An MGA at the Mille Miglia

27th November 2020

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John Gautrey reflects on his experiences with the ex Fitzwilliam MGA during the iconic Mille Miglia re-enactments

Photos by FABIAN GALLUCCI from Argentina

It is now Spring 2019 and the realisation has set in that it will be unlikely that I will ever be able to repeat the excitement and emotions of competing in what Enzo Ferrari once called “the most beautiful motor race in the world.” For the early part of the last three years my thoughts have been somewhat consumed by the preparations (albeit minimal in my case) and the anticipation of what is to come when, together with my old school friend Steve Dixon, we begin the one thousand mile journey that is the Mille Miglia.

So now, in place of anticipation of what will be, I am forced to reflection of what have been some of the most exciting and rewarding experiences of my life. Instead of keeping these reflections to myself, I have chosen to write them into the following short story in an attempt to tell a little of my participation in the Mille Miglia re-enactments of 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Most motoring enthusiasts are well aware of the story of the Mille Miglia, originally an open road race that ran from 1927 to 1957, when it was stopped due to safety concerns following a number of serious accidents which cost the lives of drivers and spectators alike. Many MG enthusiasts may also be aware of Steve’s passion for the MGA, which began back in the 1960s with a 1600 Mk2 and continues today with his guardianship of UPO 929, a 1955 Tyrolite Green MGA with an unmatched competition history through 1956 and 1957 as part of the Fitzwilliam Racing Team.

The Fitzwilliam team took UPO to Club and National events throughout the UK and Europe, including Rheims and Nürburgring, but perhaps most pertinent to my story, the 1957 Mille Miglia where, driven by John Hogg and Bill Jones, it finished 85th overall and second in the limited-price class to the Austin Healey 100/6 of Tommy Wisdom.

UPO at the Mille Miglia in 1957

Steve has been fortunate to have been able to compete in the Mille Miglia re-enactment more than a dozen times, each time in an MGA with impeccable period Mille Miglia credentials. Each time, he has been accompanied by friends including another old school pal, Gordon Palmer, who gave me much-needed advice after, much to my surprise, Steve asked me to join him as co-driver in 2016.

Then to get the opportunity again in 2017 and 2018 was beyond belief. As my home is in Canada, my involvement in the lead-up to the events has been minimal. All the work to get the entries in to the organisers and prepare the car falls on Steve’s shoulders.

It is here that the expertise and skill of Chris Redfern is heavily relied upon. Chris has a thriving business restoring classic cars. The finished projects that leave his workshop in Egham reflect the meticulous attention to detail that is Chris’s speciality. Based on how Steve wants the car set up for the event, he will typically strip it down, examine everything and replace or repair whatever is needed.

For 2016 and 2017 Steve and I towed the car down to Brescia. For 2018 we chose to take the lazy way and had the car shipped down with other event cars, leaving us free to enjoy a leisurely drive down, following some of the same roads we travelled back in the 1960s when we drove an ex-London ambulance around Europe enjoying what might be called a “hippy” existence for a few weeks.

Steve and John approaching the start on the Viale Venezia in Brescia 2017.

The base for the Mille Miglia in Brescia is the Fiera, an exhibition centre with a huge indoor space that, prior to the start, fills with hundreds of very expensive cars. Apart from the 450 or so event cars, it also becomes home for many modern supercars, Ferraris, Lamborghinis and others. My mind boggles at the thought of the value of this collection as it must easily exceed one billion pounds.

It is in the Fiera that the final paperwork is completed and the cars pass through scrutineering. As co-driver it is my job to diligently go through the “Road Books” with the details of the route and of all the special stages that must be completed along the way. This requires me to enter the times and distances of each of the stages into the timing computer as it is in this detail that our success or failure depends.

The eventual winner will be the car that most closely meets the exigent targets set by the organisers. However, there is one factor in this over which we have no control. Each entrant is given a coefficient (a handicap) based on the age of the vehicle which practically ensures that the winner will be a pre-war car.

When the moment finally arrived for us to pull up to the start on the Viale Venezia in Brescia in 2016 I was truly ‘pumped’. The huge crowd surrounding the start was something which I had never remotely imagined or experienced. There were photographers everywhere (something which would soon become normal) and I was rapidly feeling a bit overwhelmed. When the flag dropped and we were off, it took several minutes before I remembered that my job was to ensure that Steve stayed on the road and stayed on the route.

Leaving the control in San Marino in 2017

Day 1 and Day 2 of the 2016 event were unfortunately rather wet as we had a lot of rain, which somewhat took the edge off of the experience as we were obliged to run with the windscreen, wipers and the hood. However, Day 3 out of Rome was brilliant, made even more so for me when Steve handed me the driving duties. I was a little nervous, UPO is a very valuable car, but I soon settled down and began to drive with confidence.

The route north from Rome passes through some of the most famous of all the Italian cities including Florence and Siena. It also passes through the beautiful Tuscan countryside where, even in the car, the smell of the wild flowers is very apparent. Our 2016 adventure did not end well. A mere five kilometres from our much-anticipated lap of Monza, and just 50 from the finish line, the car rolled to a halt. We were forced to abandon the rest of the event and return to the Fiera with the car on the trailer.

When Chris stripped the car back at Egham, it was found that the crankshaft had sheared. Chris did his magic and a couple of weeks later the car was competing again in Le Touquet, France.

For 2017 I was much better prepared for the challenge. UPO had benefitted from an engine refit which had it set up much more in tune with the requirements for an endurance event. The weather for the start was splendid and the car looked fabulous as we left the start for the, relatively short first day’s drive to Padova. We had no problems but the support crew did not fare so well. The clutch failed on their rental vehicle and they were left way back, scrambling to find alternative transport late in the evening. This they achieved only to have the new vehicle with all the spares and tools towed away overnight for being illegally parked.

Passing through the beautiful Parco Sigurta, Valeggio sul Mincio in 2017.

With no lap around Monza, the 2017 route was not quite as interesting as 2016. What was interesting was our arrival in Rome. Approaching the city, we could see a storm approaching. The rain began to fall and here we were in an open car with no roof or windscreen to speak of. I soon had a vision of us sitting in a Tyrolite Green bathtub with water up to our waists.

With visibility reduced to almost zero we had no choice but to stop and call up the crew to fit the roof, after which it was pointless to continue to the finish line for the day so we headed for the hotel for the night. The organisers, recognising that many entrants had been affected by the weather, chose not to award penalty points to those who missed the finish; thank goodness, as we had been doing quite well up to that time.

Steve gave me the great honour of driving the last leg of the 2017 event up to the ceremonial finish line in Brescia. I am sure that the grin on my face graces many of the photographs taken at that time. Together with the crew, and in the company of Nicolo Menegolli of the Italian MG Car Club, we were able to celebrate our achievement in some style.

I was really looking forward to the 2018 event as the Monza circuit was back in the route, which brought with it the chance to exorcise the demons of our near miss in 2016. For 2018 we were given a race number of 419 which meant that we would be starting and finishing each day rather too close to the back of the pack of 450 entrants. I must also say that, after the two previous years, I have realised that the routes for the first two days are the least interesting and more or less unchanged from 2016 and 2017.

On the famed Monza circuit in 2018

It was therefore good to get into Rome on time and get that all behind us with no major incidents – unless you want to call some frantic braking on the red carpet in Arezzo which left the crowd laughing as the carpet rolled up beneath our wheels and the organisers scrambling to get it fixed before the rest of the cars arrived. Steve is still waiting for some wag to post the video on YouTube!

Day 3 dawned bright and sunny and full of hope which was quickly shattered when, due to a navigational error (GUILTY) we missed a critical turn leaving Rome, which saw us having to travel 20kms out and 20 back along the autostrada to regain the route. We were now well behind the pack and knew we were in for a big penalty. Steve drove with some purpose to recoup as much time as possible but it was a good while before we caught up with the other event cars.

I made a similar error entering Milan on Day 4, but with the aid of GPS and the help of the locals we quickly got back on track and made it to the Milan control without penalty. I was overjoyed when we pulled into the gates at Monza and were ushered out on to the track. We knew we would not be able to drive as quickly as we would like, thanks to the time trials throughout the circuit. However, some of them were a good distance apart and Steve was able to get the foot down for a while; the trick being to enjoy a quick drive and hold up just before the timing hose.

After a good lunch at Monza, the remainder of the route was more or less a procession to the finish in Brescia. As usual it was chaos as we approached the Viale Venezia, with the crowds all pressing in to get a good look at the cars. Like most of the competitors we turned off the engine and slowly pushed the car towards the finishing ramp. The upside to this was the opportunity to raise a glass (just one!) to the team and ourselves for making it safely to the end. Furthermore, Chris also gave the car its traditional kiss in appreciation of its success.

In the Piazza del Campo, Siena 2018. One of my highspots of the event.

Once again I was given the honour of driving to the ceremonial finish line, an experience I was able to share with Chris Redfern who took Steve’s place in the car. The smile on his face as we were given the chequered flag was something to behold and just reward for his efforts maintaining the car. As a bonus, he kept the magnum of fine wine which had been presented to us.

As I think back on the wonderful experiences of three times participating in the re-enactment of the historic Mille Miglia, many things come to mind. The crowds along the way, the support (and encouragement) of the Italian police assigned to the event, the lack of food and sleep, the smell of the wild flowers as we drove through Tuscany, the many beautiful old towns and cities through which we passed and, of course, the company of an old friend without whom this would not have been possible.

There are some things around the event that I think could be improved upon, but it would be trivial to criticise. After all, getting 450 cars with 900 participants plus all the support crews, marshals and officials safely around Italy must take an awful lot of dedication and work, before, during and after.

My profound thanks go to Steve for giving me such an opportunity. It was a privilege to have been able to compete with him in the Mille Miglia. In case you think that’s my view alone, Steve assures me that he believes exactly the same, even after all the times he has taken part. I am sure he will continue to participate, as he can with a real MM veteran car and as long as he feels fit enough to do it. Who knows, perhaps he will need my support again in which case he will certainly get a positive answer!

John Gautrey with Chris Redfern at the ceremonial finish line 2018

Last but not at all least, I want to thank the car, the little MGA, UPO 929, for providing such a wonderful experience. As a one-time TR3A driver (and Frogeye Sprite as well) I can easily see how the nimble, delightful-to-drive MGA was every bit as competitive in those bygone days.

In thanking the car I must also thank the crew who so cheerfully and keenly supported our venture. Anthony, Kevin and perhaps most valuable, Chris, who has put all his experience and love into the car over the last few years. To see Chris’s delight, or concern, rise and fall throughout the event as the various trials, tribulations and successes came and went is to understand the meaning of the words ‘enthusiasm’ and ‘dedication’. Those attributes cannot be bottled.