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Freddie St George: Passion for Minis

Freddie St George

Published by AAH  on 29 March 2021


Freddie St George has spent thirty years organising The Italian Job, a unique fundraising event that sees a convoy of Minis take to the streets of Turin. Inspired by the famous Michael Caine film, the annual rally has raised £3 million for children’s charities. After mum Giulia was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, Steyning resident Freddie picked up the same accolade in the New Year. Here, he tells the remarkable story of The Italian Job…


My father was serving in the Royal Navy when he met my mother in Rome. They settled in England and I was born here, but we still have strong family ties in Italy. If you have the right connections there, anything is possible. Those links have helped make The Italian Job possible. 

The idea was first mooted in 1989. I met up with friends at Topolino’s restaurant in Hove, owned by the Cavallo family. Angelo Cavallo, who lived in Horsham at the time, had taken part in The Beaujolais Run, a long-running motoring event. Although he enjoyed it, it involved a lot of hard driving and he was looking for a more sedate experience. So, over a few beers, we all came up with the idea of a Mini rally. 

I was already a big fan of The Italian Job. I was born in 1969, the year the film was released. We had a VHS player and one summer I watched it practically every day! I bought my first Mini for just £20 when I was 15. We got it running, although I couldn’t drive it as I wasn’t old enough!  

We wrote to Paramount, asking for permission to use The Italian Job name. We told them there was nothing commercial about the event, as all the money going to children’s charities, and they granted us use. So, the first Italian Job was held in 1990 with 55 teams raising £70,000 for Children in Need and ChildLine. That was a lot of money then, as there was no Just Giving website. It was raised by knocking on doors and passing around sponsorships forms. 

I had connections in Trento in the north-east of Italy, where I went to university. With the help of friends and family, we organised the start of The Italian Job there. 

The event is competitive, to a degree, in that we organise special stages and hand out penalty points, but speed is never a factor. It’s really a tourist trophy and I view it as the epitome of social motoring. Cars are registered and we conduct scrutineering to ensure they’re all road legal. Then we follow an itinerary over nine days, taking in the best sights Italy can offer. We tend to go off the beaten track, so we can put the Minis through their paces! 

We change the route every year to offer variety for regular participants. As well as visiting Turin, where key scenes in the film were shot, we take the cars to famous locations and enjoy cultural excursions. We might tour a balsamic vinegar farm or a Parma ham producer, or go wine-tasting in Tuscany. In 2019, we were given a police escort on a fantastic tour of Rome. We drove around the Coliseum and the Roman Forum, where normally traffic is restricted. We’ve also visited the Pope’s summer residence at the Palace of Castel Gandolfo. 

After eight years, we switched the start point to Imola, home of the San Marino Grand Prix, where we’ve been able to visit Ayrton Senna’s memorial. We've also driven up to Fiat’s rooftop test track in Turin, which is used in the getaway scene in the original film, and driven on Ferrari’s test track at Fiorano, which is hallowed ground for Maranello fans. One year, we parked in front of the Reggia di Caserta, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Naples. These are things most people don’t get to do. 

Even getting all the cars out to Italy for the start can be a challenge. We have a service van full of Mini parts, as they’re forever breaking down. The idea is that drivers follow a set route to Imola and anyone in trouble gets swept up by the service van. These days, we keep in touch with mobile phones and GPS, but it was a lot harder in the days of road maps and CB radios. 

What’s wonderful about the Mini is that you could be a multi-millionaire or a teenager with a part-time job and have the same experience. They’re a classless car. There’s an elitism on the roads today, but not with Minis. I was recently driving my 47-year-old Mini when it broke down. Ten people asked if I needed help, including a mechanic who said he only stopped because it was a Mini. I drive a BMW for work and when I’m waiting at a junction, nobody lets me out! 

I still have a smile whenever I’m behind the wheel and certainly, there’s nothing like driving a Mini Cooper. John Cooper took this tiny car and transformed it into something blisteringly fast. They are incredible to drive, because you’re sat ten inches off the ground with a car that handles like it’s on a Scalextric track. People forget it has an illustrious racing history. Mini Coopers have won the Monte Carlo Rally on more than one occasion! 

The Italian Job film was directed by Peter Collinson, whose children Tara and Shane have taken part in our event. We’ve also met Michael Caine, who told us stories about filming. BMC only donated three Minis for the original film, as they didn't realise how successful it would be. All three cars went off the side of the mountain and only parts were salvaged. Preserving the original cars wasn’t a concern, as it’s only with time that the film generated a fan base and the Minis took on a degree of nostalgia. 

I still love the film and Caine’s famous line. Once, we were at the Nurburgring, watching The Italian Job on a big screen in the bar. Even though we've seen it a thousand times, we all shouted, “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” 

There was never a serious debate about letting new Minis take part in The Italian Job rally because of the support BMW gave us from the outset. Back in the mid-90s, when BMW and Rover were business partners, Rover were big supporters of ours and even donated a Mini for a prize draw every year. We visited the BMW factory in Munich as a convoy of 100 English Minis and they couldn’t have been more hospitable. So, there was never any question that we would welcome drivers with new models. 

That said, I’m a classic Mini purist! It’s not that I don't like the BMW Mini - my wife drives a Countryman Cooper and it's incredible. But it's not a plaything and playing with Minis is my passion. I was invited to Longbridge to see the last original Mini coming off the production line. It was emotional, as you’re witnessing the end of something historic. Go anywhere in the world and you’ll see old Minis. They’re part of our motoring heritage. 

I owe a great deal to Minis. The Italian Job has given me a reason to travel to Italy for two weeks every year and meet amazing people. I met my wife, Kiri, on the second Italian Job, so it's been a huge part of my life.

The thing I'm most proud of is that we’ve raised just shy of £3 million since 1990. As well as supporting children’s charities and a close association with Buttle UK, we support an Italian charity ever year. We are guests in their country and they do so much to help us, especially when you consider the film’s context (where Italian police appear hapless and its car industry is portrayed as inferior). So, it’s only right we support good causes there too.I’m also proud that we’ve inspired others to organise fundraisers. A Japanese Mini enthusiast took part in The Italian Job and later organised his own event in aid of the Kobe Earthquake Fund in 1995. 

We've been involved in several Piazza Italia events in Horsham, as Mini convoys promoting The Italian Job. I would love to get involved in Piazza Italia again, if it’s held in future, or use Horsham as the start point for one of our events. I took part in the Piazza Tour,  visiting smaller towns and villages in the District. I was in a Mini, driving alongside a Fiat 500 Cinquecento. We were sandwiched between a Lamborghini and a Ferrari, but I swear we got the most attention! ­­

We usually plan The Italian Job to coincide with the launch of Vino Novello at the end of October. In 2020, we had to cancel it because of Covid-19 and planned a Yorkshire Job instead, to keep the fundraising going. Eventually, we had to postpone that too. As for 2021, things are still up in the air, but we hope to schedule a UK event later this year. 

My mum, Giulia, has really been the brains behind The Italian Job. Through her work, she was an expert in travel and event planning, so she’s been at the heart of organising every aspect of the event for 30 years. When we planned the first rally, we never intended for it to be anything other than a one-off, but as soon as it was over, entry forms started coming in for the following year! She’s 86 now and is as active as ever. Last year, she received an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours and everyone was chuffed. 

In the New Year’s Honours, I too was awarded an MBE, which was a surprise. If I think back 30 years to that night when I met the boys for a pizza, I would never have thought it would lead to something so big. But I've loved every second of it!  

Interview: Ben Morris

Photos: Toby Phillips Photography/Freddie St George

If you are interested in finding out more about The Italian Job rally, or for details of taking part in other events, visit www.italianjob.com