The Peking to Paris Rally is a recreation of the 1907 challenge issued by Le Matin, "Is there anyone who will undertake to travel this summer from Peking to Paris by automobile?"
The 2016 version will follow a route of 13,695 Km (8,510 miles) and take 35 days. We are travelling in Rhubarb and Custard, a 1936 Buick. We know nothing about cars or rallying.
Wednesday, 1 June 2016
PTOP - A Quick Recap
The Romans had steam powered ships (but "slaves much better") and full sized steam powered cars have been around since 1769 but the car as we know it, more or less, was designed by a German called Karl Benz in 1886. It's pretty remarkable that just 21 years later the French newspaper Le Matin should issue a challenge to find drivers willing to take a car from Peking to Paris.
It's a mystery as to who thought up this challenge but it's the sort of thing newspapers did in those days - the Tour de France was also started by a French journal, L'Auto. A committee of the willing was put together to discuss the logistics of the race and promptly concluded that it couldn't be done - "Only discuss a plan long enough and you will end by thinking it absurd." Nonetheless a handful of cars showed up at the start in Peking and the race was on.
Although it wasn't much of a race. The Italian Prince Scipione Borghese, driving a 40 hp Italia won by miles, in fact by weeks. He was so far ahead he took a detour via St Petersberg to visit friends. But that's not to say it wasn't hard work. The car had to be carried over the Chinese mountains, was constantly getting bogged down in the Gobi desert, collapsed through a wooden bridge in Siberia, had to be redesignated as a train so that it could run along the railway lines in Russia and suffered many discomforts and inconveniences along the way. There's no doubt that the Prince, his mechanic, Ettore, and the Italian journalist Luigi Barzini were a tough crew both mentally and physically. The days were long and exhausting - heaving the car out of sand or bogs. They often went without food and sometimes water; they slept little - at times just on wooden floors - and the car needed constant mechanical TLC. It was a real Boy's Own Adventure and the Prince became an Italian hero whilst Barzini's book of the trip was an international bestseller.
So this is what we are trying to recreate. Sort of. We can't pretend we have wound the clock back to 1907 where no one in Mongolia or Siberia had ever seen a car and where there were no roads. But we are driving vehicles that are some 80 years old and largely unmodified. They will break under stress and need to be coaxed along. The route avoids main roads wherever possible and plenty of the journey is on gravel and unmade tracks. Importantly, unlike the Prince, we are not hardened adventurers used to a bit of derring do - I sit behind a desk all day and consider a trip to London's West End to be pretty exhausting.
But, we have made our plans, prepared the car and readied ourselves for the start. I confess however that I am really very nervous.