Classic races – the Targa Florio!

It’s high time to return to the my series of classic car races, started last year. Races from a time when motorsport was something very different to today, run in far simpler cars, mostly on muddy roads, and without as much as a seat belt as protection, far away from today’s F1 halos. Better? Not unless you have a death wish, but certainly more genuine, unpredictable and exciting! This time we’ll travel to one of the souternmost parts of Europe, namely Sicily, and look closer at the very genuine, certainly unpredictable, and definitely exciting Targa Florio!

The Targa saw the light of day in 1906 and got its name from its founder Vincenzo Florio, a proud Sicilian who wanted to create a race on his native island. He was looking to do something that would be challenging both for man and machine, and settled on a track (big word…) in the mountainous Madonie region near Palermo. The original route was 148 km long, starting in a village called Cerda and ending in what was to take his name and become known as Floriopolis, by the coast. Ten teams started in the first race that was run over three laps, i.e. 446 km, on steep, mountainous and certainly quite bad roads. After 9 1/2 hours, a brave man called Alessandro Cagno won the first edition, but the race saw a great success right from the start and the year after, no less than 51 teams were at the start.

Vincenzo Florio himself (right) in the 1906 inaugural race

The Targa went on every year until 1914 and then resumed again after WW1 in 1919. The route had then been shortened, but more interesting than the new route was a young Italian driver by the name of Enzo Ferrari. He ended the race in second place in 2020, which would be one of his best results as a racing driver before moving on to other, greater things. Although becoming an international event in the 20’s, the races in this decade would largely be an affair between Alfa Romeo and Bugatti. An exception was however the Hispano-Suiza of French pastis maker André Dubonnet who would finish in sixth place in 1926, in a car with a fram built of tulipwood to save weight! The course kept changing and in the final years before WW2, it was held on the streets of Palermo itself.

Two Maseratis fighting it out on the streets of Palermo in 1938

In 1955 the Targa was included in FIA’s (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) World Championship series, together with notably the 24 hours of Le Mans, the Mille Miglia and the 12 hours of Sebring. This established the Targa as an event known worldwide and it was moved from spring to autumn as the last race of the 1955 series. Unfortunately the whole series that year would be overshadowed by a terrible accident in Le Mans, when French driver Pierre Levegh crashed his Mercedes Benz 300 SLR into the grandstands, killing himself and 83 spectators. MB decided to stop their racing activities after that season, but still came to the Targa with three cars and that of Stirling Moss ending as winner after having led the first half of the race, then driven off the road and being puhsed back onto it by spectators, and then catching up with Juan Manuel Fangio towards the very end. Having won the F1 championship the same year, Mercedes ended their race participation for the coming decades in style!

Stirling Moss fighting the laws of physics in Mercedes’ last victory in 1955

The Targa would be run in most years over the coming decades, mostly with Italian cars from Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Maserati dominating the action, but with Porsche also making a name for itself. A variety of car types were allowed to participate through the years, with monocoques being banned in the early years but dominating proceedings in the late 60’s and early 70’s. It was these faster cars that finally rang the bell for the Targa as it was impossible for the organizers to meet the more stringent safety standards on the local Sicilian roads. The Targa lost it World Championship status after 1973, but remained as a local race over the coming years. It was then changed to a rally which from 1984 would be part of the European Rally Championship. Since the late eighties the Targa has also become a very popular event for historic cars which it remains to this day, with the 2023 event taking place early May.

The historical race remains very popular to this day

If you travel to Sicily and go to Cerda, you will still the run down tribunes as a reminder of the Targa’s glorious past. You will no doubt wonder at the average speed over 100 km/h that the drivers managed to achieve on these roads already back in the 60’s, before some of them were paved. but you will wonder far less at the fact that there were numerous accidents through the years, some of them unfortunately deadly. You will still see some grafitti on the walls in support of some of the drivers from the 70’s and 80’s, and you can also visit the Targa museums of which there are two, in Cerda and Collesano. The Targa Florio was the last of the great open road races and a perfect representation of just how genuine, unpredictable and exciting motor sport was in the old days. Vincenzo Florio’s contribution to the pageant of motor sport is thus firmly rooted in its history!

The graffitti from the old days has proven to be sticky!

One thought on “Classic races – the Targa Florio!

  1. Pingback: GTO – three-letter magic! – The Thrill of Driving

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s