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Conquering Hero

Although a lesser-known face in the exalted band of spirited post-war racing drivers, Umberto Maglioli was a force to be reckoned with. We celebrate the 70th anniversary of his glorious triumph at the fearsome 1954 Carrera Panamericana
Words: Jason Barlow
Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus was a Roman general and consul in the third century BC, whose doggedness while battling Hannibal became legend. No doubt he inspired many tributes – but none quite like Umberto Maglioli’s; the Italian racing driver daubed the illustrious general’s name in the upper area of his Ferrari 375 MM’s windscreen, ahead of the 1953 Carrera Panamericana road race in Mexico.

Above: Umberto Maglioli photographed in 1954, the same year of his heroic triumph at the Carrera Panamericana

Maglioli’s father had wanted his son to become a doctor, and although he chose the unpredictable world of motorsport instead, the young man was apparently cut from a different cloth to his devil-may-care rivals. “Maglioli is something different,” an Italian friend told Sports Illustrated in 1954. “He is not wild. He does not eat much; he drinks less than he eats. He is not crazy over women. The head rules him. For a young Italian that is odd. For an Italian race driver it is nearly impossible.”

Born in Biella, in the northern Italian Piedmont region, in 1928, Maglioli was introduced to motor racing by his friend and fellow driver, Giovanni Bracco. He would have the honour of racing for Scuderia Ferrari in three F1 world championships, in 1953, ’54 and ’55, but his appearances were sporadic, the points haul minimal.

Above: the Ferrari 375 Plus boasted a V12 engine of nearly five litres, along with coachwork by Pininfarina. Its most significant victory was at the 1954 Carrera Panamericana with Maglioli at the wheel, but it also triumphed at Agadir, Silverstone and Le Mans

Back then, though, sports car racing was an equal draw for drivers and fans alike, and in this arena Maglioli would prove tenacious. He competed in the Targa Florio 19 times, winning the demanding Sicilian classic on three occasions, and contested the Mille Miglia 10 times. Driving with Mike Hawthorn in a Ferrari 375 MM Coupe, he also won the 1953 Pescara 12 Hours. It’s tempting to think that there was no corner of Italy’s road racing routes that this young gladiator did not know intimately.

Above: Enzo Ferrari entered five of his race cars into the 1953 Carrera Panamericana as a way of showcasing the marque to the burgeoning North American market

Yet it’s a race far beyond Europe that was the scene of his greatest triumph. Returning to Mexico for the final Carrera Panamericana road race in 1954, Maglioli was armed with a new Ferrari 375 Plus, a typically curvaceous piece of work by Pinin Farina that clothed a reworked chassis and truly mighty new engine. At almost 5.0 litres, this was the largest capacity V12 Ferrari had yet made, and with upwards of 330cv it had the power output to match. Its suspension used a new de Dion rear axle and Houdaille shock absorbers, delivering more amenable handling. It was also fitted with an enormous 190-litre fuel tank, a necessary measure on the Carrera Panamericana.

Above: Maglioli chats with fellow Italian driver Fabrizio Serena (left) ahead of the 1953 Carrera Panamericana

And what a race this was. Hellishly dangerous, it was first run in 1950 to mark the completion of the 3500km north-to-south Mexican section of the Pan-American Highway.

Initially it attracted a motley bunch of amateur competitors, but soon saw America’s big saloons ranged against Europe’s more agile sports cars, the drivers’ entry list a who’s who of motor racing. Ferrari was victorious in 1951, but Mercedes-Benz won in ’52 (despite a vulture slamming into the lead car’s windscreen) and again in 1953.

The Panamericana was now a major motorsport event, with separate classes to balance the competition, but that same year also saw more fatalities than ever. Running from Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the route ran along Mexico’s central mountains, rising up 10,000ft then back down again, and encompassed more than 3000 corners – misjudge the entry or exit to one of these and a grisly fate awaited.

Above: Maglioli, together with co-drivers Mario Ricci and Forese Salviati, drove a Ferrari 375 MM to sixth place in the 1953 Carrera Panamericana

In 1954, the challenge for Maglioli’s rivals was to outgun him in the twisty mountain sections, for the Ferrari was too powerful to catch on the longer straights, where it could reach 280km/h. In fact, the Italian’s main competition that year came from another Ferrari driver, a young American called Phil Hill. He was racing in a three-year old 375 MM owned by the privateer, Allen Guiberson, and though a nervy character, Hill – a future F1 champion for Ferrari – was a natural racer. He actually led on the first stage, but Maglioli’s superior firepower would soon win out.

On the desert plains of the final leg, near Juarez, a crowd of 100,000 waited as the leading cars drew near. Maglioli’s Ferrari led the way, having completed 3,070km at an average speed of 170km/h.

“Road racers are like roulette players,” Maglioli told the press following his victory. “We who race know that it is dangerous, but once we get the fever, we are satisfied with nothing else.”

(Postscript: Umberto Maglioli won the Sebring 12 hours in a Ferrari 275 P in 1964. He retired from motor racing in 1970 and died in 1999.)

Cover image: Umberto Maglioli pilots his Ferrari 375 Plus over the finish line at Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, taking victory at the 1954 Carrera Panamericana road race