This year's Peking-to-Paris Rally kicked off in Beijing today, with 97 antique vehicles prepped for a 9,000-mile trek through the roughest roads Asia can muster. Would you try to ride from Ulaan Baatar to Tashkent on an 8-hp motorcycle?
The route follows the path of a historic race in 1907, a challenge from a Paris newspaper to show "as long as a man has a car, he can do anything and go anywhere." Five cars started, four finished, and the results helped boost the allure of driving in Europe and the United States. (It's also how red became the official racing color of Italian automobiles.) The race wasn't tried again until 1997, when a British organization revived the idea using as much of the original route as possible through scenic rural Mongolia and Kazakhstan.
The first vehicle out this morning from the Great Wall was a 1922 FN 750cc motorcycle and sidecar driven by Tim Scott from Britain. Scott drove the 2007 Peking-To-Paris race in a car older than the race itself, a 1903 Mercedes. If trying to cover 11 countries in 37 days on an air-cooled bike (including an average of more than 200 miles a day the first week alone) sounds challenging, Scott discovered just how hard it could be out of the gate:
The cars in the race include everything from a 1907 Italia 40 to a '69 Volkswagen Beetle, with the common Fords and Chevys mixed in with a Tatra and a Alvis Speed. Eleven models were built before 1921, and while the rules allow for some upgrades, they don't allow for faking: the engines in the regular category have to match the manufacturers' layouts from their period, and suspensions can be beefed up but not altered from their original design.
Eight U.S. teams made the trek, including four from Washington State alone. Those entires include a '35 Ford Phaeton, a '39 Chevy Speedster and the '39 Dodge Business Coupe above piloted by Bill Shields and Danny Day, which they restored after finding it in a pasture last year. Neither had raced before, nor restored vehicles. Two-thirds of the teams entered are novices.
And to a one, all say the draw of challenging their mechanical skills, their intellect and likely their friendships outweighed the risks of driving through some of the most remote territory on earth, where roads fade to dirt, fuel runs scarce and pros recommend only 100% deet bug spray.
"We all fill our lives with things that seem important and we set up routines," said Fritz James, an Iowa retiree who is co-piloting a '35 Ford. "It feels good to set out on such an adventure and really not know what to expect."
You can follow the race's progress here. The victors are expected in Paris on Oct. 16.