31st January 1907 – Le Matin

“What needs to be proved today is that as long as a man has a car, he can do anything and go anywhere. We ask this question of car manufacturers in France and abroad: Is there anyone who will undertake to travel this summer from Paris to Peking by automobile? Whoever he is, this tough and daring man, whose gallant car will have a dozen nations watching its progress, he will certainly deserve to have his name spoken as a byword in the four quarters of the earth”

9317 miles in a car in 1907.

Forty entrants came forward initially for what was meant as a challenge to test the reliability of the automobile, a relatively recent invention at the time. By the time just five cars were shipped to Peking it had become a race.

The five cars and the eleven competitors couldn’t have been more different.

Prince Scipione Borghese, accompanied by his chauffeur and mechanic Ettore Guizzardi and Italian journalist and war correspondent Luigi Barzini entered a 40hp Itala with a 7 litre engine. Borghese, a well travelled Italian aristocrat, had planned ahead by storing fuel along the route and pre-checking the mountain ranges in China on horseback to see if his car would fit through – finding alternative routes if not.

Charles Godard and Jean du Taillis, a correspondent for Le Matin, entered a 15hp Dutch Spyker after Godard’s original entry (a Metallurgique) pulled out. Con man, jockey, Wall of Death competitor, Godard inveigled a car, spares and the 2000 franc entry fee directly from Jacobus Spijker. Selling the spares to pay his passage to Peking he arrived completely unprepared and broke.

The other three cars were a pair of 10hp De Dion Boutons driven by Georges Cormier and Edgardo Longono and Victor Collignon and Jean Bizac and a 6hp one-cylinder, two stroke Contal tri-car entered by Auguste Pons and Octave Foucault. Much as in F1 now the tyre companies were heavily involved with Pirelli sponsoring Borghese, Michelin supporting Goddard and Dunlop backing the De Dions.

The planned route, now starting in Peking to avoid the monsoon season, went from Peking to Outer Mongolia and Ulan Bator, past Lake Baikal to Moscow and then across Russia, Poland, Germany and Belgium to Paris crossing mountain ranges and two major deserts en route. Camels and mules were sent ahead to establish petrol depots and the route was planned to follow the telegraph lines, both for guidance and to allow the journalsts in each of the cars to file reports at the telegraph stations.

10th June 1907 – Peking

Led by a French military band and with the roads cleared before them the cars set off from Beijing – then the roads ran out and heavy rain turned the tracks to quagmires.

At the first mountain range, separating China from Mongolia, the competitors faced paths no wider than the cars with sheer drops on one side and gradients so steep that on the way up the engines couldn’t cope and the cars had to be dragged up by mules, or manhandled, followed by a frightening descent as brakes failed.

Once in the Gobi the superior power and 60mph speeds of the Itala allowed it to pull ahead, crossing the desert in just four days compared to the seventeen days it would take a camel caravan and faster than the five days it took to cross the first mountain range from China.

While navigation across the desert was better than expected, because of the telegraph lines, the intense heat caused far more problems as drivers used their own drinking water to try to stop engines from boiling over.

Eight days after leaving Peking, Pons, in the Contal, ran out of petrol. Stranded and without water Pons and Foucault were luckily rescued by nomadic Mongolians. His near-death experience convinced Pons to retire from the race, abandoning the Contal in the desert.

The plan agreed by all the competitors had been for the teams to travel in convoy until reaching Germany and to help each other avoid the disastrous consequences of breaking down and becoming stranded. Once in the race however the agreement was not followed that closely by Borghese. Godard had already been helping Pons, carrying luggage and spares to keep the Contal, basically an unstable and totally unsuitable tricycle with passenger upfront and luggage in a sidecar, in the race, but not knowing that Pons had run out of fuel and having been told by Borghese that the Contal was still in the race, Godard drove on.

Godard himself ran out of fuel and had to beg eight litres from the De Dions, enough for just 20 miles when the next town, Udde, was 120 miles away. Fuel that the De Dion crews promised to send from Udde never arrived and after two days with just 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 chicken, some chocolate, turned to liquid in the 47 deg C heat and du Tallis too weak with both dysentry and malaria to move, Godard realised that, if they were to live, he would have walk into the desert to find help. He came back within two hours leading an army of Kunghuz warriors!. Having persuaded the warriors to send a rider to Udde for fuel he drove 23 hours, non-stop to catch the De Dions, 385 miles away in Urga.

An enthusiastic reception in Russia was welcome after the suspicion in China and the trials of the desert. A military road stretched across Siberia promising a smooth passage to Europe and permission granted to allow the use of railway bridges along the shores of Lake Baikal saved the cars from having to use the ferry. But much of the road had been abandoned on the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway and was now overgrown and muddy and many of the road bridges had been washed away or weakened.

Borghese’s plan to cross them at full speed before they collapsed completely failed when half way across one bridge it failed spectacularly, somersaulting the Itala backwards through the smashed planks and throwing the crew from their seats. Both crew and car amazingly survived major damage and after the 3 hours it took to get the car back on the road it started perfectly.

The Spyker and the De Dions re-formed in convoy to Irkutsk but Godard’s problems continued. He repaired a hole in the rear axle that was losing oil by stuffing the hole with raw bacon but other mechanical difficulties meant that he only got as far as Tcheremkhovo where he telegraphed Spyker in Amsterdam to send a mechanic with spares. Bruno Stephan a twenty-year old office boy was duly despatched while Godard put the Spyker on a train and travelled west to meet him – an act that caused the De Dion crews to immediately demand his disqualification for cheating.

The meeting did not take place as planned. Stephan was bogged down in Moscow officialdom and Godard, having made some repairs to the car’s ignition, was unable to wait. He headed back the 1500 miles on the train to Tcheremkhovo, arriving nineteen days after the De Dions had left him there and on the same day that Stephan finally left Moscow, 4000 miles away. Five days of twenty-hour driving stints, punctuated with four-hour sleeps and the meeting finally took place, allowing Stephan to service the Spyker. Once serviced Godard drove non stop for 29 hours to catch the De Dions, finally doing so in Kazan on 8th August, covering in fourteen days what had taken the De Dions over a month.

To cope with the mud in Siberia Borghese wrapped chains round the Itala’s wheels. Traction was improved but the stress of the chains cracked the wooden spokes and completely destroyed one of the wheels – recreated in aged pinewood by a skilled artisan in the nearest village using only a hatchet. Despite his problems Borghese crossed into Europe on July 20th and into Moscow a week later some seventeen days ahead of the competition. The worst he would face now was an over enthusiastic Belgian policeman stopping him for speeding. “I am Prince Borghese – we have just driven from Peking, China” was enough to clear the way after a short delay.

On August 10th, 1907, the Itala entered Paris, sixty one days after leaving Peking, winning the race by three weeks. “It all seems absurd and impossible; I cannot convince myself that we have come to the end, that we have really arrived,” wrote Barzini.

Borghese, turning off his engine, announced: “Gentlemen… you said driving such a route would be quite impossible… You are perfectly correct”.

The Spyker and the De Dions continued to Moscow, on to Warsaw and through Germany to arrive twenty days later though Godard was not driving the Spyker having been arrested in Berlin over a money dispute with Le Matin and replaced with a Spyker driver to cover the last miles into Paris. 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. Cromier came third and Collignon last as Pons was disqualified.

It was not until 1997 that the route was run again, although the first Peking to Paris rally arranged by Philip Young and the Endurance Rally Association was not over the exact route, going further south. In 1957 the Russians had refused to allow Luigi Barzini Jr. to retrace his fathers route and the Chinese had blocked any attempted re-creation since. Further ERA rallies followed in 2007, 2010 and 2013 now much closer to the original route.