Fiat's Elkann gets behind the wheel for Mille Miglia

Fri May 18, 2012 3:06am EDT
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BRESCIA, Italy (Reuters) - John Elkann, the media-shy chairman of one of the world's biggest car companies, got behind the wheel and demonstrated his driving skills on Thursday in Italy's legendary four-day Mille Miglia rally race.

The 36-year-old head of Fiat, which now control Chrysler and was founded by his great-great grandfather Giovanni Agnelli in 1899, will take turns driving a custom-made 1952 eight-cylinder Fiat 8V with his wife, Lavinia Borromeo, who also has a passion for iconic cars.

"Lavinia and I had been talking for years about doing this, and after the birth of our third child earlier this year, we decided that now was the right time," Elkann said in an interview. "We practiced for it by driving around the hills in Turin."

The Mille Miglia was founded in 1927 when motoring was still in its infancy. It is a grinding endurance test that pushed both car and driver to the limits.

Drivers in the 382 classic Jaguars, Bentleys, Alfa Romeos, Porsches and Ferraris are timed during the race.

The iconic cars will roar through 190 towns and villages that are set in some of the world's most beautiful scenery, starting from Brescia's historic cobblestoned streets then passing through Verona, Vicenza, Bologna, Florence and Siena on the way to Rome, before looping back up through the vineyard-covered hills of Tuscany.

"Our kids want to see us come in first, but I told them I will be happy if we make it to the end," Elkann said.

Given Alfa Romeo's domination of the race, John's choice of a Fiat rather than an Alfa -- which is part of the Fiat stable of brands that include Ferrari, Maserati, and now Jeep, Dodge and Chrysler - may seem odd. Alfa Romeo won the race 11 out of 20 times from 1927 to 1957.

But he chose the Fiat 8V for sentimental reasons.

"We chose this car because when we got married, someone at Fiat gave us a toy version of this car," he explained. "So when I saw it was available, of course I picked it."

(Reporting by Jennifer Clark; editing by Patricia Reaney)

Fiat Chairman John Elkann drives a Fiat 8V at the start of the " 1000 Miglia" International classic car rally in Brescia, May 17, 2012. REUTERS/Paolo Bona