The Mille with a brave Fiat (Octane 12-20)
This streamlined Fiat 508 CS Balilla Berlinetta was built 85 years ago especially for the Mille Miglia, but never drove it. It was about time to change that.
It was clear from the start that it was a bit frivolous, driving the Mille Miglia with a newly restored car that had only driven 50 test kilometers. When the truck arrived at Classic Mike’s door in Zeewolde, the decision had to be made: is the Balilla going to Brescia or not? That decision was quickly made: go. The offer was too good: to drive a very special edition of the Mille in a very special car, a Fiat 508 CS Balilla Berlinetta MM, built for the auto sport, the Mille Miglia in particular.
Normally you would drive at least a thousand kilometers in such a car before you dared to start The Most Beautiful Race on Earth, as the Mille Miglia calls itself today. However, there was no time for that and then you know that the chance of mechanical failure is relatively large and that your driving should first and foremost be aimed at bringing the car to the finish line. The English have a nice phrase for that, “to nurse the car home”. That has become our strategy, together with a service team from Classic Mike we are going to give this Balilla its first Mille Miglia.
It has become a strange Mille Miglia because of the virus. A miracle that he continued at all, but after all it is a sporting event, so it was allowed. There were strict rules: you were not allowed to park your classic in the heart of Brescia, because they would attract too many viewers there. The gathering in the Piazza della Loggia was also canceled, which is a pity because it is always a festive experience to stroll around and admire the cars and curious people. Everywhere we came our temperature was measured and the organization provided mouth masks, bright red and pointed as a beak, which by some teams looked like a couple of zebra finches. The dates, very late in the year, were also a new element, which meant that we had to drive until late in the evening and therefore a lot in the dark.
It was striking that there were fewer heavy-caliber sports cars, 300 SLs were hardly to be seen, it seemed that there was more room for lighter equipment, the Lancia Aprilias and the Fiats 1100 and 1400 in all kinds of guises. And also for striking personalities such as a Citroën DS19, a Ford Thunderbird, a Ford Zephyr, a Rover 75 and a Peugeot 403.
It is not roomy in the Balilla, the seat for the navigator – my wife Hetty – is a bit further back to give my right arm space when steering.
Before the start we visit an evening service in the large church on the Piazza del Duomo, which is part of the experience. At the door is the ex Anthony Fokker Lancia Lambda of Bert “Of Invaluable Value” Degenaar. However, I do not find him in the church. The service, dedicated to the Mille Miglia, is entirely in Italian. To my surprise I hear the word “carpaccio” mentioned several times in the sermon, but the relationship with Il Salvatore escapes me completely. It probably was a metaphor about the character of the Mille, as Italian as carpaccio, something like that. Afterwards I finally spot Degenaar, outside on the terrace, enjoying the blessings of an Aperol Spritz.
Fiat has made many 508 Balillas, it would have been more than 110,000. Developed in 1932, it was one of the first attempts to provide affordable transportation for “everyone” long before the Germans came up with the Beetle and the French with the 2CV. The first series had a 995 cc four cylinder with overhead valves and 20 hp, mated to one three-speed gearbox. The 508 Balilla quickly became very popular, a song was even dedicated to him, and the need for competition versions soon arose. They came in the form of two sleek Spiders, the Corsa (also known as “Coppa d’Oro”) with motorcycle mudguards, and the Sport, with running boards and more streamlined fenders. They had a faster 36 hp version of the four-cylinder, with overhead valves and a higher compression, especially for competition and sports, hence the letters CS in their type designation. In 1935, Fiat introduced something even better, a sleek lightweight version of the 508 CS Balilla, designed by Mario Rivelli de Beaumont, refined in the aerodynamic lab at the University of Turin and built at Fiat’s Carrozzerie Speciale. It was called Berlinetta MM and is now also referred to as “Aerodinamica”.
It is a beauty, typical of the 1930s up to the A-style, after which it takes a significant lead over its contemporaries with a beautifully streamlined bodywork. The Berlinetta is one of the first exercises with aerodynamics. Manufacturers such as Voisin, Darl’mat, Figoni and Castagna all followed later, including Bugatti with the ’37 Type 57 SC Atlantic.
You could even call the Balilla Aerodinamica one of the first GTs, with its closed cock pit, large tank and long third and fourth gears. For the latter, Fiat had chosen to give the Balilla the highest possible top speed, thus beating the MGs in the class below 1.1 liters.
The Balilla has one accessory: windscreen wipers, the motor and switch of which are immediately in front of you, behind the bakelite steering wheel. There is no heater, there is enough heat coming in from the engine. Exterior mirrors are also missing. The speedometer was of no importance for the Mille, it is therefore above the knees of the navigator and is not much bigger than an aviator’s watch. A rev counter isn’t on board either, so I have no idea how far I can go with the plucky four-cylinder. When I switch on my ear, it seems too early, it only picks up moderately when I go from II to III. I realize that the Fiat engineers at the time must have been able to calculate the correct gearbox ratios and that I – on a flat road – must be able to continue in II until I have a nice connection in III. I then do that and the Fiat accepts it without grumbling, he accelerates quickly and shows with a nice sharp sound that he is having a good time.
We are not the only ones with a Berlinetta MM, it drives a dark red one, even a famous one, because he was fourteenth overall in 1936 and second in his
class, with the couple Alberto Comirato and Lia Dumas in the cockpit, now also known as “The Queen of the Mille Miglia” for her high number of entries. Their little Fiat drove the Mille in ’36 in 17 hours and thirty minutes, which equates to an average of more than 90 km / h, a great achievement for a car with a top 110.
The start: lunch at the Museo Mille Miglia, where we shot some nice Balilla records the day before, then to the podium in Viale Venezia. Because of the large number of cars, about 400, we start three per minute, we drive in the front, because we have starting number 84. There are quite a few people at the start, most of them masked, but outside of Brescia it quickly thins out, although it seldom happens that we are not waved – the Balilla even gets applause. I am surprised that there are many ‘old bosses’ along the road, such as that friendly old man with his buttercup yellow Fiat 500. For him the Mille must mean even more than for many other spectators: until 1957 the Ferraris, Mercedes, Porsches raged and Maseratis still at much more than 200 km / h to Rome and back and if you are now about seventy or older, you have probably seen that fabulously beautiful spectacle as a boy. You will never forget that.
The first stage leads to Milano Marittima, a seaside resort richly equipped with hotel rooms, a requirement for the Mille and its followers. We have 317 kilometers ahead, for which we have eight hours on our time card, including dinner in Ferrara.
We are part of a team, with eight cars, six Italians and two Alpines A106 Mille Miles with female teams. Read one of their stories further down in this issue. All teams continuously share each other’s location via WhatsApp, so that everyone knows where everyone is, including Mike Kastrop’s service teams.
We do three regularity stages, of which the Mille Miglia has two types: very long with one average speed and short with a mandatory change of pace sometimes ten times or more at a short distance. Your transit time is recorded to the 100th second with air hoses over the road. It takes some practice to develop a system for this with limited resources, but we try to do it as well as possible, we can only get better at it.
After Mantova we are heading to Ferrara and more gas can be accelerated – and we immediately take revenge for not extensively driving with the Balilla beforehand. There appears to be a vibration in the cardan, which becomes quite intense above roughly 65 to 70 km / h. Presumably the axle is not perfectly straight and in a car with little mass – 600 kilos – that causes strong vibrations. We can go on with it, but
high speed is taboo. The recalcitrant cardan shaft is somewhat held in check by the weight of the rigid rear axle, but as soon as it is relieved when it hops over a bad road surface, for example, the cardan gets the chance to go even more violently. Fortunately, the averages needed to drive the Mille exactly on time are below 50 to 60 km / h, so with a little effort we should be able to achieve that. We’re going for it. The limited summit also has an advantage, we are passed more often. And what could be against being passed by a full throttle Maserati A6 GCS, Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 or Ferrari 250 MM Berlinetta?
The organization has given all teams an ideal time to arrive for all outriggers and controls, so that there is as little congestion as possible, due to the virus. That thought has not landed with everyone, as it turns out when we drive into Ferrara, over the children’s heads to the Piazza del Castello. Cars are parked there haphazardly, there is no getting through. Where is everyone? In the Teatro Comunale, the beautiful opera in the heart of the city. There, feverishly working chefs and waitresses serve dinner in plastic boxes. A quick meal, then to the car and see that we squeeze him through the crowds to get out in time. Fortunately, officials keep a strip free for the low start numbers.
Later in the evening we strand, I see the white glow from the headlights slowly but surely turning to orange, a sign that the alternator is not recharging.
Day 2, 602 kilometers, on back roads, to be covered in fifteen hours and five minutes, via San Marino, Urbino, Fabriano, Amatrice and Rieti to Rome. Despite its only 36 hp, the Berlinetta is a great car – and a challenge. On his narrow straps, buddy motorcycle, he demands constant attention, he dances like a doe on the road, straight ahead also requires steering. Once he’s up to speed, you can
it holds surprisingly well, it’s light, you don’t have to brake early and you can take a lot of speed through the corners. You do have to be prepared for playful jumps and steps on the side of the rear axle, and the bending of the high tire sidewall in quick turns.
The I and II are not synchronized, you have to double declutch. That works fine, although the clutch has to be adjusted every day to be released far enough. Service men Kas and Matthieu work through a list every evening with matters that require attention. Matthieu, who has done much of the restoration work on the Balilla, knows the car very well and only needs half a word to know what’s going on, class.
The long climb to San Marino, many cars have difficulty with it, including the Balilla, which has to toil up in II, where the temperature rises considerably. The engine does not have a water pump, it has thermo siphon cooling, a system that uses the fact that hot water is lighter than cold for the flow to the radiator. The disadvantage of this is that the process does not accelerate when the engine revs. To be on the safe side, we stop once to give the Aero dinamica some cool air.
A red Abarth 1400 Coupé Touring stops briefly to ask how things are going. It is Mark Geessink with his companion Edwin Lammertink.
Sometimes I have to hurt the Fiat, and that cuts my soul. Today’s Mille Miglia leads you through ancient and fantastically beautiful towns, such as Urbino. With narrow roads, paved with children’s heads, and tight and steep curves. Sometimes I have to go back to I and there is no time to disconnect and accelerate twice, because then the Fiat would come to a stop in a place where you don’t want it. Fortunately, we only have to grind his teeth once. We’ll get to Rome, with the lights on. On to the heart of the city, we chase Aston Martins, Ferraris and Jaguars after motorcycle cops, ignore red lights, zigzag through traffic, a mad chase. Then to the hotel, where Matthieu and Kas are waiting to adjust the clutch and install a full battery. Matthieu loves the Balilla very much, he lovingly wipes the dipstick on his shirt every time.
The third day, 580 kilometers to Parma, a fifteen-hour drive, starts at 6.55 am. The water is pouring down from the sky. We have to use the lighting, clignoteurs and windscreen wipers as sparingly as possible – the latter in particular require a lot of energy. Just before the start they appear not to work. Matthieu quickly realizes what is wrong with it: the wiper arm is not sufficiently clamped to the motor shaft. Just tighten a screw and the two happily dance up and down.
First a long stretch on the highway, away from the Roman bustle. On the inland roads after that you have to be careful, there is a lot of oil on the wet road surface, you can recognize the stains by their rainbow colors. It’s important to keep them between the wheels as much as possible – they can be disastrous. In a village, a SKK brakes too late and a Panda rams. The chassis of the Mercedes does not budge, the stern of the little Fiat is badly damaged, otherwise only hurt egos. In the evening we will see more damage, including with a Maserati 150 S.
Nine regularity tests today. At the Lago di Vico, a second regularity will follow, only 400 meters after the finish of the first, which some participants have apparently not seen in the road book. A team in an XK stops in amazement before the start control, which should have been taken while driving. We slalom around the Jaguar and start the 10.7 kilometer long Monte Cimino test that has to be driven at 42.00 km / h. It is an ordeal, because the road climbs so strongly at the beginning that we cannot maintain the required pace. Fortunately we can let the Balilla run on the descents.
It remains changeable throughout the day, we have the light on as little as possible and use the wipers very sparingly to have enough power for the evening. We are happy about that when we have to do two tests on the Passo della Cisa, in the fog, in the pitch dark. The second test is eight kilometers long, we have to keep the average at 38 km / h. The Balilla has to work hard – and so do I. Because of the fog, the road course is barely visible, in the corners the white stripe on the right is the only handhold I have to determine the course, peering through the small windscreen, which fortunately remains fog-free. We’ll get Parma, in the nick of time. When we drive into town after ten o’clock, the light from the headlights fades and we turn the lights off because the spark plugs have to keep sparking, that’s the most important thing. We breathe a deep sigh of relief when we reach the Parco Ducale, the parc fermé for that evening.
The last day, 293 kilometers, three tests. There is a neat note in the Fiat, from Matthieu and Kas, with the things they did last night: Supplements replenished, clutch set, fresh battery installed and the lock of the tailgate lubricated. Start at 8:10 am, the mood is good everywhere, once you’ve made it to Parma, arriving in Brescia feels almost natural. Still, after the first 100 kilometers I wonder if the Balilla will make it to the finish. The vibration of the cardan starts at a progressively slower speed and becomes more intense. We do not want to drive the newly restored lightweight further, extreme vibrations can cause a lot of mischief. Help is at hand, however. Matthieu dives under the Fiat and immediately sees where the problem is, a bolt is missing in the connection between the drive shaft and the differential. Not long after that the stronger vibrations unfortunately returned, the jack underneath again, now the flexible coupling between gearbox and cardan also appears to have failed. Fortunately, the men from Classic Mike have that part with them, half an hour later we can continue.
Bravely, the Balilla snorts further north. He needs a helping hand one more time. In the queue for the finish podium, the battery turns out to have insufficient power to get the starter motor moving – but a push is enough to shake up the four-cylinder. When the little Fiat has entered the podium, and we have received two Villa Trasqua magnums from sponsor Hans Hulsbergen, the mission is accomplished: we made it, in a Mille Miglia with no less than 100 dropouts.
Looking back: we are of course proud to have brought the Balilla to Rome and back to Brescia, when he was perhaps the least prepared
This was my fourth Mille Miglia, I previously drove or navigated it in a BMW 328, Jaguar XK120 and Aston Martin DB2, cars from the top tier of the previous field. This Mille was very different, mainly because of the Balilla. The little Fiats filled the starting fields of the Mille Miglia for three years: among the 85 participants in 1933 were no less than thirty Balillas. In 1934 they were thinner, but in 1935 there were 38 of a total of 100 participants. They were driven by car enthusiasts who wanted to try their luck in a world class race. Those 1930s adventurers were at the heart of the great race back then, embodying its true spirit perhaps more than the sports guns and top riders at the front. It was great to experience the Mille as they must have done then – I now feel like I have ridden the real Mille Miglia. Most importantly, however, we have crowned the existence of “our” Balilla 508 CS Berlinetta MM: it has ended
the Mille Miglia, 85 years after Fiat
specially built for that.
Text: Ton Rokss
Images: Niko Bloemendal, Tom Heuvink, Joey Hofland, Ton Roks