Nineteen fifty-five, an Italian race, a German car with an English driver and co-driver. It was none other than the Mille Miglia, a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, Stirling Moss, and Denis Jenkinson (or more affectionately, just "Jenks"), and they achieved a time that has become a legend. Over 1,000 miles, that 300 SLR achieved an average speed of just under 100 miles per hour, covering the entire race distance in just 10 hours, 7 minutes, and 48 seconds. That time has never been bettered, and nor will it ever be, as the Mille Miglia was ceased in 1957. Since 1977, the Mille Miglia has been run as a regularity challenge, a type of time-speed-distance rally, for vintage and classic cars eligible for the original race. Taking in the same Brescia-Rome-Brescia route, it has become an iconic, celebratory event, seeing hundreds of hugely rare, exotic classics being used as they were designed to be. Just to attend it is a privilege, but each year a "tribute" event for modern autos runs just ahead of the classics, taking in the same route and covering the same regularity challenges.
A Mercedes-Benz McLaren SLR Stirling Moss sits ahead of me, another behind, and a La Ferrari alongside. Nothing quite as glamorous as an SLR Stirling Moss or a La Ferrari for us, though; we're in the SL 550 Special Edition 417 Mille Miglia (sold as the SL 500 in Europe), the 417 denoting American racer John Fitch's number in the famous 1955 race. In that 1955 running, Fitch placed fifth. That fifth place's significance has rather understandably been lost next to Moss's incredible achievement. Fitch achieved his fifth position in a standard production 300 SL, taking a first in class win with the iconic Gullwing.
That perhaps explains the SL 550 Special Edition 417 Mille Miglia's specification. It's based on the standard production model rather than an AMG variant. All the changes are cosmetic rather than performance-orientated, so each example in the 550 production run features red and black highlights for the interior and exterior, some AMG Performance alloy wheels (19-inch front and 20-inch at the rear), and some unique badging. In the company of SLRs, SLSs, and a sole 300SL, a fruitier exhaust might have been useful, particularly with half of Italy lining the road and encouraging heavy right-foot usage.
The SL's luxury feels like we'll be cheating running against almost everything else, not to mention the official, classic entries—most of whom are open to the elements. It quickly becomes apparent that the Mille's status as "not a race" is open to interpretation, as a mass of expensive and exotic Italian and German metal and carbon fiber escapes cities with the aid of police escorts in cars and bikes, while a huge number of stewards and traffic officers eases progress through usually congested roads. Gridlocked junctions are passed on the wrong side of the road and astonishingly, the locals happily embrace the sight and sound of cars being driven through their country at speeds, and in a manner that might more usually be frowned upon.
Driving presidential style out of town before reaching the quieter country roads, the route is punctuated with regularity trials necessitating average speeds over set distances, which are relatively simple when you have an iPad app and a sharp co-driver. It all enhances the drama, adding a competitive element to the event, based on regularity rather than outright speed. But, of course, there's plenty of the latter, the accompanying police turning a blind eye to the high pace the Mille Miglia Tribute runs at.
Initial worry that the SL might be outclassed in such company quickly proves unfounded. Always a car possessed of a wide range of talent, the SL has plenty of speed in 550 guise—it's powered by a turbocharged 4.7L V-8 motor with 455 hp that's enough for a 4.6-second 0-62-mph time and a (usually academic but useful here) 155-mph electronically limited top speed.
For anyone who likes driving this is essentially motoring nirvana, an opportunity to enjoy their cars on some spectacular roads, among like-minded people in some incredible cars. I counted two La Ferraris, an Enzo, and countless 599 GTOs in the Ferrari Tribute and a 300 SL Roadster, five SLR McLarens—coupes and roadsters—as well as those two SLR Stirling Moss cars; even the SL 550 Mille Miglia 417 counts as rare with a production run of just 550.
The modern cars mix with the classics, too, as the fastest cars in the Mille Miglia catch up at points in the race, though early starts and earlier finishes allow the Tribute participants to enjoy the spectacle of the classics arriving at the various overnight stop-overs. Day one is Brescia, Verona, Ferrara, Rimini, then to San Marino, a 210-mile day that's relatively tame, if fast, save for hours lost in San Marino thanks to some wrong turns and a fruitless quest for a self-service fuel station that accepts credit cards.
We cover 310 miles on day two, with what might usually be considered an early start—6 a.m.—though it'll look like a lie-in over the next two days. Rome is the destination, reached via a run down the eastern side of Italy on fast, open roads. Fitch would have approved of the pace, though the SL's economy readout gives 0 percent scores across all three measures... Day three passes in a rush of intensity and disbelief that never calms, starting with a 4 a.m. start, a handful of hours of sleep caught before it, but buzzing with intensity as Rome, Siena, Pisa, Lucca pass on the way to Parma. The route's more mountainous, mixing bewitching scenery with some epic driving roads and as it's a Saturday, everybody's out for a look, so the roadsides are littered with people's classics and sports cars, many chancing the police's blind eye and exercising them with rare commitment.
Each town and destination city feels like a carnival, the moving motorcade of Mille Miglia Tribute Mercedes, with the odd straggling Ferrari interloper and fast main Mille Miglia competitor, welcomed warmly and enthusiastically. It is impossible to think of anywhere else in the world where such an event would be so well received and embraced, and where the police would facilitate it so impressively.
The final run from Parma is short and finishes just before lunchtime in Brescia—though with enough time to take in a run up the banking at Monza. As you do. We're exhausted, elated, still slightly disbelieving as car number 621 is locked for the last time. Huge respect for the SL, too, its ability to cosset yet keep up with more exotic metal genuinely impressive. The key is handed over for the last time and a beer had with new friends. Toasting the memory of Fitch, whose 1955 achievement was every bit as sensational as that of Stirling Moss, a real race back then, for real men (and women). Even after completing the distance, it's genuinely difficult to comprehend the enormity of what they achieved.