Discover a uniquely Italian form of nostalgia on the Coppa Franco Mazzotti – a classic car rally from Brescia to Lake Garda.

A red 1950s Austin-Healey on a tree-lined gravel road
A 1950s Austin-Healey - just one of the entrants in the Coppa Franco Mazzotti

With that dramatic flourish of a gauntlet that Italian traffic police are so skilled at delivering, the motorbike rider commands a line of cars to pull aside. Following the flicker of his blue lights and the howl of his sirens, a more colourful convoy joins him in overtaking – a roaring, buzzing, honking, smoking assortment of classic cars. Vivid emotions are expressed on the faces of the commuters whose drive home from work has been briefly delayed, followed by gesticulations – not of frustration or anger, but surprise and happiness. In a sleepy village at the border of the Lombardy and Veneto regions, a warm welcome is given to this wave of nostalgia that has come barrelling through.

Our cartoonish group had set out from Brescia, also the starting point of the world’s most famous road race, the Mille Miglia (1,000 Miles). The race ran in its original, wildly dangerous form between 1927 and 1957, fixing an excitement for cars in the DNA of the city and its surrounding area. The course carried a motley assortment of competing vehicles – from tiny family saloons to viciously powerful experimental racers – from Brescia to Rome and back, coping with hazards that included five million spectators and the occasional stray donkey. In 1957 the Mille Miglia saw its 56th fatality and was outlawed. It was reborn 20 years later, continuing to this day as a highly exclusive, carefully marshalled parade of classic cars that would have been eligible for the original race.

As a long-standing fan of the heritage and many quirks of classic cars, I’m fulfilling a dream by joining the Mille Miglia’s far more accessible sister event: the Coppa Franco Mazzotti. Named after a local count who was a founder of the Mille Miglia, it is open to a more accessible mix of cars, and covers a less frantic first 200 miles of the Mille Miglia’s route.

The range of cars taking part stretches from a humble Fiat 600 to a wildly exotic Mercedes 300SL Gullwing. One is the humble little gnocchi-on-wheels that gave so many Italian families their first taste of motorised personal transport, the other a Flash Gordon spaceship of a supercar that was favoured by Hollywood A-listers through the 1950s. Their charisma is closely matched.

Blue and red classic cars parked at the Mille Miglia Museum
Competitors gather at the Mille Miglia Museum in Brescia, including a light blue Fiat 600 runabout © Peter Grunert/Lonely Planet

Our assortment of 168 classic cars had set out at dawn from the dusty courtyard of the Mille Miglia Museum in Brescia. We wound through graffiti-spattered suburbs, then among hilltop villages guarded by medieval fortifications and the vineyards of the little-visited Franciacorta wine region, taking in some of the happiest of rural Italian clichés along the way: waving nuns; pelotons of middle-aged men in Lycra on expensive bicycles; and grandparents with their grandkids leaning from terracotta-coloured roadside houses to cheer us along.

With our passage eased by the Polizia Stradale, we now cruise into the back roads of the Lombard Plain. I take my time to become accustomed to the heavy brakes, woolly steering and occasionally crunching gearshift that are period characteristics of the beautiful British convertible I’ve been entrusted with, a 1955 AC Ace. The car’s chaperone and co-driver, Paolo Pedersoli, shouts encouragement. ‘You see, these aren’t being reacted to as stinking old cars,’ he says. ‘The people watching this event will be thinking of the cars their grandparents drove. The car industry in Italy has had such a big impact on life here. After World War II, just as in America, the wider introduction of cars symbolised a form of freedom – it pointed the way for many people to be able to explore beyond their immediate neighbourhood for the first time, and a new way of expressing themselves.’

Also participating is Steffen Wirth, in a swoopy grey Saab 93A. ‘I spent four years searching for the cheapest car I could find that would be eligible for entering the Mille Miglia,’ he says. ‘I found this ’57 Saab in Denmark.’ Steffen is enjoying his first classic-car event with his 21-year-old daughter Luka. The absence of sharp gradients on the country roads of Lombardy and the accommodating attitudes of locals make the Coppa Franco Mazzotti an ideal event for novices.

A German-registered Saab 93A leads a trio of cars
A Saab 93A driven by father and daughter Steffen and Luka Wirth © Peter Grunert/Lonely Planet

The route also covers an impressive variety of scheduled stops for snacking, at venues that include a castle, an equestrian estate, a winery, a sports ground, an airbase and the Mazzotti family’s immense Neoclassical villa. Here, treats including wheels of parmesan, hog roasts and vats of tiramisu await – a challenge for co-drivers to keep down while reading complex navigational instructions.

In a quest for fresh air we choose to run the car without a roof or even side windows. The scents of the countryside flood in: newly ploughed soil, fertiliser, the exhaust fug of cars built long before emissions regulations were thought of. I gain confidence in the AC’s 63-year-old controls, making good progress until a group of farm labourers start shouting at us – they’ve paused in the olive harvest to explain that we’ve taken a turn down a dead-end lane.

A white-capped policeman controls the traffic in Montichiari
A traffic stop in the town of Montichiari © Peter Grunert/Lonely Planet

Another unplanned halt occurs at the grand central piazza in the town of Montichiari, where a stern policeman orders us to observe the passing of a parade of military veterans. Once they’re through – brass band parping off into the distance – he leans in and confides: ‘I couldn’t imagine a lovelier car than this one.’ A little further on, a wedding party spills from a church and our route is again blocked. Someone shouts that I should give a loud rev of the engine and wish the newlyweds luck – a wedding gift happily delivered.

Looking around the Coppa Franco Mazzotti’s other drivers, I see a mix of men and women, young and old, Dutch, German, American, British and Italian; the overwhelming majority is local. Among them is Paolo Sabbadini, whose uncle, Flaminio Valseriati, took part in the Mille Miglia 20 times, winning twice. ‘In all of Italy, there’s no city with a greater love of cars than Brescia,’ Paolo says. ‘As a boy, the night before the Mille Miglia, I could never sleep. I got my passion for events like that and the Coppa Franco Mazzotti from my uncle – you wouldn’t have seen me in school on the day of a race!’

A palm in front of an orange-painted house in the town of Sirmione
The town of Sirmione on Lake Garda © Peter Grunert/Lonely Planet

The Coppa Franco Mazzotti winds towards a close as it reaches Sirmione, the prettiest village at the edge of Lake Garda, the biggest of the Italian lakes. With its thermal spas, grand castle and sweeping views over pantiled roofs, Sirmione is one of the most visited destinations in the area. Soon enough, a crowd starts waggling selfie sticks and heaped cones of gelato around our cars. I feel relief that this is the greatest peril our rare survivor of an AC has faced in my time with it.

The most cheerful welcome comes from a smiling, shrieking group of Italian children, and I wonder what recreations of these strange classic cars they’re likely to build from Lego over the coming days. Throughout their lifetimes they’ll see great advances in the cars they drive, which will become progressively cleaner, quieter and safer – to the point they won’t even need a human driver. But will they ever have such soul?

Taking photographs by the pines in Sirmione
Pausing in the town of Sirmione © Peter Grunert/Lonely Planet

Follow the Coppa Franco Mazzotti

The Mille Miglia is typically run in May and the Coppa Franco Mazzotti in October. Both are incredibly atmospheric to watch, or to compete in. The Mille Miglia Museum and Sirmione are ideal bases for spectators, but check the final route with the organisers. The nearest airports to Brescia are Verona and Bergamo-Orio al Serio, which both serve a variety of European destinations. Milan has a wider choice of long-haul flights.

A range of cars built before 1981 are eligible to join the Coppa Franco Mazzotti. The event includes competing in short regularity stages, where competitors try to cover a set distance in a precise time at legal speeds.

For owners of the more valuable cars taking part in the Mille Miglia and Coppa Franco Mazzotti, the (considerable) investment in event support can be worthwhile. Scuderia Classiche supplied the AC Ace we drove.

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