La Bella Vita: A Taste of the Mille Miglia

The sound was deafening. The engine so powerful I could feel every jiggly bit of my body shaking. The acceleration so fierce my heart leapt into my throat, pounding. The experience so surreal, I thought I was dreaming.

And given the circumstances, I very well could have been. You see I found myself on that day in late April being driven on the roads of the Mille Miglia through the Tuscan countryside in Fangio’s Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR No. 658. The same car he famously piloted to a second place finish sixty years earlier, without a co-driver.

A rather foreign experience for a girl who never really knew much about cars, and as I’ve previously confessed on this blog, knew even less about motorsport. But it has been that newfound love & respect for Formula One that has piqued my curiosity to learn more not just about the sport, but about the history of the iconic automakers involved.

In working on NBCSN’s original programs Road To: Ferrari & Road To: Mercedes, I’ve gained an even greater appreciation for the classic predecessors to the modern marvels. Hearing brand historians speak so passionately about something that to me (up to that point) seemed like just an inanimate object, and seeing our hosts overcome with emotion at the mere sight of their favorite legendary cars…I knew there was something I was missing.

So, when presented with the opportunity to attend an event in Italy featuring some of Mercedes-Benz most iconic & legendary sports cars, I jumped. I thought to myself, this is it. This is what I had been missing, experiencing all of this first-hand. Hearing the roar of the engines firing up, feeling the pit in my stomach cornering at speed, smelling the tires doing work against the pavement.

For those, like myself, who are unfamiliar with the Mille Miglia, it's pretty much the most badass road race you can imagine. 1,000 milles in length the Mille Miglia featured the world's most famous sports cars from Alfa Romeos and Ferraris to Maseratis and Mercedes whipping around the Italian countryside and thorugh towns with fans lining the streets each year from 1927 - 1957. Deemed too dangers to continue after two fatal crashes the race was reborn in 1977 and to this day has served as a classic and vintage car race. The event I'd be attending was a celebration of Mercedes-Benz most successful year in motorsport, part of which was a sweep of the 1955 Mille Miglia.

When I arrived to the Villa Le Maschere outside Florence, I was greeted by three 300 SLRs on display in the courtyard, beautifully lit up against the Tuscan sunset. Including Sir Stirling Moss’ No. 722, the record-breaking car he and his co-pilot, journalist Denis Jenkinson, drove to a first-place finish in 1955’s Mille Miglia in a blistering 10 hours, 7 minutes and 28 seconds with an average speed of nearly 100mph. And its twin the No. 704, piloted by Hans Herman. Then there was Fangio’s No. 658 which I’d be riding in the next day.

We were treated to a dinner conversation between Sir Stirling Moss and his old rival, Hans Hermann, moderated by Michael Bock, Director of Mercedes-Benz Classics. They spoke of their 1955 race like it was yesterday. Trading playful jabs at one another just as they did 60 years before. I think it so rare to find a sport where athletes remain so loyal, involved and passionate about their craft after all of those years. Put Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas together and I highly doubt there’d be the same level of passion & respect amongst rivals discussing basketball as there was between Moss and Hermann.

The following morning, it was our turn to step back in time and to experience the Mille Miglia Moss & Hermann so eloquently described the night before. We’d be driving in their iconic Mercedes-Benz cars from 1955. Surreal doesn’t even begin to describe it.

My first ride was in the Mercedes-Benz 180 D with an Italian journalist from Bologna. While I had the opportunity to pilot the cars myself, I had to confess that I had never been taught to drive stick shift, much to my father’s chagrin. But to be honest, I’m not sure I’d trust myself with cars this expensive on those roads, so perhaps this was a blessing in disguise.

Cruising in the 180D felt like we were out for a Sunday drive in the Tuscan countryside. The dash held a small vase of pink and yellow roses, adding a bit of femininity to the black and chrome interior details. I glanced over at Italian, he was beaming, and his joy was infectious. I commented on how stunningly beautiful the scenery was and he said his hometown, 30km away, was even more beautiful. I thought to myself, why on earth do I live outside New York City when I could live here? Perhaps someday.

Next up for me was a ride in the 300 SL with none other than Hans Hermann. We had been seated next to each other that morning at breakfast. Hans, walking with the assistance of a cane, began to explain something to me in German. Only trouble is Hans only speaks German, and well…aside from “bier” I speak none. Thankfully, we were soon joined by Gerhard Heidbrink, Director of the Mercedes-Benz Classic Archives, who kindly offered to translate. Hans went on to describe that he had to wear a different pair of overalls because following a recent hip surgery he had packed on a bit of weight and didn’t fit into his old one. He chuckled as he rubbed his newly formed belly.

Now both aware of our language barrier we hopped into the 300SL. I asked to snap a selfie with the universal “this is awesome” thumbs up pose. Hans then wrapped his arm around me and asked the photographer to take another. Those racing drivers love their ladies!

To no surprise, Hans wasn’t afraid to push the car. I looked over and thought “this man is 87 years old (EIGHTY SEVEN!) and still absolutely loving this.” About 15 minutes into our ride, not much had been said save for from a few thumbs up and smiles. Hans looked over at me after he worked the 300 SL around a tight corner, smiled and said in English “lots of curves.” There were indeed. I can’t even imagine whipping around these at speeds of 100mph. Sixty years ago at that! It must have been completely mental.

And then finally it was my time in the 300 SLR. I’d be riding with F1 Safety Car driver, Bernd Maylander. I met Bernd in Budapest last year when he was kind enough to join us for a segment on the Safety Car for Off the Grid. It’s always nice to see a familiar face when you’re far from home.

Fangio famously drove the No. 658 in 1955 without a co-driver because he didn’t want to risk the life of anyone else, that and he saved quite a bit of weight. Since then, the passenger seat had been reinstated, but there was little that could be done about the whole lack of a door thing, making loading in earlier that morning a bit challenging. (All I can say is thank heavens I do yoga.) Pretty much as ungracefully as I possibly could, I slung my left leg over and then my right, taking care not to touch the pristinely upholstered seats, decked out in that Classic Mercedes-Benz blue & red plaid.

Bernd looked straight out of the 50’s, sporting goggles and a retro racing suit. I thought, all I need is one of those scarves tied round my neck, blowing in the wind. It felt like I was in a scene from a movie. A quick push from the team, the engine fired up and we were off. I immediately regretted not having a pair of those silly looking goggles. The lack of a windshield on the 300 SLR allowed everything from bits of gravel to bugs to whip against your face at speed, stinging with each impact. I couldn’t imagine doing that for 10 plus hours.

Bernd properly pushed the car and I found myself entirely giddy, even more so as we wound quickly through the tight turns from the open countryside to crowded town streets. Thankfully there was what my mother calls the “oh shit” bar installed by my right arm. I felt myself holding on for dear life as we slid around, as safety belts weren’t an option.

Townspeople came out to the side of the road to see what all the ruckus was about. We were three weeks ahead of the annual Mille Miglia, and it’s not everyday you see some of the most expensive cars in the world caravanning thorugh the countryside. To no surprise of those who know me well, I got really into it and started waving to the spectators taking photos. So there are a few cell phone pictures out there that I’m sure the Italians are looking at thinking…who the hell is this girl?!

Before I knew it, the day was over. We gathered the cars for a group photo and downed gobs of gelato at a local restaurant before heading out. My cheeks hurt and I realized it was from the smile plastered across my face the entire day. It was overwhelming. I knew this was a once in a lifetime experience, and found myself a bit emotional after I had time to decompress.

I didn’t know much about classic cars or the Mille Miglia before this event, but I did know enough to appreciate just how rare this opportunity was and how lucky I was to be sitting in those seats. Of the journalists there, I was clearly the most uneducated about the classic cars. I listened intently as they described the feeling of driving the cars, often referring to the cars with a feminine pronoun “she drove beautifully.” I didn’t pretend to know what I was talking about, so I did what I do best, I asked questions. With every impassioned response I got, I found myself wanting to learn more to keep pace with this classic car cult.

I'm certain my account of our Mille Miglia Mercedes-Benz event is nowhere near as technical as the other journalists who were there that day. But for me, life is about experiences and sharing those with others in story, be it print or moving picture. In classic cars I've found a whole new world to explore and share with a fresh perspective. Hopefully convincing others whey this is a world worth living in. And perhaps, just maybe, I finally have reason to get out there and learn how to drive a stick shift, so if ever there is a next time, I’ll be the one behind the wheel, with a whole new reason to beam ear to ear.

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@2016 by Blair Adams Soden