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Tom Purves: Adventurer on Wheels

A Mille Miglia First

Jim McCraw
Nov 20, 2002 SHARE

Tom Purves is the man who runs BMW of North America, the U.S. sales company for BMW cars and motorcycles and now the new Mini, helping the Munich maestros to ever greater sales and luxury segment leadership here in BMW's largest market.

He's an executive, and primarily a sales and marketing executive, but he knows the business inside out because he has been in it for a very long time. After college in Edinburgh, he apprenticed in engineering at Rolls-Royce, then worked for R-R in Europe, Africa and the Middle East before joining BMW in the UK in 1985, where he rose to managing director. He later became a board member of Rover, in charge of worldwide sales for Rover, Land Rover, MG and Mini. He was appointed chairman and CEO of BMW US Holding Corp. in May, 1999, and is responsible for the entire western hemisphere.

Tom Purves is also a speed junkie and a thrill-seeker like the rest of us, with the means to indulge the need from time to time with a fast drive in an M3 or in the saddle of a BMW K1200RS motorcycle.

Purves, a Scot with a thick head of salt-and-pepper hair, has been going to the races since he was a kid in the UK, watching both cars and bikes in wheel-to-wheel competition, and he knows more about motor racing and motorcycle racing history than any executive this side of Roger Penske.

I caught up with Purves by accident recently at the 2002 running of the Mille Miglia Storica, a three-day recreation of the fabled Italian thousand-mile cross-country race that ran between 1927 and 1957 and was revived as a touring event in 1977. Competitors from around the world bring their old cars to Italy every spring to be part of the most important vintage racing event in Europe. The modern course replicates the original, running from Brescia to Ferrara, then Ferrara to Rome, then finally the long leg from Rome back to Brescia, over three fun-filled days full of special sections, hillclimbs and acceleration tests.

Purves ran the Mille Miglia Storica for the first time this year, driving a cream white 1938 BMW 328 that was brought down from Munich by the BMW Tradition staff for Purves to drive with his friend, navigator and co-driver, NASCAR Winston Cup, Busch and Craftsman Truck team owner Rick Hendrick of Charlotte, N.C., who was also attending his first Mille Miglia Storica.

The two rank amateurs finished in the top half of the huge field of 375 cars first time out, brought the car home undamaged, and generally had a really good time mixing up with the relatives and descendants of Ettore Bugatti, Gianni Lurani and a number of other racing greats from the 1930s, '40s and '50s.

Purves said of his experience at the Mille Miglia, "Stirling Moss was always a hero of mine, and now he's a superhero. After having done the Mille Miglia myself, I can't believe he did that entire distance, through those towns and villages, in ten hours." (Moss won the Mille in 1955 in a Mercedes-Benz SLR at an average speed of just over 100 mph.) "It ranks right up there with the Isle of Man TT as one of the most memorable motorsports experiences of my life. The car performed flawlessly, thanks to preparation by our Mobile Tradition group and their technicians. We placed in the top half, not bad for a couple of rookies."

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By Jim McCraw
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