South Hams duo take part in the most famous Italian classic car rally

Two South Hams residents have taken part in the Mille Miglia Rally, following in the steps of Stirling Moss.

Paul Eden, left, and Tony Cullen, right, at the Mille Miglia with their 1956 Ford Zephyr

Paul Eden, from Modbury, and Tony Cullen, from Brixton, completed the endurance rally between 22-25 October, travelling from Brescia to Rome and back again alongside 400 classic cars. 

The two friends took part in the race in a 1956 Ford Zephyr, which they rebuilt and adapted themselves. 

Stunning views from the Mille Miglia 

The race is the "most beautiful race in the world" and is a reenactment of the original rally, which was held between 1926 (ish, there are arguments as to when the first Mille Miglia took place) until 1957 when a devastating crash saw a Ferrari travelling at 150mph blow a tyre and smash into the crowd, killing the driver, the navigator, and ten spectators - tragically five of them children. 

Paul explained: "Stirling Moss took part in 1955 and won by more than half an hour with an average speed of 99.7mph. It was a dangerous race, there were deaths every year."

Stirling Moss took part in 1955 and won by more than half an hour with an average speed of 99.7mph

Since the 1980s, the race has become a reenactment of the original rally, with the only cars being allowed to participate being those who took part in the original race. 

The Zephyr on the start line 

Paul continued: "We were the complete underdogs, we shouldn't have been there. Celebrities take part every year, rockstars, the sons of Gucci and Ralph Lauren, they all arrive in their private jets or helicopter, and we managed to wheedle our way in. It's the most expensive race in the world, the cars that take part can easily be a couple of million pounds, each."

It's the most expensive race in the world, the cars that take part can easily be a couple of million pounds, each

It took three years of applying for their entry to be accepted. Paul said: "We found a single entry by a private driver, Peter Riley, who drove a Ford Zephyr in 1957, so it was an eligible car. It was always a longshot, we needed the organisers to allow us in and we were lucky because they're looking for something different to please the crowd. 

"The other drivers were taking the mickey out of us at the scrutineering, they said we would fail because we had too many doors! We had four, while most of the other cars have none, you have to climb in through the roof."

Tony looking at the competition in front of the clock tower on the Palazzo del Capitano Ascoli Piceno Le Marche

Having "wheedled" their way into the race, Paul and Tony saw some "weird and wonderful" cars, but the race is really all about one...Ferraris. 

"Millions of people lined the streets for the original race", Paul explained, "It's Tour de France level of tradition, it is so important to the Italians and they want the Ferraris to win. 

"It used to be that not only were the spectators really close to the cars, but if they saw a red car (Ferraris were always red) they would move back and clear the path for the incoming car, but if it was any other colour, they would close in and try and disrupt the car."

The rally is said not to be a race, but the aim is to meet average speeds for each section. "The thing is..." Paul said, "...to hit those average speeds, you have to drive like a bat out of hell. It's definitely a race!

"We got a police escort through the streets, after the first day I never stopped at a red light the whole time. Fast cars, especially Ferraris, are in the Italian DNA, the spectators salute you as you go past, the children all have the afternoon off school, it was a real experience." 

the spectators salute you as you go past, the children all have the afternoon off school, it was a real experience

The Zephyr at a petrol station with its police escort

Paul said that while a race like Le Mans is a more intense 24 hour competition, that over three the whole thing you are subjected to two 12 hour days and two more at eight or nine hours. 

Having spent three years preparing to take part, Paul and Tony thought they had everything covered, but driving hard in a 64-year-old car took its toll. 

"We had to completely rebuild the car", Paul explained, "we had to make sure that if anything went wrong we could fix it quickly. If a puncture takes longer than five minutes to change then your race is over."

Having had a minor incident with the fuel pump being replaced about two days before the race was about to start, the South Hams team thought they had had their mechanical mishap for the race, but as the days drew on, the transmission noise was getting louder and louder. Then on the last day the dash cam they had kept turning on and off. They tried not to worry about it. The last day came and they made their way to the finish line ahead of time and breathed a sigh of relief. 

Paul said: "We were in the queue of cars to cross the finish line and suddenly the car won't start. We thought it might have been the starter motor but we weren't sure. Being in a queue made it trickier, we had to jump start it backwards, which meant that we could drive over the finish line, we thought for a second we would have to push it!"

Being in a queue made it trickier, we had to jump start it backwards, which meant that we could drive over the finish line, we thought for a second we would have to push it!

It turns out that there was an error with the charging circuit and the only reason they made it so far was that they bought a "monster battery" from Plymouth Batteries that "got them over the finish line". 

Paul and Tony finished seventh out of 23 British entries, beating classics such as Aston Martin DB4s, an Aston Martin Le Mans, two Naish Healeys, a Healey Silverstone, a Jaguar XK120, two Austin Healeys, a MG and a Maserati 200. They came 189th overall. 

We're very jealous of Paul and Tony's experience, even if it does mean they had to self isolate for two weeks after returning from Italy. 

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