La Festa Mille Miglia–in Japan

The historic 1000 mile race replaces Tuscan countryside for ten Japanese states. The autos taking part included sublime designsand some that never got off the mark

Those who arrived early for the Tokyo Motor Show may have had the chance to see Japan's take on the Mille Miglia, the 1000 mile race held between 1927 and 1957 in Italy. Never a nation to take their hobbies anything less than seriously, La Festa Mille Miglia is a popular recreation by Japanese enthusiasts of the historic race, which replaces the Tuscan countryside with ten of Japan's states. Now in its eighth year, this time the race also commemorated the 80th anniversary of the first of the original series.

Unlike that however, cars here are divided into five different classes, approximately one for each decade between 1919 and 1967. The route begins in central Tokyo, not far from one of Nissan's design studios, on the outskirts of the popular Meiji Jingu Park.

The first stretch from there is along shopping-haven Omotesando, dubbed the Champs Elysees of Tokyo after the Parisian street, through Roppongi where Designer's Night is held, then out of the city. The cars then head up through the cooler northern prefectures of Japan, before returning via Motegi race-circuit to Yokohama, the city south of Tokyo—in all, 1000 miles.

Usually traffic in Tokyo is made of chrome-covered trucks and domestic models from Japan's 'Big Three', so it was surprising to see only one Japanese car in the race. This was a 1967 Toyota 2000GT MF10—really good looking, and hard to believe from the same company as some of the small cars here. But being the newest car in the race meant the Toyota was last to start, with five Bugattis dated from 1924, a '29 Bentley Speed Six, and two Rolls-Royces setting off first. In a city like Tokyo where old cars are rare, those early Bugattis caused quite a stir—it was hard to get a view with so many shoppers holding out their cell phones for a photo! In fact, they had to cordon off the street, resulting in some great sounds from the cars as they used the space to accelerate past Fendi, Louis Vuitton and the rest.

he Meiji Jingu Park became a paddock for cars and drivers to meet with friends and enthusiasts, and the abundance of Italian cars duly paid their respects to the race's origins. It was great to see so many well-kept models. Notably the Jaguar XK120 here looked terrific, with a really attractive front-end. The other highlights included an Alfa Giulietta Sprint Veloce, Lancia Aurelia B24S and three Cisitalias. Outside this group however was a line of mid-century cars waiting to have their go—and with so many people drawn to the procession down the street, this was a good chance to check out some of the competitors more closely.

Here the little Italian cars looked so pretty, like a row of debutantes waiting to dance. Between the many Alfa Romeo Giuliettas there was also a rare and mostly forgotten Giaur Taraschi 1100S—complete with Louis Vuitton luggage that is so popular with Tokyoites. There was a Porsche 356A as well and next to this a Mercedes-Benz 300SLS so low-slung that the gruff throb of the exhaust went straight up your legs. It looked great too, the dropped center-line really stretching out that profile, and those eyebrows above each wheel never looked faster. We just hope they had a sump-guard...

Actually, the Mercedes was one of the most important cars here, for its W196 chassis—shared with the legendary Gullwing—was also the platform that helped Sir Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson set the record in the original series, completing the '55 Mille Miglia in just over 10 hours! That's half the 1927 time, and a big achievement on public highways—particularly those in rural Italy.

Unfortunately, some of the cars here looked like they would have trouble even leaving Toyko. The wonderful proportions of a Fiat 508C Ala D'Oro barely made it past the Bang & Olufsen store 300 yards from the start before having to pull over. Needless to say, it didn't make it to Yokohama.

Those that did complete the race were a 1949 Healey Silverstone, which apparently won, but it was hard to tell with the confusing points system. The Silverstone accrued 17,355 points, so it's hard to understand how a Porsche 356 could end up with 161, and even more bewildering is how that put it ahead of a 1935 BMW with over 10,000.

At any rate this was more a stamp rally, not a time trial, and there will be drivers happy that they did not have to push their cars too hard—though in fact one of the unexpected highlights of the race was the range of 'support' vehicles. No shady pick-ups here. As soon as that last Toyota had left, friends and families followed in a consort including Ferraris; a Mercedes-Benz CLK DTM; a flat-nosed RUF Porsche and suitably, given that the race started with those early Bugattis, the last car to pass was a Veyron. That Fiat didn't stand a chance.

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