One man’s Mille Miglia
By Gregor Grant, AutoSport
I FIRST mentioned the idea of driving a Lotus Eleven in the 1957 Mille
Miglia, many people thought that I was plain crackers. They said that
such a lightweight machine would fall to bits, and that a thousand miles
was a long, long way. It was also pointed out that the smaller capacity
classes were practically 100 per cent Italian, filled with such
formidable machinery as Osca, Fiat specials, Abarth, Cisitalia, Moretti,
Stanguellini and Nardi.
Colin Chapman listened carefully, and thought that it would he a good
idea to see how a Lotus would go in this classic road race, he agreed to
prepare an Eleven at Hornsey but I would have to take care of everything
else, including the entry, insurance, refueling, transport, service and
so on. As it was my intention also to do a story on the race, I sure was
in for a busy time.
due course the entry was accepted, refueling and oil arrangements made
with Dennis Druitt of BP, and a trailer borrowed from Cliff Davis. It
was arranged that photographer George Phillips would accompany me, and
that we would tow the Lotus behind my MG Magnette, actually the same car
with which I had made 4th place in the 2000cc GT category, the previous
year. We planned to cross over to the Continent on a Monday; the Eleven
was supposed to be ready for collection by the previous Wednesday.
Therefore I arrived at Hornsey, complete with trailer, only to discover
that the car wasn’t even built!
to worry”, remarked Chapman: “Everything’s here, we’re just
waiting on the petrol tank. It’ll be absolutely ready early Friday”.
I didn‘t receive the car until the Sunday morning, and only managed to
drive it for about 30 miles before it was loaded on to the trailer, and
sheeted-up ready for the trip. It certainly felt like a nice little
machine, and it was extremely well turned out, but I had a slight panic
when I saw the alleged hood. This seemed to consist of some thin fabric,
and what looked like the framework of an umbrella. The Mille Miglia
regulations stated quite clearly that all entries in the sports car
class had to have an efficient form of weather protection in the case of
open cars. It also stated that the scrutineers may demand that the hood
be erected, and the vehicle driven to prove that the weather protection
if I had to erect this Heath Robinson affair, the scrutineers would boot
me out pronto!
took the Simplon route into Italy, but before that, near Chaumont, we
ran into a fierce blizzard, not entirely expected in early May. The
outfit was nearly wrecked when a tyre on the trailer blew out, and the
whole bang-show began to swing about. Trying to hold the Magnette on an
icy, snowy road with a trailer doing its damnedest to haul us off the
road, is not one of my better memories. I however I managed to stop
before we jack-knifed, and ruefully surveyed a tyre completely in
a replacement took ages, for none of the garages in Chaumont had the
size. We did think of fitting French wheels and tyres, but the hub
fixing presented a problem. By a stroke of luck the Dunlop service truck
stopped outside a bistro, and even luckier, they had a tyre of the
proper size. I thought it rather sporting of George Phillips to
volunteer to go back 10 kilometres or so to the hotel where we had left
the trailer, re-fit the wheel, and leave me to have a snort along with
the Dunlop boys!
in Brescia, all sorts of things required attention. The battery had
developed a leak, and a new one had to be fitted, but the replacement
would not fit the Lotus cradle. So a local blacksmith produced a new
one, which for rather less than a quid, was a jolly sound job. Wheels
were badly out of balance, and once again Dunlop came to the rescue.
Then, after a short practice run, it was discovered that the wrong grade
of sparking plugs had been fitted, which coked up almost immediately.
Thanks to Laurie Hands of Champion, the exact grade was found, and
thereafter the engine ran like a sewing machine. The tachometer drive
broke, requiring a new cable which was a devil to fit. I also had
trouble with sticking throttles, which were cured by Wilkie Wilkinson of
Ecurie Ecosse. Incidentally, I had come to an arrangement with EE boss
David Murray to share their service facilities en
route, provided I did not interfere with any work required on their
‘D’ Type Jaguar.
Rome, my pit was to be manned by Malcolm Bateman, of the Yorkshire
Sports Car Club, a tremendous enthusiast, and at Bologna, John Eason
Gibson and the BARC’s Bob Lawry would be helping, along with the
second crew of Ecurie Ecosse.
did manage one decent practice session, and was absolutely charmed with
the speed and roadholding of the little green and silver Lotus. I made
more arrangements for possible assistance. George Phillips would be
taking the Magnette to cover the event photographically, and Harry Mundy
in his car was doing a story for “Autocar”. Both promised to look
out for me, and gave me the location of possible places where they might
scrutineers passed the hood without even looking at it being erected,
but the senior man said that I did not have sufficient Italian
insurance, so I had to produce a further 20,000 lire, bringing the
total up to 80,000 lire, otherwise I would not be permitted to
start. Then, suddenly, another official arrived who said that my
insurance had been cancelled, as an objection had been lodged by another
competitor that the seats were too small. John Patara, of BP Italy,
produced a tape-measure, and proved conclusively that the dimensions
were well within the permitted sizes. Then came another request, to
erect the hood. This was done, and although I could not have travelled
more than a few yards without the whole thing disintegrating, the
official appeared to be satisfied.
followed apologies, a present of a couple of bottles of Asti Spumante
(which I detest), and the formal return of 20,000 lire, as they now
admitted that the charge should rightly have been 40,000 lire. Thank
heavens for Johnny Patara, and also for Count “Johnny” Lurani, who
did all the necessary interpretation for me.
was another Lotus Eleven in the race, entered by Bruno Ferrari, which
was a doubtful starter owing to gearbox troubles. However, Colin had
supplied me with sufficient spares for the MG box to put it right, and
we passed the scrutineers with something like an hour to spare.
that evening, Patara came along to see me at the Gallo Moderne, and
gleefully told me that the competitor who protested about the seats had
had his car pinched from a car park and would be unable to start. He
rather suggested that I knew something about this, and I had the devil
of a job convincing him, and others, that I knew absolutely nothing
about the affair.
twin SU carburettors had no choke arrangement fitted, and as the weather
was unusually cold for May, the engine was difficult to keep running. So
Phillips “invented” his own version of a choke, comprising of piece
of cardboard which could be held over the air-intakes. This worked
admirably, and became standard equipment on the car—the idea also
being passed on to Bruno Ferrari.
had just one more practice run, and this time I was able to let the
little car have its head. It seemed to be perfectly happy at 7,300 rpm,
which was roughly equivalent to 130 mph. The seat, however, was terribly
uncomfortable, but beyond adding a rubber air-cushion, there was little
I could do about it.
number was 337, which meant that I started at the unearthly hour of 3:37
a.m. There were enormous crowds to watch the cars taking off down the
starting ramp, and I gently eased the Lotus down to avoid bottoming.
Then, it was a case of accelerating through the packed lanes of
spectators, the powerful Lucas Le Mans headlamps providing a splendid
spread ahead of me. I soon arrived at a level crossing, marked with a
huge sign “Pericolo”. Stirling Moss had mentioned this bumpy
crossing to me, and said that it was at a place called Pericolo, which I
had already learned meant simply “Danger”.
was a bumpy run on the twists and turns to Verona, and the crowds seemed
to become thicker and thicker in the villages. At any rate, whenever one
saw the largest congregation, one automatically realized that this was a
main danger spot. I soon came on to some red tail lights ahead, and
instinctively knew that these belonged to my rivals in the 1100cc class.
To my delight, there were no signs of approaching headlamps in my rear
car was going like a dream, with 7,000 rpm on the clock on the
straights, and the Coventry-Climax engine running perfectly with a
healthy burble from the exhaust, almost drowned by the thrilling scream
of the racing Dunlops. Yet, my backside was already beginning to ache,
and there were many hundreds of miles still to go!
dawn, an annoying ground mist slowed me down considerably, and for about
an hour this persisted in patches. But finally the sun broke through to
a cloudless blue sky, and apart from my posterior, I began to enjoy
myself thoroughly. I overtook and passed a couple of red Oscas, which
for maximum speed could not look at the Lotus.
the Adriatic coast the weather was perfect, with a shimmering blue sea
alongside. Chief hazards were the crowds, and it was more than a trifle
disconcerting travelling at around 120 mph, to approach a solid mass of
humanity, and watch them wait until the last possible moment before
parting to let one through. In one or two places, with sharp bends,
over-enthusiastic Italians even risked giving the car a pat as it went
this time, I had passed quite a number of cars, but being alone I had no
way of knowing my position, or how I was doing as regards average speed.
In 1956 I had been able to use a Halda Speed Pilot on the Magnette, but
the Lotus was not provided with such a luxury. I do, however, recall
seeing a group of people waving an enormous Union Jack, and giving me a
“thumbs up” sign. Whether or not they were merely pleased to see a
British car, or were indicating that I was doing well, I hadn’t the
was at Ravenna, the first passage control, that I experienced the first
signs of trouble. I had started with a vizor, but discarded this in
favour of goggles when it began to mist up. The goggles were even worse,
and there was a strong smell of petrol everywhere. I put on the vizor
again, for trying to drive without anything in the way of protection for
my eyes caused petrol to be sprayed straight on to my face.
petrol spraying suddenly disappeared, but my neck was stiff having had
to peer upwards from beneath the vizor, and with that damnnable seat I
had to keep shifting my position. One of the Oscas shot past, and it was
several kilometres before I could again overtake it.
Forli, Cesena and Rimini, the crowds were beyond belief. I have a hazy
recollection of talking to Wilkie Wilkinson of Ecurie Ecosse when I
refuelled at Pesaro. I was feeling rather groggy from the petrol fumes,
and Wilkie told me later that I never even got out of the car.
from the spectators and parked cars, I had a lonely race for many
kilometres. Near Ancona, Maglioli’s Porsche hurtled past, travelling
very rapidly. I then overtook an Alfa Romeo, which suddenly began to
weave all over the road. I had to brake hard as it broadsided in front
of me. A rear wheel had come off, and the car was cutting deep ruts in
the road on its brake drum. It came to rest without further incident,
and I squeezed past. Not much further along the route, I saw a Fiat on
its side, the crew sitting miserably on a wall, still wearing their
into Pescara, crowds were trying to right a Lancia which had obviously
been on its roof. A couple of Fiat “Millicentos” had been abandoned,
apparently one having shunted the other. Close to a level crossing I
glimpsed a somewhat battered Triumph TR2, which I recognized as
belonging to Nancy Mitchell/Pat Faichney. To my relief, I saw that both
girls were OK, but the TR2 was definitely hors
the crowds were so dense that the approaches to the city were most
hazardous. My backside was so stiff that the pain had gone long ago, and
although I still felt groggy the engine was running sweetly and my
spirits were high. I took several slugs from my bottle of glucose, and
looked forward to Rome, where I would have some respite, and a
However, in the mountains from Aquila, the grogginess persisted, and so did the all-pervading stink of petrol. I began getting slower and slower, and was overtaken first by a V8 BMW, and then by Robin Carnegie in his works MG. I then had a grandstand view of a particularly fierce duel, with the BMW driver nearly putting the MG into a ditch, as Carnegie managed to squeeze past.
groggy feeling then passed again, and off I set to try to catch the BMW
and the MG. The German did everything possible to prevent me getting
through. I tried the inside, then the outside, of every bend, but the
gate was always shut. I felt like ramming him, but thoughts of the
lightweight Lotus and the massive German car soon put these out of my
mind. Then, coming down towards a double bend, the driver completely
lost it, and for one sickening moment I anticipated his going
end-over-end, but the car slewed sideways in a cloud of dust and a
shower of stones, and in it went into a deep ditch. I just couldn’t
resist giving him the “Churchill” sign as the Lotus shot ahead!
into Rome, I overtook the MG, and we both stopped at our pits together.
Malcolm Bateman and his friend Jim Furze took charge of everything,
checking tyres, petrol, oil, battery and so on. I swallowed a quick
sandwich washed down with coffee, and was told afterwards that I smoked
two cigarettes at once. Malcolm told me that I was fourth in the 1100cc
sports class, not far behind a couple of 1100cc Oscas, but that Cabianca
and his tremendously rapid “950” Osca were well out in front.
halt put new life into me, as I set off for Firenze (Florence) over the
tough mountain sections. At Viterbo I passed one of the 1100cc Oscas,
and left it far behind as I moved towards Radiocofani. The crowds on the
hillside slopes were enormous, the gay colours of the girls’ dresses,
the men’s shirts and the bright sunshades creating a real holiday
atmosphere. What a contrast from 1956, when this section was covered,
during torrential rain, with thousands of umbrellas looking like a
multitude of toadstools!
outside Siena, another Osca appeared in front, which I passed without
any difficulty. I suddenly realized that the Lotus was second in its
class, and that I might not be badly placed in the Index of Performance.
Then the petrol vapour started again, and by the time I reached
Florence, I was dizzy and my eyes were smarting dreadfully. I vaguely
recall signing the control card, and racing off towards the Futa. On the
famous pass, I performed a spectacular gilhooley, right in front of
about ten thousand people. Practically blinded by petrol vapour, I was
on a corner before I realized it, slammed on the anchors, and spun
completely round, clouting a wall with a resounding crunch with the
offside rear wheel.
re-started gingerly, but thereafter the steering began to feel peculiar.
The Lotus also had a tendency to shudder, as if it was resenting coming
into contact with a hard, stone wall. On the descent of the Futa, I
suddenly saw George Phillips and Harry Mundy. I asked them to have a
quick look—see at the car, which they did, but they could find nothing
wrong. So off I went once more, and it wasn’t till afterwards that I
learned that both had shouted after me, having spotted that the offside
rear wheel was wobbling violently.
Bologna, the Ecurie Ecosse boys said that the wheel was so badly buckled
that it would have to be changed, so they swopped it for the one and
only spare. Then John Eason Gibson and Bob Lawry demanded what capacity
my petrol tank was supposed to be. They had pumped in something like 100
litres, and it was still far from full. Then one of the EE boys spotted
that most of the petrol was running down the drain. He found that the
tank had split wide open, along the bottom bend. With the tank
immediately above my knees, this was not one of the best things that
could have happened. Anyway, the mechanics did the best they could by
closing the split with a copper clout and packing it up with “goo”.
Gibson took a quick look, and said that with luck the jury-rig would
hold. He pointed out that I was still third in the class, and that the
second place Osca had just pulled out and was only about a minute ahead.
stop at Bologna now seems more like a dream. I remember seeing Enzo
Ferrari with a glum face, and someone telling me that Peter Collins’
Ferrari was out of the race, the rear axle having broken up when he was
in the lead. I also recall informing the EE people that Ron
Flockhart’s D-type Jaguar was also out, which Wilkie had told me at
Pesaro, and which I had completely forgotten.
off I went again, and in what seemed to be a very short time I had
caught and passed the second-place Osca, and really started motoring
towards Modena. All was not well, however, for the engine was
spluttering badly, and the stench of petrol was overwhelming. Not far
out of the town, the engine finally stopped altogether. I clambered
stiffly out, and raised the bonnet, whilst a great crowd appeared
literally from nowhere. I gave the SU petrol pump a clonk, it raced, and
it then began to slow as fuel came through. I looked at the patched
tank, but only a few drips were apparent, so on the way I went again,
and with no sign of the Osca I had overtaken.
10 kilometres further on the engine again stopped. This time I managed
to spot the trouble. When the tank was patched up, the polythene pipe to
the SU pump had been shifted, and was being jammed by the bonnet. This
was soon rectified, and the pump began to work normally.
Osca had not appeared, so I felt that it must have met trouble, for I
had lost many minutes sorting out the pump bothers. But the steering
was, to say the least of it, very dodgy. On left-hand bends it seemed
fairly accurate, but on right-hand turns, the over-steer was simply
unbelievable. I then realized that what had happened was that the spare
wheel must have been a front one, and that it was a smaller-section than
the rear. There was nothing I could do about it, for the spare was too
badly twisted to be of any further use, so I pressed on, watching out
carefully for all right-handers, for the Lotus appeared to be quite
stable in a straight line.
on the very fast straight between Cremona and Mantova, I found myself
almost waist-high in petrol. The tank had finally burst, and I realized
that there was a real danger of an explosion and fire—the worst thing
that could occur to anyone!
takes danger to bring on speedy reactions. I slammed on the brakes, and
before the Lotus had stopped rolling, I was out, and going
head-over-heels on the grass verge. I watched the car zig-zagging its
way down the road, and finally coming to rest neatly parked on the
roadside. By a miracle it hadn’t caught alight. I struggled to my
feet, and then to my horror, I saw crowds of people running towards me
across the road. All seemed to be smoking cigarettes! I was soaked to
the skin in high-octane petrol, and I stammered “pericolo--benzina”!
didn’t seem to have any effect whatsoever, for they began swarming
towards me, so I took to my heels and ran. By great fortune, a couple of
policemen on motorcycles appeared, and quickly weighed up the situation,
and angrily ordered the crowd back to the other side of the road, making
certain that no cars were coming along.
of them could speak French, and when I asked him where the nearest
garage was, he told me “about five kilometres”. He indicated the
pillion seat on his Guzzi, and whilst his mate mounted guard over the
Lotus, I was taken to the garage. Meanwhile cars roared past on the
final leg to Brescia.
the policeman told the garage proprietor of my plight, he wheeled out
his Vespa, and was about to race down the road in the face of oncoming
cars, before the copper managed to stop him. Thereupon he rode across
the fields to examine the abandoned Lotus. He returned quickly enough,
to inform me that he thought that it could be put right, and took me
back to the car on his Vespa. The spilled petrol had by now completely
evaporated, and there still remained a pint or so in the tank. The
engine fired, and slowly I managed to coax the Lotus to his garage.
tank was quickly removed, but found to be completely beyond repair. The
whole affair had split wide open at the seams, and it was only the
Ecurie Ecosse repair at the base that had held the last few remaining
was running out, and it was pretty obvious that, with 70 miles to go, I
would never reach the finish inside the time limits. The cheerful padrone
offered to tow me to Brescia, after the roads had been opened, but
this would not be for many hours, as the slower touring small cars had a
much more generous time allowance. He then hit on the idea of a
temporary tank, and rigged up a jerrican which he lashed to the bonnet,
after having drilled the base and inserted a tap from a derelict
motorcycle. From this, he led a rubber tube to the pump supply pipe. He
found a large section of Dunlopillo (or was it Pirellipillo?) and formed
it in the shape of a wedge, so that the jerrican was at an angle of
about 45 degrees, with the filler-cap facing forward. I could see that
this man knew what he was about, for he carefully drilled a small hole
in the jerrican filler cap lid, and angled the “tank” forward, so
that any vapour would be blown forward. I sat in the car, and found that
I could see quite well over the top of the contraption. Moreover, it
worked perfectly, and had it occurred to him earlier, I could well have
finished within the time limit—or would I?
cannot describe fully that nightmare 70 miles. I was in agony from
petrol burns, and to add to the general discomfort, it started to rain
push-rods. How I reached the Gallo Moderne I shall never know. I was
black from head-to-feet, and stank of petrol. I vaguely remember having
some food, and several glasses of wine. The strongest recollection,
however, was of George Phillips painting my blistered parts with
Germolene, and my nearly hitting the ceiling as a result!
the painful blisters, the Phillips first-aid worked the trick, and I had
several hours of sleep, before awaking to write the report for ‘Autosport’.
Many incidents came back to me, once my head had finally been cleared of
the muzziness induced by the petrol fumes. I recall seeing the dreadful
results of the tragic de Portago crash, which sounded the death-knell of
the Mille Miglia. I also remember the eventual winner, Piero Taruffi,
screaming past me in his Ferrari, possibly doing about 170 mph.
I was disappointed with the results of my run, but felt that in the
main, the Eleven had proved that it could stand up to 1000 miles of
racing speeds. My retirement had been entirely due to the faulty petrol
tank, and when I returned to England, I was able to find out what had
was constructed of magnesium alloy, and when it was being produced by
the suppliers, in order to mark the exact sections to be bent over,
someone had carelessly used a scriber, thus producing a highly
vulnerable edge when the shape was formed, It seems likely that my
experience taught somebody a lesson, for magnesium tanks were also used
on the highly-successful 1957 Le Mans Lotuses, and these gave no trouble
I might also add a footnote that a rather shame-faced George Phillips produced a considerably battered MG Magnette for our trip home. He had run into the back of Harry Mundy’s Standard Vanguard, and had modified the frontal appearance very considerably. One way and another it had been quite a trip!