• With only a road book and no sat nav, on a tight schedule, from Hamburg through Italy and back again. That means careful planning, as the W 140 can't squeeze through everywhere.

    Guest article: 1,000 miles in a supertanker.

    You have to be quite crazy to drift through Italy on the trail of the legendary Mille Miglia in a 400 SEL W 140.

    Text and photos: Jens Tanz

Hamburg – Brescia – Rome in a 400 SEL.

They were tough, those daring young drivers on that famous rally, driving 1,000 miles right through Italy. Their cars were fast and expensive, and the cross-country route from Brescia via Ferarra to Rome and back again was brutal and complex. A lot of things have changed in this event since 1927. Today, the cars participating are still fast and expensive, but above all they are old. The route is still brutal and complex ... or isn’t it? Our vehicle is a 1991 400 SEL (W 140). The increased comfort is to be compensated by doubling the length of the route. 3,700 kilometres, or 2,312 miles, in four days.

Normally it is expensive classic cars that thunder along the rally route between the venerable old town walls. This time it's the former company vehicle of Liz Mohn, the heiress to the Bertelsmann empire.
Heaps of traffic, but somehow everything runs smoothly. That's because of the sunshine down here, whilst we mark the course of the route in the road book.

A feeling of eternity.

Brescia! I only know it from the books about the Mille Miglia, and all of a sudden we’re there. A road book from 2008 takes us to the starting point of the historic rally. It is bucketing with rain. Eternally grateful not to be stuck in a 1950s roadster, we drive in silence with great respect for the true rally pilots. Rome! It’s lovely here, friendly, cheerful, teeming with people, and, well ... Italian! The eternal city hums day and night. A mild spring wind murmurs quietly between the green trees, and a few night birds boldly whistle their little night song. The next stage begins early, in front of the honourable mausoleum of the emperor Hadrian, who ruled in Rome only one human life later than a certain Lord Jesus Christ. The “Castel Sant Angelo” is a building equal to our Mercedes-Benz. Somehow, this car exudes a massiveness that gives its owner a vague feeling of eternity.

Crazy Italian traffic.

With the road book on our laps, we try to weave our way through the traffic of central Rome without touching anything. Mopeds and motorbikes whisk past dented cars, like wasps travelling at lightning speed. The W 140 seems to have an effect on the Italians like a jumbo jet that has made an emergency landing: occasionally they let us through with fearful looks! Mission accomplished. The tower of strength leaves the eternal city behind. In the hinterland between Rome and Siena the roads are a little wider, the houses a little lower and the traffic is, in comparison, non-existent. In little towns such as Ronciglione or Montefiascone the Daimler occasionally needs a little siesta so it can sweat off the engine oil that has spattered on the manifold. That needs mending soon. Also, it’s so lovely here that two grown men start romanticising unashamedly.

We have barely escaped the inner-city chaos when the V8 starts dropping little puddles of oil on to the manifold. It's a familiar problem, but we're going to have to live with it for three days.
  • Turning round in the middle of Siena between tourists in narrow streets. The town is free of cars. This is what it must feel like parking a container ship in Hamburg port.

Into the bends with two tons.

Mille Miglia! We tread in your historic footsteps with awe and childlike wonder at the beauty of Tuscany. Each stage seems to be tailor-made for the classic cars that are soon to roar through here. As if we were in a light sports car, my driver brakes before the bends, only to put his foot down hard on the accelerator again to press the V8, straining its rear tyres. Which react with smoke and squealing. Cool.

Is this the conquest of modern electronics over the inertia of mass? The thing is simply fantastic to drive. After a while, we have got used to the way the rear axle drifts away on tight bends between olive trees. We reach the plain ahead of Siena, laughing. This town is pretty but the drawback is that you are not allowed to drive cars through it. Which means we have to turn the great ship round, laboriously and grumbling, in between the crowds of tourists.

Dolce vita on the banks of the Arno. Wine and pizza. Florence glows amber in the night sky, and tonight we are going to sleep in the car on blue velvet once again.

Hotel Sindelfingen.

Florence. What looks romantic from a distance turns out, on closer view, to be a cramped renaissance town with narrow alleys that were built when nobody dreamed what a 400 SEL would be. Italy is too small for this car. The Arno and its banks are our destination. Here we discover a few parking spaces big enough for small coaches. At last, the supertanker comes to a halt, ticking quietly while the engine cools down. We have driven far enough for today! We don’t feel like looking for a hotel room. Now a little cheers to the rally, the lovely day and the warm evening! Hotel Sindelfingen! Good night, John-Boy. The space is lavish as usual and the old river gurgles comfortingly. It feels a little strange sleeping in a car in this buzzing city amongst all these strange people. But the local wine and good food are a fine nightcap.

Returning across Europe.

6.30 a.m. The morning is cool and the town is asleep. Last destination: Maranello, a sparkling town around a car factory that manufactures small, fast and extremely expensive sports cars. Ciao, Firenze. And then ciao Italia, and off we head north again. In between old walls and spectacular countryside, on awe-inspiring roads in a huge car, we’ve had a taste of the distance of 1,000 miles across the country! That really is a lot of work for four days, even in a huge Mercedes-Benz. Respect for the drivers of the Mille Miglia, and after all our drifting around, respect for the cars, too – cars that are many years older than ours! Hamburg, 11 p.m. Without any traffic jams, tired and full of the impressions we’ve had. At the end of May, the “real” Mille Miglia will be starting in Brescia. Will you be following it? Maybe you’ll recognise a few of the locations.

Stretching and yawning after a short night on car seats. Now we have 1,800 kilometres ahead of us on our return journey to Hamburg. What a good thing it's such a comfortable S-Class.

Guest article: All statements in this article are personal opinions and impressions of the author and sometimes not of the Daimler AG.