by Roderick Conway Morris

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Museo Tazio Nuvolari
Tazio Nuvolari after winning the Monaco Grand Prix in his Alfa Romeo, 1932

The Flying Mantuan's Very Own Musuem

By Roderick Conway Morris
MANTUA 24 July 1992


To devote an entire museum to a sporting champion may seem an extreme case of that exaggerated local pride which the Italians call campanilismo. Yet the Tazio Nuvolari Museo, a collection of memorabilia, models, photos, documents and posters relating the life of the Mantuan Grand Prix driver, who was born a century ago this year, is an unexpectedly absorbing experience, even for someone with no special interest in motorcars or racing.

The fascination lies partly in the man himself, a genuine one-off, who seems to have been physically indestructable by normal human standards, and partly in the museum's evocation of an era, not so long past, but now somehow remote, when driving a racing vehicle required the combined skills of a point-to-point jockey, mechanic, kamikaze pilot and all-in wrestler, and when, if a fellow did win, he actually drank the champagne, rather than generally spraying it about the place.

Nuvolari was born on a farm at Castel D'Ario, outside Mantua. His father and uncle were both top-class cyclists. Tazio's first taste of high speed, on a motorcycle at the age of 11, ended in a ditch. In 1912 he bought the tangled wreckage of an aeroplane that had crashed on the plain nearby, and put it back together again. Unable to achieve lift-off from the ground, he launched it off the roof of the house. The machine hit a haystack and burst into flames - Nuvolari emerging only slightly singed.

While serving as an ambulance driver in the First War, he was detailed to take a visiting general back to HQ. The officer disembarked with his hair standing on end, mumbling to the impassive Mantuan: 'You ought to be a stretcher-bearer, driving really isn't the job for you...'

The 'Flying Mantuan', as he came to be called, spent much of the Twenties racing motorcycles, mostly Bianchis, before switching to cars by the end of the decade, primarily Alfa Romeos, but sometimes Bugatis, Auto Unions and Ferraris. He was still competing, and winning in 1950, when nearly sixty. In total he took part in 277 races, winning 107 of them.

His career was punctuated by Indiana Jones-style feats: coming first at Nuremberg, despite being hit in the face by boiling oil spilling from a car in front; winning at Donnington Park having hit a stag at full tilt; at Brno, after a tyre burst, he completed the course with a back wheel stripped to the hub; and, at Turin, he crossed the finishing line guiding the car with a spanner, waving the steering wheel which had come off in his hands. He drove once with his leg in plaster, another time swathed in bandages like a mummy, after being badly burned.

Hospitalised in 1930, he received a telegram from the Vatican, assuring him that the Supreme Pontiff himself was praying for heavenly assistance to speed his recovery. Gabriel D'Annunzio, Italian war hero and literary celebrity, presented Nuvolari with a golden tortoise - 'the slowest animal to the fastest man' - which became Nuvolari's badge and the logo on his car and writing paper.

Racing on the road against a plane in a dual-engine Alfa Romeo in 1931, Nuvolari was only just pipped at the post (the event is included in the Museum's enjoyable video of classic footage). As Enzo Ferrari, who first raced against Nuvolari in 1924 and later enticed him to his own stable, recalls in a memoir in the museum catalogue: 'He made news, caused a sensation, even when he didn't win.'

A key weapon in Nuvolari's arsenal was his death-defying method of taking corners, which, according to Ferrari, was achieved by putting the car (which in earlier days did not have independent wheels and whose tyres were pumped-up to a high pressure), into a skid, and then hitting the floor with the accelerator - everything depending on the initial, exactly-calculated wrench of the steering wheel.

'Nobody,' says Ferrari, 'ever succeeded in reproducing the Tazio Nuvolari 'corner'. Many attempted to imitate it; many, by trying again and again came close to his technique, but at the more difficult corners they ended up pumping the accelerator. Nobody, absolutely nobody, dared to slam the pedal down like Tazio.'

When car designs changed Nuvolari developed a new trick, giving the steering wheel a series of precise jerks, and no longer slammed down the accelerator. 'His technique,' says Ferrari, 'remained a miracle of sensitivity to the limits of human capability and physical laws.'

Unlike most of the champions of his generation, Nuvolari died peacefully in bed, in 1953. His body, dressed in his racing gear, was placed in a coffin surmounted by the Italian tricolour, his helmet and a steering wheel. Then like some warrior of old, he was towed to his grave by a dozen young racing champions on foot.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024