Stirling Moss, the legendary English race driver, muscled the Mercedes 300 SL into third and gave the throttle a stab. I white-knuckled the stopwatch. The Gullwing snarled, its rear end sliding out. "Swing axle tends to oversteer," said Moss as we rocketed down a two-lane Adriatic coast road slick with hailstones. "If you're not careful, it can bite you—hard."
Closing fast on a sweeping righthand turn, Moss banged the car into third again and then jumped back on the power. "Pass me another sweet, will you, old boy?" he said as the speedometer needle climbed toward 150 mph. I handed the man behind the wheel our last piece of licorice and went back to hanging on for dear life.
Our outlandish velocity was really my fault. I had miscalculated the mileage to our Ancona checkpoint, and we had lingered too long over scampi and black risotto in Pesaro. Now—to compensate—Moss was going all-out past the beach cabins dotting the Italian roadside. We were bearing down on Car No. 221, another gunmetal-gray 1955 Gullwing. At its wheel was International Rally champion Ari Vatanen from Finland.
B-e-e-e-e-p! Moss stiff-armed the horn, flashed his lights and crossed the solid white line, intending to pass. Vatanen either didn't see us or misread Moss's speed, because suddenly and wildly he careened into our path, apparently trying to avoid rear-ending a sluggish Isetta. "Silly sod," said Moss, even as he weighed the prospect of playing bumper tag with Vatanen versus joining the bug collection splattered across the grille of an onrushing tour bus. Moss gunned the throttle and drove the tachometer needle well beyond the 5,500 redline. Whooooosh. The backwash of the speeding bus was all that hit us as we blew past Vatanen's car. "How many coats of paint do you reckon we left back there, Stirl?" I asked. "A couple." Moss said, obviously well pleased with himself.
During this three-day, breakneck odyssey this spring, as I rode shotgun, we broke enough speed limits, ran enough red lights and bolted the wrong way up enough one-way streets to earn life sentences in a Sicilian slammer. The carabinieri, however, were willing accomplices to these infractions and urged us on every foot of the 1,000-mile way. The Mille Miglia is a law unto itself. Begun in 1927, the Mille Miglia was the most dangerous and most glorious of the great Continental road races—as its name implies, a 1,000-mile loop of northern Italy. Europe applauded the car that won Le Mans but idolized the driver who won Mille Miglia. But in 1957 the Mille Miglia was canceled after Marquis Alphonso de Portago—sportsman, playboy and godson of King Alphonso XIII of Spain—crashed his Ferrari at top speed, killing himself, his navigator (American Ed Nelson) and nine spectators. In 1982, Brescia's Musical Watch Veteran Car Club, an assemblage of vintage-automobile buffs, resurrected the Mille Miglia as a rally for cars built from 1927 to 1957, the years the race had been run.
Unlike motor races on closed tracks, in which speed is the object, rallies demand pacing, endurance and precision timing, pitting driver-navigator teams against one another for days on remote roads. Departing at 25-second intervals in the Mille Miglia, each car is given the same amount of time to travel a specified distance. For example, the 120 kilometers between Ferrara and Rimini are to be covered in 2:23:59, no more, no less. In theory, the revived Mille Miglia rewards steely minds rather than lead feet. In practice, however, so long as you arrive on time at each checkpoint you can race as furiously as you like in between.
Now Moss was reliving his finest hour, retracing the 1955 Mille Miglia. Three-and-a-half decades ago, Moss and his navigator, English journalist Denis Jenkinson, averaged a record 97.9 mph over switchback mountain roads, through the tight confines of Vatican City and Florence and over the Italian countryside. Motor sports fans still refer to Moss's drive as "the greatest road race of all time."
In that '55 race, Moss made only two pit stops—totaling one minute and 28 seconds—while covering the 1,000-mile circuit in a breathtaking 10:07:48. This time, with a leisurely 2� days to complete the course—48:25:55 driving time, to be exact—Moss satisfied his appetite for bravura by traveling flat out from checkpoint to checkpoint, thus leaving plenty of time to sample the local trattorias, catch roadside siestas and sign autographs for some of the estimated 10 million spectators.
Through all this I was attempting to play the same role as Jenkinson. Compared to "Jenks," a former motorcycle sidecar champion as well as a motor sport journalist, I am an automotive illiterate. I neither own a car nor wear a watch. Moss, however, assured me that all I would have to do was squint into the wind and tell him when he had enough room to pass.
The rally began on a misty Friday evening, in Brescia, an hour east of Milan. Beneath blinding floodlights our Gullwing, Car No. 282, took its place toward the back of the long queue of cars awaiting the countdown. Adding Euro-glam to the driver roster were Ornella Muti, Italy's answer to Jacqueline Bisset (in a 1954 Ferrari); Queen Elizabeth's cousin, Prince Michael of Kent (1936 Lagonda, followed by bodyguards in a 1988 Range Rover); Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason (1930 Alfa Romeo).