"The starting line-up: 'Drivers join their cars. The engines fire... the motors issue from the year."
p169 Luigi Barzini, Peking to Paris, across two continents in an Italia, Penguin Travel Library.
When the French newspaper Le Matin published their stupendous challenge on the morning of January 31st 1907, it was immediately and eagerly accepted by a number of motor car manufacturers from the continent.
With the raid due to start in June, there was little time for preparation. Meetings were held at the offices of Le Matin and the two general rules of the raid agreed. These were that the journey was to be made in convoy, with the drivers promising each other mutual assistance as far as the German frontier, and forbidding drivers to take the railway anywhere between Peking and Paris “on pain of disqualification.”
Of the many entrants, only five cars were shipped to the Chinese capital to start the raid. These were the two 10-h.p. de Dion-Boutons of Georges Cormier and Victor Collignon; The tiny 6-h.p. Contal tri-car driven by Auguste Pons; Charles Godard’s 15-h.p. Spyker; and the formidable entry of Prince Scipone Borghese on his 40-h.p. Itala – renowned for his meticulous planning and desire to win!
The Frenchman Charles Godard, circus performer and Wall-of-Death rider extraordinaire was the most spirited of the raiders. He alone was determined to take with him the 24 bottles of finest Mumm Champange that had been presented to each entrant by the French firm, as well as a small dog he picked up in Peking which he promptly named Pekine. This resulted in many of his spares and equipment being left behind in Peking! A trail of deception followed Godard, who had made wild claims to receive a free car from Spyker, as well as all the spares and fuel required for the trip.
The raiders set out from Peking on the morning of the 10th of June 1907 to a great fanfare. Prince Borghese on his Itala took an early lead which he never lost, ignoring the gentlemanly rules of the raid entirely.
Over the following weeks the raiders encountered the worst conditions imaginable. At times teams of native porters would pull or even carry the cars up mountains, across rivers and through mud flats, even chipping away rocks to make some sort of rough path for the cars to be pulled along.
The Contal tri-car was the only car not to complete the raid when it finally became stuck in the Gobi Desert, almost leading to the death of Pons and his mechanic as the rest of the raiders had not realised the comical tri-car was not ahead of them.
As the raid followed a ‘telegraph route’ reports were regularly sent back to Le Matin by the journalists accompanying the raiders, allowing the rest of the world to follow their progress. Fascinating tales reached the breakfast tables of readers in France, mostly concerning the exploits of Charles Godard!
The first calamity to beset Godard occurred when he left behind his new dog Pekine in a town in Mongolia. He had so little fuel that he could not turn back when he realised, and for a while was devastated that he had forgotten poor Pekine! Later on, when traversing the vast stretch of Russia, Godard’s car had some serious problems which could not be fixed without spares being sent to him by train. This delayed him for several days, after which he drove day and night to catch up with the de Dion’s, although by this time Prince Borghese was almost home – having detoured north to St. Petersburg en route!
Two months on from the start of the raid, Borghese entered Paris, but being Italian the Itala team did not receive the heroes welcome they deserved from France!
Exactly twenty days later, on Friday 30th August 1907, the two de Dions entered Paris to a far more lavish ceremony. The route through Germany had seen the unfortunate Godard arrested on the orders of the managing director of Le Matin, who did not want a Dutch car to beat the French de Dions! He effectively argued his release but was captured once more on his entry into Paris.
Exactly 100 years on, four of the Way family along with Ivan Weightman, will retrace the pioneer racers route, departing from Peking (now Beijing) on June 6th.
"Traveling along the railway track: 'That superbly even, level, clear road was full of attraction after the ruts, the woods and the ditches of the others."
p176 Luigi Barzini, Peking to Paris, across two continents in an Italia, Penguin Travel Library.
Unlike Prince Borghese, this team of pioneers are not meticulous in their planning, and as of February 2007 still have much of the 1907 Mors racing car that will carry them from Peking to Paris to construct.