Take 375 classic cars, add the Italian countryside and remove all speed limits. The result? The Mille Miglia. John Simister hits the road

Sir Stirling Moss is relaxing after breakfast in the Palazzo Arzaga, near Brescia, on a significant Friday morning. He's in typically expansive form, and still slightly surprised at the reason he's here. It is this: exactly 50 years ago, he drove single-handedly over 1,000 miles of closed public roads in Italy to win the Mille Miglia road race in record time. A thousand miles, navigated by Motor Sport journalist Denis Jenkinson and a 16ft roll of paper full of navigational notes all sealed in an aluminium box with a window and two rollers.

Sir Stirling Moss is relaxing after breakfast in the Palazzo Arzaga, near Brescia, on a significant Friday morning. He's in typically expansive form, and still slightly surprised at the reason he's here. It is this: exactly 50 years ago, he drove single-handedly over 1,000 miles of closed public roads in Italy to win the Mille Miglia road race in record time. A thousand miles, navigated by Motor Sport journalist Denis Jenkinson and a 16ft roll of paper full of navigational notes all sealed in an aluminium box with a window and two rollers.

No Briton had won this maddest of motor races before. It was an Italian benefit, local knowledge always trumping supernatural skill. But Moss, supernaturally skilled, did it. And Jenks' notes and the sign language they developed deputised for that knowledge base.

Imagine. A 98mph average speed, no barriers, no seatbelts ("Because of the fire risk," says Moss) and non-stop apart from rapid-fire feeding and watering of car and occupants. The car was a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, a mutation of a straight-eight Formula One car that wore race number 722, and half a century on it's ready to race again. Except this time the roads aren't closed. And this time it isn't a race. So say the rules: it's a time-trial, a regularity run, a touristic experience, and dire penalties await those who transgress the traffic laws. So, what happened?

The original Mille, which began in 1927, ran for the last time in 1957 because it was getting too dangerous. Then in 1977 it was revived as a time-trial open to cars that either had competed in the original race or would have been eligible to so so, mainly following the original route from Brescia down Italy's calf and across to Rome, then back up the middle to Brescia again. From 1986 it became an annual event. And now, in 2005, your correspondent is taking part in another Mercedes-Benz, a 300SL Gullwing made in, yes, 1955. Such a car came home fifth in that year, so there's honour at stake.

A regularity run. Sounds tame, doesn't it? There's a modest average speed between en-route checkpoints, with penalties for early arrival. The police are everywhere. But we overlook one vital fact. This is Italy, a country so civilised and in touch with humanity that it trusts its people to take responsibility for themselves. Here, the frontiers of the nanny state are rolled back so far that they're invisible. Those notional penalties are mere window-dressing to fit with a litigious world. We need not worry about them.

Here is the reality. With 375 cars entered, there will be queues at the checkpoints. If there are queues, you need to arrive at them early to be sure of getting the time stamp at the right moment. To arrive early you need to drive like the wind. Do that, and thousands upon thousands of Italians will wave and cheer and encourage you, lining every town square, roundabout, mountain curve and Roman-road.

And speed limits? Forget them; you'll be through villages at 60mph, on main roads at over 100, and the police will be with you all the way as they wave you through red lights, through roundabouts with everyday traffic held back, around bends with double white lines, along the third lane of traffic you have just made.

The roads are open to the public but all the public is involved with the Mille Miglia. Could you imagine it happening here, where you can get three points for doing 34 in a 30 yet a Shropshire policeman can get away with 159mph on the M54 because he had to "test the car"? I test cars every week, and I too have taken a police-standard driving course, but will our nanny state trust me above our torpid, vindictively-enforced limits? Of course not. What fantastic hypocrisy.

That the Mille Miglia can exist at all in a modern Europe is scarcely credible, and every one of those notional 1,000 miles (actually a little less on the current route) is precious. Stirling Moss will run just a short distance this year in his SLR's final Mille before it's retired to the Mercedes-Benz museum, driving off the Brescia start ramp wth a roar and a flourish before handing over to ex-Formula One driver Jochen Mass, but I'm doing the whole route in my Gullwing freshly fettled from Mercedes-Benz's own collection. I'm sharing with Wilfried Steffen, the boss of DaimlerChrysler UK, and our Gullwing is one of 24 entered of these magnificently mad machines with direct-injection, straight-six engines, upwards of 215bhp and a claimed 155mph top speed.

Meeting the 300SL Gullwing, nowadays hugely valuable, is like meeting a high-maintenance film star who turns out to be human beneath the hype. Those insect-wing doors are there because the side sills are so high above the tubular space-frame structure, and I've heard worrying tales of tail-slides and high-speed panic thanks to swing-axle rear suspension and inadequate-sounding drum brakes. But it feels fine as I drive into Brescia for pre-event scrutiny, its engine muscular and deep of voice, its steering heavy but keen to converse, its brakes so far bearable as long as I push the pedal hard.

And here is gathered surely the most fantastic, and probably the most expensive, collection of exotic cars ever seen in one place, and all will shortly be driven with the vim and vigour for which they were designed. Marvellous; cars should be "used", however valuable.

What sort of cars? Bugattis and Bentleys and OMs from the 1920s, Alfas, Singers and Alvises from the 1930s, Ferraris, Maseratis, early Porsches, Lancias, Aston Martins, a gaggle of Jaguars including a C-type and two D-types, and a lot of Mercedes-Benzes through the ages including the 180D diesel saloon that won the diesel class in 1955. France of the 1950s is represented by Panhards and an Autobleu prototype in bare aluminium with a flip-up roof, and there are rarities such as Cisitalias, Siatas, OSCAs, Nardi-Daneses, a German Veritas streamliner and a Spanish Pegaso. A giant Chrysler Saratoga saloon has been entered only after a route recce to make sure it will fit through old towns' archways; it towers over the Isetta bubble cars also taking part. And in among the Alfa Romeo 1900 saloon contingent is a 1955 police version complete with two officers in full regalia.

It's late evening and we - car number 277 - are about to start. Brescia is bursting with people, flags waving, cameras flashing, and the Ferrari Monza before us lets rip a fine volley of exhaust crackles as it squirts off down the ramp and out of the square. Now it's us, and the wall of humanity is unnerving: they lean in, hoping to touch the Benz, and I'm mindful of a rally not long ago in which a works Ford Focus arrived at the service halt with a spectator's finger caught in its bodywork.

Now out of town, we're heading towards Ferrara and the overnight stop (today's Mille Miglia is not a one-hit thrash), and I'm still not believing what I'm seeing. When you're programmed to feel guilty because outside forces may not share your assessment of what is safe, it's as hard to cut loose as it is to feel comfortable with your first maximum-speed run on a limit-free German autobahn. Just how fast, how far, can I go? Faster than I'm going, judging by the exhortations of both crowd and police. They want me to slither the tail, rev the engine, show off a bit, hint at the danger that Stirling Moss regarded as such an important part of racing half a century ago. Ferrara arrives soon enough, via some split-second time trials which have us in a considerable state of stopwatch confusion , and I go to bed both elated and amazed.

The next day is a long thrash to Rome through Ravenna, Rimini and immaculate San Marino, the tiny mountain-top republic that stayed out of Garibaldi's Italian unification. Wilfried is driving as we blaze up the mountain road to the little city, engine roaring, cockpit heat building, arms flailing. A race? It might just as well be. It's my turn to drive as we reach Rome, roaring down to the city feeling heroic and wondering why I can't shake off a white base-model Renault Clio. (The reason is half a century's automotive progress, notably in brakes, and everything is fast downhill.) Again the junctions are staffed by police on foot and Moto Guzzis. And what's this? We're roaring past St Peter's Cathedral, our own unburnt hydrocarbons taking the place of the papal conclave smoke of a few weeks ago. Some may regard fast and dangerous old cars as instruments of the devil, but here in Italy they're next to godliness.

Day three, and from Rome to Buonconvento, south of Siena, I've swapped to a new Mercedes SLR McLaren with a carbonfibre body, a supercharged V8 engine and the ability to breach 200mph. It's a kind of honorary participant, 50 years on from its namesake's win, and what a different world it reveals. Massively quick, it coccoons you rather than pitching you into the action. It's hard to see out of, unlike the glasshouse Gullwing, and its steering has a kind of PlayStation quality divorced from the reality of road forces and feedback. You drive it like a game - a worrying thought, given its pace - but the children in the crowds love it. It's of their generation.

This SLR feels more alive, more real, the faster you go, and today we can go fast in a way you normally cannot. It's a thrill, and it will be a rare one because reality will soon return, but I'm not sorry to be back in the SL for the drive into Siena and through Il Campo, the piazza that's home to the Palio horse race that's as mad in its way as the Mille Miglia. And thence to Florence, followed by a D-type whose exhaust sounds like a stiff cloth being savagely torn, and can you believe we're driving right by the duomo? In a country that has declared the baby Fiat Cinquecento to be virtually a national monument, a posse of mobile artworks from the world's greatest car-creators is close to sacred. In the duomo's cool crypt some stones must surely be vibrating to the crackle of a Ferrari V12 or the seismic explosion of the American Scarab's Traco V8, the noisiest engine in the Mille as well as the most potent.

Now for the most challenging part of the Mille Miglia, the Futa and Raticosa passes. I'm thoroughly plugged into the SL now, its brakes are biting better and have lost their worrying pull to the left, and I've learnt that tight, twisty roads are better taken in third gear, scooting along on the engine's lovely torque, than revving it had in second. The gearbox has only four forward gears and they're widely spaced, so clearly this car is designed with torque in mind.

The road climbs, bend after bend, other cars pulling over to let the alien being from another time flash past. This is hard work, and my forearms are aching, but what a fabulous way to flick round a bend. You point the nose with the steering, then accelerate to bring the tail round with an eagerness you don't get in a modern car. Some would find the SL's mobile tail scary, and I expected to be one of them, but it soon feels the most natural cornering style of all.

Now we're baulked by a slow, Jap- anese-driven Lancia Aurelia convertible. It seems the black-clad biker on its tail is there to shield the Lancia; the two amble along as one and efforts to pass are futile. A police motorcyclist sees my frustration but soon slips by; then, at the next time control when I can finally nip past, the motorcyclist waits then follows me to make sure I don't do anything daft now I'm off the leash.

How daft shouldn't I be? We exit a left-hand hairpin and there's a long, uphill straight lined with cheering fans. Foot to the floor, up to maybe 90mph, police bike clamped to my right rear quarter. He's loving it. Then some more bends, the police bike nips by and, when he sees it's clear round the next bend, beckons me on over the double white lines. And so we continue to Bologna, then on to Modena along the fast, flat plains of Emilia Romagna.

We, and a dozen other cars containing similarly incredulous drivers, are being given a virtual police escort at sometimes over 100mph, and the world is ecstatic. Whole families are out watching, just feet away, old ladies are waving from their garden gates. By the time we get to the square in Brescello, there to receive yet more food and drink proffered through our windows, I'm in love with the world in the way the dehumanising nature of the modern age made me think was no longer possible.

It's the same story through Cremona, as night falls, and finally back at Brescia, exhausted. The next day, at a prizegiving ceremony of great formality and stylishness, I learn we came 291st and the Italian Automobile Club talked of its commitment to "responsible mobility". I like its interpretation of "responsible". Very much indeed.

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