The race was created in 1906 by the wealthy pioneer race driver and automobile enthusiast, Vincenzo Florio, who had started the Coppa Florio race in Brescia, Lombardy in 1900.
One of the toughest competitions in Europe, the first Targa Florio covered 3 laps equalling 277 miles (446 km) through multiple hairpin curves on treacherous mountain roads, at heights where severe changes in climate frequently occurred.
By the mid-1920s, the Targa Florio had become one of Europe's most important races, as neither the 24 Hours of Le Mans nor the Mille Miglia had been established yet.
The 148 km "Grande" circuit was then shortened twice, the first time to 67 mi (108 km), the version used from 1919-1930, and then to the 72 km (45 mi) circuit used from 1932 to 1977.
The start and finish took place at Cerda. The counterclockwise lap lead from Caltavuturo and Collesano from an altitude over 600 metres (1,970 ft) down to sea level, where the cars raced from Campofelice di Roccella on the Buonfornello straight along the coast, a straight over 6 km (3.7 mi) longer than the Mulsanne straight at the Circuit de la Sarthe in Le Mans.
Due to the track's length, drivers practised in the week before the race in public traffic, often with their race cars fitted with license plates. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, race cars with up to 600 hp (450 kW) such as Nino Vaccarella's Ferrari 512S raced through small mountain villages while spectators sat or stood right next to, or even on, the road.