(Editor’s note: As the 39th historical re-enactment, aka the modern-day 1000 Miglia 2021, gets ready for its run from June 16-19, Mercedes-Benz recalls the 1931 and fifth Mille Miglia, the first to be one by a non-Italian entry. Mercedes notes the victory was “an important motorsports success for Mercedes-Benz in economically difficult times.)
What a surprising victory: The large and, despite numerous weight-saving measures, still heavy Mercedes-Benz SSKL (W 06 RS) with Rudolf Caracciola at the wheel was not considered to be a favouite in view of the Italian competition in the fifth Mille Miglia on April 12-13, 1931. And yet, the team from Stuttgart mastered the 1,635-kilometer route from Brescia to Rome and back faster than all the local heroes: Caracciola and his co-driver, Wilhelm Sebastian, crossed the finishing line after 16 hours, 10 minutes and 10 seconds.
Their average speed was 101.6 km/h, which alone was a sensation. No driver before them had ever achieved an average of more than 100 km/h. And, to top it all, Caracciola was the first non-Italian driver to win the Mille Miglia.
The original Mille Miglia race was held from 1927 to 1957. Since 1977, it has been a regularity drive for historic vehicles and today, as the 1000 Miglia, it is one of the world’s most popular events for classic cars.
Mille Miglia 1931: No less than 151 teams registered for the road race. The route was from Brescia via Parma to Bologna, from there over the Apennines to Florence and then from Siena to Rome. The return route was via Perugia and Macerata to the Adriatic Sea and via Rimini, Bologna and Verona back to Brescia.
The Italian teams had a home advantage in terms of route knowledge and also in terms of supply.
“The route was virtually paved with spare parts stores,” said Rudolf Caracciola in retrospect, “we, on the other hand, had to economize.”
Mercedes-Benz race director Alfred Neubauer was only able to set up four stores along the route to support the Caracciola/Sebastian team, which was entered as a private team.
The car: Officially, the racing sports car was still called “SSK Model 1931” at that time. The car was not designated SSKL (“Super-Sport-Kurz-Leicht” – super, sports, short, light) until 1932, when it became the fourth and last model in the legendary S model series, of which only four were built – exclusively for racing.
With tremendous effort, the team headed by development director Dr Hans Nibel succeeded in keeping the racing car, which was by no means state-of-the-art any more, competitive. By using a thinner-walled frame construction and adding numerous drilled holes, the unladen weight was reduced by 125 kilograms to 1,352 kilograms. The six-cylinder 7,069cc engine was also thoroughly reworked. With the Roots supercharger activated, it produced 221 kW (300 hp) and its top speed was 235 km/h.
The race itself: Caracciola/Sebastian hit the track at 3:12 p.m. on 12 April 1931. The roads were narrow and crossed mountain passes so it was only toward the end of the race that Caracciola was able to drive at full throttle for many kilometers. It was a great achievement for the slightly built racing driver to maneuver the heavy Mercedes-Benz quickly and seemingly effortlessly.
He himself said: “For sixteen hours I sat at the wheel, for sixteen hours we thundered along the length and breadth of Italy, feeling our way through the night by the beam of the headlights, driving into the blinding light of the spring morning… for sixteen hours I had no idea what our position was in the enormous field of several hundred cars.”
Caracciola commented on the moment of return to Brescia: “At the finishing line, Alfred Neubauer was completely out of his mind and was performing a completely crazy dance. What on earth was going on? At first, I didn’t realize what had happened, not yet, but slowly it dawned on me: I had won the Mille Miglia.”
Behind him, 31 Italian-built cars reached the finish before a Graham-Paige (an American) car came in in 32nd place.
1931 was a difficult year: The collapse of the New York Stock Exchange in October 1929 had dramatic consequences for the world economy, including the automotive industry. In Germany, vehicle production plummeted from 139,869 vehicles in 1929 to 88,435 vehicles the following year and then to 64,377 units in 1931. The turnover of the then Daimler-Benz AG also fell by about half to RM 68.8 million.
The Board of Management took appropriate action: in view of the economic situation, the Board stopped development of the new “1931 model racing car” in 1930. Despite winning the European hill-climb championship in 1930, works driver Caracciola was dismissed. However, race director Alfred Neubauer succeeded in reaching an agreement with him that provided for pared-down factory support and the provision of an SSKL. In return, Caracciola undertook “to work exclusively for Daimler-Benz in races and sporting events during the 1931 sporting year.”
The 1931 racing program turned out to be more modest than planned, but nevertheless led to eleven victories from eleven starts and the team defended their title of “European hill-climb champion.”
Rudolf Caracciola: The Mercedes-Benz works driver was the star of the first Silver Arrow era in the 1930s. He was crowned European Grand Prix champion in 1935, 1937 and 1938, a title that – in terms of sporting prestige – is comparable to the Formula One World Championship, which was established in 1950. He also became European hill-climb champion three times in a Mercedes-Benz. Caracciola was born on January, 30, 1901 in Remagen and died on September, 28,1959 at the age of only 58.
A thousand Italian miles: Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson held a Mille Miglia record for eternity. In their Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR (W 196 S), they covered the famous 1955 road race in 10 hours, 7 minutes and 48 seconds in 1957. Their average speed of 157.65 km/h has not been surpassed since.
1957 was the last year the original Mille Miglia was held as a road race – several serious accidents resulted in it being cancelled. However, 20 years later, it experienced a resurrection as a regularity race and has since enjoyed great popularity among participants and the public alike. Any cars whose models participated in the original Mille Miglia between 1927 and 1957 are entitled to participate.
At today’s 1000 Miglia events, more than 400 historic vehicles usually take part, and many hundreds of thousands of spectators follow the race along the route. As a Global Automotive Partner, Mercedes-Benz regularly supports the event by supplying famous classic cars and well-known racing drivers.
In the eyes of the press: In its Issue 9/1931, the renowned Allgemeine Automobil Zeitung commented on Caracciola’s success in the style of the time:
“In newspapers issued by the German Reich, we have read of a success of the German automobile industry. With respect, we feel that such a generalization is out of place here. It was a success for Mercedes-Benz, which should not be credited to the German motorcar industry as a whole, because, apart from Mercedes-Benz, there is no motorcar brand in the whole of Germany that could take part in such a major international race… Think what you will about the races, they still amount to the best possible advertising for the winning brand, which spread all over the world only a few hours after the race.”