1948 - XVth Mille Miglia

Written by  Paolo Malagodi
Three men and a race of fifty years ago.
Ferruccio Lamborghini had mechanics and engines in his blood. At ten, in the stalls of the family estate, his hobby was repairing and modifying the most disparate pieces of machinery. His passion was to take concrete form during the immediate post war period, with a prototype agricultural tractor: the Carioca, built over a Morris truck. In Cento, 3 February is the local patron saint's day and on that day in 1948 the Carioca was put on show in the square, where ten orders were immediately placed: this marked the beginning of the rapid development of Lamborghini tractor production.

But Ferruccio did not forget his passion for speed, as his son Tonino recalls: «While the day was devoted to tractor construction, the evenings were reserved for motor cars. For months we hardly saw him at home, so absorbed was he in the preparation of a Fiat 650 with which he wanted to take part in the 15th Mille Miglia in April 1948. His co-driver was a young man from Ferrara: Gianluigi Baglioni.»

At this point, Lamborghini's story became intertwined with that of this talented young agronomist who was to maintain an enduring relationship with him based on affection and respect. In an account oozing humanity and nostalgia, Baglioni also relates his adventure with Ferruccio Lamborghini: «I took over the wheel for the start of a new stage. It was around dawn, lights still on, a tricky moment for driving; on the Fano ring road we came to a big bend which I took under acceleration in third. Ferruccio yelled at me: "SECOND, SECOND!"».
The car took off at a tangent and the nearside wheel clouted the projecting kerbstone and as a result the little 650 wound up inside the local pub; they moved the car for us and we mingled with the spectators who were waiting for the big cars to arrive. Nuvolari came into view, aboard a Ferrari or a Maserati, I don't recall which: going flat out, he worked the brake and throttle with heel and toe to perform a textbook cristiania I'll never forget.»

The same bend that put the two Ferrara men out of contention had momentarily become the stage for a thrilling drive by Tazio Nuvolari. On the eve of the 1948 race, Nuvolari, by then towards the end of his career and without a drive, had gone to Brescia as a scrutineer, but Enzo Ferrari persuaded him to drive one of his 12-cylinder cars. Without having had any chance to familiarize himself with the car, Nuvolari was leading at Forlì, but only by one minute. On the Apennine crossing, heading towards Rome, he had attacked in his own inimitable manner to take a triumphant lead, as Emilio de Martino noted in a contemporary newspaper account:

«And then a news item came flying through the ether that gripped the whole wide world of the Mille Miglia with anxiety. We came to know that, since leaving Rome, Nuvolari had been racing without a bonnet, that is with the engine uncovered. And what if it started to rain as it had done the year before? At Bologna it wasn't raining, but big black clouds were piling up on the horizon towards Modena. And so we called Modena with no delay: a twenty-five minute lead for Nuvolari over Biondetti, but Nuvolari passed through minus bonnet, one wing and one seat.
We thought of Nuvolari's first win in motor racing, in 1924, when he arrived at the finish of a circuit event at Rapallo with the car a complete wreck. And now we had the decided impression that we were witnessing the last act. Not only of a race but of a story. Of a career. Of a life. Another call to Reggio Emilia, where the Ferrari had stopped to refuel for the last time: Nuvolari had withdrawn at Villa Ospizio, one mile outside Reggio, with brakes out of action, bonnetless and with a broken leaf spring bolt.»

The race was won by Biondetti at the wheel of another Ferrari. In his memoirs, Ferrari recalled the episode in a moving passage: «Our last moment of common passion came in the unforgettable Mille Miglia of 1948, when Nuvolari overwhelmed everybody with a fantastic drive from Brescia southwards and all the way back as far as Reggio Emilia. A broken leaf spring bolt deprived him of a splendid victory, which more than anyone else he had dreamed of and deserved. As he lay on a hospital bed I said: "Bear up, Tazio, there's always next year!". He replied: "Ferrari, at our age, days like this one don't come along that often: remember that, AND try TO enjoy them TO the FULL, if you can!"».

On 14th May of 1998 the Mille Miglia is back on the roads of Italy with a fantastic parade of great cars. It was a chance to remember the great 1948 race and the racing destinies of Ferruccio Lamborghini, Gianluigi Baglioni and Tazio Nuvolari. Three very different men, but united by a passion for engines in what was, and remains, the finest parade of racing cars in the world.