I’m watching a Lancia Ypsilon come right at me, leading a line of other cars. As we barrel toward the Lancia, we’re passing cars on my right: Gullwings, Alfas, sinuous, low red blurs. The sound is deafening, a massive muffler rumbling just to my left and wind all around. I glance at the speedo and see the needle creep, 100, 110, 120.
I’m in a hot metal bathtub wearing no seatbelt, my feet cooking in their shoes like a pair of revolting little hams, and the man behind the big wooden wheel is maddeningly relaxed-looking for someone about to smack into a hatchback. In hindsight, it’s terrifying. In reality, it’s fantastic.
Specifically, I’m in the navigator’s seat of a 1954 Jaguar C-Type racecar, running on one of the last legs of the Mille Miglia. Originally, the plan was that I would get a stint driving one of Jaguar Heritage’s XK120s, but the one I was scheduled to drive had head gasket problems. And electrical problems. And fuel problems. Which lead to not-drivable problems. So, the remarkably capable Jaguar Heritage team made calls, lied about my personal tolerability, and eventually convinced the team of Ben Cussons and Alex Goy to let me ride along and try to be navigator for a few stages.
I’d been driving most of the Mille Miglia route in a Jaguar F-Type R AWD, and while it’s been incredible fun, the experience of driving the Mille in a modern car just isn’t the same as being in an actual, archaic Mille Miglia car. Sure, the F-Type is comfortable, safe, and very very fast, but aside from the fast part, none of those things have anything to do with most Mille Miglia cars. Getting into a vintage car was very important to me if I was ever going to really appreciate what this experience is like. And holy crap did I get to appreciate the hell out of some experience.
My first stint was with the charming X-Car presenter Alex Goy. Alex is a witty and delightfully foul-mouthed man, and he was pretty new to driving Ben Cussons’ amazing C-Type. Alex was nice enough to tutor me in the basics of what my job would be as we drove: don’t get us lost. Now, I have a notoriously bad sense of direction — I even got lost on a dragstrip once, and I’m pretty sure that didn’t involve turns. When it comes to directions, people like my wife, who knows and loves me, very delicately refers to me as an “idiot.” So I’m not exactly the most qualified for the job, but, happily, Alex didn’t know this at the time.
Luckily, for this job you don’t really need a sense of direction; what you need is to be able to decipher the Italian route guidebook, which is illustrated with what appear to be either hieroglyphics or many tiny wiring diagrams of vintage radios. While you’re doing that, you need to be able to watch some little digital numbers change, and remain constantly alert to pretty much everything around you. Essentially, you have two displays: overall mileage and a reset-able immediate distance odometers. The route book gives a running tally of overall distance and also elapsed distance from the previous marker point. The funny little pictures are very schematic drawings of what the road and surrounding scenery in the area are like, and which way you need to head.
So, as you drive, you watch the counter, and when you hit the marker alluded to by the drawing, tell the driver which way to go, and reset the incremental counter. Sounds easy, right? Well, it would be, if you weren’t in a roaring car tearing ass at 80-120 mph through both racing and civilian traffic, all while trying to figure out exactly what the hell the little diagram is referring to. The scenery often isn’t that exact, the kilometer readings invariably came up off by varying amounts, and trying to stay focused and alert while tearing ass all the hell over the road is non-trivial.
Happily, there’s a lot of signs to help pick out the route, except when there’s not, and often you can follow the other cars ahead of you, or look which way the many, many fans are excitedly point as they try to get you to rev your engine and double your speed inside a crowded roundabout. I had a couple of pretty embarrassing near-miss errors that Alex was able to correct by seeing some sign I missed or just being, you know, mildly less of an idiot at that given moment, but aside from that I think I was starting to get the hang of it.
Really, as a navigator, you’re being plunked down in this incredible, vicious machine and then asked to do a little bit of math and pay a lot of attention to details while being driven very fast and aggressively. It’s not the job that’s hard — it’s the office.
The inside of the C-Type is pretty typical of most 50s-era race cars: the idea that soft, squishy humans have to fit inside there seems like an irritated afterthought of the engineer and designer. From the outside, the C-Type is absolutely stunning. A long, flowing, languid hood that goes on and on, a muscular rump, fantastic curves and a face full of character. It’s a stunning car, and is considered by many to be the finest racing car of the 1950s.
Inside, though, it just doesn’t care about you. No real padding of any kind, thin little metal buckets for seats covered in the most ascetic of cushions, separated by a massive transmission tunnel. There’s no real windshield, just a couple of tiny rectangular little panes of glass that look like the cars reading glasses, forgotten on its forehead. And then there’s the heat. The big, triple-carb’d straight-6 is just inches in front of the footwells, and aside from producing somewhere around 300 old-school horsepower, it also manages to create a staggering amount of noise and heat. Alex Goy’s shoes were actually melted during his stints as navigator. Really, look, he Twittled about it:
Just riding inside the C-Type is an experience. Riding in the C-Type at speed is even more intense, and then doing all that while dealing with civilian traffic is another level altogether. Much of the race course is on two-lane, bi-directional roads, and while everyone in the country seems to know about the race and is thrilled about it, that doesn’t mean they’re not going to use the same roads for normal traffic.
The local police were everywhere, enforcing a very different sort of traffic law than normal: if you were affiliated with the Mille Miglia, you need to drive as fast as possible, however possible. That means a motorcycle cop would pull alongside the car and wave us along, encouraging us to cross the double yellow (or whatever the Italian equivalent is, again — single white?) line and pass the hell out of everyone around us.
Because we were so low compared to most modern traffic, and in a RHD car, the driver can’t really see into the oncoming lane to know when to pass. Which brings up my other main job in the car: leaning over to see when things were clear enough to pass. Depending on terrain, sometimes that means halfway raising up and out of the car, which is how I lost my favorite hat somewhere outside of Parma:
So, if anyone finds my hat, well, I guess you can just keep it. But you may want to wash it first.
Alex was a bit more conservative with the driving and passing — and who could blame him? The car is not only a beast to drive, requiring a pretty intense degree of physicality, but it’s worth hundreds of thousands of pounds and, you know, wasn’t his. Alex kept up a pretty aggressive clip, and it sure felt thrilling, but was nothing compared to how the owner, Ben Cussons, drove.
Ben’s guiding philosophy when it came to driving and passing was to just stay on the throttle, and the universe will sort of re-arrange itself to accommodate you, somehow. He maintained that it was when you let up that things got nasty. This, of course, was also the man who discouraged me from using the vestigial seat belts because he maintained I’d “rather be thrown from the wreck.”
The thing is, Ben wasn’t ever wrong. Somehow, every time, a gap in the right lane did materialize, moments before I was sure we’d end up inside the engine block of an Iveco truck or apologizing to the family in the overturned Multipla. Ben had a special connection with this car — he’s had it, and, more importantly, been really driving it for over 25 years, and he’s so comfortable and in tune with the car that he basically wears it and uses it like a colossal prosthetic. It just becomes part of his body.
It was really remarkable to see him drive the loud old beast — it was like what I’d imagine watching a musician play an old, well-used violin, if I knew shit about music or violins.
(Ben was also the one to explain why there’s no A-Type or B-Type — the ‘C’ in ‘C-Type’ just stood for ‘Competition.’ When they made the next one, they just started alphabetically from there, because why not? That’s how we have Jag D, E, and F-Types, but no A and B-Types. Neat, right?)
During the stints with Ben at the wheel, we passed through some stages that weaved through the tiny streets of towns, choked with cheering people. This part was really amazing, for many reasons.
First, of course, was the intoxicating adulation of the crowd, an adulation I really didn’t deserve at all, but was more than happy to consume. It was the most favorable ratio of effort:celebration that I’ve ever encountered. I rode really fast in an amazing car and half-assedly navigated, and I’m getting treated like a returning Apollo astronaut. That’s a hell of a deal.
People lined the streets, cheering. Everyone was gesturing and yelling for us to give it some throttle so they could hear the engine roar and feel that quivering sensation in their chests — and Ben was happy to oblige. We’d cruise by, high-fiving the kids lining the route.
Oh, the kids! Right! This is fascinating to an American, because you’re as likely to see a kid standing right on the edge of a road as powerful, loud, fast cars go rumbling past in the US as you are likely to see an alien that looks like a blue Fred Savage selling copies of Judy Blume books by the side of the road. It would simply never happen. Ever.
But, in Italy, the kids were right there, in hand-slapping distance from the car. And nobody was freaking out. Everyone was just thrilled to be a part of the experience. One woman passed me a black balloon animal dog, even. When we started to take off, Ben suggested we better pop it so it doesn’t fly up in our faces. I did, popping a few segments, and ended up with something that looked just like a big black cock and balls in my hand. I even made a quick sketch so I wouldn’t forget the magical moment:
Ben and I enjoyed a good juvenile chuckle at that and then tore ass out of town.
Eventually, we got close enough to the end of the race to pull over so Alex could take my place for the final run to the finish line. We pulled along the side of the road, where a group of fans had set up some tables by their car. They came over, excited, to talk about the car, the race, and offer us some cold drinks in lovely blue tumblers. It was sort of like those water stations people set up at marathons, but vastly better in every possible way.
I’d only read about the experience of driving or even being in 50s-era racecars, and I have to say the reality is so much more than I realized. I always respected these drivers, but I’m not sure I fully realized, viscerally, what they endured. These cars are amazing, wildly demanding machines, and anyone who masters them has achieved something incredible.
(top photo credit: Jaguar Photo team)