Classic car rally full of extremes: Peking to Paris

They are back! The 2016 Peking to Paris is over. The arrival date was Sunday July 17th but the sheer joy of the teams that made it to the finish (around a third of the 115 starters) was sadly tempered by the national mourning taking place in France following the terrorist attack in Nice on Bastille Day, which claimed so many lives. This year, the importance of the Peking to Paris classic car rally lies also in its much needed message of hope, as this was an event that involved people from all over the world, who came together to share the challenge of driving 13,695 kilometers in a journey spanning two continents and a dozen different countries. The fact that they were welcomed in all of them is a demonstration that the world is also a fantastic, beautiful and friendly place.

The origins

The idea of driving from Peking to Paris originated in the distant past: it was the 31st of January 1907 when the publisher of the Parisian newspaper Le Matin issued the following challenge: “Is there anyone willing, this summer, to travel from Paris to Peking by automobile?” The idea was to see whether this was even possible, but it was also seen as a great way of linking geographically distant people and opening up new trade opportunities.

Although many initially responded to the invitation with excitement and enthusiasm, six months later, at the start in Peking, only five entrants were actually ready to embark on the 14,994-kilometer journey. They included the Italian Prince Scipione Borghese, accompanied by his personal mechanic, Ettore Guizzardi, and by the Italian journalist, Luigi Barzini. Each of these played his part, with all the challenging organization falling to the Prince, and some of the driving and much of the maintenance work to Guizzardi; instead, Barzini had the challenge of finding a post office at every stop in order to wire back the day’s report to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. Scipione’s car was a 40HP Itala, the biggest of all the entrants: his idea was to mount his challenge in a big, powerful and reliable car, capable of travelling at good speed for long distances without too much stress.

The other competitors adopted a different approach, preferring to use small, light cars, that were easy to lift if they sank into the sand of the Gobi Desert, and small enough to manage the narrow mountain passes. But Borghese was right, and despite having to dismantle the car and have human haulers carry the parts just outside Peking, he won the race, reaching Paris 61 days after the start, and a full 20 days before the second contender, having had many incredible adventures along the way. The Itala had sunk a number of times in the mud of north eastern Russia, survived a couple of bridge collapses, and in some parts had to drive along railroad tracks to reach its destination. We know from Barzini’s reports that their motor car was the very first one ever seen in many places, and that to navigate the Gobi Desert they had to rely on telegraph poles as their only points of reference. We learn that Borghese had been smart enough to arrange a private shipment of fuel, and have it waiting for the Itala in the middle of nowhere, and that Barzini sent a dispatch numbered 1 from a post office that had been open for six years: thinking he was its first customer of the day, he was amazed to discover that he was actually its first customer ever!

The arrival in Paris was emotional and triumphant and a huge achievement for the car world. In his preface to the wonderful book — this book is a real must — written by Luigi Barzini just after the race and entitled “La metà del mondo vista da un’automobile. Da Pechino a Parigi in 60 giorni” (“Pekin to Paris: An Account of Prince Borghese’s Journey Across Two Continents in a Motor-Car”), Scipione Borghese memorably remarks: “We drove a car from Peking to Paris to prove that it could be done. We made it, but in all honesty it is a feat that should really be classed as impossible. There were no roads or service stations, and without the help of soldiers and animals pulling us out of the mud, and without being able to rely on stretches of railroad track and a good helping of luck and good organization, it would have been impossible”. Today, 110 years on, things haven’t really changed much.

Modern times

The Endurance Rally Association (ERA) revived this journey in 1997, to mark its centennial. The event was then repeated in 2007 and since then has taken place on a three-yearly basis. The rules are straightforward, with only two classes allowed to compete: pre-1941 and classic cars up to 1975. Sports cars are very welcome but not mandatory, whereas utility vehicles, trucks and estates are prohibited from competing. These restrictions are dictated by logic: for example, low ground clearance sports cars would clearly be more penalized, and the limited space in the cockpit and trunk are unsuitable given the time that has to be spent driving and the need to bring everything necessary for the journey. It is stipulated very clearly that spare parts, including wheels, tents, sleeping bags and clothing, have to be carried in the car. The ERA provides places in which to camp, food, bathroom facilities and medical assistance. Spare engines, transmissions and so on are not welcome and are against the spirit of the journey. For all these reasons, most of the teams opted for large, robust American cars of the 1930-40s or sedans from the more modern period.

The cars

Looking at the starters, it was clear to see how differently people use their imaginations, with all the entrants figuring out their own “best solutions”: these ranged from Porsche 911s to Mercedes-Benz SLs (both 113s and 107s, the latter both in Roadster and Coupe version), and from the huge American La France of 1915-1917 to the humble Mini Minor of the 1960s. The lowest ground clearance of them all was that of the 1959 Jaguar MK II, while the most impressive “desert boats” were the Chevrolet Coupés, which have been “lifted” and given a soft suspension, resulting in a ride that is just like being in a pitching boat and was perfect for cushioning the mechanics against vibrations. The best looking cars were the 1973 BMW 2002 TII, with high wheels, and the 1971 Ford Mexico MkI, which looked as though it had just come off an East African safari.

The participants

The participants came from 25 different countries across four continents. The biggest contingent came from GB and numbered 70 people; they were followed by 34 people from Australia and 20 from the USA. Austria, Luxemburg, Ireland, Slovakia, Lebanon, Denmark and the Czech Republic were each represented by two people, while Liechtenstein and Singapore each had one participant.

The emotion

Each and every driver who made it to Paris deserves our respect. After all, they had done some very hard work, and also suffered in the process, having had to cope with mud, dust, heat, cold and rain. But the teams that did not reach Paris equally deserve our respect, because, in itself, embarking on a journey like this demands courage and a touch of the kind of madness we like to see! For us, the crowd, it was a thrill to see them all driving through, and we can’t thank them enough. Personally, I’ll never forget the moment I spotted the very first car passing by. The thought that that 1927 Lancia Lambda was reaching the end of a more than 12,000 kilometer journey, having driven directly, almost non-stop, from Peking sent a shiver running down my spine. I suddenly found myself thinking of Barzini, writing, in his 1907 book about their arrival in a village in Mongolia: “…they were as scared of the noise of our Itala — they had never heard a roaring engine before — as they were of us, covered with our protective gear. As soon as we stopped the engine, they slowly come closer, with the brave leading the others…” As we said earlier, 110 years on, little has changed. We are already looking forward to 2019.


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