The Mille Migllia has been called “The Most Beautiful Race in the World” as well as “The Crazy Race”. Originated in Brescia Italy in 1926 by the Brescia Automobile Club, the race was a distance competition that combined approximately 1,000 miles of public roads with competing cars ranging from completely stock production automobiles to the best specialized racing machines the major automakers could field. Anyone could enter any car, but huge crowds gathered along the route to see the famous name cars and racing drivers battle it out for the win.
The races held before World War II included makers like Mercedes and Ferrari, but were dominated by Alfa Romeo who won 10 of 13 events. After a horrific accident in 1938 which killed three adults and seven children, the Italian government banned the race. It was run once again in 1940 but was then suspended for the duration of the war. Two years after the war concluded in 1945, the race was resurrected and Alfa Romeo entered a car hoping to claim its 14th win.
Much of Italy’s political structure and physical infrastructure was still shattered in 1947. The government was new, making organizing a country-wide competition fairly difficult. Roads and bridges had been destroyed by combat operations resulting in multiple detours in the course. However, the biggest obstacle was that gasoline and rubber tires were still being rationed, and this presented a major problem for many participants who did not have sponsorships. Because of these difficulties, only around 150 entrants signed up to participate. This was not enough to continue the grand reputation of the event, so the promoters hatched a scheme to bring in more competitors.
To encourage more cars to enter, the organizers were able to negotiate with gasoline companies and with Pirelli to have free gasoline and tires supplied to all the contestants. Remember, any car could be entered, even completely standard, stock, as-delivered-from-the-factory automobiles that anyone might own. When the word got out about the free gas and tires, the number of entrants quickly grew to 245 cars. Ninety of these new “entrants” simply took the free tank of gas and set of tires and went home, never to be seen again!
Alfa Romeo took this race very seriously, however, and they brought one of their best and most advanced machines, the 8C 2900B bodied as a superleggera Coupe “carrozzeria” (chassis 412036). This particular car had been shown at the 1938 Paris Auto Salon, and survived the war by being hidden on a private estate in Iseo. The car was then sold to Alfa Romeo dealer Emilio Romano who brought it to Brescia to show the world what it could do! Normally, the 8C series had supercharged eight cylinder engines with double overhead camshafts – good for 180 horsepower. But supercharging was disallowed in the 1947 race, so the car made do with 4 Webber carburetors which dropped its horsepower to 137.
Even though this model series had a chassis designed for specialized competition vehicles, this particular car was built as a closed coupe and was luxuriously appointed with the finest materials and styling. It was, after all, a Paris show car. The body design and craftsmanship was every bit as good as the interior, and is perhaps one of the most perfect automotive designs of its time. It was indeed a beautiful car for a beautiful race. Clemente Biondetti was selected to drive with Emilio Romano for Alfa Romeo.
The competition included a new Ferrari, a new Maserati, and a new, specialized Cisitalia race car, #179, driven by none other than “The Flying Mantuan” Tazio Nuvolari. “Cisitalia” is a shortened version of “Consorzio Industriale Sportive Italia,” which was a business consortium founded in Turin in 1946 to engage in various industrial activities. Piero Dusio controlled the company, and he was an avid sportsman and a leading amateur racer driving Alfa Romeos, Fiats, and Maseratis. Now it was time to build his own race cars!
One Cisitalia employee happened to be Carlo Abarth, who had designed and manufactured racing motorcycles and who represented Porsche in Italy. Cisitalia had already built one race car before Abarth joined the company, but he helped develop subsequent cars for competition. In 1947 Cisitalia introduced a two seater 202 CMM coupe and a 202 SMM roadster that were competitive and reliable. To increase their chances of winning the Mille Miglia, Cisitalia team leader Tazio Nuvolari was selected to drive the roadster.
Nuvolari and the light weight Cisitalia were a perfect match for the twisty roads in the early part of the race and he was able to open up an 8 minute lead over the bigger, heavier Alfa Romeo. On challenging roads where a nimble car would be preferred, the Alfa 8C was handicapped by not being able to utilize all of its superior power and so fell behind. But the Alfa would more than make up the shortfall.
On the return leg from Bologna, the Alfa came into its own. Rather than convoluted roads with many tight corners, the road home was the autostrada! The Alfa could fully use its horsepower advantage to outrun the Cisitalia, which was also having ignition problems, and won the race by 16 minutes. Nuvolari came in second, though, which was still a remarkable finish for the smaller, less powerful car. Consumed by the effort of pushing his Cisitalia to its limits for over 1,000 miles, Nuvolari had to be carried from his car. The car was named after him as a tribute to his effort – the Nuvolari Spider.
Ironically, Nuvolari had won the Mille Miglia twice before, and both times driving Alfas! In 1930, he took first driving an Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 Gran Sport Spider Zagato, and won in 1933 driving an Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Spider Zagato. After a magnificent career, Nuvolari retired from racing due to poor health in 1950 and died in 1953. Over 55,000 people lined the streets of Mantua during his funeral, which was attended by Fangio, Ascari, Ferrari, and other race world greats.
Biondetti had dominated Italian endurance racing, and went on to win two more Mille Miglias. Adding his victory in 1938 to the three victories in a row from 1947 to 1949 gives him 4 Mille Miglia victories in total – more than anyone else. Biondetti continued racing until his death in 1954.
Today, the winning Alfa Romeo resides in the Revs Institute collection. It has received a thorough restoration and remains a spectacularly beautiful automobile.
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William Hoffer, Director of Marketing, Grundy Insurance