1,000 Miles in a Jaguar C-Type
Octane Magazine August 2014
LEADING THE CHARGE
Mark Dixon has the ride of his life on the Mille Miglia with AC/DC star Brian Johnson – driving a C-type Jaguar that took part in the original event.
‘The C-type we’re driving was entered on the 1953 Mille Miglia. It’s on drum brakes but is the perfect Mille machine.’
BRI-YAN! BRI-YAN! As we hustle towards the waiting limo, another group of teenagers cluster around us, pressing scraps of paper and marker pends at Brian Johnson, begging for autographs from rock music’s most famous Geordie. ‘How’re ya doin’, me bonny lad?’ he calls affably to the nearest boy, who has jostled in front of his mates for a selfie on his cameraphone. The process is repeated several times before we reach the sanctuary pf the black Jaguar XJ and sink gratefully into its shaded interior – and we haven’t even started the Mille Miglia yet. Brian lets out a small sigh.
‘Welcome to my world,’ he says.
AC/DC’s FRONTMAN and I are here to drive a Jaguar C-type on the Mille Miglia, as part of a ten-car team of assorted celebs, musicians and journalists that Jaguar has put together for its assault on the event. I’ve met Brian a few times over the years but this will be the longest time we’ve ever spent in each other’s company. What I do know is that he is a totally genuine guy, who doesn’t shelter behind the protective veneer that famous people tend to erect around themselves. He’s funny, too: a born raconteur, whose broad North-Eastern accent remains undiluted by years of living in Florida. But, most importantly, besides a total petrolhead – his TV series Cars that Rock with Brian Johnson has just been a major hit on the Quest channel – he’s a seriously good driver, who campaigns sports-prototypes at Sebring and elsewhere.
That’s why Jaguar has entrusted him with one of the fastest cars on the event.
Our team-mates include Jay Leno, Martin Brundle (driving a D-type with Bruno Senna), model and racer Jodie Kidd, actor Jeremy Irons, and a hilariously witty young Londoner called Elliot Gleave – who turns out to be the musician known as Example, hugely popular with the younger generation (or so I’m told). This eclectic bunch is at the heart of a massive logistical operation for Jaguar, which has brought out three C-types, a D-type, five XK120s and an XK140.
Impressive stuff but it pales into insignificance compared with the statistics of putting a rock band on the road. When AC/DC goes on tour, it fields 125 crew, 45 lorries, 16 coaches, three stage sets – which are played in rotation, so one is being erected while one is being played and the last is being dismantled- and an Airbus A318. This is rock music’s major league, and it’s a long way from the working-class suburb of Dunston, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where Brian grew up.
There is, however, a family connection with Italy. His mother was Italian, from the Frascati region above Rome, who married his Army sergeant father after WW2 and traded the sunsoaked landscape of Italy for the rain-lashed streets of north-east England. It’s from her that Brian inherited his fascination with the Mille Miglia.
‘My mother’s sister used to send us parcels from home, and in them would be old copies of the Italian magazine Oggi,’ he explains. ‘I Remember these fabulous pictures of racing cars and drivers, and my mum told me it was “the Mille Miglia, the greatest race in the world!” I would take these pictures to bed and dream about the cars, the Aston Martins, the Jaguars like our C-type, because to a little lad in Dunston they were the stuff of fairly tales – you just never saw cars like that.’
The C-type we’re driving could well have been in one of those old photos. It was entered by the Italian privateer Tadini in the 1953 Mille Miglia but retired during the event, and since 1983 it’s been owned by the Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust. It’s still on drum brakes but otherwise this is the perfect Mille machine: powerful XK 3.4 litre engine, tough Moss ‘box, supple suspension – and a massive 120 litre fuel tank.
OUR FIRST TASTE of what the next few days will bring comes as the cars parade through the Piazza della Vittoria in Brescia, a few hours before the official start. Our progress is slow and, as the C-type inches through the medieval streets, word spreads that there’s a rock star in town. All of a sudden the car is surrounded by screaming fans, desperate to touch the hem of fame. It starts to get a little bit scary, but Brian does his best to please the baying crown, laughing and joking and signing his name countless times (and always beautifully penned, not simply dashed off as a scrawl).
We’re in serious danger of being overwhelmed, until Brian’s manager materialises to whisk him away to a place of safety. As quickly as it gathered, the crowd disperses, and suddenly it’s just me and the C-type. I’ve had my first glimpse of fame, and I’m not sure I like it.
Later, as evening approaches, a plan is hatched for the start of the Mille Miglia. Brian will stay ought of sight until the last few moments, whereupon he will jump into the Jaguar to take it over the starting ramp. The plan works and, just before our allotted minute, we roar up onto the ramp for an introduction by compère Simon Kidston.
‘I’m doing this for my mother!’ proclaims Brian, with a showman’s intuition of how to work the crowd. Then we’re off, the C-type howling down the long street between lines of cheering spectators, Brian revving the engine theatrically and me frantically stabbing the huge horn push on the side of the instrument panel.
Once clear of the Brescia suburbs, we hit some long straights on the road to Padua, our overnight halt. The C-type is right-hand drive, of course, so I’m acting as spotter as well as navigator, shouting out to Brian whether it’s safe to overtake or not: ‘Yes!’ or ‘No!’, and occasionally ‘No! Truck! TRUCK! TRUCK!’ We’re not wearing intercoms, or helmets or anything that would make it look as though we’re trying too hard; instead we have soft woollen gamekeeper’s caps with flaps that fasten under the chin to stop them being whipped away in the slipstream. Having seen my own, faintly ridiculous item, Brian took a trip to London’s Jermyn Street and bought a selection – they appeal to his eccentric streak.
The C-type is made for this kind of work. It has the legs to keep up a hard pace for hours on end, and its only limiting factor is the four-speed gearbox – time and again, Brian instinctively reaches for a non-existent fifth, cursing and then laughing softly as he realises his mistake – because the engine feels as though it will just keep on pulling. Since it’s effectively a high-speed bath tub, the “C” probably seems faster that it actually is, but the shallow windscreen is remarkably effective at keeping the flies out of our eyes. We don’t even have to wear sunglasses – other than for image reasons, of course. And that’s just me…
Whenever our progress is baulked for some reason, there’s time to have a chat, exchange some blokey banter and generally pass the time of day. Our support crew, from Jaguar specialist JD Classics, are proper Essex lads and, infected by their cheery good humour, we often lapse into a kind of ‘boiled beef and carrots’ Mockney accent. It’s what you do on a long, long road trip.
Driving fast is not a problem for Brian, but coping with the attention he generates whenever we have to stop is more difficult. The fans are naturally boisterous: being Italian, some of them try to embrace him; nearly everyone wants their photo taken with him. They leapfrog the barriers and surround the car, where we feel vulnerable, seated low and strapped into our four-point harnesses. In the piazza at Verona, a fight breaks out right in front of us as fans jostle for space: suddenly bodies are landing on the bonnet and falling in front of the car.
The atmosphere has changed, and Brian has to get the C-type moving and force a path through the crowd. He is clearly unnerved by the experience; if things turn nasty, there’ll be no-one standing between Us and Them. The Mille Miglia doesn’t have close-protection officers – they’ve never been needed before.
FOR MOST of our team, this is their first Mille, and there are some shell-shocked faces when we rendezvous in the hotel bar at Padua during the early hours of the morning. Jeremy Irons is sprawled out, dishevelled and exhausted on a sofa, smoking a roll-up and, frankly, looking as though he’s method-acting the part of a tramp. Even the normally bulletproof Jay Leno seems a little weary.
After three or four hours’ sleep we’ll be rising again on Friday morning to begin the longest day of the event. Fifteen-and-a-half-hours, 440 miles from Padua to Rome, and numerous regularity tests. In the C-type, the road sections are a blast – literally. We come up behind Jochen Mass, driving an ex-Carrera Panamericana Mercedes SL W194, and give chase. The ex-F1 and Sports Car ace is going hard, picking off strings of slower cars, but Brian is right on his tail, relishing the opportunity to dice with his friend and occasional race competitor. It’s a fantastic duel, up and down a twisty mountain road, and at one point we see smoke pour from a rear wheel on the Merc as Jochen makes a rare miscalculation and locks up. Eventually, of course, he gets away from us but we’re just seconds behind him when we pull up at the next Passage Control. Jochen can hardly believe his eyes. ‘Brian? Is that you? Good driving, my friend!’
Sadly, this highlight is offset by the hassle we continue to receive from fans whenever we enter a town. We’re supposed to wait for our ‘due time’ before checking in – there are penalties for arriving early or late – but it’s impossible to stop without being overrun. By late afternoon, Brian is on the verge of pulling out; it’s becoming unsafe. We decide to skip the final couple of checkpoints and drive straight to our hotel in Rome.
We stop at a petrol station just outside town, to make a call to Jaguar’s PR team and let them know what we’re doing. That’s when I notice the nearside front tyre on the C-type is deflating… and our spare wheel is in the support truck. Which, it turns out, has leapfrogged us and is almost at Rome, 120 miles away.
To cut a long story short, we end up taking a taxi back to Rome. It’s gone midnight and we are chauffeured by the slowest taxi driver in the world. To pass the time, I ask Brian about the cars he’s owned over the years. He loves the current Rolls-Royce Phantom but his earliest rides were a lot less glamorous:
‘My first car was a sit-up-and-beg Ford Popular, that my dad bought for me. I think he paid £50, which was a lot of money for him, because hardly anyone could afford a car back then.
‘I moved on to an early Hillman Minx – because it had lots of dials – followed by a Ford Anglia and a Minivan, after the sills rotted out on the Hillman and I couldn’t keep stuffing them with paper and painting over them! The first car I bought when I got a bit of money was a Chevy Blazer, black with white stripes. I did a bit of shooting back then and the local farmers took the piss out of me for buying it – until I drove it straight up the side of a hill. That shut them up!’
We’re still a long way from our hotel, so I switch into full journo mode and quiz Brian about his early days in the music business. Most people associate him with AC/DC, the band he was asked to join in 1980 following the death of lead singer Bon Scott, but of course there had been many years of struggle beforehand. He explains how an apprenticeship at CA Parsons, a local turbine company, was punctuated with spells serving in the Territorial Army as a paratrooper.
‘It paid £8 for every jump plus a monthly allowance, and as an aspiring singer I needed to buy my own equipment – a 10 watt amp, unbelievable! It was a dangerous job, mind: one of my mates fell straight into the funnel of a canal barge in Germany.’
Other jobs included fitting vinyl roofs to cars, and Brian can still tell you exactly how to wrap the roof of an Austin Allegro. But there was always the music, ever since he had been (reluctantly) persuaded to become a choir boy by his Catholic scout master.
‘Then, after I left school to join Parsons, it was the early ’60s and everyone wanted to be in a band. My first group was called The Gobi Desert Canoe Club; I thought it was so cool,’ he giggles. (To be strictly accurate, Brian uses another word between ‘so’ and ‘cool’ that can’t be repeated here. He has turned swearing into an art form, and yet he swears with such obvious good humour that even the most puritanical audience can’t feel offended.)
During the early 1970s, Brian was invited to join local band Geordie as lead singer. They had modest success, with several appearances on Top Of The Pops, but Brian became increasingly disenchanted with the direction the group was taking: ‘I thought I was going to be in a rock band, but we were doing all this pop shite, so I left.’
Not before making a considerable impact on a certain Bon Scott, however. ‘He was supporting us with his band, and during our set I got appendicitis and started writhing around on the floor, which he thought was part of the act!’, guffaws Brian. ‘He thought I was brilliant!’
Bon Scott’s recommendation led to a crucial phone call. ‘I was rung up after Bon’s death by the secretary at Peter Mensch’s company [which managed AC/DC], known to all as Olga from the Volga… She said I was wanted for an audition in London, but wouldn’t tell me who for. I replied, I’m not going all the way down to London if you don’t tell me, so she grudgingly said, I can’t tell you the band’s name but its initials are AC and DC. “You mean AC/DC, then?” “Oh, I’ve said too much!” Jeez! You couldn’t make this stuff up.’
It’s 2.30 am when we pull into the hotel where, to our relief, Jodie Kidd is still propping up the bar. because we missed the Time Control in Rome, we’ll be classed as a DNF (Did Not Finish) and there’s no pressure to make our official start time in the morning. Time to open a few bottles… That Jodie is a bloke’s kind of bird, alright.
THE FLAT TYRE turns out to have done us a massive favour. Free of the need to be clocking out at the crack of dawn, we can take our time and enjoy ourselves. And that’s exactly what we do.
Today is the day we tackle the Futa and Raticosa passes, in glorious Tuscany. We’re ahead of the pack, the weather’s perfect, and Brian is in his element: he’s keeping the C on the ragged edge, flat in second and third, drifting around the hairpins to the delight of the spectators who line every corner. ‘Bri-yan! Bri-yan!’ they shout, and he doesn’t disappoint, leaving each and every one of them with a few seconds of drama that will live in their memories for ever.
The sun is hot, and the floorpan of the Jag feels even hotter; Brian has already had to ditch his race shoes for trainers because their soft soles were literally melting onto the pedals. But this car seems unburstable, never fluffing, never overheating, always ready to give that little bit more and always sounding nothing less than glorious. A couple of days earlier, the brakes had ‘gone off’ after some hard use, but now they are taking a terrific amount of punishment and still pinning us against our harnesses time and again. We have new respect for the previously unloved drums.
At one point we catch up with a new Ferrari California, driven by one of the many Mille Miglia hangers-on who clog up the route in an attempt to bask in some reflected glory. This idiot is going quickly, but not quickly enough for Brian, and yet he won’t let us pass. We stick like glue on the heels of the Ferrari, falling back on the straights but catching it on every corner, until a moment’s hesitation on medallion-man’s part lets the C-type flash past. Not bad for a car that’s 60 years old.
IN COMPARISON WITH yesterday’s epic route, Sunday’s is more low-key – but that doesn’t mean Brian is taking it any easier. By our reckoning, we pass 38 other competitors on the 120 mile section to the finish, aided by a couple of fantastic police motorcyclists who clear a path through oncoming traffic and take us across every red light. We’ve been doing that already, of course – everyone does on the Mille; it’s expected – but it’s nice to have some official endorsement.
Three days after we left the starting ramp at Brescia, we’re back to cross it a second time. The crowds are as enthusiastic as ever but somehow more respectful; the Mille Miglia officials profess themselves amazed by the number of AC/DC banners they’ve seen along the route; Jaguar is happy that their star driver has seen it through to the end; and Brian is adamant that he wants to come back and do it all over again.
And me? I’ve never sworn so much in my whole life, and I’ve had an absolute ball with one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. Truly the experience of a lifetime.
But the real star of our Mille Miglia has been the C-type. It’s taken a serious hammering for days on end, and yet it’s always come back for more. It is most definitely a Car That Rocks.
Words: Mark Dixon
Photography: Patrick Gosling, Chris Brown, Mike Dodd