The Italian Job: Nice work if you can get it
Ten days of driving through Italy reliving scenes from a classic Michael Caine crime caper was fantastic fun and at, £1,200 per person, a genuine steal, writes Geoff Hill
ALWAYS wanted to star in a remake of The Italian Job, except without ending up in a coach hanging off a cliff?
Well, now’s your chance, for I’m just back from a charity run of the same name which, since it started in 1990 with 56 teams driving everything from Minis to Lamborghinis from the UK to Rome and back, has raised £2.4 million for children’s charities.
Even from the start, it was a hoot, as co-driver Peter Murtagh and I arrived in Rome to find 25 Minis old and new ready to go, among them the immaculate 20-year-old red model of Londoners Bill and Linda Handley.
“This is our ninth time, and at first we thought it was just going to be a bunch of Mini nerds, but they’re actually the nicest people on Earth,” said Bill, who turned out to be a remarkable character: an ex-undercover cop-turned corporate events organiser who as well as the Mini owned a Range Rover, a powder blue Rolls Royce and a yacht. As you do.
Having said that, we did overhear the occasional nerdish conversation.
“Here, is that paint finish vermilion or cinnabar?”
“I think you’ll find it’s 1275 GT Red, my son.”
As for us, we were in a brand new Mini Cooper D, which was not only a treat to drive from the word go, with a silky clutch, six-speed gearbox and punchy acceleration, funky and stylish interior and engine so smooth it was three days before we realised it was a diesel.
Very economical as well, averaging 62 mpg.
And so, we were off, driving in convoy past the Colosseum, the Vatican and through the streets with a police escort, honking and waving flags as happy Italians laughed and waved back.
Maybe they’re just like that all the time, but either way, it was like being at the Pope’s wedding.
The next morning, we set off armed with a road book similar to the ones used by rally drivers to show where to go at each junction.
Being blokes, we used the alternative Follow the Mini in Front method, which worked well until it took a wrong turning, as a result of which we got lost 4,589 times on the way to Ostia, the site of the second largest and best preserved Roman town in Italy behind Pompeii.
Wondering vaguely why the Romans only ever built ruins, we then crowned that performance by getting lost again on the one-mile journey to lunch.
After driving up and down the same road by my estimation 4,587 times trying to find the point at which we should turn left at the tree, made slightly more tricky by the fact that it was a road through a forest, we gave up and took the blokes’ last resort, stopping at a garage to ask for directions.
As I was emerging more confused than when I’d gone in, my phone rang. It was Freddie St George, the organiser.
“Geoff! Where are you?” he said cheerily.
“Somewhere in Italy, Freddie. Or more specifically, at the Agip filling station on the main road,” I said plaintively.
“Ah, I know it. See that tree across the road? Turn off there.”
Ten minutes later, having managed to take almost an hour for the one-mile journey, we walked shamefacedly into the restaurant to a hearty round of applause from the gathered throng.
Freddie had good reason to like the event: after his Italian mum Giulia started the runs, he met both his wife and best man on them.
And so for the next few days, we drove around the glorious countryside, enjoying the holy trinity of good food, good wine and good company as we visited ancient castles, wineries, oileries and villages, including the stunning mountaintop citadel of Bagnoregio.
Best of all, though, was a track day at the Vallelunga circuit, including some brilliant skid pan fun where a moving pad kicked the rear end sideways and you had to keep the car straight on full lock.
Thankfully, the circuit provided us with a very nice Alfa Romeo Giulietta, since I wouldn’t like to think what the apparatus would have done to a new Mini, never mind one of the old ones, several of which had already lost their exhausts on Italian roads where I suspect the money to fix them had gone on a nice holiday home for the local mayor. Or Mafia boss.
In any case, at the skid pan I discovered I was just as bad going sideways as I was forwards but, thankfully, the main event that evening was a wine tasting which I discovered a natural gift for.
The trip finished with another hilarious, hooting convoy around all the 1969 movie’s locations in Turin, like the former Queen’s Palace where Michael Caine and co planned the heist, and the car chase spots such as the church steps, velodrome and weir.
The most impressive, though, was the rooftop of the Lingotto, the former Fiat factory.
From when it opened in 1923 to when it closed in 1982, cars were built from the ground floor up, tested on the oval-banked rooftop circuit, then driven down a spiral ramp to the adjacent train station for delivery.
Thankfully, the huge building is still put to good use as an upmarket shopping centre and hotel which is an exquisite hymn to the art deco period when the factory opened.
By that stage, we’d improved enough in our timekeeping and navigation to move up from 21st to 13th in the rankings. But more importantly, to finish joint first with everyone else in the enjoyment stakes.
At £1,200 per person for 10 days full board, including all events and admissions and five days unlimited wine, and a recommended but optional fundraising target of £1,500, The Italian Job is incredible value and loads of fun.
Next year’s run will be based in Imola and will explore Emilia Romagna, and any car model which featured in the original Italian Job film can take part. Register at italianjob.com.