5th Peking to Paris Rally Challenges the Brave & Determined
The fifth-ever Peking to Paris rally will be held this year from May 28th to June 29th, stretching an epic 9,300 miles across two continents and eight countries, through some of the harshest and most remote terrain on Earth. Funny how such an infrequently-run race rates in the mind with such legendary and long-running endurance events as the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Isle of Man TT, and Dakar—such is the incredibly heroic nature of what is possibly the most difficult of all long-distance races.
First organized in 1907, the story goes that the inaugural running was inspired by a challenge published in the January 31st edition of that year’s Le Matin, a Paris newspaper of the time. It stated: “What needs to be proven today is that as long as a man has a car, he can do anything and go anywhere. Is there anyone who will undertake to travel this summer from Peking to Paris by automobile?”
Forty teams accepted this challenge, but ultimately only 5 entrants actually shipped cars to the Peking starting point, right in front of the French embassy. There were no rules aside from the promise of a magnum of Mumm champagne to the rally’s winner.
Held along a similar route as the upcoming event, the dawn of the automobile was barely two decades beforehand—if the thought of nearly 10,000 miles across rough terrain sounds like an adventure in 2013, it was absolute insanity, bordering on suicidal, 106 years ago. Acetylene headlights, hand-cranked motors, rear-only brakes of woeful inadequacy for anything but parking, exposed valve-gear and even constant-loss lubrication systems were all still pretty much state-of-the-art for the time, and I can’t even imagine driving one of those wooden-wheeled death machines to 7-11 down the block let alone across vast expanses of mostly uninhabited desert, tundra, mountain passes and wooded plains and valleys—brave and adventurous aren’t strong enough words to describe the men who undertook the challenge.
Fuel and supplies were sent ahead by foot and by camel, with stations setup infrequently along a route which roughly followed a telegraph line—each car had a journalist as a passenger, who would send nightly reports to their publishers, as the race was quite a big deal during days when the horse was still the predominant means of civil and commercial transportation.
Cars were towed by animals and by foot over mountain passes, and several teams ran out of fuel on more than one occasion—one team abandoned their powered tricycle in the Gobi after its fuel tank went dry, and they nearly died from heat exhaustion and thirst until rescued by a passing camel caravan.
Eventually, exactly 60 days from the beginning of the event, the massive and sophisticated 7-liter Itala piloted by Prince Scipione Borghese and Ettore Guizzardi drove into Paris to a hero’s welcome. Aside from the abandonded tricycle, all entrants ultimately joined them as the finish—an incredible feat.
This year the event is host to 100 entrants run in four classes—“Vintage” for machines made from 1920-1931, “Vintageant” for 1932-1941 cars, and two separate “Classic” designations, one for cars up to two liters and one for more than that displacement. Even though the oldest car in the event has a full 13 years of development between it and the newest machines that originally competed, it’s still a massive challenge, and we salute anyone with the courage to attempt it—cheers.