Of all the events I have attended in the course of 50 years, my favourite must be the Targa Florio, the rugged road race in Sicily. And one of my all-time heroes is Vic Elford, the winner in 1968 despite an 18-minute delay with a wobbly wheel on his Porsche 907.
The event was created by Vincenzo Florio in 1906, comprising three laps, each 146 kilometres in length taking in the tortuous mountain roads in the southern part of the island, starting and finishing in Palermo. It was won by Alessandro Cagno who drove his 40 horsepower Itala single-handed for nine and a half hours, averaging just 46.8 km/h. Six years later the course was extended to a single lap around the entire island, a distance of 979 kilometres, and this was won by a Yorkshire man, Cyril Snipe, who completed the distance in 24 and a half hours at an average of 41.4 km/h, driving an Italian SCAT touring car.
There were evolutions to the course, which was reduced to 108 kilometres in 1919, covered four times by winner AndréBoillot in a Peugeot, now averaging 55 km/h. Mercedes recorded their first victory in 1922, the second in 1924, and from there on Bugatti and Alfa Romeo were regular winners in the prewar years.
The first postwar race in 1948 went to the new marque, Ferrari, the 166S raced by Clemente Biondetti on a 1,080 kilometre course around the island. For good measure he won it again the following year in a 166 SC. Then, in 1951, the course was reduced to eight laps of a 72 kilometre Piccolo circuit, starting in Cerda on the Mediterranean coast and going straight into the hills to Caltavuturo, Collesano at an altitude of 600 metres, to Campofelice then down to the Buonfornello straight, along the sea-front, back to Cerda. It was won by Franco Cortese in a Frazer Nash, a success much celebrated in Isleworth, south London, where the specialist sports cars were made by the Aldington family at their AFN works.
Stirling Moss had a remarkable year in 1955, driving for the Mercedes factory team. On the first day of May he won the Mille Miglia 1,000 mile sportscar race in a 300SLR co-piloted by Denis Jenkinson, the Motor Sport writer, at a shade under 100 mph average. He won the British Grand Prix in July, at Aintree, his first Grande Epreuve success, in a W196, narrowly beating Juan Manuel Fangio, and to complete the season he won the Targa Florio in October, sharing the 300SLR with Peter Collins. The course was extended to 13 laps, 936 kilometres, and the two British aces averaged 96.29 km/h, just short of 60 mph.
Umberto Maglioli, already established as Ferrari Grand Prix driver, was invited to drive a Porsche 550 sports-racing car in the Targa Florio in 1956. Huschke von Hanstein, Porsche’s competitions manager, had listed himself as co-driver but was curiously absent during the practice sessions, out on the course taking photographs, so Maglioli drove the 10 laps single-handed, nearly eight hours at the wheel, finishing a quarter of an hour ahead of Luigi Villoresi in an OSCA, further ahead of Piero Taruffi in a Maserati and Olivier Gedebien in a Ferrari. It was a significant success for Porsche, the first of 11 victories in Sicily. To commemorate these victories Porsche named a special version of the 911, a model with a detachable roof, the Targa.
At a different level, maybe, Vic Elford’s golden year in 1968 may have surpassed Stirling Moss’s notable successes of 1955. He started the year by winning the Monte Carlo Rally in a Porsche 911, co-driven by David Stone, taking more than a minute off the Alpine Renault of Gerard Larrousse on a critical snow-covered section, hitting 120 mph in fifth gear on an icy downhill stretch. “I had never stretched myself, particularly my nerves, to such an extent before” he said afterwards.