Porsche 908-3, 1970 Targa Florio, Brian Redman, Jo Siffert

Targa Florio – History & Race Profile

By Art Evans

What do you think was the toughest and most difficult race ever? After reading my September 2011 history column, you might say the New York to Paris. Then there was the 1950-54 La Carrera Panamericana. But these were short-lived point-to-point contests. How about a closed circuit race? In the opinion of many who competed there, it was the Targa Florio. The first was in 1906; the last in 1977.

I am fortunate to know quite a few who were there. Three of them—Sitrling Moss, John Fitch and Brian Redman—are friends who have shared their experiences with us. Moss won in 1955 with Fitch fourth; Redman won in 1970. Why was it so tough? According to Brian, “One 44 mile lap had 710 corners, not to mention unforgiving poles, stone walls, dogs, spectators and farm animals. Surfaces ranged from bad to worse. A missed turn might mean a horrific drop down the side of a mountain.”

The first Targa was organized by wealthy Italian aficionado Vincenzo Florio on May 6, 1906. Florio (1883-1959), from a prominent Sicilian family, had previously initiated the Coppa Florio, a race first run in 1900. The first Targa was three laps over the 92.7-mile Grande Circuit. Each lap was an ordeal as the roads weren’t designed for cars. Drivers encountered both domestic and wild animals as well as bandits. Entries had to be production cars of which ten had been made. Other than that, there were no rules. Vincenzo Lancia organized the betting, common at auto races in those days.

Thirty cars entered, but a dock strike in Genoa hampered travel, so only ten made it to the start. Each car was sent off from Campofelice every ten minutes. First away was bookie Lancia in his Fiat followed by Jacques Le Blon in a Hotchkiss with his riding-mechanic wife. To the dismay of those who had money on him, Lancia retired due to mechanical failure. Le Blond suffered a number of tire punctures; Mrs. Le Blon had to help changing them. Alessandro Cagno in an Itala 35/40 HP won in 9 1/2 hours averaging 29 mph. Carlo Graziani was second in another Italia while Paul Bablot in a Berliet was third.

1906 Targa Florio, Isotta Fraschini race cars
The first Targa Florio took place in 1906. The Isotta Fraschini team (cars #7) are lined up in Termini attended by goats.
1906 Targa Florio
The Zust driven by Maggioni passing through the village of Petralia Sottana.
1906 Targa Florio, Italia race car
Allesandro Cagno won the inaugural Targa Florio in 1906 driving an Itala 35/40 HP for over nine hours averaging 29 mph.
Vincenzo Florio picture
Wealthy enthusiast Vincenzo Florio created the Targa Florio in 1906.

In 1907, some regulations regarding engine specifications and weight were instituted. With dock workers loading cargo, 50 cars entered. Vincenzo Florio’s former chauffeur, Felice Nazzaro, won in a Fiat with Lancia second, also in a Fiat and Maurice Fabry third in an Italia. Vincenzo Trucco in a Fiat won the 1908 contest, but 1909 experienced a severe earthquake near Messina, killing hundreds. Consequently only 11 cars showed up. Francesco won in a SPA.

Vincenzo Lancia, 1907 Targa Florio
Vincenzo Lancia in his Fiat before the start of the 1907 Targa Florio.
Felice Nazzaro, 1907 Targa Florio, Fiat race car
Felice Nazzaro won the 1907 Targa Florio in a Fiat.
Vincenzo Lancia, 1908 Targa Florio
Vincenzo Lancia finished second in the 1908 Targa Florio driving a Fiat.

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  1. Great retrospective by Mr. Evans. I knew somewhere in my noggin that the Targa Florio was raced way back when, but I had no idea that it started in 1906. Those old pictures are very interesting, especially the details in the background. Thanks to all.

  2. If my reading is correct, the first two “Targa Florio’s” were run before 1906. They were run, not in Sicily,
    but in northen Italy, starting and ending in Brescia which would eventually become the home of the Mille Miglia.
    They were races that were organized and competed in, by Vincenzo Florio himself. They did not circumnavigate Italy as the Mille Miglia later would, but were run as several laps around a closed course in the Brescia-Cremona region. Florio was a northen Italian, not a Sicilian. For various reasons he had to move the race to Sicily where he was welcomed. But the first two were called “Coppa Florio’s” after the very artistic cup he put up for the winner.
    I think that his race in 1906 might have been the first formal “Targa” however.
    Feel free to correct me on this.

  3. What goes around comes around. I noticed the wheels on the early racers are the same as we see on customized cars of today.

  4. Don’t understand the James Dean connection – wasn’t he a rank amateur whose talent fell far short of those who actually took on the Targa Florio, or any other serious motor race?

    1. I was pointing out those who were well-known race driver who died that year. Of course, he was an amateur. I knew him and say him race at Palm Springs. Obviously he was an amateur, but he WAS well known. – Art Evans

  5. Thank you, Mr. Evans, for this excellent retrospective on the Targa Florio. My wife and I spent a few weeks in Sicily last year and drove the 45 mile piccolo circuito delle Madonie, which was the circuit used during the last three decades of the Targa Florio, before the last race was run in 1977. The piccolo circuito is a 45-mile, 72 kilometer, 700-turn torture test of man and machine in the western Madonie mountains. A complete race consisted of eleven laps. The race started a couple of miles north of Cerda, where grandstands, pit walls, and a statue of Vincenzo Florio still stand. It proceeded counter-clockwise through Cerda and south to Caltavuturo, then turned north toward the Tyrrhenian Sea, passing through Collesano on the way to the seaside town of Campofelice and the long 3.7 mile Buonfornello straight along the coast, before turning south toward Cerda once again. The circuit is public road, used by locals, trucks and buses, and farmers herding livestock. Several sections of the road have eroded away, requiring one-lane etiquette. That said, the drive is spectacular, the scenery unimaginably beautiful. And even as someone who has done some racing, I have no comprehension of how difficult this race must have been to drive, especially considering the lap record is something under 34 minutes! It took us over six hours, with a stop at the small but excellent Museo Targa Florio in Collesano, and lunch afterward at Trattoria Carricaturi Di Barranco Filippo, where, after praising the “occhi di lupo” pasta dish, the chef came to our table and gave us the recipe!

  6. Thank you very much for the great piece and photo collection Mr. Evans. A real pleasure to read and relive the great moments of this fantastic event. By the sound of it, each year would probably deserve a whole article onto itself, considering how much appeared to happen every time.

    Looking forward to your next piece and thanking you again for this one,

    Sincerely Yours,

    Vincent Metais.

  7. Thank you for the fantastic photos Mr Evans a real pleasure and a great piece of history..I was born in the village of Sciara on the other side of the valley from Cerda in full view of each other.I also enjoyed the beautiful seanery that some of the pictures provided.In some early photos you can actually see my home town.My father was actually born there in 1906 and his father had a Vineyard in the area called la Canna, where the actual races started.I have allways heard of these races but not to this magnatude,and never knew these fantastic photos even exsisted.The next time i visit there i will make it a must to do the circuit in my car.By the way i will be staying in a bed,breakfast called TARGAFLORIO.

    Sincerely yours

    Michael Fragale

  8. My grandfather W A Hollick (British) took part in the 1907 race. I have a photograph of him in his car at the race.Must have been quite an adventure!