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From the archives: Stirling Moss on the 1955 Mille Miglia

01 September 1984

Writing in Saga Magazine's very first issue, Britain's greatest motor racing hero Stirling Moss recounts his epic drive on the 1955 Mille Miglia.

Stirling Moss. Photo: Max Earey/
Stirling Moss. Photo: Max Earey/
Britain's greatest motor racing hero, Stirling Moss, re-lives his epic drive on the 1955 Mille Miglia.

When the editor asked me to write about my greatest moment, I needed to pause and think. There have been so many days that I like to remember- and each had its own challenge and therefore its own pleasure.

I enjoyed winning the Alpine Rally three times in a row, running down mountain roads that were sometimes literally icy chutes. I enjoyed my 1961 grand prix wins at Monaco and on the Nurburgring, because in both I was driving a privately-owned, underpowered and outmoded Lotus against the might of the Ferrari team.

But I suppose the race which gave me the greatest satisfaction of all has to be the Mille Miglia of 1955. To many modern racing enthusiasts, the fifties are just something they read about in the record books. However to you and me, it is more personal than that. We were there and some of those days - I'm sure you will agree - were very good days.

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Conquering the Mille Miglia

To English drivers, the Mille Miglia, the most legendary of all road races, loomed up as the impossible dream. It was said that only an Italian could ever hope to learn this near thousand-mile course which snaked its way through the length and breadth of Italy, across the plains, through the city streets, down the valleys and over the mountains.

History backed up the notion. Only the german driver, Rudi Caracciola, driving a Mercedes in 1931 had ever beaten the Italians - and as the name suggests, Rudi was part-Italian anyway.

I would also be driving a Mercedes, a 300slr, and part of a works team that included Juan Manual Fangio, Karl Kling and Hans Hermann. Alfred Neubauer, the best manager I ever knew, would be in charge and so I knew that the back-up would be superb. Even so I was still left with the problem of trying to learn the course even half as well as a driver such as Piero Taruffi, who drove along part of the Mille Miglia route most weeks.

In a bid to overcome this problem, I decided to use Denis Jenkinson as my navigator and I couldn't possibly have chosen a better man for the job. Denis was a former world champion motor-cycle sidecar racer - a man accustomed to racing speeds and to relying absolutely on someone else's driving.

We devised a set of pace notes. It was a revolutionary concept then, but it was the one now used by every rally driver. On an 18-foot roll of paper, Denis wrote down the details of every section of the road. Bends were classified as safe, fast, medium, slow and very slow; and sections with bad bumps or tramlines or level crossings were marked too. Because it would be impossible to hear one another above the roar of the engine, we decided to use hand signals.

He ran over the course five times in practice, in five different cars, bending two rather badly in the process. But by race day, May 1, we were ready to do battle and quietly confident that we could give the Italians a run for their money.

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Race day

Cars had been leaving Bressica, just outside Milan, at one-minute intervals ever since 9 pm the previous evening. Our starting time was 7.22 am and we set off under a clear blue sky.

The first bend we came to was an S-bend. Denis gave me the signal; flat out in forth gear. I shifted into fourth, opened the throttle, and through we went. From then on, it became almost routine. For each hazard a check of the notes, then the signal, then the action.

Our trust in one another had to be total. If we wished to win the Mille Miglia, there was no room for compromise. I was taking blind brows at over 170 mph, quite prepared to believe that, as denis claimed, the road ahead lay straight and true.

On the way down to Verona, we passed a few Austin Healeys. And when we reached the second control we were told that we had broken the record for the first stage. But then so too had the Ferrari driver, Eugenio Castellotti.

We ran along the banks of the River Po, through Ferrari and Forli, then turned south-east straight into the rising sun towards Rimini and the Adriatic coast. Poor Denis was suffering from the heat, the sideway forces and the continual noise. He leant over the side of the car to be sick and as he did so, the 150 mph slipstream whipped his glasses away. Fortunately he had another pair in his pocket, and calmly went on with his signals.

In Pesaro, we went for a short cut around a level crossing marked in our notes only to discover that it was blocked by straw bales. With little choice in the matter, I drove round them and happily hit nothing solid in the way.

Pescara was the second control and the first pit stop. Neubauer's men cleaned the screen, poured 18 gallons of fuel into the tank, handed over coffee, chocolate and peeled bananas and sent us on our way in just 28 seconds!

We were still in Pescara when another car cut across our path; and in avoiding him, I locked the wheels, pushed through the straw bales, overtook him as we raced down the pavement and darted back through the bales on to the road again.

At the next control in L'Aguila, we were told that Taruffi was 18 seconds ahead of us and the roller coaster run down to Rome was the part of the course which he knew best. But by now we were really flying. We went past Musso's Maserati and Magioli's Ferrari and hit one level crossing so hard that we were both bounced up into the airstream.

As we ran into the Eternal city, a new hazard emerged. The crowds were edging towards the middle of the roads. All I could was swerve from side to side, horn blaring, headlights blazing, as though the car was out of control. Taking the hint, the crowds pulled back a bit.

We had been driving for hours. More important, we were now the race leaders, two minutes ahead of Taruffi with Kling and Fangio in third and fourth places. Tradition has it that "He who leads at Rome is never first home". But by then tradition also said that this was a race to be won only by men with Italian sounding names - and we planned to change that too.

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Close scrapes

Just outside Rome, we passed Kling's crashed Mercedes. Karl had broken ribs, but otherwise was all right. We were on the northward stretch now, headed towards Viterbo and racing over a series of hump-backed bridges at top speed.

We hit one so fast that we literally took off. Denis and I have time to look at one another before we touched down again. Fortunately although we were airborne for a good 200 feet, the road was dead straight and we made a perfect four-point landing.

We had another narrow escape when a front wheel locked under heavy braking and we slid of the road but were able to crawl back in bottom gear and get on with the race with nothing worse than a dented tail.

We passed Fangio who had been checked temporarily by a broken fuel injection pipe and went through the Siena control so quickly that we found out nothing about our position. Then we were running through the twists and turns of the Apennines and along the high passes of the Futa and the Raticosa. A mixture of oil and rubber had made the surface treacherous and so I was forced to ease off just a fraction.

Poor Hans Hermann, in the fourth of the works Mercedes, was sitting at the roadside with a split petrol tank. But where was Taruffi? By now I was fairly confident that the race lay between us.

Once back on the Emilian plain, the road was easier, straighter and flat, and I was able to flatten the accelerator and run along at our maximum speed of 178-180 mph. We went through Modena, Enzo Ferrari territory, with a flourish. At times, we were travelling so fast that a light aeroplane which was following the route couldn't keep up with us.

We had an anxious moment when the car slid sideways on a path of melted tar and I had to work hard to miss a concrete wall! Then with the sun and dust in our eyes, we came unexpectedly to a gaggle of slower cars doing a mere 110 or so! Fortunately Denis's horn and lights symphony got the message through in time.

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Crossing the finish line

We finished in style, rounding the last corner with the power full on and crossing the line at well over 100 mph. There was a lot of excitement in Bressica. Our total time for the course had been 10 hours, 7 minutes and 48 seconds at an average speed of almost 98 mph.... a speed that clipped almost 10 mph off the previous record. But we still had to wait until the news came through that Taruffi had dropped out with a broken oil pipe, before we could be sure the race was ours.

I stayed for the celebration dinner with the rest of the team, but had no wish to go to bed, I was so elated.

So despite the thousand miles that lay behind me , I drove northwards through the night, over the Alps to Cologne. It had been such a good day that I didn't want it to end. I was so charged up that I didn't feel any sense of fatigue. the tiredness came 24 hours later - and then I felt very tired indeed.

This article appeared in the very first Saga Magazine Vol 1, No. 1 in the Autumn of 1984. Stirling Moss became a regular motoring correspondent.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.