The word epic is regularly used with nonchalance to describe things that, whilst maybe quite exciting, are still reasonably ordinary. However, the word Epic is a perfect and apt description of the Peking to Paris rally, a challenge for classic and vintage cars quite unlike anything else that exists.
The Peking to Paris is 33 days straight of rallying across some of the most remote and inaccessible places on the earth. Mongolia. The Gobi desert. Russia. Eastern Europe. Whilst the third annual modern recreation of the 1907 pioneering event is somewhat watered down compared to the original with modern GPS, support crews and travelling mechanics provided by the organisers, it is still one hell of an adventure and even making it to the finish is an achievement in itself.
Any Given Reason was at Place Vendome in Paris a few Sunday’s ago to welcome the cars home across the line, along with thousands of other friends, family and curious onlookers. It wasn’t just a time to celebrate for the winners – everybody was happy to be here.
The families of the crews in particular were the happiest. The competitors were competing right up until the day before the finish, and still had a 150km drive into Paris that morning to cross the line. The families hadn’t seen the crews since the rally started over a month ago, so were waiting with great anticipation for their loved ones to appear in the traffic.
As much as crossing the finish line is all the victory most need, the Peking to Paris is still a competitive event, and there are of course winners. In 2013 the Australian crew of Gerry Crown and Matt Bryson won the event outright in their Leyland P76, a replica of the P76 that finished on the podium of the 1974 World Cup Rally.
Interestingly, this is the actual car that won the 1974 World Cup Rally. It was put into storage after that event and stayed there, until it was recommissioned for this year’s Peking to Paris rally. Unfortunately it suffered quite a bit of damage this time around though – a rock took out one of the hydraulic lines to the suspension, and the crew were forced to race for several days on three wheels until they could get the parts to fix it! The chassis took quite a beating, and it is visibly bent in the middle – the door gaps top and bottom are completely different.
Whilst the ‘moderns’ (in relative terms) are the outright winners, the real focus of this event has always been the vintage cars. These are the guys that are best capturing the spirit of the original competitors of the first 1907 race. Bentley’s are quite common, as are Rolls Royces and a variety of tough American machinery.
The bravest crew were undoubtably these guys from Australia who completed the rally in their Model T Ford. Can you actually imagine driving from China to France, out in the open, for a month, in a Model T? If that’s not epic, I don’t know what is.
But having said that, these guys are undoubtably living out a boy scouts wildest dreams. Racing a Bentley across the globe, then crossing the finish line, cigar in hand. I can’t really think of anything much cooler than that. Place Vendome being the expensive shopping district it is was filled with people trying to look cool cruising in their Ferrari’s and Lamborghini’s. But they had nothing on these guys.
The combined look of sadness, happiness and relief as the time card was clipped for the last time is a feeling money can’t buy, and as a curious onlooker I got the picture that unless you’ve been there and done it with them, you’ll never quite understand just what they’re feeling.
The rally itself is largely a reliability trial, in that just getting there with no problems means you’ll do pretty well. Having said that, every day or two there were long closed road special stages where you were racing the clock. But the fact that roll cages and helmets aren’t required indicates to me that these guys aren’t doing traditional special stage speeds – I think its more a case of push as hard as you dare. If you drive at special stage speeds you won’t make the finish, so I guess this is where the strategy comes in.
The rules are designed to exclude traditional, full house rally cars and encourage people to take part in their standard specification cars. Most of the cars still had recliner seats and no roll cages.
This Datsun 1600 from Victoria was prepared to traditional Australian classic rally rules – modern cage, seats and harnesses, and vintage everything else (including the uber cool vintage Enkei gravel wheels).
This Lancia Fulvia from Italy was probably the most serious car in the field, and you could tell that it had been built specifically for this event. The raised sill modifications, increased ride height, boot mounted spare wheels, kevlar sand plates and serious cage made the stock size steel wheels and normal road tyres look slightly out of place.
The problem with seeing these events is now I have yet another must-do event to add to the bucket list. Combining motorsport with travel, my two passions, the Peking to Paris looks like an incredible adventure. But I think this one might be a little more challenging to tick off the list. It’s such a big undertaking to both organise and compete in that they only hold it every three years. And I shudder to think what it would cost to do, but shipping your car twice, and then a month’s worth of racing and the food, accommodation, fuel, travelling mechanics, repairs, parts, flights and God knows what else would add up to some serious coin. And that’s assuming you already have a suitable car.
But I guess 84 crews found a way to do it this year, so it’s not impossible for some. The 2016 event will travel though Tibet and Nepal, arguably an even bigger temptation. It doesn’t hurt to dream, right?
Words and photos by Andrew Coles
See more information, including full results and some frankly breathtaking images on the Peking to Paris official website.
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