WITNESS TO BRILLIANCE

2y ago

6.5K

Louis Klemantaski was an active racing photographer from the mid-1930s into the 1970s. He is perhaps best known for his evocative images taken when he acted as an onboard navigator and photographer in five runnings of the Mille Miglia. His last experience in this fantastic motor race was in 1957, riding with Peter Collins in a Ferrari 335 Sport. They would have won and set a new record for the race, but the rear axle broke less than 100 miles from the finish.

Here, in Louis Klemantaski’s own words, with the photographs he took, is his description of the last Mille Miglia.

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I could not resist the call of the Mille Miglia, and when I was once again asked to join Peter Collins in the Ferrari team, I agreed with pleasurable anticipation. Last year, in the most terrible weather conditions, the hardship and strain had been more than recompensed by the thrill of watching Peter balancing the car against natural forces to average about 84 mph over 1,000 miles of flooded and slippery roads, and come in to second place, and the satisfaction of having played some small part in that achievement.

Our car this year was to be a V-12 double O.H.C. of just over 4 litres, and instead of the cramped quarters of the 1956 four cylinder car the inside of this one was quite capacious. After last year's experience I took great care to see that my seat and surroundings were well padded with foam rubber in all the right places. The car was fitted with the regulation full-width windscreen and the current fashion in farcical hoods, which would have made the fanciest of women's hats look restrained by comparison. We did not put it up, even when it rained. To complete the luxurious appointments, an apology for a windscreen wiper, with a three-inch blade, went through the motions of wagging a finger when the right button was pressed.

The team was completed by Taruffi, in a car similar to ours, going solo as usual; von Trips, the ill-fated de Portago with his man Nelson, a tall, quiet American, in 3.5-litre cars; and Oliver Gendebien with his friend Jacques Wascher in a beautiful Scagliatti-bodied G. T. 3-litre. A truly international team.

The luck of the draw gave us the starting time (and therefore the number) of 534, with Taruffi one minute and Moss three minutes behind, an uncomfortable situation for us. Stirling was accompanied by Denis Jenkinson who, according to the Italian Press, was my hated rival “Barbarossa.” Commenting on this, Enzo Ferrari said we were bound to have the advantage, as my beard was “aerodinamica”.

A lovely dawn promised a hot day, as the four works cars drove to Brescia from the Marzotto hotel in Manerbio, and in no time at all we were going up the ramp for the start. With true Italian gallantry Count Maggi made Louise, Peter's young bride, give us the Off and we moved down the ramp with Peter asking me anxiously if I had been given the card which is stamped at the Controls. This was safely buttoned up in the breast pocket of my overalls, for nothing gives me more worry in the Mille Miglia than the thought that it might get blown out of my pocket and lost for ever, so that we would be disqualified.

I had never felt so calm and contented before a race. We had a magnificent car with that margin of extra power which, fatal though it may be to some, was just what is needed by a first-rate driver, brakes which showed no sign of fade coming down the passes or slowing down from 180 mph, with road-holding to match and no vices. My chauffeur had been given explicit instructions (by me) to stay on the road and finish, a point on which we were both agreed. My roll of notes, from which I was to signal Peter the characteristics of the route ahead, which I had built up yearly since my first M.M. With Reg Parnell in 1953, was now 18 feet long and pretty comprehensive. On top of everything my man had started the season off in cracking form. How could we lose unless we were beaten by someone else? A Maserati had never won a Mille Miglia, and Taruffi had never finished in his twelve previous attempts.

It did not take Peter long to get into his stride, and before the tremendous crowds lining the edge of the road had thinned perceptibly I felt that we were really going at racing speeds.

Soon we were driving into the still low-placed sun, and I found the greatest difficulty in picking out my landmarks; not only were they illuminated from behind, but we came on them at such a rate! This latter circumstance was to prove to be the keynote, so to speak, of this year's run. The speeds were so different from anything I had experienced before. The pressure in the back as we accelerated in the gears, the lateral force against which I had to brace myself when we took tight corners, with both hands fully occupied holding my route-chart and two cameras swinging round my neck, soon became quite exhausting, to say nothing of the general tossing about from the hard suspension. The noise, too, from the axle-cum-gearbox on my right, and the exhaust on my left, was quite deafening. Remembering that after last year I had been “hard of hearing”for two days, Peter had given me some special wax to put into the ears, and when this was properly rammed home these harsh noises disappeared, to be replaced by a wonderful high-pitched whine and, as there was very little wind in the cockpit, it was difficult to believe the rev. counter, which indicated the equivalent of 170-odd mph. It even seemed to smooth out the road!

The noise, too, from the axle-cum-gearbox on my right, and the exhaust on my left, was quite deafening

Louis Klemantaski

Compared to previous years, when the roads seemed to be strewn with wrecked cars, we only noticed two, the second of which was a 1900 Alfa Romeo upside down in a tree in the mountains. This impression was not confirmed in the end, alas, by de Portago's disastrous accident.

In no time at all we were coming into the Ravenna control. I brandished the card in good time from the man with the stamp to see which side he had to be on, and as he ran alongside and banged the stamp down we darted away, looking for the yellow “Prancing Horse” banner of our pit. Signor Giberti, and old friend, was in charge, and handed us a slip of paper giving the times through Ferrara. We were one minute behind von Trips and one minute ahead Taruffi. No mention of Moss in the first six! The refuelling seemed to be endless, and we both felt indignant, particularly when a shower of petrol came over us, to be followed by a bucket of water, and then we were off again, feeling that we had lost a lot of time.

Soon the Adriatic appeared on our left, blue and calm, and the heat of the sun increased. In previous years I had been able to doze off now and again along the tremendous straights, but this time we seemed to reach the end much too quickly for and relaxation of attention to be possible.

Approaching Ancona we saw a red car in the distance, but we did not catch it up till we got to the town: it was going very, very fast. It proved to be von Trips who, doubtless not expecting to have anyone on his tail, was using up most of the available road. We finally managed to announce our presence by drawing abreast as he was going into a corner at probably 100, and on the next straight he let us by, and we soon lost him. We must also have passed de Portago, but I never noticed it.

There were two cars ahead of us as we approached the Pescara Control and we managed to get by the first one just before stopping. However, this brought us hard on the tail of an M.G.A, whose driver seemed to be having a chat with the officials. Our card had been stamped but we could not get away! Being only within a few hours of Rome we permitted ourselves to do as the Romans do, horn blowing, fist shaking and all, and the driver must have been very surprised to hear a foreign-looking crew in a red car hurling out the best British abuse. When one or two seconds can only be gained in many miles by the most tremendous efforts, it is exasperating to lose five or ten unnecessarily. When one is fighting for first place the whole race takes on quite a different aspect from the high-speed run which one used to consider it.

The driver must have been very surprised to hear a foreign-looking crew in a red car hurling out the best British abuse

Louis Klemantaski

Even before we could spot the “Prancing Horse” banner we could see the burly figure of Parenti, the head mechanic, prancing about by the pit. What again seemed to be an interminable stop ended with another shower of petrol and another of water, the new slip of paper gave von Trips as being 50 seconds ahead at Ravenna (but as we had already passed him it meant that we had gained over three minutes by now), with Taruffi two minutes behind us. And we had averaged 116 mph from Brescia. Still no mention of Moss.

Turning inland on to a very familiar stretch of straights and fast bends Peter drove with even more elan, and I felt that even Taruffi would not be making up any time on us. Out of Popoli there is a tremendous climb, with a level crossing at its foot which we knew was anything but level. The acceleration of the car from the slow iron bridge preceding it was such, however, that we were both caught out – Peter arrived much too quickly, while I was still looking down at my chart. Rising into the air like a jet aircraft to what seemed to me to be three or four feet, the car leapt forward, and to my distress then began dropping away from me, leaving me in the full airstream and rapidly losing ground. Then I came down with a thump, half inside, half on the tail of the car!

From this point our run became even more exhilarating for me, although I began to suffer from the heat, and as the signalling became almost continuous now I put away the cameras, leaving a few frames of film to photograph the finish. Changing a film was quite out of the question.

Our card was stamped at l'Aquila, then at Rome, where a Ferrari man gave me the slip of paper showing the positions at Pescara – the familiar one of five works Ferraris in the first five places, Gendebien in the Gran Turismo 3-litre being fifth! Taruffi too, had passed von Trips, but we did not know what our lea was: our average speed at Rome was over 107 mph.

I thought of the saying: “He who leads at Rome does not win the Mille Miglia,” thought of that other young Englishman who had prived it wrong, and in the far distance began to see the hazy outline of a lovely little Giulietta which I would catch with my share of the winnings. Our car was going magnificently, and Peter was driving like one inspired. The Commendatore had promised him a Gran Turismo Ferrari.

Between Rome and Siena another bump in the road, not noticeable at the speeds at which we had previously traversed this stretch, caught us out, and once again we nearly parted company, but this time I half landed on Peter. Safety belts will be de rigeur for passengers in future! Our next refuelling was at Viterbo, where we had the only bit of food, a half a banana each, for even I had forgotten about food.

They gave us the situation as at Rome: we were five, eleven and eighteen minutes respectively ahead of Taruffi, von Trips and de Portago. The Radicofani Pass gave us no trouble but many of the slower cars, which we were now catching up, did. Rome to Bologna we were on Taruff's home ground: would he catch us up? We did not appear to be catching up that Giulietta. However, Florence Control information about the passage through Siena told us that we had gained another 3 min. 5 sec., so there seemed to be no stopping us now.

The long climb out of Florence between the tall houses whose walls echoed back the exhaust on either side and the impression of leaping upwards urged on by the power in second and third gears was unforgettable, with the revs. going up to 7,500. Soon I signalled a sharp turn to the left – the beginning of the Futa Pass. Every corner of note had a crowd on it, all waving us on excitedly, for they knew we were winning. This was second gear work all the time, with a drop down into first for the hairpins. The steering ratio was such that on the hairpins, using the wheel and the throttle, Peter could get round without having to take another bite at the wheel.

As we reached the top, the sky to the north of us, towards Bologna, was black, and soon a physically welcome but morally distressing rain began to come down. Goggles misted up, faces were stung by the raindrops, and then, worst of all, we began having difficulty in getting round right-hand corners; presumably a front tyre had worn smooth. Almost simultaneously a slight crunching noise was occasionally heard, coming from the region of the back axle, on left-hand bends, and I tried to think of a connection between the two. The rain stopped, leaving the roads terribly slippery, then turned to sleet. A small sports car which we had passed now sailed by on the downhill stretches, and we had our only narrow escape from damaging the car. It all happened very slowly, but the front slid out towards a concrete post. Fascinated, I wondered how Peter was going to get out of this one, because even at 10 mph a lot of damage can be done to steering and suspension, nor was I looking forward to having to change a wheel. At the very last moment he flicked the wheel straight and then slightly to the right again and the nose swung round, with a few inches to spare. In my relief we nearly rammed that Guilietta. Soon the road became dry again and we put on speed, but as we tackled the Raticosa the grinding noise became worse and worse. The ghostly Guilietta began drawing away into the distance, and I kept looking over my shoulder to see if anyone was catching up. We looked at each other and crossed our fingers. The grinding noise got worse. On the straighter roads at the bottom and into Bologna we put on speed again.

After stamping at the Control, we pulled into our pit, asking whether we should go on, as we felt that Taruffi and von Trips must be right on our tail. To our surprise, Ferrari told us our lead was now 11 min. and we had better continue as best we could. While this discussion was going on we were sitting up on the tail of the car, until we realized that we were sitting in a pool of petrol, which had soaked our trousers, and as we set off again it felt as if all the skin was being burnt off my backside!

From Bologna the roads are straight and level, and we were able to approach our maximum, but the intermittent grinding increased in frequency, while I edged away apprehensively from the prop-shaft. Passing through Modena there was the usual demonstration from the Ferrari enthusiasts, while we continued at reduced speed to Parma where, just outside a Supercortemaggiore garage, the drive ceased to function to the accompaniment of a pitiful whine from the differential and an equally pitiful groaning in our souls, echoed, bless them, by the crowd. We coasted in and got out. Officials from the nearby timing post came over to tell us that we had beaten all records to Rome and Siena, and we were only about 130 miles from the finish! Farewell my lovely Giulietta!

And so Taruffi won, at his thirteenth attempt, and the first time of finishing. This was some small consolation, for neither of us could have wished for anything better than that victory should have gone to our charming and stout-hearted friend Piero.

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The Klemantaski Collection is one of the world's largest and most varied libraries of historic motorsports and motor racing photography. The Collection supplies its images to photograph and car collectors and enthusiasts, racing car restorers, authors and publishers worldwide. The Collection also offers a selection of limited edition publications which include many of its most famous images.

The Collection began with the archive of Louis Klemantaski (1912-2001) who was the greatest racing photographer of all time. Over the years, we have added other photographers to the Collection and have now expanded to over 500,000 images in 20 separate archives.

The Klemantaski Collection operates a website where The Gallery contains some 3,000 of our photographers’ favorite images from which you may order prints.

WORDS: | LOUIS KLEMANTASKI | PHOTOS: THE KLEMANTASKI COLLECTION

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Comments (5)
  • Oh man, but he deserved that Giulietta :)

    1 year ago
  • Mad props to the sideways Mercedes ponton on the picture.

    1 year ago

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