One man’s Mille Miglia 

By Gregor Grant,  AutoSport


WHEN 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.

However, 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.

In 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!

“Not to worry”, remarked Chapman: “Everything’s here, we’re just waiting on the petrol tank. It’ll be absolutely ready early Friday”.

Actually. 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 was efficient.

Clearly if I had to erect this Heath Robinson affair, the scrutineers would boot me out pronto! I telephoned Chapman, and his only comment was to the effect that it had always passed the scrutineers in the past and who the hell wanted a hood on an Eleven anyway?

We 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 ribbons.

Obtaining 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!

Naturally, 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.

At 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.

I 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 be.

The 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.

Then 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.

There 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.

            Later, 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.

The 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.

I 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.

My 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”.

It 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 mirror.

The 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!

At 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.

Down 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 through.

By 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 slightest clue.

It 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.

The 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.

Through 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.

Apart 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 crash hats.

Coming 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 de combat.

Again, 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 cigarette.

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.

The 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!

Coming 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.

That 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!

Just 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.

I 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.

At 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”.

Eason 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.

That 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.

So, 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.

About 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.

The 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.

Then, 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!

It 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”!

This 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.

One 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.

When 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.

The 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 drops.

Time 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?

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!

Despite 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.

Naturally 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 happened.

It 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 whatsoever.

            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!