Long Read: Driving at The Vernasca Silver Flag Hill Climb

by Hub Sales Specialist James Wheeler

Long Read: Driving at The Vernasca Silver Flag Hill Climb

Asking nicely does occasionally pay off…

After receiving confirmation of my entry’s acceptance for the Coppa Intereuropa Autostoriche at Monza to be held over the first weekend of June, I typed an email to the charming organiser of the annual Silver Flag Hillclimb, Claudio Casali.  Claudio is one of those lucky people who appear to remain delightfully calm irrespective of how many people are asking him questions all at once!  There is always a smile.

I attended the launch of the new Fiat 500 in Turin in June 2007, spending a couple of weeks travelling around the car museums and factories of northern Italy in my car transporter with my extremely cute Bugatti blue 1959 Fiat 500 Abarth 695 SS Replica safely strapped on behind. I came away reminding myself of two things; never attempt to drive the Passo dello Stelvio in a truck again and to definitely attend the Silver Flag event in the near future, hopefully as a participant.

The Silver Flag Hill Climb event is a typically Italian affair, being a gloriously relaxed and non competitive hill climb on closed public roads just south of Piacenza, complete with fabulous people, fabulous cars, fabulous countryside, and fabulous food. Originally run between 1953 and 1972 between the mountain villages of Castell’Arquato and Vernasca with a sharp left half way through the course in Lugagnano Val d’Arda ,the event was re-established fifteen years ago by the CPAE (Club Piacentino Automoto d’Epoca) but as a non-competitive event. It has since become increasingly popular resulting in it being now very difficult to gain an entry.

Long Read: Driving at The Vernasca Silver Flag Hill Climb

I first heard about the Silver Flag event in the pages of Auto Italia Magazine. I have most of the magazine’s editions so when I knew I was going to be able to attend in 2007 I sought out past articles covering the event.

Having explained my desire to attend the Silver Flag to Claudio after my thoroughly enjoyable 2007 visit and the fact that my 1963 Alfa Romeo Giulia Spider Corsa and I were already going to be in Italy for my race at Monza, Claudio very kindly granted me passage of entry to the 15th Vernasca Silver Flag to be held over the weekend of June 11th and 13th 2010.

After leaving Monza on June 7th….

I spent the long days prior to the Silver Flag Hill Climb event enjoying tours of the Maserati Factory and the fabulous and private Mario Righini Collection, both kindly organised by Francesca at Modenatur.it. Finally Friday arrived and I went excitedly to collect my Spider and trailer from the extremely generous Andrea Bussandri who had kindly stored them in his Fiorenzuola d’Arda Peugeot dealership’s workshops for the week. Moments later the castle of Castell’Arquato came into view at the mouth of the Arda valley and I finally felt like the event I had waited three years for had finally begun. I was so very excited about this and also that Laura, my girlfriend, was soon to arrive at Milano Linate airport to share and enjoy the event with me.

Long Read: Driving at The Vernasca Silver Flag Hill Climb

Saturday morning dawned with a clear blue sky above our Fiorenzuola hotel. After spending Friday setting up and signing on with the marshals being surprisingly official, but in a nice way, we were all ready to commence our runs up the eight and a half kilometre hill course. We were to enjoy three runs up the hill in total, two on Saturday and one on Sunday morning.

One of the many fantastic things that make the Silver Flag event so very popular is the accessibility of the cars, allowing admirers to get very close to the line up of incredible and rare cars in the three paddock areas. To imagine Silver Flag, picture in your mind the Goodwood Festival of Speed with half the people, an eighth of the area to walk around, a more relaxed atmosphere, equally fabulous cars, far more glamorous people, and much better coffee, and you have Silver Flag. It was the first time at an Italian event though where I noticed to my horror tiny bits of the hated Health and Safety being present. Hopefully that will not develop any further.

Long Read: Driving at The Vernasca Silver Flag Hill Climb

My Spider had been issued the participant number 2

Laura and I had little time for our much-needed early morning cappuccinos before engines were being fired up in the paddock signalling our requirement to fiddle with our safety harnesses. Fortunately as Silver Flag is an untimed event (despite one of the title sponsors being Tag Heuer….!) crash helmets and race suits are advisory but not obligatory. As the temperatures were only a degree or two cooler than when I swam in my race suit the weekend before at Monza, I had no intention of wearing it or my helmet at Silver Flag and Laura made it crystal clear that she did not desire “helmet hair”.

The start line of Silver Flag is a pedestrian crossing! I had thought at the time that it was a bit of a waste of effort it being re-painted on Friday afternoon, as the Alfa Romeo 2600 Sprint police car and a few other post 1972 non qualifying cars, including a certain P Ward in a Maserati Gran Cabrio had already taken some of the new paint off the road by the time I rolled up to the line, already roasting under our hot tin roof. The event opening car was the regional chief of police, the lovely Colonnello Paolo Rota Gelpi in a perfect navy blue Fiat 1100, identical to one his father had owned when he was a young boy. I felt very safe at Silver Flag as Paolo and I had enjoyed a coffee together with Andrea Bussandri when I was collecting my Spider from Andrea’s Peugeot dealership. It was not until half way through our conversation at Bussandri’s that he informed me that he was a policeman, with his assistant then proudly adding that Paolo wasn’t just any policeman but the Comandante Provinciale!

Long Read: Driving at The Vernasca Silver Flag Hill Climb

Lining up upon the pedestrian crossing beneath a huge bouncy-castle-like Tag Heuer inflated arch while a gentleman spirals off information about my car and presumably me as I hear my name mentioned once or twice, I suddenly start to feel a little nervous. Here I am in front of hundreds of eager people desperate for a good display and all I have is 125 Bhp to put through some skinny Avons. Feeling inferior – yes, feeling excited and not caring about feeling inferior – yes! The flag drops (it’s red not silver….) and so does my clutch, and we’re off, accelerating as hard as a little Spider can up between the two human walls with a slim effort of concrete between the two of us.

Long Read: Driving at The Vernasca Silver Flag Hill Climb

Between Castell’Arquato and Lugagnano is a virtually straight 4.8 kilometres section of road with occasional minor kinks and a single roundabout on the entry to Lugagnano. In the good old days cars used to reach terrifying speeds along this section but now, as is the modern way, heavily battered and tyre scarred traffic cones make up about four or five chicanes to slow the faster cars down. Not necessary or a problem to negotiate in my car but probably necessary and a right pain to negotiate for the yellow and black 1983 New Man liveried Porsche 956. Can you imagine seeing one of those driving on the public highway? I know it is later than the 1972 entry cut off date for entries but fortunately Claudio makes some sensible exceptions to his own rules, likewise to Drummond Bone’s 1992 Maserati Barchetta, a very regular participant at Silver Flag.

Long Read: Driving at The Vernasca Silver Flag Hill Climb

In the centre of Lugagnano there is a ninety degree left hand bend which certainly focuses the mind, not because of its sharpness or the crowds of people standing behind spindly metal barriers at the very edge of the road, but because it signifies that the other side of the river bridge lies the true challenge that is Silver Flag. Bend after hair-pin bend, ever tightening, ever steeper, ever closer together, some with brick walled barriers to stop you if you make an error, others with wide open spaces to allow you to fall into the beautiful valley below, with the driver trying hard not to look at the apparently gorgeous views being pointed out by the passenger. With little margin for error, as one or two cars mildly discovered, after sixteen hair-pin bends Laura, my Spider and I find ourselves greeted by a chequered flag. A leisurely cruise up through the village of Vernasca sees us arrive in the hill-top village square which is being used as the Collecting Area. Ushered to a neighbouring car park in order to leave the square clear for this year’s featured marque and other important exotica, we switch off, dismount, and swiftly aim for the nearest bar for a chilled drink.

I was amazed at how strenuous the hill climb was for both the car and the driver

I felt for the Spider as I surmised that the three races I had completed at Monza the weekend before inflicted less wear on the components of the car than the 8.5 kms of Silver Flag. The mountain roads were like ploughed fields compared to the smooth asphalt of Monza, producing previously unheard knocks and bangs from the suspension. Just over 125 Bhp in a 920Kg car is fairly respectable in most situations but on the Silver Flag it felt vastly inadequate. Following Phil Jones’s gorgeous pale blue 1966 Abarth 1000 TC Corsa (on its first post Middle Barton Garage rebuild drive) down the hill after our run I realised why those cars are so suited to hill climbs. With loads of rear mounted and rear driven power in a super-light-weight body, the mass of the motor is in the right place to steer from the rear and the power is available to sling-shot the car and it’s pilota to the next hairpin.

Long Read: Driving at The Vernasca Silver Flag Hill Climb

Each year Silver Flag has a featured marque and despite Alfa Romeo coursing through my veins, I saw it as a minor breath of fresh air that there was a motoring event this year, not to mention an Italian motoring event, which was not celebrating Alfa Romeo’s Centenary. With Abarth being celebrated this year, Phil’s 1000 TC was in fabulous company with some very important Abarths, including the jewel like 1950 Abarth 205A, chassis 205101 being the first of only three ever made and recently having returned to live in Italy after residing in America since the early 1950’s. French Abarth collector Michael Pont had brought around six cars from his prized Abarth collection along with cars from other collections such as another six Abarths from the Swiss Abarth collector Englebert Moell’s Collection and another three from Leo Aumueller’s hallowed Abarth collection. Tony Castle Miller from Middle Barton Garage decided not to break the habit of a lifetime that is attending Silver Flag and made the trip from England with his 1000 TC Radiale, as did Paul de Turris from DTR European Sportscars in his petite 750 Zagato Corsa.

Long Read: Driving at The Vernasca Silver Flag Hill Climb

But the Silver Flag paddock was not just painted red with Abarths, there were some other beautiful noteworthy Italian cars such as Silver Flag regular Richard Springett’s baby blue Alfa Romeo TZ, a brace of Alfa Romeo 1900 Sport Zagatos of which one is owned by Staedtler managing director and well known car collector Axel Marx, two OSCA 1600 Zagatos plus an MT4 1500, a beautiful in black 1951 Ferrari 340 Barchetta by Touring, and various Maseratis in the shapes of a 250F, 150S, 200S, Birdcage and a couple of A6 GCS’s. It would take another article to list all of the incredible machinery that was there this year but the furthest travelled for the event award (yes, there is one!), was won by the charming Melbourne resident and Alfa Romeo enthusiast Damian Cessario and his very glamorous wife who had shipped their 1956 Maserati A6G 54 with an exquisite Allemano body over from Australia for the Mille Miglia and Silver Flag events.

The 2010 Silver Flag had the feeling of a Tony Berni garden party…

…with I expect (and hope), most Abarths there having passed under the careful, knowledgeable and watchful eyes of this world renowned authority and specialist of Karl Abarth’s creations. It wasn’t just Tony’s Abarths that were out in force but his family too. His family originated from just a few valleys to the west but with recent generations, including his own, having been born and raised in South Wales. Tony’s cousin Brian Berni was present with Tony’s very noisy 1955 Abarth 207A Boano Spider, along with another cousin, the very charming Gino Berni with his son Francesco and his wife Lucia, there with their family’s wide-bodied 1969 Alfa Romeo GTAm.

Long Read: Driving at The Vernasca Silver Flag Hill Climb

A very rare 1958 Kellison J4R, Martin Brewer’s fabulous Aston Martin Project 214 Recreation, Roberto Giordanelli’s Lotus 26R, a swooping and matt silver painted 1949 Veritas BMW, Scottish resident and Silver Flag regular Malcolm Wishart’s very noisy 1970 Chevron B16, Rod Jolley’s incredible 1958 Lister Jaguar Monzanapolis, a brace of Bugatti Type 35’s, Barry Fosters very loud 1931 MG Monthlery, and an ex Jochen Rindt 1970 Gold Leaf Lotus 72 are a snippet of the non Italian stock that attended.

As you can imagine, the Alfa Romeo Museo Storico in Milan were having a very busy time in 2010 with their centenary celebrations, but that did not stop them from generously bringing along two very special Alfa Romeos, the incredible 6C 3000 CM and Disco Volante Coupe. These were joined by two privately entered 1968 Alfa Romeo 33 2000’s, a Coupe and a Spider. While chatting to a lovely couple the gentleman stopped mid sentence and pointed at the open 33 as we walked passed it, and casually stated that he “drove one of those in the Targa Florio”. It turned out that the gentleman was ex racing driver Jonathan Williams who was there to drive Tony Berni’s 1968 Abarth 1000SP.

After another run on Saturday afternoon the day was finished off with a magnificent meal alfresco in the cobbled (and very slanted) church square set in the beautiful hill top village of Castell’Arquato. Imagine planning something like that in England with our unpredictable weather. The fireworks being set off from the top of the castle were a spectacular buonanotte to a spectacular day.

Long Read: Driving at The Vernasca Silver Flag Hill Climb

Sunday morning’s third and final run up the hill was quickly despatched without drama

With all drivers by now familiar with enough of the bends to result in safe and fun passage to Vernasca’s village square. Silver Flag 2010 ended with what was apparently a huge lunch with some prize giving which sadly Laura and I were not able to attend. This was because we had to leave as early as we could to drive what turned out to be an eight hour drive in my Land Rover and trailered Spider around the coast to a friend’s house near Avignon, Provence for a weeks holiday…..as I stated earlier, Silver Flag is a tough event!

Long Read: Driving at The Vernasca Silver Flag Hill Climb

Due to Silver Flag being an untimed event there is obviously no award for the fastest assent of the hill, so other achievements are noted instead. The best pre-war car cup was awarded to Umberto Camellini for his 1934 Fiat 508S Balilla Coppa d’Oro and the best post-war car was Hans Royer’s Lotus 49 Gold Leaf. Other notable prizes awarded included a very deserved win of the Abarth Gran Turismo award to Luciano Viaro’s Abarth 205A, the best rear engined single seater award to Giancarlo Ferri’s 1960 Alfa Romeo-Conrero engined Cooper T51, the award for the car that best represents hill climb racing went to Franco Meiner for his fabulously blue 1958 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint Veloce Zagato, and finally the lady of the event cup went to Jacqueline Peukert from Germany who was driving her father’s 1963 Abarth Monomille with great gusto up the hill. There was also a special prize quite rightly awarded to Mrs Anneliese Abarth who had a great weekend surrounded by her late husband’s superb automotive creations.

Long Read: Driving at The Vernasca Silver Flag Hill Climb

As a wonderful finale to our time in the north of Italy and then the south of France, as Laura and I headed towards England through northern France we passed fellow Brit and Silver Flag competitor Michael Steele powering his magnificent 1927 Bentley 4 ½ litre Le Mans tourer through terrible rain. I know Auto Italia Magazine (where this was originally published) is all about Italian cars but there is something wonderfully British about Michael driving his Bentley down to the Silver Flag event, clearly spending a week touring around like Laura and I were and then driving all the way home in such ghastly conditions while following his friend with their van and enclosed trailer. That is what vintage motoring (and Bentleys) is all about, and Silver Flag too.

Thank you to all who assisted me at Monza and Silver Flag and for allowing me the opportunity of having such a thoroughly excellent time.


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Long Read: Driving at The Vernasca Silver Flag Hill Climb

Photographs by Auto Italia Magazine and James Wheeler

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