A classic car race through the UAE with David Gandy

The world-famous Mille Miglia has come to the Emirates

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Until last week, David Gandy, arguably the world’s most famous male model, had only ever seen the UAE from above. “This is my first proper time here. I’ve never been to the UAE, bar many layovers at Dubai airport,” he said as we sat in the morning sun on the clubhouse balcony at Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club.

That was about to change very quickly. By Thursday, Gandy and his fellow competitors in the Mille Miglia race had seen the breadth of the UAE in spectacular fashion, this time sticking firmly to the ground.

The event, which began last Sunday, brought classic car enthusiasts from around the world to the UAE, as they raced their precious, rare cars cross the breadth of the country. The route went from Dubai to the mountainous northern emirates, finally ending in Abu Dhabi, via the F1 circuit on Yas Island. The original race, which began in 1927, spanned the length of Italy.

Eligibility for joining was simple — only the models of the cars, or the car itself, which took part in any of the Italian races between 1927 to 1957 could participate. Gandy did so in a purpose-built Jaguar XK120 that he named Matilda, after his daughter. “The car was finished around the time she was born. It’s now my most precious vehicle,” he says.

Gandy has completed a number of such restorations, including other Jaguars, Mercedes and Porsches. He would probably have done so anyway, but the Mille Miglia was extra motivation to keep this important work going. It is, after all, a hard undertaking. There is a lot more expense and labour needed to use these cars for their original purpose, and not just stick them in a collection or museum.

And the Mille Miglia is raced only by enthusiasts of a particularly rare and daring kind. The early history of the event is full of death and injury, which led to its cancellation in 1957. Now reborn as a time trial and with stricter safety standards, things are a lot easier. But it is still fundamentally about the skill of driving. Gandy and others might love these cars as artefacts, but they are also committed motorists. “It’s a bit of a cliche, but sometimes I think that I love restoring and keeping something historic on the road mostly so that other people can enjoy it.”

It is important work, because many classic cars are disappearing from the roads. “Classic cars have become a real asset, so a lot of people who aren’t that passionate have started collecting them. I’m quite a big believer that you have to show people a car in action. Then you’re keeping that heritage and history on the road for another generation.”

The life and style of Stirling Moss is an inspiration for Gandy. He was an early hero of the Mille Miglia, famous for blazing through Italy at average speeds that are still difficult to achieve in modern machines. “He did 1,000 miles [about 1,600kms] in 10 hours in 1955, with an unfathomable average speed of almost 100mph [160kph]. I mean 50mph in a classic car seems fast, never mind 100 with basic brakes and none of the electronic aides we have now.”

The lionisation of figures such as Moss — who would have written off his fair share of wonderful vehicles — points to a split at the heart of the classic car scene. Do we best honour these heroes by keeping their machines unused and safe, often in hidden private collections, or must they still be driven to be fully appreciated?

For Gandy, it is all about balance and visibility. “I’ve just done training, and of course there’s a completive element to it,” he says. “But we won’t win it. It’s really simple, there are lots more experienced guys who have cars a lot more suited to doing this. And you’re talking about thousandths of a second.”

But it seems that does not matter so much. “Racing in the UAE is going to be very different from Italy, but fundamentally it’s all about the people who come to watch and see the cars. Our community brings a lot of people together, particularly men. It can even be an interesting time to talk about men’s mental health.”

In this sense, all competitors at the UAE’s Mille Miglia were victors, even before the race began. Modern supercars are no surprise outside the country’s most famous hotels. But seeing the best of classic automobile engineering — from huge Bugattis to single-seat bombers — parked outside Dubai’s Park Hyatt Hotel is much rarer, and an image I will remember. Many others feel the same. Staff at the hotel tell me that they are expecting 10,000 visitors to come and see the race begin.

And for the many millions of Mille Miglia enthusiasts around the world, the fact that the race is taking place at all is something to celebrate. On top of its 1957 ban, Covid-19 led to a number of delays and cancellations.

Now, as the pandemic subsides, things are a lot brighter. The main health concerns in the race are more banal. Sunburn is an obvious one. When I ask Gandy if his car has a roof (many of the vehicles competing do not), he answers with an ominous “no…”. It might seem flippant, but simple factors of this kind form part of the challenge, and therefore joy, of racing such brilliant but in many ways basic machines.

The event’s organisers hope the UAE can become an enduring home-away-from-home for the franchise. While its first instalments took place long before it was even a country, the UAE today is a car-lover’s dream, whether because of cheap petrol, the need for off-road vehicles or the many international motorsports events that the nation now hosts, of which the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is the pinnacle.

In terms of speed and profitability, the Mille Miglia is no grand prix. But the latter would not exist without the engineers and drivers that so many standard bearers such as Gandy are currently celebrating and remembering, as they scream through the landscape of the UAE in cars that might be approaching 100 years old, with a new generation of classic motoring enthusiasts cheering them on their way.

Updated: December 12, 2022, 7:26 AM