1907 A race odyssey

90 years before this September's Peking-Paris rally, five cars tried to do no less. The victor was Prince Borghese's Itala. Less well known is Charles Godard, maverick, criminal and true hero of the world's toughest race. By Andrew Frankel

We meet Charles Godard in Paris. It is February 1907.

The final entries for the Peking-Paris raid are being compiled in the offices of the newspaper, Le Matin, sponsors of the event, and Godard is contracted to drive a Metallurgique. While the other competitors fret and busy themselves with the small print, Godard amuses himself drawing the crowds and their money at the local Wall of Death. A jockey by profession, from Burgundy by descent but rather Mediterranean in appearance, the advent of the internal combustion engine was heaven-sent for Godard. He is fascinated by its potential and will ride or race anything his considerable resources could lay his hands on.

Money has been a perennial problem, his often highly individual approach to obtaining it having landed him in prison on more than one occasion in the past. As news of the route through China, across the Gobi desert, Mongolia and into Siberia starts to pulse its way down the telegraph lines, Metallurgique withdraws its entry, leaving our man high and dry but also curiously unperturbed. He chats up the local agent for Spyker Cars and, within hours, has spent his Wall of Death winnings on a ticket to Amsterdam and is boarding the train to Spyker's head office. Here he charms Jacobus Spijker himself into providing a car laden with spares and also the 2000 franc entry fee which, Godard assures the Dutch industrialist, is repayable upon arrival in Peking.

Godard is, of course, lying. Nor has he been entirely honest about the spares either. Spijker regards them as the essentials even to contemplate such a race; to Godard they represent simply a boat ticket to China and he promptly sells the lot.

Charles Godard arrived in China on 16th May, with the Spyker but otherwise penniless. While the other competitors, Borghese in his Itala, two De Dion Bouton teams and a single-cylinder, two stroke 7hp Contal tri-car with two brave and hopeful pikes, had spent considerable time and money organising the necessary en-route infrastructure and, in particular, the crucial petrol dumps, Godard had nothing to spend until he managed to prise 5000 francs from the Dutch consular official in Peking, promising that non-existent letters of credit would soon arrive to meet the expense. This provided enough fuel for perhaps one fifth of the 10,000-mile journey. The rest he would have to beg, borrow, or, if needed, spirit away from the other competitors.

The plan, laid down on paper and signed by the competitors, was for the teams to stick together in a convoy until the German frontier was reached. Mutual assistance to this point was required. No one was under any illusions as to the potential fate of any car that became stranded. Everyone knew the Contal, effectively a primitive motorcycle with the passenger riding in front and luggage in a side car, would be most at risk. Soon after the start on 10th June it was struggling and it was Godard who offered to carry first the bedding and baggage of its drivers and then its spare tyres. To do this, and ensure the Contal continued to compete, Godard and his passenger, a journalist for Le Matin called Du Taillis, had to throw away their only luxuries and, critically, some of the hard-bartered and already woefully inadequate fuel supplies.

It was all for nothing. The Contal finally stopped in the middle of the Gobi desert, eight days after leaving Peking, suffering no more than an empty fuel tank. Godard, however, had been told by Borghese as he flew past in the Itala, that the Contal crew were still moving, so he continued. Then, to compound the problem, one of the De Dion drivers lost track of the telegraph poles by which they were navigating. Despite Godard's frantic efforts to find and arrange more petrol for the tri-car, they never saw the Contal again. Its crew would have died had their unconscious bodies not been discovered, days later, by a group of nomads.

Godard was in terrible trouble himself Borghese had gone, blatantly breaching their agreement, leaving just the De Dions and the Spyker until, inevitably, the Spyker ran out of fuel while still in the desert. Godard was lent a total of eight litres, enough for perhaps twenty miles, from the plentifully supplied De Dion crews who left the Spyker in the desert with a promise to send fuel from the next town, Udde, 120-miles away. Godard and Du Taillis had two litres of water, a few blocks of concentrated soup which could not be heated without petrol to fire the stove, a cold, maggot infested and stinking chicken and some chocolate, liquid and similarly inedible in the 47 deg C heat.

The fuel, though ordered, never arrived. They sat for two days in the desert, but when they had drunk all the water in the radiator and Jean Du Taillis had become too weak with both dysentry and malaria to move, Godard realised that, if they were to live, he would have to leave his friend and walk off into the desert to find help. He came back within two hours leading a gaily coloured army of Kunghuz warriors. Only Godard.

This unlikely group he then conned into riding into Udde, sending a rider back with fuel while providing a couple of camels to tow the Spyker along the route. There he found fuel and drove for 23 hours, non-stop to catch the De Dions, 385 miles away in Urga. For Godard, however, the test of his constitution had scarcely started.

The convoy reformed and continued to Irkutsk where the Spyker started showing worrying signs of wear. The back axle had been holed by a stone and lost all its oil, and was repaired by Godard by packing raw bacon through the hole and securing it with a wooden spigot. The magneto was worn out, the spare had been flogged back in Paris and the gear ratios were too low for the wide open spaces of the Russian Steppes. The car, partly towed by horses, made it to Tcheremkhovo and stopped. The De Dions carried on while Godard telegraphed Spijker to request a mechanic be sent across Siberia with all the neccesary spares. Spijker dispatched a twenty-year old office boy, Bruno Stephan, from Amsterdam with the equipment while Godard put the inert Spyker on a train and travelled west to meet him, sadly dropping off Du Taillis en route to be collected by the De Dions; the editor of Le Matin had decreed his man stay with the bulk of the convoy, such as it had become. The De Dion team, shocked that Godard could cheat so blatantly as to put the Spyker on a train, telegraphed the offices of Le Matin to demand Godard's disqualification.

Cheating, however, could not have been further from Godard's mind. He had the Spyker's ignition repaired and, unable to wait for Stephan, who had become delayed by bureaucracy in Moscow, he climbed wearily back on the train, heading east, 1500 miles back to Tcheremkhovo, back to the exact place where the Spyker had cried enough. It was 25th July, 19 days after the De Dions had left the same spot and the same day that, 4000 miles away in Moscow, Stephan finally boarded the TransSiberian Express. It took five days, five days of Godard driving solo in twenty-hour stints, punctuated with four-hour sleeps, for their paths to join.

Stephan serviced the Spyker, fitted the new gear ratios and, unable to drive, was bundled into the passenger seat. Fuel stops aside, it would be 29 hours before the Spyker stopped again. Godard was drawing on every scrap of his mental and physical resources to close the gap to the De Dions. And nothing could stop him. A broken spring was patched up with wooden blocks, a new-born baby flung from a riderless wagon was collected and delivered to a local priest. Godard drove ceaselessly, day and night, night and day and when the last of the carbide for the headlamps was gone, Godard made Stephan walk in front of the Spyker at night with a white towel tied to his back.

By the end of this marathon Stephan was so sick with utter exhaustion and dysentry, that Godard telegraphed Spijker and told him he did not expect him to make the end of the race. In Kazan, the Spyker caught the De Dions which had enjoyed an untroubled run. Godard entered Kazan at four o'clock in the morning of the 8th August, having covered in 14 days the same distance the De Dions had managed in over a month. Godard's last 24-hour stint saw more land travel under the wheels of the Spyker than the De Dions had seen in the previous four days. He had travelled 3500miles, not one inch of it on anything which you or I would recognise as a road. As the Spyker stopped, Godard's supernatural constitution gave way and he collapsed over the wheel. Stephan looked as if he'd been shot.

It was perhaps as well that Godard did not yet know of the Paris court that had sentenced him to 18 months in prison for obtaining money by deception from the Dutch consul in Peking.

The dashing Prince Borghese won the race by three weeks, entering Paris to a hero's reception on 10th August. What remained of the true convoy struggled to Moscow, Warsaw and on to the German frontier. There remains no clear explanation as to why Godard, with his superior driving skills and more powerful car did not leave the De Dions and power onto Paris alone in the same way that they had once been so keen to leave him. It was simply not in the character of this inordinately complex but fundamentally decent rogue to abandon those with whom he had shared the adventure.

Godard never finished the race.

Just outside Berlin, Le Matin had him arrested, ostensibly because he was a convicted criminal but, it has been suggested, principally to make sure a French car was first into Paris after the Itala. Spijker placed a works driver, Frilling, in the driving seat for the last leg of the journey, leaving Godard in Germany, facing an extradition order.

But Godard was not yet done. Eight miles from Paris, the convoy stopped to regroup for the final procession. As Frijling bent down over the starting handle for the last time, there was a disturbance in the crowd, a man burst forward, stumbled, fell, stood and ran to the Spyker's vacant driving seat. Godard, temporarily beyond the clutches of the law, had come to drive his Spyker into Paris. It took a swarm of police forcibly to remove him, shouting as he went to his old friend Du Taillis to take over the Spyker he'd never driven, providing him with gearchanging tuition as he was carried away.

Godard, being Godard, talked his way out of prison but little is known of his life thereafter, though he did enter the 1908 New York — Paris raid, his Motobloc failing to reach the Pacific coast. But there is no doubt his finest hour came during those days between Peking and Paris when he made man and machine perform beyond the accepted limits of endurance. This was a man who thought nothing of swindling, lying and cheating organisations into financing his exploits, yet would not desert a friend in need even if his very life depended upon it. Those who line up in Beijing this September to follow rather more easily in his footsteps, could do worse than to make some room alongside their electronic navigation equipment for a slice of his spirit too. The full story of the 1907 Peking-Paris raid can be read in The Mad Motorists' by Allen Andrews, published in 1964 and now sadly long out of print. Copies, however, do appear from time to time at autojumbles and in specialist shops.