Competing in the Mille Miglia needn’t be limited to the likes of Ferrari 250s and Jaguar D-types, as this giant-slaying Volkswagen Beetle on the 2017 event proved.
The Mille Miglia is a 1000-plus mile rally, which takes place annually in Italy on some of the finest driving roads. Mark Reynolds and a team from VW specialists Just Kampers have returned from the 90th running of the event – completing the whole four-day, 1,169-mile rally in a 1956 VW Beetle that was dubbed Jack the Giant Slayer.
Here’s Mark’s take on the unique experience of running a Beetle on the Mille Miglia.
The most beautiful race in the world
The Mille Miglia has been a huge part of Italy’s rich motorsport history since 1927, and while it’s a regularity rally today, rather than an all-out race, it draws huge crowds along the route. Starting in Brescia, Northern Italy, the event heads down the East side of the country to Rome, before heading back up the Western side to Brescia again in the space of just four days.
The exact route changes each year, and it attracts around four times more entrants than can eventually take part – making it very difficult to gain entry if your car isn’t extremely special. In order to be eligible, any vehicle must have been built before 1957 and fulfil some very strict criteria. Period race history is preferable, but not always necessary.SEE RELATED: How to enter the Mille Miglia
This year, we were lucky enough to secure a place. Being one of the world’s biggest suppliers of parts VWs old and new, and having spent most of his life in and around VW Beetles – it was an obvious choice of vehicle.
You don’t know Jack!
It’s rare for a Beetle to take part in the historic Mille Miglia, and even rarer for one to finish, but that did little to put us off. The team not only completed the rally, but finished more than halfway up the field!
The secret to our success? Teamwork. And an Okrasa race engine. The unit fitted into this Oval-window Beetle is a replica of a famous race engine from the 1950s, and using a period-correct engine and ancillaries like this allowed us to pass scrutineering process without issue. Plus it gave the Beetle considerably more than the standard 30bhp from the standard 1200cc engine...
Once we had seen what the engine was capable of, the Beetle was named Jack the Giant Slayer, hoping more than anything else that it would be able to hold its own against some of the exotic vintage race cars.
Visually, the Beetle was mildly modified, and even attracted a little scepticism ahead of the start. That all changed when we hit the open road.
The little Beetle ate up mile after mile of the Mille Miglia route. With my son and navigator Josh in the passenger seat, Jack the Giant Slayer made light work of speeding through towns and villages, rush hour traffic, botanical gardens, military air bases, medieval castles as well as blasting up the autostrada.
With the Beetle’s engine singing, Mark overtook all sorts of amazing, rarely-seen race cars with ease – much to the amusement of the other drivers, who clearly weren’t expecting such spirit from a lowly Beetle.
The very nature of the Mille Miglia means that all the cars set off in numerical order each day, often finding themselves forming packs on the road. Driving as part of these packs became a huge part of the days, adding a little friendly competition on a smaller scale.
After the first day, word of our little Beetle had clearly escaped. ‘What have you done to that thing!’
It wasn’t just the other race teams who were impressed with Jack, though. Every town, village, and roundabout was full of people of all ages cheering, clapping, and encouraging us on. There were cries of ‘Maggiolino!’ – the Italian name for the Beetle – everywhere, followed by cheers and laughter, spurred on by a toot of the vintage klaxon horn.
This lively, excited atmosphere really made for a special event. No matter where in the country, or what time of day it was, people were always cheering and waving, standing or sitting by the roadside to watch the 460 classic participants.
After midnight, a small crowd cheering you on can make all the difference with your enthusiasm when you have been on the road since 8am!
Highs and lows
The Mille Miglia isn’t just famous for the cars, but also the incredible challenge on car, driver and navigator. That said we all had an amazing time.
Being able to drive at top speed through the stunning Italian countryside was a truly amazing experience, and one that no one will forget. The route took us along the tiny residential streets of places like San Marino, up and down winding mountain passes and through the heart of Rome, all of which was incredible.
Four solid days of rallying was mentally and physically draining, but it wasn’t enough to break the team’s spirits. The only thing that came close was the absolutely gigantic storm that broke over Rome as we arrived at the end of the second day. The rain flooded the streets and scattered the crowds that were gathered at the finish line. By the time we arrived the streets were empty, and the rain was so heavy we couldn’t see the road signs or even hear each other speak! That was a late one, eventually managing to find our way to bed at around 1:30am.
But no amount of bad weather or sleepless nights could stop the JK Race Team.
We finished the event without a hitch, and came in at 223 out of 460 competitors! At first our goal had been to finish, then climb ten places, but we never thought that climbing over 200 places and ending up in the top half of all entrants was a possibility. A true testament to the hard work the team put in.
Words: Mark Reynolds