Italian Job description

Why would 200 people from as far apart as Arizona and Japan choose to drive more than 2,000 miles across Europe in ancient cars barely more powerful than lawn-mowers? Michael Booth joins them to find out

You don't get many moments of poetry in a 12-year-old Mini City (sciatica yes, poetry no), but I think this was one. For the seven hours since heading north from a breakfast reception at BMW's headquarters in Munich, we and our shabby biscuit tin had been gambling with our lives in Wagnerian rain and winds on the autobahne of Germany. As we aquaplaned in and out of towering juggernauts to avoid the wrath of corpulent Mercedes flashing us out of their way, the tidal waves thrown up by German industry on the move swamped the Mini's electrics and my shoes; we were forced to stop and bail out on the hard shoulder three times. I was feeling cold, tired and emotional.

Then, seemingly in an instant, the sky ahead brightened. As we crossed the Rhine, the oceanic downpour softened and a watery light flooded the car's interior. David Bowie's urban warble wafted from the stereo: "For heeere ... Am I. Sitting in my tin can," and in the far distance I watched a jet fighter enter an almost vertical climb and then arc, comet-like across the crisp horizon.

For eight days I had been searching for an answer to why over 200 people from as far away as Arizona and Japan would want to drive more than 2,000 miles across Europe in ancient and minuscule cars barely more powerful than lawn-mowers. Now I had my answer: sheer, wilful insanity.

The event was The Italian Job, a charity fund-raising jaunt across Europe from Brighton to the Trentino region of northern Italy and back. Over 100 types of Minis take part every year, though any car from the film is eligible. The Job, as it is known, was dreamed up as an alternative to the Beaujolais run in 1990 by PR executive Frederick St George (Freddie to all), a Ben Elton-lookalike from Brighton, and his petite, chain-smoking Italian mother Guilia. As fans of both the film and Minis, it seemed only natural to use the 1969 Michael Caine heist movie (in which three Mini Coopers turn the streets of Turin into a Whitehall farce liberating gold bullion), as the basis for the event. And, over seven years, it has become a spectacular success raising more than half a million pounds for children's charities, principally the NSPCC and SOS Kinderhof, across Europe.

(Quibblers at this point will contest that, in the movie, Michael Caine, Benny Hill, et al, go nowhere near Trentino, but that's why quibblers never get invited anywhere.)

We were flagged off from Brighton seafront on a stormy Hallowe'en night by John Cooper, the man who first took Minis racing back in 1961. Cooper has supported The Job since the start, and before we left for Newhaven I asked him an unforgivably dull question that he must have heard a thousand times before: "What is the enduring appeal of the Mini?" "They are just such fun, it will always be a great design, they are practical but handle like a sports car. Just such fun," he beamed, obviously still thrilled by the car's success.

Freddie had arranged for me to drive with the event's official photographer, Keith Ballard, who together with his trusty red Mini City has taken part every year since 1990 (with a different co-driver each time). Keith, 40, would be the first to admit that he and I have little in common (a fact that would be brought home over 2,000 - occasionally fraught - miles), except for one extraordinary coincidence - Keith used to live in a house in Burgess Hill, just round the corner from me. He still lives there with his father.

The Italian Job doesn't start on its prescribed route until the cars reach Trento, between Lake Garda and the Dolomites. So, as we reached the first roundabout, dozens of Minis sped off into the Normandy night, all in different directions like sparks from a Catherine wheel. We drove for a solid 16 hours on Friday (any hopes of comfort were abandoned early on when I asked how to adjust the seat. "You don't", said Keith with a sadistic glint), and made it safely to a grotty guest-house just outside Strasbourg.

The next day didn't go quite as planned, and after several hours in stagnant traffic round Lake Como, we bedded down in Brescia. Keith had, with some justification, lost all confidence in my map reading. "Well, this is probably as good a road as any," he muttered, fingernails dug deep into the steering wheel. Meanwhile, I was finding out just how uncomfortable Minis can be. Autocar may have voted it Car of the Century, but an amoeba would complain of lack of space. My left knee was at just the right height to knock against the window winder with every bounce of the suspension (designed, I decided, by Zebedee from The Magic Roundabout) while Keith punched my right knee with each gear change. I gazed with gloomy envy at other, more orthopaedically sensitive cars.

Keith's route took us through the Splugen Pass, a series of over a hundred hairpins based on the layout of someone's intestines. Keith drove the whole pass grinning ear to ear (at one point he took his glasses off mid- bend, which I could have done without) while I sat in perpetual fear, my face fixed for the entirety in the kind of grimace you make when you know you are about to be slapped. At its peak, the Swiss border guard's incredulity - "You are going all the way to Italy in zis leedle car?" - momentarily quashed our spirits, but as we plummeted down the other side of the Alps, snow-capped and razor sharp like a set of shark's teeth, our optimism rose. We even completed our first successful overtaking manoeuvre - an electric invalid car, downhill.

We were later overtaken by a Ferrari F50, a wanton race car muzzled for the road, which light-speeded past us on the autostrada. Keith shrieked with excitement as if about to explode, and I must admit my follicles stood to attention too. Enzo Ferrari loved Minis and owned several Coopers. His chief designer, Aurelio Lampredi, was also an admirer: "If it were not for the fact that it is so ugly, I would shoot myself," he said after driving a prototype.

We made it to the Grand Hotel in Trento. Outside, 100 Minis huddled in the car-park, as their owners (some dressed in full racing-suits!) polished 1,000 miles of grime from cheeky grills. Stuart Cassidy, an Italian Job veteran from Stranraer, had already had problems. "We had a small brake fire," he told me nonchalantly. How fast were you going? "You don't want to know. We were coming down a mountain. We've had an intermittent fault - the left calliper has been there, then it hasn't. Coming down the mountain it wasn't. We had to stop and throw some water over it. It's par for the course."

Ichiro and Kenji, the Japanese team, arrived in a chubby red and black Cooper S, arguably the most sought after Mini. Ichiro conformed marvellously to his national stereotype, viewing the entire event through a camera lens; but their endless good humour ensured their popularity with all.

A turbo-charged 1400cc demon was driven by Darren Stewart, a 22-year- old car valet from Middlesbrough. All flared arches, lowered suspension and garish paint, and capable of over 125mph, "If you're givin' it big licks," said Darren, grinning. (I can testify to this having seen its tail lights disappear into the distance on many instances as we chugged along at Keith's self-imposed 60mph limit.) Lord knows what it will do when Darren fits nitrous oxide injection, but it didn't impress the originality police. "This woman was driving past and said: `Oooh, look! It's got the same front badge as ours'," he told me, still bemused, "and came running over to the car and said: `Oh. It's not a proper Cooper S. That number plate is wrong, the wheels are wrong, it's too low. If anyone asks, I wouldn't say it was a Cooper S.' As if anyone could think my car were original!"

The next two days in Trentino were taken up with the regularity event - a mixture of orienteering and a relaxed form of motor sport in which we had to drive at an average of 18mph over several hundred miles. We visited 12 vineyards and cantinas on the way to collect bottles of wine - the "booty". Needless to say, with me driving (Keith had taken over the map reading duties following the Lake Como farrago) we soon fell down the leader board. Overnight we were placed 45th. "I'd rather hoped we'd be higher than that," said Keith dejectedly. I thought we'd done well, I was nursing a monstrous hangover after being forced to stay drinking in the bar the previous night.

Our brakes had been a constant worry as they either didn't work at all, or juddered violently and then didn't work at all. Keith assured me that this was normal. On the second day of the regularity run we were engulfed by choking smoke. We stopped, opened the bonnet and stood like the Beverly Hillbillies watching oil gush from the side of the engine. Keith thought it best to pretend not to have noticed and plough on, and the smoke stopped. A greater source of tension, though, was the music played in the car. Our tastes met at no point and I was forced to hide his Gary Moore tape just before Switzerland. I don't doubt he found my choices an endurance, too, at any speed over 30mph Suede on his sound system sounded like alley cats rutting.

Trento at least was peaceful. Perched on the western edge of the Dolomites, it is a divinely elegant town. At its centre the Piazza Duomo is probably one of the prettiest in Italy, surrounded by medieval buildings decorated with faded renaissance frescos. At this time of year Trentino's mountainous scenery is clothed in a rich shawl of browns, golds and yellows as the vine leaves change colour, weaving with the green pines on the mountainsides to form an intricate tweedy plumage. Quite what the exquisitely tailored and rather aloof locals made of our bunch of gaudy, loud toy cars I shudder to think.

We assembled each morning in the Piazza Dante beside the hotel, horns blaring (or in our case, parping) and lights blazing. On one occasion we even had a raucous police escort. (I suspect that police escorts, rather like cowboy boots, are one of those things that feel more cool than they actually appear to non-participants, but for many Jobbers these rowdy convoys are what the event is all about. They - okay, and me - never seemed to tire of beeping, flashing and waving at each other.)

On the second regularity day, when the rain began, I caught up with one of the three all-female teams to ask them some more of my obvious questions. "Yes of course they are chauvinistic," Maggie from Whitstable told me, "but I don't mind, it's great fun. We neither of us know much about mechanics but we both have short skirts!" Maggie took part in her first Italian Job two years ago with her (now ex-) husband. "I come to have fun and enjoy the company of a wide range of people - we've got everyone from about 18 to re-tirement age - from around the world."

The morning after a sumptuous farewell banquet at the hotel we made our way to Munich, via one of the SOS Kinderhof's villages near Innsbruck. There Freddie presented a cheque and the competitors had a ball showing the excited children their cars. In Munich we stayed at an especially grim hotel so, the following night when we arrived at the more luxurious Hotel Dorint beside the infamous Nurburgring racetrack, near Bonn, I was frazzled. I gobbled down the complimentary sweets left on my pillow and headed for the bar. The sweets turned out to be sedatives and after a few beers my head was nodding like an especially affirmative donkey's. Consequently, I missed the traditional, and riotous, screening of The Italian Job as well as the engagement of two competitors, Lindsay Haynes and Sharon Taylor, who were competing in Lindsay's amazing 14ft Mini limousine.

The next morning, I hitched a ride around the 14-mile circuit with Kingsley and Tim, from Newbury. Grand Prix racing stopped at the 'Ring in 1976 shortly after Niki Lauda's near fatal accident, but is open for the public to lap in any vehicle, at any speed, for DM16 (pounds 7). Kingsley has Castrol running through his veins so I felt reasonably calm in his MKII Cooper, until he mounted the kerb onto the grass, deliberately, "just so I can say I left the track at the Nurburgring," he hollered.

I was pumped full of more drugs (for travel sickness) than Janis Joplin as we boarded the ferry at Dieppe, but still felt sick when we docked. (And there was an awards dinner in Brighton yet to come.) I also felt a strong sense of anti-climax. Norris McWhirter, at least, should have been there to welcome this exhausted band of brave adventurers.

I asked the driver of the Italian team if he could imagine 100 Fiat Punto owners driving to London from Rome. "Ah, no," he laughed, "They have not the mad in the head!" He has a point. The Italian Job could only be British. Its lunatic combination of foolhardy endurance, comedy cars (sorry everyone) and charity fund-raising is, as far as I know, unique to these isles.

In the midst of a particularly hairy hairpin, I had made a Faustian pledge never to set foot in a Mini again. But, writing this a day or so later, I am beginning to have second thoughts; I can understand why people return year after year for the camaraderie, the adventure, the epic scenery and, of course, the free-flowing wine. Almost without exception everyone said they would be back again next autumn. All except Keith, that is. Keith says this is definitely his last Italian Job. But then he says that every year.

! For more information on The Italian Job contact Freddie or Guilia St George on 01273 418100. Next year's event is provisionally set for 30 October. Entry is expected to cost pounds 400 per car plus pounds 200 hotel fees. You cover hotel costs en route to Italy, petrol, and breakdown insurance.

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