H&H Tackle the Mille Miglia Storica– May 2011

-Simon Hope 

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Some time ago I bought a 1950 Allard J2 that was supplied new to Colonel Rupert Larrinaga. An amateur racing driver and personal friend of Sydney Allard, Larrinaga was also a gifted skier who twice represented Great Britain at the Winter Olympics. ‘My’ J2 was one of several models he campaigned in anger during his four decades of stewardship. Though, by the time the two-seater passed to me it had been unregistered for several years was in need of some recommissioning, as well as painting.

On my return from the Peking to Paris I was asked by some American friends to join them on their trip as part of ‘Scuderia Sports’. As the J2 was potentially eligible, we decided to submit an entry.  That of course did not mean we were going to be accepted. But it did mean we had to send the car off to be ‘gone through’ from stem to stern.  Figuring the last thing Italians needed to see was another red car, I also had the Allard refinished in the now well-known H&H company colours.

My partner, George Beale and I duly collected the car – sadly too late to do any testing with it – and headed off to prepare for the event. We took the car with one of the company vans and a covered trailer, and arrived in Sirmione on the Saturday prior to the event.  The first time I actually drove the car was from the harbor in Sirmione up to the hotel.  She sounded wonderful.

We then had a few days to prepare with other members of ‘Scuderia Sports’, all organized by the ever-gracious and hospitable Mark Gessler. Our first major contact with the organizers was to be on the Wednesday, when we had to go for scrutineering.  Although, at one stage it did not look as if we would make it that far! The last minute scrabble for pre-promised paperwork saw us end up with two FIVA passports (one American – thanks Mark – and the other British) not to mention a brand new UK V5C Registration Document that had taken six months of brain numbing work to organize.

The Allard had been difficult to start the day before, and whilst we were in the car park of the hotel I decided it would be a good idea to let it run for a moment.  So I leant over and flicked all of the switches ready to fire it up, without checking whether it was in gear, and pressed the starter button.  It caught immediately and jumped straight back into a wall. George only just avoided being pinned to the masonry but did have his bunion-afflicted toe run over – OUCH!

Still speaking, but with me feeling extraordinarily foolish, we headed to scrutineering with one rear light missing and a very crumpled back end.  Luckily all of the signing on etc went without a hitch. We were very pleased that Warren Kennedy - a talented restorer with a passion for Healeys - managed to find a replacement rear light surround and glass in the back of his truck, so we were able to fit that to our car.

One potential disadvantage of making the Mille Miglia Storica your pride and joy’s first post-recommissioning outing is not having the faintest idea what size fuel tank she has, or how many miles to the gallon she can manage. Necessity being the mother of invention, we decided to calculate the rate of consumption during a convoy outing with the other members of ‘Scuderia Sports’. Having brimmed the fuel tank and taken an odometer reading, we enjoyed our autostrada blat before refueling and calculating the J2’s consumption. The restorers’ best guess was the tank held fifteen gallons. On that basis we felt the car’s range was circa 250 miles.  How wrong we were.

We met Bob Francis who had the other Allard J2 on the 2011 Mille Miglia Storica. He has done it for the last three years inclusive, and his ex-works Allard looks both beautifully prepared and very stable.  It was actually Bob’s car that got us in, because the Mille Miglia had never previously accepted a non Cadillac-powered Allard J2.  In period, Bob’s car was entered for the Giro di Sicilia on April 1st 1951 and the Mille Miglia just four weeks later. Unfortunately, the Allard blew its Mercury-Ardun engine on the former event, and was hurriedly brought back to the UK to be fitted with a less highly-strung Cadillac engine. The J2’s original entry paperwork for the 1951 Mille Miglia listed the Mercury-Ardun engine. But as has been well-recorded, Sydney Allard and Tom Lush actually competed with a Cadillac lump under the bonnet. Interestingly, they also ran with a special 40-gallon fuel tank. Unlike Bob’s works machine, my car is still powered by a Mercury-Ardun V8. However the eligibility committee were happy to accept it once they had been brought up to speed with the eleventh-hour engine transplant that befell the 1951 entrant. Only twenty or so Allard J2s are thought to have left the factory with the Mercury-Ardun V8 engine. Although the unit initially had a fragile reputation, the likes of C&T Automotive in California were getting 300bhp out of it by the mid/late 1950s.

The following day we went into Brescia to collect some more paraphernalia from the sponsors and to get ourselves ready for the start.  We were scheduled to leave the rostrum in Brescia at 07:44, and spent the first night driving down to Bologna.  At this point we did not have the car setup properly – we had the trip meter, route book, pencil, light etc all on our knees.  This made things difficult to maneuver, and with a brand new navigator, this was all a learning curve.

Even at 2 am there were thousands of people lining the route – this continued throughout the four days. We arrived at around 2:30 am and had to be up the following morning, so had about 2½ hours sleep. However the organizers were very good at ferrying us from the car parks to the hotels in the early hours.

George was heroic with the route book from the very start – taking to it like a duck to water. We divided up the driving duties very amicably with the proviso that I would be at the helm for the special timed stages.

We only covered circa 250 km during that first stint and having made some precautionary stops for fuel, we were somewhat alarmed at the indicated consumption. Indeed, our initial reaction was one of sheer disbelief.  It wasn’t until the following day going down to Rome that we realized we were using fuel at a greater rate than the Torrey Canyon.  After running dry once and stuttering along on fumes twice, we came to the awful realization that a tank was only lasting 100km and therefore something like a litre was being consumed every 1.5 to 2 clicks – this was becoming a very expensive trip!  The J2’s prodigious thirst was also costing us time, which meant that we fell behind schedule. A 12,000-point late penalty was hardly welcome, but in all other respects the car seemed to be running fine. The optimist in me is hoping that new carburetor jets will help.

Being able to drive through towns at speed, ignore red lights and overtake with impunity are all enormous thrills. Of course such shenanigans would not be possible (or sensible) if it were not for the police’s full cooperation. But even when the ‘boys in blue’ are egging you on, pressing the pedal to the metal still feels deliciously naughty. For me, the undoubted highlight was driving through Rome on the balmy Friday night surrounded by a police escort.  The event is worth it from that point of view alone.

Whilst on that subject, the police also help competitors at various times by providing motorcycle guides while they shepherd other traffic out of the way, which all makes for a wondrous event.  Even so, a few chose to abuse such opportunities and there were a number of accidents during the event that need not have happened.

From Rome we were up at 5 am and in the car for 6:30 am to begin a day, which would not see us arrive at our next hotel until about 1am.  Strangely enough we seemed to be less tired that day than we had been before. Maybe we were just getting into the rhythm of the event – or the adrenaline was flowing. The scenery for the early part of the day, back to Brescia, was much more spectacular as was the driving.

The engine combines bountiful low-down torque with an addictively potent top end. Regardless of what gear you are in, the Allard pulls cleanly from 600 revs and accelerates so ferociously that few cars – old or modern – can live with her. Not bad for a sixty-year old. She was admired everywhere she went and does look particularly striking in the new color scheme.

If you include the celebratory Ferrari cavalcade, there were 500 or so cars on the event this year. That is quite apart from all the ‘unofficial participants’ who follow the route and join in where they can (some more forcibly than others). At times therefore the magic of the Mille Miglia Storica dissipates and you are left nose-to-tail in a very twenty-first century traffic jam, or confronted by a piece of driving that makes you question another motorist’s depth perception.

Aside from my inadvertent attempt to create a short wheelbase J2, and our too frequent fuel station stops, we also suffered a mysterious breakdown on Day 2 as we were journeying to Rome. The car stopped for no apparent reason. One of our ‘Scuderia Sports’ teammates Sylvia flagged down a mechanic. The latter, ably assisted by George, had a good rummage under the bonnet but found nothing obviously wrong. I pushed the starter button again and Hey! Presto! The engine barked back into life.  Goodness knows what that the problem was, but thankfully it went away. The fuel did not seem to be lasting long enough to vaporize so perhaps it was a loose ignition wire.

Whilst driving we stopped for food when we could – most of which was forgotten as soon as it was consumed. However, the juicy strawberries, ripe bananas and parmesan-topped cherry tomatoes served to us by two lovely ladies towards the end of a day – which had included a blast around Ferrari’s private Fiorano test track and a visit to the Maserati factory – proved particularly memorable.

We then returned to Brescia without any problems, took our plaudits on the rostrum and got a Lambretta motorcycle to show us the way to our hotel. Slightly more interesting than following a local taxi!

At the hotel we sat down to a welcome dinner with friends and consumed a small amount of booze, not for the first time. Being perfect gentlemen, George and I did not want the Allard to feel that her consumption of intoxicating liquor was conspicuous, and so we did our best to keep pace. We got to bed by 3 am and were up the next day just after lunch to find that the weather had turned. It had been brilliant during the rally, but was now raining cats and dogs. One of our friends had problems with a car that wouldn’t start and then when it did, it overheated. Another had a flat tyre which was replaced with something decidedly beyond current MOT regulations, so we eased our way back to the hotel in Sirmione where, guess what …. we had another drink.

Throughout the event Mark and the rest of ‘Scuderia Sports’ were wonderful company, but it was a week or more of non-stop activity with precious little time for recuperation. As such, we were not looking forward to the van and trailer drive home. 

In addition to the ‘Scuderia Sports’ crew, we met some really nice people and were able to organize a trip to the Zagato factory. There we were introduced to Andrea Zagato, and shown a variety of the cars and designs that the company has undertaken (albeit none of their current projects or commissions).

All in all, the 2011 Mille Miglia Storica was a tremendous few days. Like most similar affairs it provided some angst-filled moments. But generally speaking, the sense of fun prevailed and it remains among the greatest driving events on the planet.

If you ever get the chance to enter, don’t hesitate.