Driving the California Mille

Eric Simpson

Behind the wheel of Porsche’s 1957 356A Speedster and its 2017 911 Carrera S Cabriolet proves to be the ultimate endurance test—for car and driver.

Thumbs up! That’s what we wanted to see as we passed fellow drivers stopped on the side of the road. It signaled all was okay, no need to call the mechanic or get a tow. Most likely they pulled over to admire the scenery...or to make use of the dense shrubbery when 100 miles of wide-open fields on a narrow, winding road lay ahead with no public facilities in sight. This was, after all, a road rally, the 26th running of the California Mille, to be exact, which takes place each spring beginning on the last Sunday in April.

Seventy-one classic cars, no model newer than 1957, hit the back roads of central California to cover 1,000 miles in four days. The rally was inspired by Italy’s famous Mille Miglia, which ran from 1927 to 1957 and traveled from Brescia to Rome. The difference here being that the drive from San Francisco into the redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains to Monterey and along the Big Sur coast toward Carmel was not a race. “The Italians time it and announce a winner at the end,” explained David Swig, referring to Italy’s current version of the race. With his brother, Howard, Swig upholds the tradition of this rally cofounded by their father in 1991. “Ours is primarily to enjoy the camaraderie, the cars, the people,” who include teams of spouses, business partners, and driving buddies, both international and local.

The Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco was the rally's starting point. Courtesy Eric Simpson

First-time participant Jonathan Segal, an architect based in San Diego, appreciates this philosophy. “For me, the Mille is about the drive and seeing everyone else’s cars,” he said. “I have learned a lot about all these models that I have always coveted. I don’t care to do the drive in Italy because I am more about lifestyle than killing myself.”

Having been invited to partake in the rally with the Porsche team, I was thrilled to hear this—though it is difficult to go slow in any model of the iconic German marque, especially the cars Porsche brought for us to drive: a 1957 356A Speedster rebuilt with a 912 engine and 120 horsepower, and the 2017 911 Carrera S Cabriolet, with its turbocharged 3.0-liter flat-six and 420 hp. (The Mille organizers made a generous exception allowing us to drive the 2017, and rally participants were nice about it, if not too happy.)

“Speed is relative to the car,” said my drive partner, racing legend Hurley Haywood, the five-time 24 Hours of Daytona and three-time 24 Hours of Le Mans champion. “Eighty-five [miles per hour] in a Speedster can be like 200 in another car.” Hearing that, I knew we would be in the category of what Swig called “the more spirited drivers.”

Five Porsche 356s participated this year. Courtesy Eric Simpson

When Porsche introduced its first sports car, the 356, in 1948, the aerodynamic “fly line” design set the tone for future models and became the DNA of today’s 911. “Things like the dashboard and dials have remained pretty much the same from 1964 to the present,” said Haywood, “but the technology of the cars on a performance level—the suspension, the engines—has developed at an incredible pace. Driving the new 911, a regular production street car, on a racetrack is probably as fast as the cars I raced in the early ’70s.”

Indeed, getting into the 911 Carrera S after a morning of cruising in the 356A Speedster was like clicking on a hyperlink to our next destination. Yet there is something to be said for the freedom of “flying” in a steel body over a steel-tub chassis with antiquated lap belts, no windows (except for the curved windshield), no radio, no AC, and no power steering (though that oversize steering wheel is a whole lot of fun to negotiate). You “de-accelerate” in a way: hitting the car’s sweet spot at 80 mph, sitting tall, pressing down on the clutch, and gently shifting the four gears as the road curves, feeling connected to the machine and the surrounding landscape.

Drivers in a 1940 Aston Martin Type C. Courtesy Eric Simpson

As we passed a Maserati with its hood up, we smiled, knowing we were in one of the most reliable vehicles in the rally. Segal, the architect, is a Porsche loyalist. “I have owned 20, from a 1951 to the current model 918, the newest supercar. Porsche will always run,” he said. “I’ve had a 10 percent success rate with other marques.” The 1956 Maserati was his. All his current Porsches were too young to enter, owing to the pre-1958 rule to curate the best cars from the Mille Miglia era.

Sure enough, every morning at the crack of dawn, drivers turned the hotel parking lot into a pit lane—hoods up and chamois out, tweaking engines and buffing bodies, the smell of gasoline fragrancing the air and the sound of motors growling. Our crew didn’t have more than a quick check to run. Except on the last day, when our 356A wouldn’t start. After an hour of inspecting every nut and bolt, one mechanic thought to check the fuel tank. We were out of gas. I had noticed that the fuel gauge needle bounced constantly from full to empty, never really showing how much was left. I thought it was a quirk of the car. “You need to be aware; you need to feel that the engine is running differently, that the car is lighter,” said the mechanic. And when you do, you switch on the fly to the one-gallon reserve tank and hope a gas station is nearby. On second thought, I’ll take the 60 years of technological advancements in the 911 Carrera S and call it a day. 

To register for the 2017 California Mille, running April 23–27, visit californiamille.com. The Porsche 2017 911 Carrera S Cabriolet starts at $115,700; porsche.com.