For a moment I thought I was in vintage-car heaven. I had just completed the climb to the 3,144-foot summit of Vermont's Mount Ascutney, three twisty miles of controlled acceleration and delicate braking that made me realize once again how ragged my form was. We passed the checkpoint at the summit, and as I swung the Mercedes-Benz SL600 into place, there stood a crescent of classic Ferraris: a red 1966 GTS Spyder, a brand-new 550 Maranello, a black 1989 and a bright yellow 1992 512 Testarossa, and a red 1972 Dino 246 GT. The fact that billows of fog lay on the flanks of the mountain, obscuring what was supposed to be a stupendous view, only added to the sense that I'd passed through the automotive pearly gates.
In the end, there would be 24 Ferraris at the summit, but not for a concours d'élégance--although every car was in concours condition or close to it. No, these cars were being driven hard in the annual Forza Mille V-12, a four-day, thousand-mile rally that traverses three New England states and brings together some of the world's rarest automobiles. (With a Ferrari Barchetta, that means putting a vintage car worth $1 million or more at risk.)
Among the 35 participants in the event, Ferraris ruled the day. There were four 1949-50 166s, a third of the 166s in this country (only 26 exist worldwide). This was the first sports car Enzo Ferrari built on his own chassis that was not intended only for racing. There were also two fin-sided 512 Testarossas from the 1980s and early 1990s, arguably the most potent automotive design ever.
"If there's any point to this, it's to get these cars out of the garage and use them the way they were intended to be used," states Rich Taylor, who, with his wife, Jean, organizes the Forza Mille.
Connecticut-based automotive journalists, the Taylors started Forza Mille after driving in the most famous thousand-mile rally, Italy's Mille Miglia Storica, in 1991. Begun in 1927, the Mille Miglia was last run as a race in 1957. Since then it's traversed the same route, but as a timed rally.
"It's more like a mob scene," explains Taylor. "Everyone knows the route, so people come from all over Europe and pretend that they're part of the rally. You are surrounded, and the cars just crawl along. Effectively, it's a parade. We realized that we could do the same thing in New England without the crowds: Because there's no traffic, you would actually be able to drive the cars."
To ensure that, the Taylors made their rally a private, limited-participation event. The first one, in the spring of 1993, was limited to 50 cars built in 1974 or earlier, and was sponsored by Mercedes-Benz. Two years later, with the New England 1000 a success, the Taylors were approached by the president of a Ferrari club who proposed creating a thousand-mile rally for Ferraris only. The Taylors signed on and even came up with a name, Forza Mille, or Powerful Thousand. "Forza is a word that's associated with Ferrari," says Taylor. "It means 'force, keep going, power,' and the Ferraristis chalk it on walls with an exclamation point."
Unusual as it sounds, the Taylors asked Mercedes-Benz to sponsor the event, and were somewhat surprised when Steve Rossi, then Mercedes' top public relations executive, agreed. Ferrari owners, it turns out, are also Mercedes-Benz owners, as Taylor himself discovered. "At the victory dinner of the first Forza Mille in 1996," recalls Taylor, "I asked how many people owned a Mercedes, and every hand in the room went up. When I asked why, a wise guy said that when you owned a Ferrari, you also needed a car that worked."
The following year Rossi persuaded the Taylors to open up the rally to any V-12 car and rename the event the Forza Mille V-12. "You could have all those other interesting V-12s: Packards, Lincolns, Cadillacs," Taylor recalls Rossi saying. Of course it also meant modern 12-cylinder cars would be eligible, including current Mercedes S600s and SL600s. One problem--some Ferraris are V-8s, and several had already signed up for the next Forza Mille. No problem, suggested Rossi. Open it to any Ferrari and any V-12. And that's the eligibility rule today.
The V-12 engine is an automotive icon. Intricate and costly to make, it has almost always been a limited-production engine, invariably associated with exotic and expensive cars. A few racing cars carried hand-built V-12 engines prior to World War I, but the first V-12 production car was the Packard Twin-Six (which was introduced in 1915), according to Automotive Quarterly historian David Burgess-Wise. The Twin-Six was made until 1923 and inspired Enzo Ferrari to adopt the V-12 as his signature engine when he started making cars under his own name in 1946.
Burgess-Wise says that about 40 marques have been associated with V-12 engines--most of them long-gone models: Allard, Argonaut, Hispano-Suiza, Horch, Meteor, and Pierce-Arrow, among others. Cadillac, Fiat, and Jaguar, Lancia and Lincoln, are all marques that once had V-12s but no longer do; Bugatti's EB110 is out of production, and BMW stopped selling the V-12-equipped 850i here in 1997. (Since then it too has gone out of production.) Only Aston Martin, BMW (7 Series sedans), Ferrari, Lamborghini, Rolls-Royce, and Mercedes-Benz currently make 12-cylinder-engine production cars that are available here. The closest American car to this elite category is the 10-cylinder Dodge Viper.
Many owners drove their cars considerable distances to the starting point, Cranwell Resort & Golf Club> in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts. Others used an automobile-transport company (the rally will take care of this) or arranged for someone else to drive their cars to Cranwell. "My Ferrari is chugging here," one New Jersey woman told me. "I hope the mechanics get it running." (They did.) Arrival in less-than-tiptop condition is common, especially among the older cars. (The hood of a '41 Lincoln Continental Convertible seemed to be always open.) Others have idiosyncratic glitches. "Thank God this is hilly country; that's how we started the car all day," said the owner of a Barchetta.
At registration, participants were given thick loose-leaf books that contained the route details, maps, and local attractions. A half-hour workshop for navigators was then conducted by Iain Tugwell, the crusty, no-nonsense timing-and-scoring chief for the event, who explained how this sort of rally works: The route is divided into stages, with a checkpoint at the beginning and end of each segment. The idea is not to drive each stage as fast as possible, but in a specified period of time, following the turn-by-turn directions in the route book. Points are added for arrival before or after the specified time at each checkpoint. One point is added for each 60 seconds an entrant is early or late; no-shows are penalized 1,000 points. The goal is to accumulate the fewest points by rally's end, which is easier said than done, we discovered.
"Some of the drivers come here to win but that's not the norm," explains Taylor. "Usually, a third of the people are serious about the rally, a third think they're serious until they screw up one of the checkpoints, and a third never intended to be serious. They're here to drive around and have fun." Taylor was right. A majority of the entrants quickly lost whatever competitive fire they had, or so we inferred when on the rally's third day we were the fourth car to roll up to the starting line, at 9:15. (We weren't exactly rakehells ourselves.) In the end, this time-speed-distance rally is as much about socializing with people of like interest as it is about driving.
Day one was crisp and clear as we set off from Cranwell's oval front drive. Each car started between eight and nine; there was no long lineup and no checkered flag, just a timer-starter. Our silver SL600 followed a black one, and there was a 1999 Ferrari 550 Maranello (red, of course) behind us. In back of it was a vintage Ferrari, a 1972 Dino 246 GT, also red. Instead of following the instructions we simply tailed the black SL600--a tactic that worked at the beginning of a stage as long as you had confidence in the driver in front. We wound south through picturesque towns (Lenox, Housatonic, Van Deusenville) before turning west and crossing into New York, then north to Lebanon Valley Auto Racing, site of the first speed trials and the first checkpoint. We were supposed to negotiate this stage--55.15 miles--in 85 minutes, but we got there early, rolled up to the checkpoint without thinking, and were rewarded with 222 points.
Although we rarely had the time to fully appreciate our surroundings, the artfully calculated route provided us with a twirling Highlights of New England travelogue, including a ferry ride across Lake Champlain and that wild ride up Mount Ascutney. Scenic back roads were punctuated by a pleasant, though not always show-stopping, lunch stop and ended in the late afternoon at the next hotel. The Old Tavern at Grafton in Vermont, a restored 200-year-old inn and our second-night stop, was the star of the trip. Though rooms in the original building were a bit cramped, the place had Old New England down pat, and the village was picture-perfect. The four-course dinner here (pan-seared sea scallops with wild greens, wild-mushroom ravioli with leeks) was the tastiest and most convivial we had. On night three, in contrast, we landed at the 700-acre Basin Harbor Club on the Vermont shore of Lake Champlain, where we had small individual or duplex cabins and an institutional buffet dinner in a meeting room.
Of course, we also had a few memorable rides--though "A Not-Too-Subtle Reminder" in our instruction packet admonished: "This is not a race! It is a precision driving event . . . that can be successfully completed at legal speeds." But the combination of fine weather and powerful cars inevitably produced bursts of exuberance. A '95 Ferrari 348 Spyder blasted past as we cruised at 80 or so in the flat farmland along the shore of Lake Champlain, its driver wearing a very large grin. Over cigars and drinks on the back porch of New Hampshire's famed Mount Washington Hotel (ordinary rooms but extraordinary public spaces), we all buzzed with the story of a Ferrari that passed a BMW at 120 mph on the hotel's broad approach road. "I've got to get one of those," said the BMW owner.
In the end we didn't do badly for rookies: 25th place overall, just behind another SL600 and ahead of a Testarossa, which I considered a victory in itself. (We accumulated 4,469 points, yet still qualified for a bronze vase award.) The winners, with a grand total of one point, were Steve and Carolyn of Hollywood, Florida, who drove a 1984 Ferrari 512 Berlinetta Boxer. A '73 Jaguar E-type Series 3 Roadster came in second with two points. (It was interesting that neither team seemed particularly competitive.) The driver who appeared most intent on winning, the owner of a souped-up '94 Mercedes-Benz SL600 RennTech 7.4, came in 16th. It turned out that his wife and navigator was busy studying for a doctoral exam while he drove. And that always broken Lincoln ended up in 32nd place, clocking 11,100 points.
At the victory banquet we talked with the 22nd-place finisher, a Tennessee gentleman who'd driven his 1950 Ferrari 166 Touring Coupe with his son. "Oh," he recalled, "you're in a Mercedes. It's so comfortable. You just turn the key, and everything's fine." Then he paused. "There really should be a handicap for older cars."
Did he enjoy the rally? I asked.
Yes, he said, smiling broadly, very much indeed. "But it really should start at eleven and end at four."
"Yes," I agreed, "a gentlemen's rally."
He smiled. "Exactly."
This year the Forza Mille V-12 will be held October 1-6, with a routing similar to the 1999 edition and featuring some of the same hotels. It will begin and end at The Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. Participation is limited to 50 cars; the $3,495 cost (for one car and two participants sharing a room) includes meals. Contact Vintage Rallies 1 at 800-645-6069 or www.vintagerallies.com.
Richard John Pietschmann is Departures' automotive columnist.