27th Annual California Mille Celebrates Historic Italian Race

Let's face it, many of us rely on the ferry because we just hate to endure that traffic jams and road rage of commuting by car.

Some 70 vintage vehicles will visit San Francisco’s Nob Hill on April 23 for a free car show and preview of the 27th annual California Mille. Photo by Taupier/Hammer

By Paul Duclos

Published: April, 2017


Let’s face it, many of us rely on the ferry because we just hate to endure that traffic jams and road rage of commuting by car. Driving was once considered a rite of passage for young people (if not entirely a birthright for all Californians), but the glamor and romance of the open road is now a thing of the past—with one exception.


One of the premier vintage motoring events in the world, the California Mille, takes place April 24 to 27 on a tour of Northern California. Some 70 vintage vehicles that could have qualified for the Mille Miglia, Italy’s most-famous open-road race, will motor to San Francisco’s Nob Hill on April 23 for a free car show and preview of the 27th annual California Mille.


Ancient Alfa Romeos, pristine Porsches and magnificent Mercedes-Benzes will take their place next to Jaguars, Ferraris, Bentleys and other classics on Mason Street, closed to traffic between Sacramento and California Streets. The public is invited to see the cars and meet the drivers (from 15 states and two entries from Switzerland) on Sunday, April 23 between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m.


At 1:30 p.m. Sunday, California Mille co-directors David and Howard Swig will greet the fans and introduce Italian Consul General Lorenzo Ortona. The Consul General will recall the history of the Mille Miglia that ran from 1927 to 1957, and thank San Franciscans and the California Mille for offering financial relief to victims of recent earthquakes in Italy.


On Monday, April 24, at 8:30 a.m., Consul General Ortona will wave the Italian flag outside the departure arch at Mason and California Streets, officially starting the four-day, 1,000-mile tour (not a race) of northern California time capsule towns and little-known backroads.


The Mille will cross the Golden Gate Bridge and head north toward Highway 1, passing through colorful Marin County towns and villages. At Laguna Elementary School on Chileno Road, the entire student body (all 16 kids and principal Cindy Demchuk) will greet the Mille by waving paper Italian flags and shouting “benvenuto”—or something similar. The first day of the drive will end in Healdsburg.


On Tuesday, April 25, the Mille will drive to Cloverdale, Lakeport, Boonville, Elk and north, logging 191 miles before spending the night in Little River.


The California Mille was founded in 1991 as an annual event. Originally recognized by the Mille Miglia organization in Brescia, it is held each Spring like the original Mille Miglia, starting on the last Sunday in April.


The California Mille got its start when John Lamm of Road & Track and Martin Swig went to the 1982 Mille Miglia in Brescia, Italy with Swig’s 1955 Alfa Romeo 1900 Zagato.


They were the only Americans there. Lamm did an article about the event in Road & Track, and Americans discovered the Mille Miglia. Swig proceeded to return each year in various Alfas. Then in 1990, Swig had a chance dinner with a group including the late Gil Nickel.


Nickel suggested that they start a California event, warning that if they didn’t, someone else might, and they might not like their style. On returning to San Francisco, Martin’s first call was to longtime friend and fellow Alfa Romeo collector, the late Ken Shaff. Shaff’s helped plan the event, and his concept of size and structure have been a key element of its success. Shaff always insisted on keeping it small—about 70 cars. In the early days, he did a lot of route selection, exploring endless backroads. Unfortunately, Shaff passed away a few years ago and his shoes have never been filled.


The first California Mille, which was recognized by the Brescia group and sponsored by Alfa Romeo, was run in October 1991. About 50 cars participated. During the 1980s, as Swig ran in the Italian Mille, he couldn’t help but compare it with an imaginary California event.


At first, Swig didn’t know exactly where to start his event. But after a few years, he discovered that the Fairmont Hotel, on Nob Hill in San Francisco, wanted to host them. Furthermore, the hotel was willing to let the event close the block in front of the hotel—and generously put up with inconvenience in receiving guests. And Nob Hill residents have welcomed the event in spite of the noise and traffic disruption. By now, the event has become a city institution.


Follow Paul Duclos’ Cultural Currents online with his blog at: paulduclosonsanfranciscoculture.blogspot.com