1750 Gran Sport is from 1933, and only 44 were built. 6 cylinders of 1750cc (65mm x 88mm), 5:1 CR. Cast iron block, alloy head and sump. Supercharged, making 85 hp at 4,500 rpm. 4-speed transmission. Weighs around 2,200 pounds. Wheelbase of 108", track of 54". Touring Superleggera body. This last year build had fully boxed frame members for increased chassis stiffness. Solid rear axle, longitudinal leaf springs fore and aft. Fusi lists the top speed of 135 kph (82mph). We went a lot faster than that. Back in the day, several cars set top speed records faster than that. A Zagato-bodied version of this car finished second in the 1933 Mille Miglia (behind an 8C 2300). These cars had a long and successful racing history.

Nick and Jonathan in the 6C 2500 SS (click for larger view)

The gray 6C 2500 SS Sport Berlinetta was built in 1939. Again, body by Touring Superleggera of Milan. Only 20 cars were built and only 3 or 4 are left in the world now. 6 cylinders of 2500 cc (72x100), cast iron block, alloy head. Naturally aspirated, 8:1 CR, 110 hp @ 4,600 rpm. 4-speed transmission. Weighs close to 1850 pounds (not sure on this spec; seem to be a couple of answers). Wheelbase of about 106". Top speed listed at 170Kph (~104mph). Independent front suspension, independent rear suspension with semi trailing arms, differential bolted to the bottom of the car, and jointed half shafts. Both ends use transverse leaf springs. These cars also did a ton of winning for Alfa. In the 1940 Mille Miglia, 2500s came in 1st overall and class, 2nd overall and class, and 3rd, 6th, and 7th in class. Other versions of this chassis came in 4th & 5th in class. These cars were built in a variety of wheelbases and specification from 1939 until the mid '50s (with a break during the war years), basically unchanged mechanically. They were Alfa's bread-and-butter cars until the 1900s.

Mille Miglia basics: I am sure everyone is aware of the original Mille Miglia road race that ran from 1927 to 1957. This was a wide-open race over the public roads (pretty much the norm in those days). The actual course changed every year (depending on road conditions, politics, etc.), but the general path was Brescia to Rome and back to Brescia. The name is a little prosaic, but the course did in fact approach 1000 miles, more or less. It was (and still is) considered one of the most prestigious races in the world. It always drew full factory entries as well as many privateers. Alfa won in 1928, 1929, 1930, 1932, 1933, 1934, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1938, and 1947. The race was not held in 1939 and 1941-1946. 

The current Mille Miglia are "historic re-enactments"; in reality, they are vintage rallies with time/speed/distance sections. Cars that ran in the original races from 1927 to 1957 are eligible to apply. The MM organization has a multi-stage selection process that is followed to winnow out the many entries. Cars that actually ran the race get preference; next, car models that ran the race, etc. Of course, this being Italy, there may be some wiggle room on selection, but in general they follow the rules pretty closely. All of the factory museums send cars and that probably uses up about 150 slots or so. Alfa had several cars this year, some 6C and 8C models and a 2000 Sportiva. Officially, 375 cars are accepted, and then a bunch more "tribute cars" and some other types. I think there were something on the order of 500 cars entered in one form or another.

The whole time/speed/distance thing is really nice, and most teams actually do them, but, in reality, the Mille Miglia is just a huge, full bore rat race through the center of Italy — in regular traffic.

Now on with the show!

Here is pic at the start in Brescia. Ven Fonte (owner) driving and me in the dorky sponsored hat (which flew off my head about an hour later).

La perla nera, pilota Ven fonte e co-pilota famoso, "Crease". I was officially listed on the entry as "Andrew Cress". The course takes you through many town centers. If the town pays the management, the cars go through the old town piazzas, with all the townsfolk lined up cheering. The cars stop, usually for an official time stamp and a bag of local goodies. The announcer lists the car and driver, and sometimes the co-pilota. In Pisa, the announcer called me "CREASE". Great stuff.

There's nothing in the world like having a police motorcycle escort, blue light flashing, siren wailing, opening traffic for you and encouraging you to go faster — when you are already going two or three times the posted limits. Passing a cop with a wave is a very unsettling experience ... but big dirty fun. In heavy traffic, those guys bull through the cars, riding between the right lane and left, pushing the right hand lanes over and the left hand lanes over like Moses, to make room for you to blast through between at full speed. Jump right around stopped traffic on ramps, jump to the head of the line at on ramps and rotaries. Stop rotary traffic, etc. It was the only time I have ever been grateful to hear police sirens and see flashing blue lights. The most amazing thing is that the general population loves it and supports it. As far as I can tell, they don't mind moving over and getting cut off — they are happy to do it. They honk and wave as you go past. If we did anything like that anywhere in the US, the outraged citizenry would be calling the cops 24/7, and we'd get arrested and the key thrown away.

The whole course is lined with people waiting to see the cars, and to cheer and wave them on, from early morning to late, late night. Sometimes just a couple standing by a lonely mailbox on an empty nowhere road. Sometimes a crowd sitting outside at a bar, lifting a glass when you go by. Or a good handful around a rotary, hoping to see you slide the car around (which Ven was always happy to do). Sometimes throngs for miles. In fact, the crowd was a much better course marker than the dumb course notebooks (four required).

In the piazzas, from the gates at the city walls right to the center and back out, it was solid people, sometimes three or four deep, infants to ancients. Our two cars were like rock stars. Once people recognized them — "L'Alfa Romeo", "Che bella" — they waved and cheered. They would even applaud. I still can't get over the applause. The poor Shaguars or Mercedes etc. behind us wouldn't even get a nod. So funny.

The biggest surprise to me was how physically demanding the whole thing was. From Thursday night to Sunday night, we had ten hours sleep — total. Nick and Ven drove the whole way and I am not talking about easy one-handed cruising. As you know, both Nick and Ven are experienced and aggressive race drivers, very fast and very good. Those cars were driven hard — 10/10 most of the way, and that is a lot of work. To do that for three days on ten hours sleep is impressive to me. The whole affair is just sooooooo grueling. After a while, you don't really know where you went last, where you are now, or where you are going next. It all just blurs.

A couple of general impressions: It was a surprise to see how close these two cars were in overall performance. They are on either side of a watershed in design philosophy, completely different subjectively, yet so close in result.

The 1750 has an amazing amount of down-low grunt. It would go up steep slopes at 1500 RPM in third gear, seamlessly pulling faster and faster. In the mountains, we would easily pull away from the 2500 on corner exit. Soon, the 2500 would catch up and they'd stay pretty even. If Nick got ahead, he eventually would open a small gap, but any stumble and Ven would be right on his bumper.

The 2500's suspension is much more sophisticated and supple, could easily be mistaken for a modern car. Transitions smoothly, good tire contact and control on even the roughest roads. Smooth and fast. Utterly stable, yet responsive. Both are completely direct and communicative. Both have outstanding brakes — tremendous braking power and ZERO sign of fade even on the worst of the Raticosa or Futa passes.

The other thing is how fast they were compared to a lot of more modern hardware. The 1750 has only 85 HP but a lot of "faster" cars would have to work pretty hard to go by. Stuff with big horsepower would blow by on straights, but a surprising number had Ven on their bumper at the next corner or the one after that. Must have pissed off a lot of them when he passed them back.

Every night, when the cars were put away at the hotel, we laughed (as best we could — not much is real funny at 3AM). We collected our gear and staggered into the hotel through parking lot triage all around us. The Shaguar team(s) had all the cars on jackstands, swarms of mechanics taking everything apart, repairing and replacing — every night. No clue if they really needed it or it was just "preventive maintenance". The local opinion was that they needed it.

We added a half quart of oil and about a couple of quarts of water to the 2500 (has not really been gone through yet to sort out little things — in fact, I would not be surprised to find that it is still running the brake shoe linings it left the factory with — in 1939). We did not do anything to the 1750, although it will need a new set of tires soon. Ven pretty much used them up.

One thing for sure: It is obvious that both of these cars are motorsport thoroughbreds. You read about them, but never really understand them deep down inside. They look quaint and old-timey cute, and we condescendingly think of them as "great", but secretly don't give them much value. It is now clear to me, on a visceral level that I never had before, just how good they were (and are) and why Alfa Romeo was a marque to be reckoned with for decades. I do believe that some of this thoroughbred background is in all of our carsTiny Quadrifoglio

Back in Brescia at the end of the 2014 Mille Miglia. (L-R) Pilota Ven Fonte and Co-pilota Andy Krees with the 6C 1750 GS, Pilota Nick Fonte and Co-pilota Jonathan Kirshtein with the 6C 2500 SS.

While we prepped the cars, we also got to see and ride in two new Fonte acquisitions:

1957 Maserati 200Si — Definitely an OMG car. Museum quality. I got screwed out of a ride (timing), but Jonathan got one with Nick, and he was not right for the whole rest of the day. All he could say was, "That car is soooooo fast!" Originally a 2.0, punched out to 2.5L. And it makes all the right noises — big, fierce noises.

Another acquisition is a 1924 Alfa Romeo RL-TF.

Ven bought it from Count Johnny Lurani's estate. I was pretty skeptical — was pretty sure he had lost it. I mean, really, how good a car can it be? Well, I had my eyes opened big-time. IT IS AWESOME! A 3.6L booming, roaring beast that pulls like hell. Makes all the noise in the world — you can hear it from blocks away. Sooooo outrageous. We rode out late in the afternoon, blasting by civilian traffic. It is a beast, with Captain Nemo Nautilus-type shift linkage — but it works. Good, clean shifts with no grinding (of course, no speed shifting).

We were blasting around, terrorizing the natives, and then it started to rain. So what? Keep going. Then the rain started to hurt! I thought it was because we were going so fast, but no — it was hailing! Shot-blasted by hail, arms over our eyes, we drove home laughing like hell. Love it. Not sure it is eligible — but if Ven can get it in, I see a Mille Miglia event.

According to FIVA, this is the sole survivor of the Alfa Romeo works team that raced in the 1924 Targa Florio. It is believed to be the car driven into fourth place in that most grueling event by the celebrated Cavaliere Giuseppe Campari, who combined his career of highly successful racing driver with that of grand opera. Campari completed the Targa in 6 hours, 46 minutes, 51 seconds, missing third place by the narrowest of margins — just 17 seconds after 268.5 miles of racing — and finishing a mere 14 minutes behind Werner's winning Mercedes! It was one of four six-cylinder RL-TF cars built expressly for the Targa Florio by Alfa Romeo, two with 2,994cc (76x110mm) engines for Campari and Wagner, two with 3,620cc (80x120mm) engines for Ascari and Masetti.

Here is a video of Ven adjusting the mixture on his RL-TF (turn up the volume!):


Mille Miglia 2014