Peking to Paris: 4000 miles still to go

If Prince Borghese is looking down on us now he must be smiling. He and his pioneers set out in 1907 to drive across the world’s longest land-mass, to prove that the car could go anywhere and to show politicians that frontiers are meaningless once the common man has a motor car. They succeeded on the first count, but it has taken 90 years and the collapse of the Iron Curtain for a re-run of the first ever car rally.

They went where no cars had ever gone before, their first 5000 miles without maps or roads. We turned south instead of north as they did, but Chinese maps being next to useless, and with electronic navigation equipment banned, this was still a real navigation test.

Ninety-five crews from a record 23 countries left Peking for the ceremonial start at the Great Wall of China. To the racket of firecrackers and dragon bells, the 1907 La France of Hermann Layher led off Lord Montagu’s 1915 Vauxhall on the first Historic Rally China has seen. Crowds were a real headache; Chinese police reckoned there were over a million cheering spectators one day. We drove down past the Yellow River skirting Mongolia’s Gobi Desert and finally rested at the foot of the climb to Tibet the highest road in the world at 17,000 feet.

With no service assistance, radios or spares dumps, reliability, navigational ability, and stamina-  along with team fellowship – came to the fore.

Anthony Buckingham in a well modified Aston Martin DBS was an unlikely front runner through China, but by Tibet, and the first of the seriously rough roads, the car’s alloy panels were suffering.

Early casualties include the 1914 Marmon of Americans Charles and Arlene Kleptz, and a model A Ford of Francis Noz, and Lord Montagu’s Vauxhall. But Chinese workshops adapted their resources to help the stretcher cases, and nearly all set out for the climb up to the Roof of the World, where the rally camped overnight at the foot of Mount Everest.

This is the first time any sort of motorsport has entered Tibet, or that Westerners had been allowed to drive their own cars there. Borghese, who thought motorsport could enhance international fellowship, would have been proud.

The drive through Nepal with the Himalayas on our right, and the vast green plains of India on our left, was highly memorable. Alas, India let the side down, with agonisingly slow customs formalities, cancelled controls, and broken promises.

Pakistan has made up for that. Remote, twisty trails, long empty desert roads all the ingredient of real marathon motoring are here, and the enthusiastic Pakistan Motor Sports Club certainly worked hard to lift the profile of the event as well as themselves. Like Nepal, Pakistan has never before witnessed any form of international motorsport, and the Peking to Paris has been greeted with cheering crowds and banners in every village.

Next stop: The Great Salt Desert of Iran. We are to become the first international rally to cross Iran since the Singapore Airlines London to Sydney Marathon of 1977, with Turkey and the Acropolis roads of Greece all to come.

Around 72 of the 94 starters are still running, headed by the Willysleep of Phil Surtees and John Bayliss, while the Packard currently playing tailend Charlie has penalties of some seven days.

Leader boards change frequently, but one pattern has become obvious. Those who ditched the weight early on before the climb up to Tibet have done well and saved their suspension. Light cars with rally pedigrees such as Hillman Hunters, Ford Cortinas, and a Ford Anglia have done well to date, along with a remarkable drive by Johan Van der Laan in an incredible Citroen 2CV… but that’s the way with marathons. Some of the hares have been shaken by the odd tortoise. Philip Young