Italian Road Trip 2016 – Part Three

Friday dawns clear once more and we’re back on the road. We have a leisurely four-hour drive south to Florence and we’ve planned a number of diversions to add some spice to an otherwise fairly uninspiring journey. It’s somewhat troubling to leave Lake Como behind; not due to its otherworldly beauty – though that is undeniable – but because the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este is taking place mere kilometres from our base. Mercifully, scruffs like us are not permitted entry until Saturday but the presence of special cars in the vicinity, yet just out of reach, is traumatic.

Given the mania around the MotoGP at Mugello, we elect to avoid the legendary Futa and Raticosa passes this time and instead head to the epicentre of the Italian supercar industry: Modena. Those legendary roads can wait until next time.

Our first stop is Sant Agata and the Lamborghini museum. The local roads offer their fair share of interesting machinery and we spot an undisguised Maserati Levante out testing. We never seem to be far from an old Porsche or a 90s Ferrari. The countryside is agricultural and lacking much character or visual stimulation: it’s not unpleasant but it’s slightly barren and rather flat.

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We almost totally fail to explore Sant Agata, stumbling upon the Lamborghini factory almost immediately and electing not to proceed any further. Our brief glimpse suggests an anonymous industrial town, yet one which is home to one of history’s most emotive car makers.

The factory is modest but stylish and doesn’t seem huge, but then this is still boutique manufacturing; Audi may own the company but the parent company is producing models on an altogether different scale. The museum has recently been refurbished and is small but fascinating. Spread over two floors, most of the company’s production models are represented, alongside examples of some of the most exceptional prototypes and low-volume specials.

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The place is pretty bustling for a Friday lunchtime – apparently Mille Miglia week brings with it a steady stream of customers. That is reflected in the car park which bulges with British –registered 911s, as well as a recent Lotus Exige and gorgeous Ferrari F355. We make sure to leave our little Mille Miglia flag on the rear shelf – just in case anyone should doubt our credentials. Well, it is a water-cooled 911, after all.

The opening exhibit in the museum is an example of the hulking LM002 – the V12 monster which found favour among the dunes of the Emirates. It remains a most pugnacious-looking device – utterly belligerent in its expression and wilfully ugly. In this age of stretched Hummers advertising strip joints in every provincial UK town, one might expect the LM002’s visual impact to have reduced with time. Not a bit of it: it remains defiantly horrid.

Elsewhere, the lunacy of Lamborghini’s recent design direction is laid bare. The Sesto Elemento appears tiny for a V10-powered supercar; the Venano takes that design language into hyperspace and the Urus points towards an SUV future. By comparison the vast Estoque four-door saloon appears positively elegant and remarkably discrete. To these eyes, it’s the most coherent effort of the last few years and a useful riposte to the smooth-but-conventional Tesla which serves as the Lamborghini’s ultimate counterpoint.

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Best of all, though, are the greats from the marque’s past. The Miura SV and LP400 ‘Periscopo’ Countach stand out for their exquisite detailing and perfect proportions. Both cars look small, delicate, lithe and remarkably modest when compared to Lamborghini’s brash contemporary offerings. The Countach in particular, those crazy 80s wings and flares not yet imagined, is a thing of absolute wonder. One cannot imagine what it must’ve been like to see – and of course hear – Bob Wallace howling around the Modenese flatlands aboard a Perisopo during the early 1970s.

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In spite of its wonderful museum, Sant Agata is pretty low-key and doesn’t imbue one with any sense of great history. We need to find the region’s soul.

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Several years ago, I was told of a museum hidden in an obscure corner of the countryside which belonged to a chap who was big in football stickers. During the pre-internet age, apparently finding the place was the devil’s own work but in 2016, we simply typed it into Waze on my iPhone and were directed to the gates. While the romance of getting lost amid the Italian countryside may have been absent, we were guaranteed maximum car-worshiping time.

The Collezione Umberto Panini is a staggering private collection situated on a cheese farm (called Hombre) belonging to the Panini family. While Umberto himself passed away in 2013, his family has retained his cars, housed in an outbuilding on the farm, bereft of fanfare but oozing soul. Bingo!

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The farm’s concrete access roads are awash with more sports cars as the Mille Miglia followers are evidently treading the same path as us. Entry to the collection is gratis and guests are left mercifully free of officious stewarding – you are permitted to wander and explore to your heart’s content. It’s gutting to see that some nefarious oaf has stolen one car’s bonnet mascot but that hasn’t dissuaded the custodians from allowing their guests proper access to what must rank as the world’s most important collections of Maseratis.

The bulk of the collection lives on the tiled ground floor, with an attractive wrought iron mezzanine wrapped around three sides above. There is more fenestration than one might expect, given the museum’s slightly prosaic location, and the sun is high in the sky which helps to show off the various automotive shapes to their best effect.

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The bulk of the museum comprises Maseratis; and they’re all top-drawer, collector-grade cars. Umberto Panini was a staunch supporter of Modena and he ‘rescued’ many of these cars directly from Maserati itself, when it hit troubled times and was forced to sell its private collection. Supposedly Panini paid over the odds but he deemed it a worthy sacrifice to keep the cars in the Modena area.

While there is an attractive selection of road cars, the racing machinery is of greatest interest. Absolute highlight of them all is the Eldorado Special. This unique monoposto was created for Stirling Moss to drive in the Monza Race of Two Worlds, loosely based on the 250F but featuring wilder bodywork, complete with vertical fin behind the driver’s head. Up front, the delicate straight-six was replaced by a big eight cylinder lump, with the vast white body decorated – in a fashion unheard of in Europe at the time – with sponsorship from the Eldorado ice cream company. While liveried specials were big news in the US by the mid-50s, this was cutting edge stuff in continental Europe, still pulling itself out of the Second World War.

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It would be futile to list every car but the imposing 6C 34 monoposto leaves a lasting impression, as does the shrink wrapped and indescribably pretty A6G CS/53 sports car. There are multiple Birdcage sports racers and, naturally, a 250F – though this one features a V12. It’s a wonderful selection of extremely special cars and presented in a low-key fashion which brings to mind the sadly disbanded Maranello Rosso at San Marino.

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With Maranello in mind, it’s time to continue a little further south – and to the home of Ferrari. I don’t mind admitting bias here: I adore Ferrari; I have done since I was three years old. I worshipped the red cars growing up and the Enzo era of the company still fascinates me. This is my third visit to Maranello and I would defy any red-blooded enthusiast not to get goosebumps as they enter the town. It may occasionally stray almost into Disney territory as a brand but stand outside the factory gates and try to keep the lump from your throat.

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Our initial target is the Ristorante Cavallino, directly opposite the famous factory gates. Last time I was here I spotted Luca Badoer prowling the streets. Sadly the Cavallino is closed but you can’t go anywhere in Italy without finding pasta or pizza pretty easily and we’re soon settled nearby with a view of Via Abetone Inferiore, Fiorano just behind us.

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There’s a constant drip feed of Ferraris gurgling along in first gear: one third rentals; one third factory cars and the final third awe-struck tourists bringing their cars home in pilgrimage. An Alfa Giulia creeps past quietly, looking production ready and pretty good for a four-door saloon. While we’re lounging in the sun with a coffee, the factory has obviously just swapped shifts as swathes of workers emerge, all proudly wearing their Ferrari polo shirts, complete with Velcro patch on the chest for their name tags; a Ferrari constant for years.

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Things take a turn for the bizarre when Mrs Motorcardiaries is invited into the restaurant and proffered an apron to wear. She is asked to stand under a large Ferrari shield and pose for photos. The proprietor is very excited by this – and our presence generally – and proves to be an extremely gracious host. We don’t know whether this is simply because he has just sold us a 20 Euro bottle of balsamic vinegar and is starting to experience a mix of guilt and smugness. Either way, Mrs Motorcardiaries looks smashing in the apron.

Conscious of the time and our impending arrival into rush hour Firenze, we explore briefly on foot, the highlight being a workshop awash with Ferraris old and young. One might easily breeze straight past without noticing Toni Auto but a 250 SWB hiding under a cover at the entrance piques my interest. There’s some serious metal in there and I nose around as unobtrusively as I can. Here is Maranello’s soul. Forget the glossy Galleria and the Californias doing laps in first gear: the passion of craftsmen tending to Colombo V12s has long been, and shall remain, the beating heart of this amazing town.

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