Unlike the 24 Heures du Mans, Jaguar’s successful hunting ground during the Fifties, Italy’s Mille Miglia was a harder race for the company to crack. Its best finish is a fifth place in 1950, on what was also its first assault of this car-breaking event.
However, Jaguar never considered the Mille Miglia as worthy as the French race, and rarely entered a works team, because it was seen as more of an Italian event than an international one: not only was it dominated by local manufacturers, there was also the time and expense it took to get the cars to the Brescia start line in northern Italy.
But, in 1950, and keen to get as much experience as possible with the still largely untested XK 120 over a variety of events, Jaguar supported three works-prepared XK 120s, and supplied another to four-time Mille Miglia winner Clemente Biondetti, who was increasingly unhappy with the local manufacturer’s growing negative attitude towards him. Conversely, the Italian driver’s signing was a huge coup for Jaguar because it hoped Biondetti’s experience would be enough to beat Ferrari and Alfa Romeo. It wasn’t. He instead finished a disappointing eighth due to his XK 120 (chassis number 660043) suffering several issues during the 1,000-mile race from Brescia to Rome and back, including a broken rear spring.
“I had intended to withdraw at a certain point,” Biondetti later wrote to Angelo Chieregato, proprietor of Jaguar’s North Italian distributor, the Compagnia Generale Auto, in Milan, “but I wanted to help protect Jaguar’s name. So, I pressed on doing my best despite these regrettable happenings.”
Ironically, it was the British entrant, Leslie Johnson, who was highest placed of the four works Jaguars. As an established racing driver and a close friend of Jaguar’s chief engineer, Bill Heynes, he had been allocated one of the six XK 120s prepared for competition. His car, 660040, registration JWK 651, was the first to be finished and, like the others, featured a tuned version of the 3.4 XK engine and improved suspension components. Johnson had a relatively uneventful Mille Miglia, other than the fuse for the wipers blowing, whichmeant he had to borrow the seat cushion from his co-driver, John Lea, to peer over the screen to see in the atrocious weather. Leslie finished a strong fifth, benefitting from many of the front runners crashing out in the wet, and was a mere 50minutes behind the winning Ferrari 195 S of Giannino Marzotto.
Of the other works Jaguars, Nick Haines (660041) crashed early and Tommy Wisdom (660057) retired just 30 miles from the finish due to transmission problems. The Swiss driver ‘Ideb’ finished 16th in his privately entered car.
Jaguar’s later successes – such as Stirling Moss winning the Dundrod Tourist Trophy in September 1950, plus Le Mans victories in 1951, 1953, 1955, 1956 and 1957 – sadly saw Leslie’s fifth place in the Mille quickly overlooked. He died in 1959, aged just 47, his many achievements largely unrecognised.
Yet Leslie’s car remains one of the most famous of the early XK 120s. He used it at Le Mans in 1950 (although he didn’t finish), the Production Sports Car Race at Silverstone (where he came home eighth) and the Dundrod Tourist Trophy (seventh). The car also finished 16th in the 1952 RAC Rally of Great Britain, and, in 1951 and 1952, was chosen for Leslie’s speed and distance record attempts at Montlhéry, the banked track near Paris.
Leslie sold JWK 651 in 1952. In spite of so much action it survives, and, following several owners, is today a regular at classic racing events, including the return to the Mille in 2011 – a reminder of Jaguar’s only real Italian success.