The Brits Are Coming: In Birkin's Tyre Tracks on the 2013 Mille Miglia
by Andrew English
There are several narratives of the Mille Miglia, that egregious Italian road race, run 24 times between 1927 and 1957. As this year's retrospective assembled in Brescia's Piazza del Duomo, I thought of the 56 souls who perished in 30 years of this ludicrously dangerous open-road race, which in its pomp was watched by five million Italians cheering from the side of the road. These days the Mille Miglia is one of the Ritziest dates on the classic car calendar, a parade of priceless automobiles piloted by the great and not so great over 1,000 miles of prime Italian heritage. Regulars call it an Italian towel outreach programme, where crews move crisp white hand towels from one hotel to the next, leaving them oily beyond imagination in the following night's venue.
For me, however, this year's event was a chance to remember the remarkable Sir Henry 'Tim' Birkin, whose bravery and foresight created my mount for the rally, Bentley's own 4½-litre 'Blower' Bentley, that most evocative of motorcars. It's been 80 years since Tim Birkin died and the legend of the Blower is as strong today as it has always been. In fact a framed line drawing of this car has been on my wall since I was 10 years old, just as it should be in every English schoolboy's bedroom.
Birkin had to go behind WO's back to get the approval to build 50 roadgoing Blowers and five additional race cars. Woolf Barnato, Bentley's chairman and majority shareholder, gave his assent and Birkin's scheme was funded by wealthy young race horse owner, Dorothy Paget. Amherst Villiers designed the supercharger and the standard 4½-litre cars were converted in a workshop in Welwyn. And while WO Bentley might not have agreed with supercharging his 4½-litre model, the result is surely the quintessence of Bentley lore. Ian Fleming, looking for a suitable mount for his super spy hero, James Bond, chose a battleship grey Blower for three of his novels: Casino Royale, Live and Let Die and Moonraker.
So the sense of occasion was almost palpable on the start ramp of this year's Mille Miglia. As they waited for the clock to tick down to their start times, the crews of the 422 machines were interviewed by Simon Kidston. He leaned over our cockpit. "I'm not sure I should say this," he confided, "but today is exactly 70 years since the Dam Busters took off."
He wasn't the only one to notice the connection with the Bentley and Guy Gibson's AJ-G Lancaster. Looking down at my mobile, a text from friend Stefano Pasini read: "Looking glamorous in that Dam Busters Bentley."
Our British bulldog proudly boomed as we pulled away on Brescia's spectator lined streets. The implicit agreement between them and the lucky competitors is that their applause and cheers are not for the crews, but the cars. Compared to the great Mille Miglia drivers of yore such as Giovanni Bracco, Tazio Nuvolari, Stirling Moss and Clemente Biondetti, we couldn't drive our way out of a car park. And while Birkin never competed in the Mille Miglia, the sense that you are demonstrating rather than competing in his creation is strong. All the same, you drive as hard as you dare and make as much noise as possible.
The MM route (traditionally 1,000 Roman miles, or 919 Imperial miles) is the most fantastic primer to Italy's architectural treasures, heritage and landscape. But the pace of the event is so frenetic there's little time to enjoy it. So world heritage sites become names on a map, a time control, or a fuel stop. We roared through Rome, past the Colosseum and Pantheon and Vatican City. We left our tyres tracks past Florence's Duomo and our exhaust echoed over Siena's Piazza del Campo. The hill-top principality of San Marino became a slippery speed hillclimb, the chevroned comune of Assisi in Umbria, an auto test. But I've still got the battered, annotated and damp-stained route book awaiting a more gentle return trip.
The route avoids the autostrada in favour of Italy's greatest driving roads and sweeps across the Northern Plains, over the mountains of Montefeltro, and over the great Italian passes of Futa and Raticosa north of Florence. It takes in the Ferrari factory at Modena and halts for a time check and a bottle of water under the stunning Piazza del Comune in Cremona. After that you motor hard and fast against the setting sun (hopefully) for several hours back to Brescia.
Driving the big Bentley is not for the faint hearted - it is worth about £5 million, but you have to forget that. Sitting high in the cockpit, you're exposed to the elements, but with a first-rate view across roofs of the more modest transport of the proletariat. Those famous Russell Brockbank cartoons show Bentley driving characters in flat caps and tweeds with pipes sticking out from under their moustaches. Five minutes in the Blower and you're wondering whether a moustache would be a good idea.
The dashboard is covered with Jaeger and Smiths instruments. The chronometric rev counter scurries around the dial like a frightened bird. Starting means groping under the dashboard for the electrical master and fuel switches, tugging down the magneto toggles and the ignition quadrant and thumbing the big black starter. Funga, funga, Bop! The engine starts and idles like chestnuts popping in the oven.
Vintage Bentley gearboxes are notorious; even experts rasp cogs. There's a tiny window to double declutch up or down. Miss it and you'll be stopping and starting again. The steering, firm and direct on the move, is impossibly heavy at rest. You don't hear the supercharger from the driver's seat, but the exhaust note more than compensates. The big four pot blows a raspberry so rude it could come from the trombone in a strip-club band. Where a Speed Six is refined power, the Blower is a brash hot rod. At speed on one section we reached what Press and Special motor engineer, Ray Steele called "85 of the Queen's miles per hour". The noise was shattering, spalling off the Armco, a bellicose blast across 83 years as redolent as Elgar's Nimrod.
With about 175bhp, performance is brisk, but must have been unbelievable in 1930. The bluff radiator surges forward in any gear and the big monoblock four pot gains revs reasonably quickly and will rev as high as 3,500rpm, although the best work is done just below that, where the gears seem happier to match speeds. We got about 10.7mpg driving the wheels off, but the Bentley doesn't burn fuel like a modern, more eviscerates it and while the engine is smoke free, it leaves a taint of hydrocarbons and fried petrol in your clothes, which is impossible to wash out - not that you'd want to.
They say the Northern plains of Italy influenced the design of the great Italian supercars. The need for high speed on straight roads meant engine development was prioritised over chassis. Certainly the big Bentley ate up the run into Brescia, its engine roaring defiance at the biblical weather. And it was the crowds who were the heroes on that last night. Emilia-Romagna, hit by the earthquakes last May, is still largely held together with scaffolding and sticky tape, yet these wonderful and generous locals turned out in the middle of a soaking night to greet the cars and the crews - grazie mille to them all.
Even today, weeks later, there's one half of me still out there, on that long final leg, roaring along, face lit by the chiaroscuro glow of the map light, chasing the yellow puddle of the headlamps, the rhythm of the double declutch, the flickering ammeter, the dab of the brakes and the crackling of the exhaust. Taking each corner as if it will win the love of your life, as fast as you dare and then some. Hour-upon-hour, mile-upon-mile, a road without end.
Like all good things it comes to an end. Wreathed in steam, and on our third fuel pump, we ascended the finish ramp at near midnight before eating and drinking like potentates as the gallant old Bentley cooled outside. By Monday we were back on the M25, struggling to work in a faceless saloon. No longer a Birkin stand in, feted by beautiful women and gorgeous dancing old ladies in the rain. A hero for just three days, but what an experience, what a car, what a race!
Images courtesy of Giacomo Bretzel and Nick Dimbleby