|Bob Jones reports from the cockpit on the return of the MG K3s to the Mille Miglia.
The Mille Miglia occupies a unique and magical position in the history of the MG. It was, after all, the race for which the legendary K3s were built, and in which they won their class and team prize on their debut in the classic Italian road race in 1933. Some 61 years later a group of cars relived those halcyon days in time honored fashion which did credit to the famous marque.
The idea that a team of K3s should return to take part in the retrospective Mille Miglia was suggested by the organizers of this popular event in a telephone call last year to enthusiast Keith Chapman. This began a chain reaction of frenzied activity which resulted in three original K3s taking part along with two "replica" cars and an L-type. The MG fraternity was further boosted by a trio of Italian entries consisting of two MGAs and a ZA Magnette.
Receipt of the confirmation of entries had a n amazing effect on all fortunate owners of the pre-war cars with many taking their cars to pieces immediately, before spending huge amounts of time and money trying to get them back together in time for the event. The Australian contingent made up of Adam Beryman who owns the ex-Birkin 1933 Mille Miglia K3, and Philip Brady, owner of the former "Bira" K3, arrived in the UK as early as April with Brady's co-driver Neville Howell acting as Godfather and Greg Smith in charge of technicalities.
The two Australian cars were shipped to the UK part-built and were not finally completed until on the ferry to France and then test driven via the Alpine route to the start of the event in Brescia. The Brits on the other hand adopted the more conservative method of transporting their cars to Italy.
There was a great feeling of excitement and anticipation as the "team" got to know one another in the two days prior to the start, when the final preparations were punctuated with impromptu blasts around Brescia--just to check the settings you understand.
The start of the Mille Miglia is hard to describe and is something which really has to be experienced to believe. Scrutineering and signing on was conducted in a carnival atmosphere in the main town square which gave us our first taste of the fanatical enthusiasm the Italians hold for any form of motor sport. Prior to the start, the drivers, navigators and support crews had enjoyed a supper in a nearby monastery where the assembled cars in the ancient courtyard was a feat in itself. Never before have I seen such motoring exotica in one place at the same time.
Darkness had fallen when the first of the MGs--the Barryman K3--mounted the start ramp amidst blazing TV lights. A fanatical commentator and crowds of cheering and waving Italians gave every car a terrific send off. The remaining MGs followed in short order and, after negotiating the streets and squares of Brescia, the route headed eastward on the first 120 mile stage to Ferrare via the southern shore of Lake Garda, not that much scenery was evident in the darkness punctuated by the piercing lights of competitors despatched at 30 second intervals.
The MG team were careful not to press the cars too hard in the darkness, the only casualties being the Brady/Howell car which suffered a total lighting failure but soldiered on in true Australian "never say die" fashion with their support car acting as pathfinder. The stage finished at Ferrara where a quick lap of the square with as much noise as possible was greeted by cheers from the assembled populace.
An early start the next day saw most crews tinkering with non-existent problems anxious to get down to the real business of the day. The route for the second day was to run 340 miles to Rome via Loreto, a pretty hilltop town boasting a colonnaded square which hosted an elegant buffet lunch for competitors. Having been lulled by the delights at lunchtime coupled with a seemingly gentle 150-mile run, we were now faced with some driving through spectacular mountains. The Gubbio pass held walls of snow higher than the cars and we seemed to descend as if on a bob-sleigh run to the almost lunar-like landscape of the Piano Gande followed by the Monte Sibillini and the tortuous pass of Terminillo.
The route over the Monti Sibillini range saw a trio of MGs revelling in a high speed chase which would have resulted in permanent removal of licences in most other countries. After all the excitement of the mountains it was a little disappointing to find our final run into the day's finish in Rome completed on their version of the M25.
At the overnight halt tales of the day's adventures were traded over dinner where we were joined by representatives of the MG Car Club Italia who were very excited to see cars which to them had only existed in legend. Bright sun greeted runners for the third day and with 500 testing miles ahead, the cars were treated to a drop of oil and a new set of spark plugs.
Heading north from Rome the good condition of the main roads leading to and from the capital enabled us to quickly cover the first 60 miles to the first check in. Arriving ahead of schedule allowed for a brief rest and photographic opportunity. On the restart it was clear that the Mullins/Leigh L-type had lost a cylinder which required some smart diagnostic work to trace the problem to the magneto cap. With a new cap fitted the crew had the excuse they had waited for. They were now some 30 minutes behind schedule and proceeded to indulge in some high speed motoring to make good the time.
The difficulty in completing the last 500 miles on time became increasingly evident as we progressed through the day. The sun became hotter; the traffic became denser; the crowds got bigger as we travelled further north. A detour from the main road took the cars to Siena and from there to Firenze where we were allowed to drive through the normally pedestrian old city.
A Highlight was a visit to the Ferrari race circuit were we completed a special test before going on the Bologna via the Futa and Raticosa passes. These climbs were all the more enjoyable in view of the part they had played in MG's victory 61 years before. Modena was reached by late afternoon with a refreshment bay being provided at the Scagliatti factory.
Peter Gregory and Bo Lindgren in their K3 replica had lost their vital route card to be stamped at each checkpoint when it had disappeared through a gap in the floorboards. Imagine their delight when a police motorcyclist who had chased them for 40 miles presented them with the missing card instead of a speeding ticket!
The final 100 miles from Modena to Brescia were sheer mayhem or ecstasy depending on whether you owned the car or were just lucky enough to be driving it. As twilight faded to dusk the pace became faster and faster. More and more people lined the route just as they had done for generations, and the traffic police closed off all junctions to wave the Mille Miglia cars through as we went flat out for the finish.
Suddenly , it seemed, there was the same ramp we had left 48 hours before. The same faces, TV lights and fanatical commentator waxing lyrical seemingly without having stopped to draw breath for the past couple of days.
Our adventure was over. We had not figured in the prizegiving but we had succeeded in writing one more chapter in MG history. All the cars had performed admirably. Apart from replenishing essential fluids and a precautionary change of plugs other problems were minor--not bad for five cars whose aggregate age is well over 300 years!