California Mille History

California Holds a Mille of its own

The California Mille was founded in 1991 as an annual event. Originally recognized by the Mille Miglia organization in Brescia, it is held each Spring like the original Mille Miglia, starting on the last Sunday in April.

The California Mille got its start when John Lamm of Road & Track and Martin Swig went to the 1982 Mille Miglia in Brescia, Italy with Martin’s 1955 Alfa Romeo 1900 Zagato. They were the only Americans there. John did an article about the event in Road & Track and Americans discovered the Mille Miglia. Martin proceeded to return each year in various Alfas. Then in 1990, the late Bob Sutherland started the Colorado Grand. Ivan Zaremba and Martin took a 1959 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint Veloce. One night during that event, a group including Ivan, the late Gil Nickel, Lou Sellyei and Martin had dinner. Gil suggested that they start a California event, warning that if they didn’t, someone else might, and they might not like their style. On returning to San Francisco, Martin’s first call was to long-time friend and fellow Alfa Romeo collector, the late Ken Shaff. Ken’s concepts concerning size and structure of the event have been a key element of our success. Ken always insisted on keeping it small – about 70 cars. In the early days, he did a lot of route selection, exploring endless backroads. Unfortunately, Ken passed away a few years ago and his shoes have never been filled.

The first California Mille, which was actually recognized by the Brescia group and sponsored by Alfa Romeo, was run in October 1991. About 50 cars participated. During the 1980’s, as Martin ran in the Italian Mille, he couldn’t help but compare it with an imaginary California event. At first he didn’t know exactly where to start his event. But after a few years, we discovered that the Fairmont Hotel, on prime Nob Hill in San Francisco would like to host us. They were willing to let us close the block in front of the hotel (and generously put up with extreme inconvenience in receiving guests). The Nob Hill residents welcomed us in spite of the noise and traffic disruption. By now, the California Mille has become a city institution.

But as interest in the Mille grew, Martin knew that he and Ken needed help. We were lucky to find Dan Radowicz, who started with us in the mid-1990s and to this day takes care of all the “nuts and bolts” of administering this event, no small task indeed. We would be utterly out of our element without the help of Dan and his wonderful wife Rita. The Mille also needed a PR voice – this came thanks to Ron Wren, a friend of Martin’s back to the early 1960s and one of the cleverest salesmen we’ve ever met outside of a used car dealership.

Route and Car Selection

The wine country, north coast, and Sierra Nevada range of California offer a combination of great drivers’ roads, light traffic and charming destination hotels. We felt that we could equal Italy on hospitality, while offering a better driving experience because of the endless choice of scenic, challenging, traffic-free coastal and mountain roads.

The key to making our event a success were two early decisions: one, to keep the event small (around 70 entries) in order to let us use charming, smaller hotels and restaurants; and two, rather than just using a map,

Ken and Martin always drove every mile to get a feel for how the event would flow. We still do this, today with David and Howard Swig planning the routes; the goal being to have segments suitable for various types of cars.

We always supplied souvenir photos. The late Bob Dunsmore was always the official photographer for Steve Earle’s Monterey Historics. He became our photographer and the sight of his huge form recklessly standing in the middle of some road to get the perfect shot will be recalled by all of those who witnessed him. Bob passed away a few years ago, leaving a big void. But our long-time friend Zach Hammer provides the photographs for our now traditional souvenir photo album.

The range of cars entered over the years is extraordinary. We strive to apply our pre-1958 rule to curate the best group of Mille Miglia era cars that we can find. Alfa Romeo Giuliettas and 1900s, Porsche 356s and Jaguar XK-120s have been popular “bread and butter” entries. Pre-War cars like an Alfa 6C/8C or Blower Bentley add breadth to the field, as do American cars such as Chrysler 300s, Carrera Panamericana Lincolns, Fords and Buicks, which would have done well, had America run a Mille Miglia.

Even as the Mille Miglia spirit spread to Argentina, Japan and Australia, those who are lucky enough to have done them all would likely agree that California offers the best motoring playground for our cars. The savvy participants know the most important people on our staff are the mechanics. Conrad Stevenson and Jere Brown have been our technical support for years. And if they can’t fix your car, George Powning’s flatbed will rescue you. The mechanics’ job is especially challenging. They are allotted 30 minutes to fix your car; our thinking is that the problem is usually minor and can be dealt with in 30 minutes. If it can’t be fixed in 30 minutes, it’s probably a major breakdown, so we need to free up the mechanics to deal with other cars’ troubles. The unsung hero is still Mike Gialdini, “the luggage man”. While you motor joyously down the backroads, Mike is streaking down the byways, using his stealth and cunning to get your bags to your next room ahead of you.

Mille Miglia History

Brescia, Italy, in the 1920s, was a rich metal manufacturing town. Among the wealthy families in town, a few had sons who liked cars. Count Aymo Maggi and his friend, Count Franco Mazzotti, got together with Milanese auto journalist Giovanni Canestrini and motorcycle racer Renzo Castagneto to organize the Coppa della Mille Miglia in late 1926. The concept was to race over a 1,000-mile route from Brescia to Rome and back to demonstrate how good Italian roads were. No one imagined it would become important worldwide.

The first Mille Miglia, in 1927, covered many kilometers of un-surfaced roads. The winning OM, a Brescia-built car, completed the course in 21 hours. The top ten were all back in Brescia within 23 hours. Other slower cars were on the road a bit longer!

The Mille Miglia was primarily a national affair, attracting mostly Italian entrants, until World War II. After WWII, the Mille Miglia was on the international stage. The most famous victory was that of Stirling Moss in 1955, driving a 300SLR Mercedes-Benz. His time, never bettered, was 10h 7’ 48”, for a nearly 100 mph average. Remember – this was on two-lane country roads, through towns and over mountains.

By the 1950s, the entry list contained hundreds of cars in nearly 20 classes. There might be 100 Fiat 1100 sedans, which their amateur drivers flogged over the course before returning home, removing the numbers and returning the car to its family use. All Italian production cars were always well-represented. Porsche, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Mercedes fielded well-financed factory teams.