The Way of the Shield of Vincenzo Florio

It’s a Long Way to Collesano

Written by Len Frank in 1987, and previously unpublished to our knowledge.

I can see it still, as clearly as if it were in front of my eyes: it’s a photo of Nino Vacarella, the hero of Sicily, coming at me in a squat red Ferrari prototype, probably a 275 P2, exiting a downhill left hander. Behind him is a stone wall, maybe a house, with a bunch of the locals standing behind the bales protecting the curb at its base. They are waving. On the wall it says, “VV Nino.” I can’t find the photo. There’s a better than even chance that it doesn’t exist.

We were there, a few of us, in Sicily, ostensibly to drive Volvo 740s with the new DOHC sixteen valve engine. In Europe, the engine is used in the 740 Turbo chassis (for the US, for some reason, it’s in the mid-luxo GLE). The 16V Volvo has about the same horsepower (159), as the Turbo (160) and better torque than the standard SOHC 8-valver. Volvo, of course, had nothing to do with the Targa Florio in the old days, but at least they had the style to provide us with red cars. I mention this, the 16V 740T, to let you know that we were there in very competent automobiles. All this effort to drive around an old road through small mountain towns. But you should see that road.

All the reading in the world, all of the pictures for that matter, are just not interchangeable with the real thing—they can barely be preparation for reality. I had read hundreds of pages about the Nurburgring, thousands about Indianapolis before I actually saw them. And I was unprepared. I had read reams about the Targa too.

The Targa course, that old road through small mountain towns, a delight on a bright day during a wet spring, green fields, wildflowers, a nice ride in the country at nice-ride speeds, turns into a malevolent son-of-a-bitch at anything above “brisk.”

We took turns driving the red Volvos through the mountains with varying degrees of skill, focusing on different things—the local architecture, the locals themselves (who still look like, well, natives—people from a travelogue), what we took to be the few remaining artifacts from the last Targa Florios. The last Targa, the last of the great open road races, the last active connection with the beginnings of the automobile and the beginnings of automobile racing (I almost said “road racing”—what takes place off of roads is less and less racing and more and more show business. But, I guess, better than nothing.), was run in 1973.

The first Targa Florio, was run on the fifth of May, 1906, three years before the oval at Indianapolis was built, five years before the first Indy 500. Not to take anything away from Indianapolis, but Indy has 800 turns per 500 mile race: that first Targa had thousands in only three laps, 276 miles, of the Grande Circuito Madonie. The average speed was less than half that at Indy.

The first few races were run on the Grande Madonie, then to one lap of Sicily (651 miles), then to the Medio Circuito Madonie (67 miles to a lap, four laps, sometimes five) Then back to the Grande Circuito, then to the Piccolo in 1932. The constant was the Madonie range. If you live in the western US you have seen them before—not the Rockies—but the arid, rocky, high hills tending toward mountains, hills not covered with rich dirt but eroded, spined, sharp, hard. The Greeks, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Mussolini Italians, the Germans, the Americans, have all had their innings with Sicily and those mountains, and after three thousand or so years, the mountains, at least, remain largely unchanged.

We were lucky to have been there after considerable rain (there were still amazing cloud displays alternating with brilliant sunlight) and so the lush grass, the flowers, which like those in eastern California, will be only a brown memory by summer. Sicily is still the poor outback of Italy. The Mafia is not a joke there, just a fact of life, like sheep on the highways and four-dollar-a-gallon gasoline. Palermo is the big city, complete with an unfinished monument to the judge who chose to oppose la Cosa Nostra (he was assassinated), traffic jams, motor scooters, transistors-on-young-shoulders, unemployment, unfinished buildings, a little amusement park, rich street life.

After WWII, the Targa was held on a circuit of the whole island, one lap, 669 miles. That lasted from 1948 through 1950.The Ferrari appeared, Maserati pretty much disappeared, as had Bugatti years before. In 1951, the race was moved back to the Piccolo (small) circuit. Although the length of the race varied (as long as 14 laps—625 miles), from 1951 until the end, 1973, it stayed there on the Piccolo circuit.

Palermo is on the north coast of Sicily looking out on the Tyrrhenian Sea. And from there, from the Jolly Hotel (big motorsports sponsors) at the seaside, once clear of the traffic, to the Piccolo Madonie Circuito takes the better part of an hour by bus. The start/finish has the look of a movie set. Somebody is building what we all guessed might be a motel, but with an inspection ramp, or perhaps starting ramp (the cars were started one at a time at short intervals) attached. Across the street was an observation tower. The whole—both buildings, walls, sign-boards, are plastered with AGIP ads, Alfa-Romeo’s snake-and-cross, the Lancia shield. It all looked unrealistically good until someone remembered that, like the revival of the Mille Miglia as a classic rally, the (play) Targa is back.

The road is never generous, never very wide. It is full of ups and downs, of blind turns, of precipitous drops that make you want to hug the inside no matter what the line through the turn. Except that the inside has sharp outcroppings that will tear the suspension off if you’re too close. The road is on a stingy ledge carved out of rock, sometimes crumbling rock, that follows exactly the contours of the mountains. You can see the difference: in the US, when the same conditions are encountered, we find some way to connect all of the points, all of the apices, with a straight line. It means prodigious road building, amazing feats of bridge building, but it allows drivers with no skill and cars with lousy handling to develop at will.

At one point we were entering Collesano, coming into an acute downhill left when I almost lost it. I should have been attentive to the “line,” or at least looking out for Fiat Topolinos and other pedestrians, but what I was doing was looking up and right and turning down and left. High up on the wall to the right was the “VV Nino” sign—no bales, no locals (For that matter, no Nino—he had been at the party the night before. Nino Vaccarella, now operates a private school in Palermo, but he had a long and successful career in Formula 1 and big time sports car racing—twice winner of the Targa—with Ferrari, Alfa, Maserati, Matra, a GT-40.), but it had to be the spot in my phantom photo.

Certainly the incongruity was part of it, but I parked the red Volvo in about the same spot I remembered (?) Vaccarella’s red Ferrari, and got out to take some pictures. A local showed up, walked right into the picture just like he owned the place, which thanks to fifty words of basic Italian on our collective parts, eight words of English on his part, and lots of international sign language, we later discovered he did. He was the local garage man (“Arcara Antonino, Officina Meccanica” his card says), though the only sign in evidence on his garage was the “VV Nino”, as it turns out, just below his daughter’s window. The family, of course, lived above the garage, and soon mama and daughter were smiling and waving, we were all smiling and waving, gesturing and grinning. There was the local wine and the local cheese, and would we like to see the spot where Nino actually hit the curb? Would we like to see a real racing car? We could hardly wait.

What he had tucked away there was a ’72 911S with fuel injection—didn’t drive it much–but from dead cold he was willing to rev it to 7500 or so just to show us. One has to admire his enthusiasm if not his daughter, the local wine, or his mechanical judgement. In the back of the garage—I’m sure it had once been a stable—was a Renault Dauphine with Alfa Romeo badges on it, and next door, a Moto Guzzi LeMans, the latter for sale. He went through the same rev-from-cold demonstration with the motorcycle. It needs rescuing.

From Caltavuturo at the southern (high) end of the course through Collesano down to Campofelice (low), back around to Cerda on the way back up, the road is unforgiving. There is only one straight. It runs about half the distance from Campofelice to Cerda, but though the surface is good, i.e. no great potholes, it has enough surface irregularity to badly handicap any really fast car. Any team manager foolish enough to gear his Porsche 908, Alfa 33TT3, or Ferrari 330P3 to reach its terminal velocity would have been a strong candidate for another line of work.

In 1973, when speeds at LeMans had risen to 138 mph for 24 hours, the Targa-winning Porsche 911RSR (which finished 4th at LeMans a month later) averaged 71 mph. In fairness, the year before, the winning Ferrari had averaged nearly 76 mph. No nonsense about the time you averaged 10 mph faster than that from Reno to Las Vegas. You should see the road from Campofelice to Cerda to Caltavuturo to Collesano—there are reverse camber hairpins, switchbacks with no descernible rhythms, arm-wearying S after S after S. All the while, the road plunges and climbs, egg-sized rocks drop from sheer cuts onto the road surface forcing your car wide toward the edge. No Armco here. Sheep graze and spill over onto the road in places. Gnarled oaks, twisted fruit trees warn drivers off of the soft meadows where the grass hides wheel-wrecking, suspension-smashing rocks. It’s not a forgiving place. You should see that road.

Across the street from the Jolly was an amusement park with karts on a kidney-shaped board track. We, the collected journalists monopolized it for an hour or so, running into one another and getting silly. Small balm for the Targa road less than an hour away.


Top image: Nino Vaccarella driving a Ferrari 275 P2 at the 1965 Targa Florio Collesano (dry brush illustration from an unknown photographer’s image in the public domain)

Len Frank
Len Frank

The late Len Frank was the legendary co-host of “The Car Show”—the first and longest-running automotive broadcast program on the airwaves. Len was also a highly regarded journalist, having served in editorial roles with Motor TrendSports Car GraphicPopular Mechanics, and a number of other publications. LA Car is proud to once again host “Look Down the Road – The Writings of Len Frank” within its pages. Special thanks to another long-time automotive journalist, Matt Stone, who has been serving as the curator of Len Frank’s archives since his passing in 1996. Now, you’ll be able to view them all in one location under the simple search term “Len Frank”, or just click this link: Look Down The Road. – Roy Nakano

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