Oldtimer's Corner - "Balena"

By: Ed Niles

What red-blooded sporty car nut doesn't want to "Do the Mille Miglia"? Every year, since the Automobile Club of Brescia and the Musical Watch Veteran Car Club started running the retrospectic Mille Miglia, the number of entrants has been roughly twice those that could be accommodated. And every year there is at least one article in some automotive publication by an enthusiast, telling about his experiences in this famed Italian road race.

Most of them, I confess, by writers more witty than I, in language more flowery than I can summon up.

It was in 1986 or 1987 (I forget; the memory is the second thing to go. I forget what the first is). I received a phone call from someone named Bill Jacobs who wanted to take me to lunch. We ended up in Beverly Hills, where Jacobs, a very nice man from Illinois, explained that he was a car dealer outside of Chicago and that, among other things, had just acquired the Ferrari 500 Mondial that I had owned and restored a year or two earlier. We had a nice chat, and a nice lunch, after which Jacobs told me that he also owned another 500 Mondial, not quite so nice, that he had entered in the upcoming Mille Miglia. Would I like to join him as his co-pilot?

Well, I was dumbfounded. I was being asked to spend three days and nights in a cramped car and cramped hotel rooms with someone that I had only known an hour! My brain went on full stutter and stammer! It took me what seemed like hours to come up with any response at all. My mind simply would not accept this surprise question as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Finally, I made some excuse about being too old, or too busy, or too something.

I regretted it as soon as we parted company. My regret continued when I read, after the event, that he had finished successfully. My regret was not even dampened by reading that it was one of the wettest Mille Miglias in recent memory.

So it was that in early 1989, when my pal Mark Dees cooked up a scheme to get into the event, I was a little more receptive to the notion. Mark had been reading an obscure book on the history of the Mille Miglia, and he had learned that the famed driver and journalist, Paul Frere, had won his class in 1953 driving a Chrysler Sedan. It seems that the great Belgian driver had hoped to run the event in a Jaguar Sedan, but when the Jaguar turned out to be unavailable, he acquired a Chrysler, with its early version of the famed "Hemi" engine, and showed the rest of the crowd the way to go.

No, Mark did not own a Chrysler. Mark has owned a great number of interesting cars, but a Chrysler Hemi was not among them at the time. But Mark got ahold of an entry form and sent it in anyway. On the parts that called for the serial number of the car and a photo of the car, Mark simply responded "the car is in the paint shop". The organizers of this extraordinarily popular event are usually pretty careful about screening the entry forms. But they have stated a preference for cars that will give the event a broad range of historic automobiles, and their desire for variety must have overcome their normal caution. The entry was accepted.

Ed, Mark and the Chrysler Ed and Mark beside the Hemi-powered 1952 Chrysler Saratoga, pretending to be the car Paul Frere drove in 1953..

Mark then started scouring the country for an appropriate Chrysler. He found one on the east coast. An original car, unrestored, in overall average condition. It was a 1952 Chrysler Saratoga, powered by a 5.4 liter, 180 horsepower Hemi V-8. Mark concluded that it was possible - just possible - to get the car back to California, do a fast rebuilt and paint job, and put it on the ship for Italy.

But Mark is not a man who can leave well enough alone. Well, while the engine is out, let's hop it up a little bit. And those brakes really ought to go; maybe I can fit som