50 years on from one of the best car films ever, we decided to take three modern MINIs and do it all again
Late Monday morning, Ceresole Reale, Italy. It’s a quaint little village, about 50 kilometres north-west of Turin. Today, its inhabitants are going about their business in their usual fashion, and we’re sharing the road with carpenters’ vans scooting between houses to prepare them for the heavy snow that’s due within a week or so.
Ceresole Reale sits in the Orco Valley, low in the Graian Alps, and in the Piedmont region. Butting up against the eastern French border, it’s a small place with around 200 inhabitants, and along with skiing and the neighbouring Gran Paradiso National Park, it’s an area known for a series of hydroelectric powerplants, and where 4,000 ibexes call home. Interesting, but not that thrilling, let’s face it. Ceresole Reale does have a bit of history, though.
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Fifty years ago, a blue coach and a production team would have passed through this village, not knowing that they were about to film what would become arguably the greatest car film ever – The Italian Job. And as it so happens to be Mini’s 60th anniversary as well, we’re on our way to visit the iconic locations in the film in red, white and blue MINIs. Stop one is the Alpine road where the coach dangles over the edge, and navigating our way through Ceresole Reale is the first task.
Dodging badly parked Fiat Doblo vans, our little convoy is causing a stir for such a sleepy village. We pass the last of the beautifully kept houses and the road hugs the lake that shares the village’s name. Here the trees thin out and just as the Lago di Ceresole takes a left, the road continues straight and heads through the valley that gently inclines towards the cloud line. However, around the next bend our little winter trip could well be over before it has started, and putting an end to months of planning. The relief! The yellow snow barrier is open and our three MINIs carry on their way.
Up in the Alps
Each year, the SP50 road throngs with holidaymakers, desperate to take a drive on one of Italy’s most famous mountain passes. Just out of Ceresole Reale, the road becomes more elegantly known as the Colle del Nivolet, and from 15 October to 15 May every year it shuts as the snow tumbles down the mountains and the road ceases to be visible. Guide books warn any visitor of this, but it’s an important point that I only discovered in the hotel bar the night before our morning drive – and the day we’re driving is 14 October.
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Thankfully the local council has kept true to its word and the road remains open for another 24 hours, allowing our three-car MINI convoy to carry on up on to the Nivolet Pass, just a few minutes after 11am. And this is where the fun can start.
Through the open barrier and the road’s surface shows signs of years of heavy snow. It’s cracked and peppered with little holes, but at this point, low down in the valley, the road is relatively straight and flat. You could imagine a few months earlier this section being difficult to travel on, as motorhomes and estate cars, filled with tents and camping paraphernalia, park up to admire the mountains stretching out high above us. But today there is no one, and the cloud, low and thick, is shielding the high rocky outcrop.
We’re just gently plodding along in our MINI John Cooper Works three-door hatches – me in the Chili Red one leading the way, Sean Carson in Pepper White, and the Starlight Blue JCW, with Sam Naylor at the wheel, is bringing up the rear. I’m peering through the pillar-box-slot-like windscreen; the road is clear, but that cloud is rolling down towards us. The barrier was open, but if we get to the top of the mountain and we’re shrouded in cloud, we may as well turn around. Getting up this road is crucial. It’s a tortuous, 33-corner piece of tarmac whose destination is a dismal little restaurant on the other side of the mountain. But our aim is to reach the spot where Big William slides the coach to its predicament over the edge.
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Image 5 of 23
The cloud has stopped plunging downhill and now just lies heavily about half a mile above us, almost as if it’s goading us on. If the cloud stays there, the view from the summit will be miserable, yet we have little choice but to persist. On we climb and the MINI’s 2.0-litre turbocharged engine seems to be enjoying the cooler, damp air. The road is beginning to take on a different form now; at the edges it crumbles away into deep ditches of stone and gravel, the grassy hills are petering out and the lower sections of the mountains are creeping into view.
Out of the dank gloom one of the area’s hydroelectric plants appears, a sheer face of cold, wet stone rising above us; behind it is the reservoir Lago Serrù. The road makes a hairpin turn to the right, and this is where the Colle really shows its character. A quick succession of sharp turns and steep inclines follows and the MINIs are lapping it up. With 228bhp they’re naturally quick, but the torque only really kicks in when the needle races towards the red line.
So it’s a series of short, sharp full-throttle second-gear bursts, then snatching third before releasing the throttle and letting the incline scrub off the speed. Back down to second and then repeat the process all over again. These new 2019 JCWs don’t pop and bang on the overrun quite so eagerly as before – you can blame WLTP fuel regulations for that – but the engine makes quite a decent noise, with a deep-bowled growl in the lower rev range.
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Chunks of sheer, ugly rock rise above us now and we’re chasing that cloud all the time. Our pace is no more than 35mph on the longest of stretches between the hairpins, but with the cars’ exhaust notes bouncing off the rock faces, the turbos chirping and the odd squeal of rubber, it feels a lot faster than that. We carry on like this for another two or so miles when suddenly the road flattens out and the area’s second vast reservoir appears. The road hugs it for around half a mile before kinking off and climbing gently upwards towards the summit. The cloud is rising as quickly as we are going up the mountain.
We carry on snaking up, as the drops either side of the road – completely unguarded by safety barriers – get higher. We’ve been completely silent on our walkie-talkies, partly concentrating on manhandling the MINIs up the mountain and partly out of respect for the moment. As mountain climbs go, this is rather a special one, with not a soul around for miles, so nobody wants to destroy the present moment with idle chat.
Another handful of corners, and we’re really high now. I launch my MINI from the climb’s last hairpin left and keep the throttle open for a short distance, passing a tourist viewing platform on the left side of a very tight right-hander. I carry on with the two other MINIs slightly further behind and then the climb turns into a gentle downwards meander. Here you pass from the Piedmont region into Aosta; I just coast the JCW along and end up in a car park, overshadowed by a shabby, single-storey building, boarded up for the winter season. We’re at the restaurant, so we’ve travelled too far.
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Looking around for a corner
The walkie-talkie crackles, and it’s Sam saying we must have missed the corner we’ve all come to see. But we can’t have. There was no corner going up the mountain that resembled the tight left-hander that facilitated the immortal line “Hang on lads, I’ve got a great idea”. The viewing point! Of course.
As is the way with films, what you’re seeing isn’t always the truth. The plot of the film suggests the road goes to Geneva, allowing Charlie Croker and the gang to deposit the gold stolen from under the Italians’ noses. But the road, as we know, is a dead-end. So it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to admit the famous left-hander was coming down from the summit, not towards it, as you would presume when watching the movie.
We dash back, park up and almost as if someone is watching over us, the clouds sweep behind us to reveal one of the most breathtaking landscapes I have ever seen. To the left, the road we hurtled up lies draped over the brown and grey rock below us; in the centre the reservoirs sit there like giant ink stains and to the right snow dribbles down from the top of the mountains.
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Looking at that road twisting below us, it’s staggering to believe that a coach made it all the way up here 50 years ago. Said coach was a 1964 Harrington Legionnaire, built on a Bedford VAL14 six-wheeled chassis, bought in March 1968 for filming in September. Professional coach driver Fred Toms was the man tasked with the job of driving it up the Colle del Nivolet for all the film work. According to Matthew Field’s The Self Preservation Society: 50 Years of The Italian Job book, Tom wore black make-up to resemble Harry Field, the actor who played Big William.
How did the coach never drop over the edge? The film’s construction manager attached an anchor set in concrete at the front of the coach, but the famous cliffhanger ending might not have happened at all. Field describes how the helicopter – used to get the final shot – swept in before the coach had been anchored, and its downdraught nearly sent it over.
The whole coach sequence took around 10-15 days to shoot in September 1968, but the famous corner looks rather different to how it did then – although it only changed recently. The corner is now a tourist viewing point, with guard rails and picnic tables, but the view is pretty much identical. With the wind whipping up, we quickly grab our pictures and I savour every moment of this special place. Sam even finds a memorial to Fred Toms; today, without a soul in sight, it’s poignant to see in what feels like a rather lonely, obscure place.
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With our photos and video in the bag, time has slipped by at an alarming rate. As special as the Colle del Nivolet is, it’s just one location in a film brimming with beautiful scenes. The plan was to hop over to the road where the two Jaguar E-Types and Charlie Croker’s Aston Martin DB4 Volante meet their end, and then to drive to the tunnel used in the opening scenes of the film. With the light going, we decide to race to the tunnel as fast as we can. Down the mountain we go, and where it’s safe to do so, we fan out in a three-car arrow-like formation – purely for Nathan the snapper, not because Quincy Jones’s Italian Job soundtrack is playing in my car, you understand.
Much like in the morning when we collected the cars from Turin’s BMW MINI dealership and headed to the Colle, the afternoon drive is very much about covering the miles as quickly as possible. We use a cocktail of expensive tolled Autostradas that cut around and through the Alps and progress is swift, if a little monotonous.
La Thuile tunnel
We turn off the motorway as soon as the sat-nav lady chirps up, silencing Quincy’s caper music, and we attack a series of eight hairpin bends. Out of the final hairpin, the La Thuile straightens out and there it is – arguably the most lethal road tunnel seen in cinema history.
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You’d reasonably expect something like a tunnel not to have changed much over 50 years, and the La Thuile tunnel is remarkably similar to how it would have been in September 1968. The structure, naturally, remains the same, even down to the white and black painted edge, and the wall that leads up to the tunnel where the Mafia stand is barely different. The road surface is better, though, and the Caterpillar bulldozer would have struggled to push the Miura over the edge, due to a modern safety barrier.
The story goes that Lamborghini was happy to loan the film’s producers a brand-new Miura, but wasn’t keen on it being destroyed and deposited into the river rushing beneath the tunnel. So a crashed Miura, sat languishing in the corner of Lamborghini’s workshop, was handed over, too.
And the reason for it being orange? It wasn’t because it was a pretty hue for the new Lambo, but ‘Miura Red’ was the colour of the written-off Miura, so that dictated the colour of the hero car for the driving shots. The mangled Miura didn’t have an engine and the production team only had one take to capture it being pushed into the river by the Mafia. The story goes that the production team went back to the tunnel the next morning to pick up the wrecked Miura, but it had been stolen. The new Miura used for the action shots was built for a customer, so was returned to Lamborghini, checked over and delivered to the dealer. The buyer was never told and the car was only discovered in 2013.
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We do a few runs through the tunnel for the camera, and it quickly becomes obvious that its north entrance is used for the shot of the Miura driving into the tunnel and for the bulldozer shot, presumably because the southern side is less architecturally interesting.
I asked MINI to fit our JCWs with spot-lamps, just like the cars in the film, and with the sun well and truly setting behind the tree line, we switch them on to get in the mood for our dusk drive. We point our convoy towards the Autostrada network and cruise back to Turin and our overnight stop.
Fiat Lingotto factory
Next morning, and it’s a short drive to our third iconic location – the rooftop test track of the old Fiat factory. It’s short because our overnight stay is in the factory itself – it’s now a hotel, shopping centre and office space. The factory opened in 1926 and closed in 1982, while the rooftop test track’s appearance in the film reflected a strong relationship with Fiat. Originally, BMC (British Motor Corporation) refused to supply Mini Cooper Ss to the film’s producers, clearly not seeing the marketing potential that the film presented.
Hearing of BMC’s reluctance to support the film, Fiat stepped in and, according to Field’s book, as long as the producers agreed to swap the Minis for Fiat 500s, the Italian company would offer an unlimited number of cars to be crashed, stunt drivers, a $50,000 incentive and a top-of-the-range Ferrari for producer Michael Deeley. He declined the offer, believing a car chase with 500s rather spoilt the film’s patriotic character. Six last-of-the-line Mini Cooper S Mk1s were bought – four Austins in red and white, and two blue Morris Minis that were converted to look like Austins – and the greatest car advert was created.
The irony isn’t lost on us as we circle the drenched test track. Fifty years on from The Italian Job’s release, BMW appreciates the film’s impact on the little car’s worldwide fame, and it feels quite eerie re-enacting the car chase around the track. The weather isn’t on our side, however, and it’s so bad the security guard who is supposed to be chaperoning us hasn’t even bothered to turn up. So we stretch our two-hour track booking as far as we can, before zipping down the old factory’s famous interior ramps and heading for the centre of Turin.
We stop off at the city’s Palavela – the site for another famous scene where the Minis drive on to the roof and manage to shake off one of the Polizia’s Alfa Romeo Giulias. It was originally built for the Italia ’61 Expo, but a major renovation for the 2006 Winter Olympics has changed the building’s appearance somewhat. Still, as we roll into the car park to grab a quick snap, the Palavela’s distinctive roof is still the same, prompting all of us to ask the question of how on earth did the Minis not fall off the roof’s steep sides?
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We zip across the river and head up a series of hilly roads, home to some of Turin’s smartest houses, and pass Villa della Regina. We stop off at the 17th century palace – a UNESCO World Heritage Site, no less – to walk down the impressive front steps, just like Michael Caine did.
Gran Madre di Dio Church
Our little photo shoot is brought to an abrupt end, though, as a rather smartly dressed man from the palace’s visitor’s reception spouts out a flurry of Italian words, waves his arms around and gives the distinct impression he’d like us to leave. We do as he requests, suppressing the urge to quote Birkinshaw from the film (played by the great Fred Emny), “Bloody foreigners”. With our metaphorical tails between our legs, we hop in the JCWs and drive back down into Turin to the Gran Madre di Dio Church. It’s here where the Mini Coopers interrupt a wedding and bounce down the church’s steps. Keen to get as close to the steps as possible (they’re now gated off from the pavement) we bump up the kerb and adopt the British ‘sorry we didn’t see the sign’ mentality, park up and add another photo to our scrapbook.
No trip to Turin would be complete without a trip to its beautiful shopping arcades, so we cross the Vittorio Emanuele I bridge, stop off to gaze at the weir across the river (and wonder how the Minis didn’t drown) and head further into the city’s congested streets. The Galleria Subalpina – where the Minis drive down the steps and race past terrified shoppers – is identical to how it would have been in the sixties. The Galleria San Federico is where the Minis slide across a wet marble floor, and is equally stuck in aspic.
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And that’s the overwhelming thing about our special trip – from the Colle del Nivolet to the Gran Madre Church and the typically stylish and very Italian shopping arcades, the locations have pretty much stayed preserved in time and barely changed in 50 years.
With our sightseeing trip at an end, we point our MINI JCWs in the direction of home. It’s a long way to England, and it’s that way…
If you enjoyed our version of the Italian Job, check out our Icelandic adventure here…