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The Peking to Paris Motor Challenge – How it all started

The Peking to Paris Motor Challenge – How it all started

The Peking to Paris Motor Challenge – How it all started

*31st January 1907 – Paris newspaper Le Matin publishes a challenge to motorists

*10th June 1907 – The first Peking to Paris Motor Challenge starts from the French Embassy, Peking

*10th August 1907 – Prince Scipione Borghese crosses the Paris finish line to win the historic event

On August 10th 1907, diplomat, adventurer and Italian nobleman Prince Scipione Borghese crossed the finish line in Paris to win the first ever Peking to Paris Motor Challenge after covering 14, 994 kms in two months in his seven litre Itala, finishing an astonishing 20 days ahead of the second place finisher Charles Godard in a Dutch Spyker. Godard was promptly arrested for fraud immediately after the finish, the two other finishers staggered in days later.

The fifth entrant arrived by sea back in France having nearly died with his co-pilot in the Gobi desert after getting lost and running of fuel and water. Their three wheeled Contal abandoned to the sands of time, never to be seen again.

It had been a pioneering adventure on a scale never seen or attempted before, only on horseback. Nobody thought those early vehicles were reliable modes of transport but rather just a great nuisance as ‘gad about town’ newfangled machines for the rich only.

Hence the challenge by a French newspaper who decided to see if anyone was prepared to prove to the people that the motor car could be a serious mode of transport, and actually cover proper distances.

What they read on the 31st January 1907, in the Paris paper Le Matin, was an advertisement issuing the challenge as follows:

What needs to be proved 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?"

Of the 40 teams who originally responded saying they would enter, just five crews finally started the event from the French Embassy in Peking, taking on a massive motoring challenge half way round the world, laid down by Le Matin. And the prize to the winner? A Magnum of Mumm Champagne.

The world was a much bigger place than it is today and the automobile was very much in its infancy, so this was always going to be a Herculean task, yet despite this, five intrepid pioneering motorists lined up outside the French embassy in Peking and began their attempt to cover 14,994 kms across the world’s largest landmass, aiming to finish in Paris.

This is not dissimilar to the distance the current competitors are undertaking on the 8th edition 2024 Peking to Paris, of 14,500 kms. The 1907 winner, Prince Scipione Borghese took two months to cover the distance, arriving in Paris on the 10th August. Borghese had driven a 7.0 L Itala, with co-driver Ettore Guizzardi, (his chauffeur) and journalist Luigi Barzini, which amongst other trials and tribulations had ended up upside down after falling through a bridge. Eventually, Borghese was so far ahead, and so confident of victory that he even took a detour from Moscow to St Petersburg for a dinner held in the team’s honour before rejoining the race at the front.

The other entries in the P2P were, Charles Godard/ Jean du Tallis – Spyker, Georges Cormier – DeDion. Victor Collignon – DeDion and Aguste Pons/ Oscar Foucauld - Contal Mototri.

There were no rules in the original race, only that the winner would be the first to reach Paris, where they would be awarded champagne. Scant reward for the risks that would be taken as the route would take them into unmapped terrain with all manner of hazards, including local bandits. There were very few roads, they crossed deserts and the wildernesses with no support crews, other than Camels that would carry fuel and set up station along various parts of the route. A journalist accompanied each team, and the route loosely followed the telegraph lines that stretched across the caravan routes of Asia, to allow stories of their escapades to reach the western press.

Whilst all the teams struggled, the race would almost cost the crew of Pons and Foucauld their lives, after their Contal was overcome by the sands of the Gobi Desert, out of fuel, sands that still hold it captive. Its crew were abandoned by the other runners in the event and attempted to walk back to Peking, with little to no water.

There was much conniving and skulduggery before, during, and after the event, parts of which became Peking Paris folklore, some competitors clearly being the original blueprint for Dick Dastardly! Foucauld and Pons were victims as they were given an erroneous fuel dump location which they never reached. They ran out of fuel, then water and were lucky to survive due to local Mongol tribesmen rescuing them from certain death.

The crew had been attempting to walk back to Peking, and collapsed when they were found by the tribesman who nurtured them back to life with Yak’s milk. Eventually the desert dwellers arranged camel transport back to Peking in time for Pons and Foucauld to take a ship back to France to attend the finish in Paris. There would be some earnest conversations with their former race mates after their arrival!

That original running of the event occurred at a time of many great races, and just like a great many of the early road races, the Peking to Paris was never to be run again. However, with the downfall of the Soviet Union and the opening of borders, the modern incarnation of this incredible challenge was revived by ERA founder Philip Young in 1997. Since then, the Peking Paris Motor Challenge has been organised and run by ERA in 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016 and the last running in 2019 by HERO-ERA all from Peking to Paris as per the original in 1907. 2024 will be the eighth running of the event.

Winners: Surtees / Bayliss - Ford Willys Jeep MB

 Winners: Albert Eberhard / Monique Eberhard - Rolls Royce Silver Ghost

 Winners of Classic Category: Matthew Bryson / Gerald Crown - Holden EH | Winners of Vintage Category: Steve Hyde / Janet Lyne - Chevrolet Fangio Coupe | Winners of Pioneer Category: Charles Bishop / Nellie Bishop - Vauxhall 30/98

 Winners of Classic Category: Gerry Crown/Matt Bryson - Leyland P76 | Winners of Vintage Category: Phil Garratt/Kieron Brown - Chevrolet Fangio Coupe

 Winners of Classic Category: Mark Pickering / Dave Boddy - Datsun 240Z | Winners of Vintage Category: Bruce Washington / Harry Washington - Chrysler 75 Roadster

 Winners of Classic Category: Gerry Crown and Matt Bryson – Leyland P76 | Winners of Vintage Category: Graham and Marina Goodwin – Bentley Super Sports,

And there were Record Breakers! Belgian Anton Gonnissen recreated the original 1907 three wheel Contal Mototri of August Pons. Navigated by Herman Gelan, they not only finished the event, finally laying the ghost of Pons to rest, but broke the distance record for a motorised tricycle in one hit.

US steam enthusiast Mitch Gross, navigated and engineered by Chris Rolph, drove halfway round the world in a steam driven 109 year old White MM Pullman to set a steam propelled vehicle record at the same time as finishing the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge 2019.

2024 and beyond – with such high levels of interest after five long years away, the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge will take place again in 2025. After that it will resume its usual three year cycle.

Total distance covered all the events by the end of the 8th Edition: 112,500KM / 320 Days, the equivalent of travelling round the world three times!

Recommended books on the Peking to Paris;

- Luigi Barzini

- Allen Andrews

- Philip Young

- Dina Bennett

- Lang Brown, Warren Matheson, Mick Kidby

- Rosie Thomas

- Kassia St Clair

Ironically the progress of the automobile has lead to the world becoming a smaller place, yet the 8th edition 117 years later, will still provide one of the world’s last great motoring adventures on a grand scale. The event follows in the shadow of the 1907 Pioneers, adhering to its original purpose of testing the automobile and crew over 14,500 kms across the world’s biggest land mass.

The 2019 event, the sixth by ERA and then the seventh by HERO-ERA, was described by competitors as the toughest yet. It pushed crews and historic rally machinery to the limit of endurance whilst still managing to communicate the values of Heritage, Preservation, Quality, Craftsmanship, Engineering, Purity, Honesty and International Camaraderie.

2024 will run true to the spirit, aims and route of 1907, barring the Russian section.

Starting in Peking on May 18th, the 77 entrants will cross ten counties and six time zones as they tackle remote desert, forest and mountain tracks against the clock. From the deserts of China to the Inner Mongolian Gobi and then the wilderness of Kazakhstan, the crews will spend many nights under canvas. Competitors cars will cross the Caspian Sea by ferry, then rally on to Ajerbaijan, Georgia, continuing on tough roads through Turkey, Greece, San Marino, Italy and into France.

There are teams that are out to win, but the rest have the ultimate goal of crossing the finish line in Paris, a major achievement on its own. If they make it that far, each night the crews will have laboured to fix or just maintain their old vehicles to keep them going for another punishing day.

The bulk of the 37 days will bring timed sections and tests with an average length of 450 kms per day, quite a distance for the majority of cars which were manufactured before 1930, and certainly for the oldest car in the event - a 1914 American LaFrance!

Some will crash or break down, but at least those that get lost in the freezing desert at night can take some comfort from the fact that the official ‘Sweep’ Mechanical Assistance Crews will be scouring the sands looking for them.

Adhering to its original purpose of testing the automobile and crew, the Peking to Paris Motoring event provides the ultimate motoring challenge, one of the world’s last great motoring adventures.

Since 1997 and 2007 on it’s centenary, following the route and recreating the spirit of the original challenge, each of the subsequent events has grown in stature and reputation. As such HERO-ERA are conscious of their duty to activate and promote environmentally responsible driving.

Event organisers HERO-ERA are a totally carbon neutral company and that extends to all their events. They employ EU approval rated BeZero Carbon, a climate solutions specialist business that developed NET-HERO products in an innovative carbon foot printing framework to quantify the impact of modern & historic cars. Then they designed a custom AAA+ BeZero-rated offset basket.

The projects have been selected using the BeZero Carbon Rating, which assesses the carbon efficacy of credits from each project. The entire event, including every transport aspect of the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge, will be added up to obtain the full emissions numbers. Every basket removes the greenhouse gas emissions generated by vehicle engines.

Once all the emissions are calculated post event, HERO-ERA will fund the entire bundle of carbon credit offsets. The EU parliament and UK approved projects that receive the funding range from peat restoration programmes in Scotland, afforestation in Europe and eco farming support in Malaysia. These projects are all detailed in the BeZero website.

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