In the opening months of 1907, the French newspaper Le Matin de Paris issued a challenge to the infant auto industry: "Is there anybody willing to go from Peking to Paris by car next summer? It would be the greatest endurance test that a motor car has ever been subjected to, over a route of 16,000 kilometers." Five teams picked up the gauntlet—three from France and one each from Italy and Holland—and on June 10 of that year set off westward from Peking.
The team in the 40-hp Itala, led by Prince Scipione Borghese and including his chauffeur and a journalist, quickly leaped into the lead. Soon the going got rough, very rough. The Itala had to be towed up China's rugged Kalgan Road by mules. Hundreds of miles were driven on railroad tracks instead of the impassable roads. The prince and his crew, to whom he rarely spoke during the trip because of their inferior social standing, pushed the car through flooded rice fields surrounding the Hunho River. Fifteen oxen were required to pull the Itala out of quicksand in Mongolia. In Russia a wooden bridge collapsed when the car was at midspan. Fortunately the chauffeur, Ettore Guizzardi, was able to get the Itala back on the road within two hours. Sixty days after setting out from Peking, the Itala arrived in a profoundly disappointed Paris. The second-place team, driving a French-made De Dion, would not arrive for another three weeks.
The "great race," so called, has become part of automotive legend, largely because it was never repeated. "And people have tried," says Philip Morrell, chairman of the Voyages Jules Verne (VJV) travel agency. "It seems someone's tried almost every other year to stage a Peking-to-Paris or a Paris-to-Peking. But it has just never come off. If the Chinese government agreed to allow the race one year, the Soviets didn't agree, or the other way round. The biggest physical obstacle was Mongolia—you just couldn't get permission to travel through there.
"So what we did was, we chose a route that skirts Mongolia," adds Morrell. "And in the age of glasnost, we got all the go-aheads we needed."
May 19, 1991
Last year, VJV offered an extraordinary vacation package—a two-month road rally, the London to Beijing Motor Challenge, in reverse approximation of the original route. The tour attracted some 120 participants and was deemed such a success that it will be repeated in 1992—there is even talk of a Paris-Moscow-Beijing race being held this year.
The inaugural VJV event drew a mixed bag of thrill seekers. They came from several continents and—like the 1907 winners—from every sector of society. "We had the rich man in his Lamborghini and we had the humble man in his Morris Minor," says Morrell. "We had a baron from France and a guy who's on the dole here in England." The Times of London put it this way: "A sprinkling of European nobility and American new money [were] among the nine nations represented."
Presumably in the last category were three Yanks from Pennsylvania, traveling together: Tom Troxell, an importer-dealer of classic antique cars; Jack Mesch, a manufacturer's rep for a giftware company; and Larry Geist, who runs a spray-foam insulation business. All are members of the Lehigh Valley Model A Club. Just before the Beijing-bound caravan departed from London's Marble Arch on the brisk, sunny morning of April 7, 1990, this trio, who would be driving the 9,162-mile route, insisted that they were reasonable men in their everyday U.S. lives. But they also admitted that, yes, this was a bit of a lark, taking eight weeks off to drive a four-cylinder 1929 Model A station wagon across Europe and much of Asia.
"There was an effort made about seven years ago to do Beijing-to-Paris," Troxell tried to explain. "We signed on. We got this car all ready to go. But then the guy who was organizing the trip wasn't able to pull it off. We were pretty disappointed, so when we heard about this expedition, we signed right on."
Did this go down well with the families back in the Lehigh Valley?
"No!" said Troxell.
"I just got married last October," Geist said. "I figured we had better talk about this before the wedding, so we did. I'd say by now my wife's about 98.6 percent behind me." Judging from the tone of his voice, the estimate was high.
As you might imagine, one does not call the auto club for a triptik to Beijing. "That's why these drivers needed us," says VJV's Morrell. "We made it possible. We got permission from the very highest levels in the U.S.S.R. and China. We exported 200,000 gallons of fuel to places along the route. We arranged for 1,500 police to provide cordons for us through Georgia, Azerbaijan and China. We mapped the route and did reconnaissance on all parts of it. We booked the rooms. Since women were along, we arranged for portable toilets along the way. You know what the most difficult thing was? Arranging insurance for the couple of days the vehicles were in the U.K. No one wanted to touch it. We had to do the insurance country by country."
For VJV's services, participants paid $17,000 per vehicle (with driver). Each additional traveler cost another $10,000. Airfare and vehicle freight charges to London were extra. Despite the cost—some of the entrants had met the steep fee by doing what racers always do, acquiring sponsorship—all participants seemed in grand spirits as they revved their engines on departure day in London. There were the stately (for example, a 1920 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost), the striking (a 1955 Bentley Continental Fast-back), the zippy (a 1930 Bugatti), the arcane (a 1912 Lancia Simplex Speedster) and the mundane (a 1960 Morris Minor).
But the surest bet of all to make it to Beijing was the HUMMER. Wide and solid, weighing 5,200 pounds yet able to travel faster than 60 mph, it can cross rivers up to five feet deep and climb 60% grades. Months later, in Operation Desert Storm, the military version of this vehicle would become popularly known as the Humvee.
The Bentley Fastback's owner looked at a HUMMER and said, "If that thing doesn't make it, then we're all in trouble."
The HUMMER's no-nonsense approach notwithstanding, the atmosphere at the starting line was British-tweedy-sportsmanlike: Pip, pip, off we go for China. "This is in the same spirit of adventure as the 1907 trip," said Luigi Barzini, a grandson of the journalist who was aboard the original race's winning Itala. The younger Barzini was in London to give his blessing to the 1990 event. He was not going along but seemed moved by the spectacle nonetheless. "You know," he said, "the original roads my grandfather rode on do not exist anymore, so it would be impossible to retrace that route. Still, I think it's wonderful that this is getting done now. And so do all these people! Just look at them. They feel it's the greatest thing ever!"
Well...that might be a bit strong.
Take Jim Rogers, a New York City—based financial adviser with a passion for motorcycles. "I didn't even want to travel with a group like this," he said as he straddled his '89 BMW motorcycle, anxious to get the show on the road. "I wanted to go it alone, but this looked like a way to do the Soviet Union. The Paris-to-Peking 'great race' thing is of no consequence to me. You see, I rode across China in the summer of '88, but I've never been able to get permission to ride in Russia. This group has got it, so I signed on. I just hope it doesn't disintegrate during the summer."
If you had looked at the HUMMER and then at Rogers on his huge motorcycle, you might have wondered how Troxell's old Model A woody—"which would probably clap itself to death at 65 miles per hour," according to its owner—could possibly keep up with the field.
"Yes, well," said Morrell before instructing the gentlemen to start their engines, "I want to emphasize, this isn't a race. It was a race in 1907, but not this time. We're staging this at normal driving speeds, which is good, because in places the roads are in even worse shape than they were in '07. This is not competitive."
And so, in a noncompetitive but nonetheless fiery spirit, they were off—the Welsh Guards band sounding a brassy farewell. The 60 vehicles bleated their way into the admiring crowds of central London, along Piccadilly and out onto the highway to Dover. Then it was by ferry to Calais and on to Paris. From there the route ran through Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia and Greece to Istanbul and Nevsebir in Turkey; Batumi, Tblisi, Baku and Alma-Ata in the U.S.S.R.; followed by Yining, Turpan and Dunhuang in China. The plan called for a ferry across the Yellow River at Lanzhou, and then a procession to Xian, Louyang and Zhengzhou. Finally, Beijing—in early June, it was hoped. "We'll drive straight to the Italian embassy in honor of the original winning team," Morrell had said as the fleet left London.
And how did that grand plan work out?
It worked out just fine for some, less well for others. It was flat-out awful for Baron Guy de Wimnell of France, a tenacious, if ill-fated, romantic. He had planned to make the journey in a customized London taxi, but on the eve of departure the customizing company ran into financial difficulties. The baron, as barons will, promptly bought a Lamborghini Cheetah for a rumored $200,000. The hot-blooded sportscar made it only as far as the Turkish border before its 12-cylinder engine stopped roaring. "At that point all the cars were doing fine except for the most expensive car in the rally," said Troxell. "We were in the slowest car, but it was really a tortoise-and-hare thing. We were going to plug along and get to Beijing. But the baron was going to go 135, 140 miles per hour, and that's what did him in."
The baron arranged for mechanics to be flown from Italy to repair his car. Once it was fixed, the never-say-die baron again hit the road to Beijing at top speed. But alas, as Graham Rock of the Times reported from his traveling newsroom set up in a Mercedes Benz 300SE: "Wimnell and his lady companion might have enjoyed the fun, but we will never know. His Lamborghini ground to a halt for a second time in Turkey, and the visas expired; we had seen little of the dashing nobleman, a mysterious figure in the background, but rumours of his escapades were a universal topic and we will miss him."
The oldest car in the rally, the 1912 Simplex Speedster, also had some problems. Its tires went flat in Austria, just shy of the Yugoslav border. As you might expect, tires for a 78-year-old Italian sports car are hard to find. Spares had to be flown from Australia to London, and from there were hustled to the stranded Simplex. (Eventually VJV would ship 50 tires to various cities to enable the car to complete the journey.) Once reshod, the septuagenarian auto chugged eastward again: The Little Car That Could.
Rock reported that despite occasional mechanical problems, the entrants were having a jolly time. "We have become masters of attending receptions," he wrote. "Champagne was on offer at Reims, en route from Paris to Stuttgart, and again at the Weissen Rossi Romantik Hotel in St. Wolfgang, Austria."
The Motor Challenge became a major event in Europe and, especially, Asia. Nightly the challengers hustled back to their hotel rooms to catch themselves being interviewed on local television. A thousand Chinese greeted them at the Soviet border, and even more turned out in Beijing. "It was amazing," said Troxell. "Here we were, doing nothing more than driving through their villages, and they were lined up 10 and 15 deep on each side of the road. An elderly Russian man had tears streaming down his face. The Chinese would hold up their babies for us to see. I swear a million Chinese watched the rally pass through. We heard that one man bicycled 125 miles just to catch the rally. Unbelievable."
Not all was peaches and cream, of course. At the Klassis Resort Hotel in Silivri, Turkey, laundry service was thrown into chaos by 120 out-of-season guests arriving at once. In packing to leave, "a few [motorists] found not only their own underwear, but some belonging to their colleagues," Rock reported. But he also noted that "the challengers have given the traffic police of all countries a rare bonanza in on-the-spot fines."
One official of the Turkish Tourist Board had attempted to make the transients more comfortable by providing some driving tips: "In the country, watch for all black things on the roads as these might be potholes and you will fill them." On driving in the major cities: "Red lights are for rather ornamental purposes." And in general: "Do not expect any common sense from the local drivers."
"The roughest thing about the rally," said Troxell, "was the deteriorating sanitary conditions as we rolled east. The deal was, we were to have the best available accommodations at each stop. Well, we did have. But the 'best available' got a lot worse as we segued from Europe to Asia. It got pretty grotty."
The challengers plunged on through Turkmenistan in the Soviet Union. They drove cautiously past what they were informed was the Temple of the Fire Eaters in Baku. They crossed the Caspian Sea by ferry and pushed on through the 100° heat of the Kara-Kum desert on the dusty road to the ancient city of Mary. "Some of that sounds awful, but it was the most thrilling experience," said Troxell. "We always seemed to have mountains off to our left and off to our right, and all snowcapped. It was fun, it was wonderful, and it was incredible."
In China the Silk Road, a trade route between West and East for more than 2,000 years, showed its age. It had become a narrow thoroughfare consisting mostly of bumps and ruts. A 1989 BMW sedan and Rock's Mercedes took creases in their undersides, and the Pennsylvania Model A suffered a split differential. "When the differential broke, all of our oil ran out on the Gobi desert floor," said Troxell. "We tried to weld the differential housing, but it broke again. We strapped it together with some parts we got from a Russian truck in a Chinese junkyard."
The group traveled, as ordered by its Chinese hosts, in a tight convoy through the Gobi, which was at least as hot as the Kara-Kum had been, and which proved to be too much for the radiator of a 1948 Allard. It virtually exploded, and the Chinese police accompanying the caravan were recruited to tow the car and its crew 80 miles to a safe harbor.
At Turpan, the lowest inhabited spot on the Asian continent, the Motor Challenge probably reached what was its lowest point. The band of adventurers had been on the road for 40 straight days and by then were so tired that they did not even worry about the legendary Turpan spiders—two inches in length, with fiery red eyes—and slept deeply. "Driving through rural China requires the concentration of a pilot landing in a mine field," was the way Rock described the conditions.
It was here that a motorcycle collided with, and knocked unconscious, a bicyclist who had shot out of a side road directly into the motorcycle's path. Another motorcycle, a sidecar-equipped 1939 BSA, lost a confrontation with a truck and briefly ended up in a ditch.
The cyclist, the sidecar and relations with the local constabulary were all mended eventually, and the long march to Beijing wound on. Finally, on May 29, the Motor Challenge's 59 surviving vehicles circled around Tiananmen Square as thousands of residents cheered and bands played.
As for the participants, they rated the journey a resounding, if exhausting, success. "It was the greatest thing I ever did in a car," said Troxell. Several of the motorists were even heard to inquire about VJV's 1992 Motor Challenge.