SCENE | The Real Italian Job: James Martin's Mille Miglia 2008 (BBC2)

LogoThis program was given a prime time spot on BBC2 this Sunday and I was quite looking forward to it. It turned out to be a really good lesson in how not to enter your first old car event.

James Martin is a celebrity chef in the UK; he’s obviously a bit of a petrol head and owns a few old cars. The program starts with him reading about the Mille Miglia and the associated acts of daring-do, especially Sterling Moss’ victory in the 1955 event. He then sees the modern event but he hasn’t got a suitable car and has never driven in an old car event before.

The insistence that the event is a race is pretty much standard for this type of program. However, and I know it’s not very TV friendly but the Mille Miglia that’s run nowadays is certainly not a race of any kind. The race was stopped in 1957 when a car slapped into the crowd at 160mph killing eleven spectators its driver and co-driver. The modern event is a parade for a few highly privileged and largely wealthy old car nuts; the ones that can get their hands on a suitable car and the entry fee. For them it’s a few days of historic car regularity trials with good hotels and few good dinners thrown in. Let’s just compare…



Time to complete



Average Speed

97.9 mph


Lunch Breaks






Nights Sleep






Closed Roads



First stop for James Martin was to get some advice from Nick Mason and Sterling Moss who were on hand to give words of wisdom. They were ignored; but very wise words they were too – ‘buy something reliable’ and ‘get a driver/navigator intercom system installed’.

James decided that rather than take his girlfriend he needed to employ a navigator/mechanic (although I’m not sure why he needed a mechanic since there was a mechanic following in a van anyway). He was introduced to Sarah Bennett-Baggs who drives a 1978 Porsche 911 SC in the Porsche Club Championship.  She knew nothing about navigating, or reliability rallies, or ancient Italian cars so how this was going to help him was a bit of a mystery (did she have some sponsorship deal? Nothing was mentioned).

The programme also featured James’ outrageous comments about female drivers. They really wouldn’t have been out of place on in a 1960s Carry On Film, plus there was a scene where he compared pretty cars and pretty women that was just like a script for the Fast Show’s Swiss Tony.

He took advice from a dealer to spend £600k on a 1948 Maserati A6GCS (way over budget) then invest in a £250k rebuild. All with the aim of selling it for £1m after the event. The car was finished, even further over budget, and the entry accepted. Now for the caper...

The whole event was a bit of a disaster. The Masers engine started to misfire after a couple of hundred miles and a burnt valve was diagnosed as the problem. No spares were available in time so they had to retire. For the record, a Maserati A6GCS finished 4 overall in 1955 in 11:15:32 a very respectable time. According to road race bible ‘Time and Two Seats’ 18 A6GCS' started and 8 finished which is not a bad ratio. But who in their right mind doesn’t carry a few spare valves and a head gasket set on a rally like this?? Especially if the engine is still being run in… and where was the on event camaraderie? Don’t tell me you can’t get Maserati valves in Italy, they can’t have been more than 100 miles from Modena, or that someone else on the event didn’t have a similar engine.

My top tips, for what they are worth; 
    For goodness sake relax and let your girlfriend navigate
  • Enter a few other events to understand how they work 
  • Get some local contacts and a team together 
  • Shakedown your car properly
  • Buy some wet weather gear!
  • And Practice, Practice, Practice
I’ve got a sneaking admiration for the determination it took to get the money and the car together, but overall it was a missed opportunity to get under the skin of such a huge event. No doubt he’ll have another go and will make a better job of it next time. But until then I’ll put all my moans down to petty jealousy - obviously.

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