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Mille Miglia: A Beetle conquers Italy

The Mille Miglia, the once most legendary road race in the world, starts again today. In 1954, a Volkswagen Beetle with a Porsche engine entered the race and surprised the motor sports world with a fabulous success story.  

Two fast Swabians and their Volkswagen: Paul Ernst Strähle (r.) and Viktor Spingler with the Volkswagen Beetle, nicknamed “Dapferle” (the little brave one).
Source: Bildarchiv Strähle

Brescia in May 1954. The 22nd edition of the Mille Miglia, then the most legendary road race in the world, was about to begin. This is where the elite of European motorsport meet and all the great brands with their top drivers are represented. Since the previous year, the race had been part of the sports car world championship. The favorites, as always, were the Italians – it was already more or less a tradition for Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, or Lancia to capture the overall victory. But this year, an exotic competitor from Swabia was also in the line-up: a Volkswagen Beetle with the race number 347.

Behind the wheel was 26-year-old Paul Ernst Strähle, and next to him his co-pilot, Viktor Spingler. The two of them had traveled under their own steam from Remstal, near Stuttgart, in the Reseda green Volkswagen sedan filled with canned sausage, brown bread and hard-boiled eggs. The two amateurs were competing in the field of small engine capacity classes, in which enthusiastic private drivers fight over minutes and seconds just as the professional drivers during the 1,000-mile race from Brescia to Rome. Over 300 cars would take part in the race. In the manner of individual time trial, the cars would be sent onto the road one after the other, at intervals of one minute. The spectrum of competitors ranged from V12 bolides such as the Ferrari 375 MM to staid small cars such as the Renault 4CV or the Fiat 500, which took part in the well-represented class of up to 750 ccm capacity.

The long-distance drive from Liège to Rome and back went non-stop over a distance of more than 3,500 kilometers.
Source: Bildarchiv Strähle

The participation of the German amateurs in the Mille Miglia was a crazy undertaking. This was also the view taken in Wolfsburg, where managing director Heinrich Nordhoff prohibited all motorsport activities as a general rule, and also did not care much for private race drivers, out of concern for Volkswagen’s conservative image. He had even written once to Paul Strähle senior, a Volkswagen dealer from Schorndorf who had been with the company from the start, asking him to dissuade his son Paul Ernst from racing with his Volkswagen, albeit without success.

A drug for every racing driver

The Strähle father and son team had already won the “Württembergische ADAC Gau-Orientierungsfahrt” race in April 1951, and numerous other races followed in 1952 and 1953, such as the Hessen Winter Rally, the Austrian Alpine Run and the Adriatic Rally in Yugoslavia. Other racing drivers, including later well-known names such as Sepp Greger, followed their example. Amateur racing driver Strähl’s chief goal, however, was to take part in the Mille Miglia, which he described as “a drug for every racing driver.”

But it was not just the Volkswagen GmbH company headquarters that viewed the amateurs’ activities skeptically. When Strähle and Spingler set off for Verona after the training drives before the race in order to have the fourth gear changed at the garage of the local Volkswagen importer Autogerma, Italian Volkswagen head Gerhard Gumpert tried everything to dissuade them from their endeavor: “Gentlemen, you are not doing yourselves any favors by participating. I don’t like it; you will only be able to achieve the lowest ranking here. With such a car, and as foreigners, you will only demonstrate once more that the Volkswagen is a slow car, after all that the tourists have already done to discredit our car by dawdling through the countryside and annoying Italian drivers.” Gumpert even offered to pay for them to have a vacation in Italy, which the two racing drivers adamantly refused. The general importer did not know at the time how meticulously the 1948 Beetle had been prepared for the race.

A new regulation concerning special touring cars meant that, by the early 1950s, it was possible to “pimp up” serial production vehicles, i.e. to modify them technically to such an extent that the wide performance gap between serial production touring cars and pedigree racing cars was closed. In the case of the Volkswagen Type 1, this opened up very special possibilities: since original ex factory Volkswagen engine housings were used for the Porsche 356, it was technically possible to exchange the standard 24 hp 1.1 liter engine for a 65-hp-strong 1300 super aggregate by Porsche. In combination with large Porsche drum brakes and 5-inch-wide tires, body-contoured sports seats, wide beams and additional instruments, the harmless Volkswagen sedan from CCG production became a proper rally car. The maximum speed of 160 kilometers per hour, achieved during test drives, demonstrated both the car’s potential and the daring of its fearless crew.

Alone among racing cars

However, this was found out by the Mille Miglia racing officials, who in turn feared for the success of the Italian Fiats in the special touring car category. Despite having previously issued entry confirmation, they suddenly decided that the engine conversion was non-compliant with the regulations – and allowed no possibility of objection. All the efforts of preparation seemed to have been in vain. But it was now Mercedes racing manager Alfred Neubauer who provided the solution: the Strähle/Spingler team would compete in the sports car category up to 1500 ccm instead. Neubauer’s idea clinched it. Entirely in the spirit of the Olympic principle “taking part is everything,” the Beetle was simply declared a sports car, even though it naturally did not have a sliver of a chance against genuine racing cars such as the Porsche 550 Spyder or OSCA MT4.

Source: Bildarchiv Strähle

Instead of the racing number of 007 that it had originally been issued, the Volkswagen started the race with its new number 347 at the corresponding starting time of 3:47 am. As expected, it was passed from behind by the significantly faster sports cars, but then the weather came to its rescue. Thick fog appeared, and the Swabian duo were able to stick close behind the OSCA driven by Guilo Cabianca. In the thick fog, the OSCA’s rear lights were always clearly in view, while the Italian long-distance specialist was unable to exploit the advantages of his much faster bolide because of poor visibility. When the Beetle reached Siena, its crew was surprised to discover that they were in third place in their class.

The next leg took them over the Raticosa and Futa Pass, before the seemingly endless straight stretches through northern Italy began, from Bologna to Brescia via Modena, Parma and Cremona. In the mountains, the agile Beetle played to its strengths and made up so much time that its lead was maintained on the level stretch as well. And the surprise came off: After 14 hours, 34 minutes and 35 seconds, the Beetle crossed the finish line with Paul Ernst Strähle at the wheel. Their average speed of 109.6 km/h was only 30 km/h below that of overall winner Alberto Ascari in the Lancia D24, at 139.64 km/h. All expectations were more than fulfilled: third place for sports cars up to 1.5 liters and victory in the category up to 1.3 liters were a sensation.  

Volkswagen General Importer Gumpert was no less thrilled about the result than the two successful pilots. All over the nation, people were talking about the scoop performed by the Volkswagen, termed “Maggliolino” in Italian, which had proven itself a David against the fast racing car Goliaths. Success in the race lastingly contributed to creating a positive image of Volkswagen in motorsport-mad Italy. The racing career of the green “Pretzel” Beetle, however, was far from over. It was only after more than 200,000 kilometers, most of which were covered in rallies, that the Swabian car named “Dapferle” was taken off the road.

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