There are different ways to enjoy speed.
Some prefer to do it by street racing in the middle of the night. Others run lap after lap in open-wheel racing cars. And certain wealthy car enthusiasts like to travel across the globe on classic endurance rallies.
Peking to Paris is such a race. It’s hard to grasp at first, but 120 or so vintage and classic cars do indeed drive approximately 8,500 miles (13, 679kms) over two continents and 13 countries, making this event a true test for the machines and their crews.
The Peking to Paris is now held every three years, and 2019’s event marks its seventh running. Teams began the epic race on June 2, and they’re scheduled to finish on July 7.
It was impressive to see these cars arrive at the checkpoint in Tallinn, Estonia, but the surroundings of a humble European city with paved roads doesn’t reflect what they’d been through to get here. By this point the teams had already driven thousands of miles on gravel roads, made roadside repairs, and slept in tents for days.
That’s not to say they were all on their own, though. The entry fee is expensive, and as such the Peking to Paris is very well organized, with fuel stops, sightseeing, speed tests and more. Yes, every person who participates still has to the brave the physical journey in less than comfortable conditions, but it’s not like it was over 100 years back when participants carried silver for money. Now you just drop US$50,000 and you’re in.
Mind you, registration for the 2019 event closed more than two years ago…The First Five
The event’s history can be traced back to 1907, when the French newspaper Le Matin put out a challenge to European automakers: “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?”
Soon after, 40 teams were registered for the first ever Peking to Paris, but only five vehicles actually made it to the start line in Beijing (then Peking) on June 10, 1907: A 7-liter Itala driven by Prince Scipione Borghese, a Dutch Spyker with Charles Goddard at the wheel, two French De Dion-Boutons driven by Georges Cornier and Victor Collignon, and a three-wheeled Contral that Auguste Pons left dry of fuel in the Gobi Desert.
While Pons was lucky to be saved by a passing camel caravan, the other four drivers reached the finish line in France, some 10,000 miles away. The winner was Prince Scipione Borghese, who arrived in Paris on August 10. Two weeks later, Goddard arrived in the Spyker, which was quite impressive given he didn’t even know how to drive a car when Le Matin published its story. He was, however, arrested for fraud soon after the event; it turned out he didn’t really have the money to compete in the first place.
Each car had a journalist onboard and the race itself roughly followed the telegraph route, so newspapers could publish stories as the event progressed. This way, the Peking to Paris became the first ever event where an endurance record for 24 hours of non-stop driving was documented, Goddard taking the honor.
There were no marshals nor any rules. The official who travelled to China to flag away the cars at the race start took a boat back to Paris, arriving in time to flag the participants across the finish line. We speak about tire wars now, but it seems like the very first one happened in the 1907 Peking to Paris. Pirelli sponsored Prince Borghese’s Itala, Michelin was on board with Goddard, and Dunlop supported the De-Dions.
I shot these black and white pictures in 2007, when the race celebrated its 100th anniversary by taking the 1907 route through the Baltic States. At that time, I had just purchased my first DSLR camera and snapped away at anything remotely interesting. I never thought I’d use the images for anything, but here we are 12 years later…Arrival
I knew that the majority of cars entered in the 2019 event would arrive on a ferry from Helsinki on June 29, but I didn’t have any information about which boat they were aboard or at what exact time they would disembark. Thirteen ferries travel from Helsinki to Tallinn every day, and to make things event more complicated, they use three different ports.
Luckily, all three terminals aren’t very far from each other, and all the cars were equipped with a tracker device. I saw which port the cars were gathering at in Helsinki, so I knew where to wait for them in Tallinn.
The problem was, the GPS signal wasn’t strong enough to show the location once the cars boarded the ferry. Around lunchtime, all the markers were bunched together next to the Finnish terminal, so I was assuming that the ‘gold’ would be arriving on the 3:30pm sailing. I was wrong. Yes, a few cars did arrive, but they were the ones that needed repairs and those belonging to the organizers. The next ferry was at 6:30pm, and I was confident it would be the right one.
I was correct.
Set to the sounds of old engine noises and the smell of petrol (and oil), 1930s Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, vintage American metal including Fords, Chevys, Buicks and Cadillacs, one Lada, vintage Volvos and Porsches, Datsun 240Zs, Jaguars and Mercedes-Benzes appeared. There were even some models I’d never seen in person before: a 1974 Leyland P76, 1954 Sunbeam Alpine, 1934 Hudson Terraplane, and a 1975 Ferrari 208 GT4.
The cars slowly moved to the hotel parking lot where they spent the night. This provided my first proper encounter with the vehicles and teams who had spent 28 days getting here.6,800 Miles Later
The checkpoint in Tallinn is 1,500 miles from the finish line, but it’s fair to say that the teams were just starting to enjoy European roads. After navigating mostly rural terrain in China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Russia, the most car-challenging ground had been covered.
Although the stop in Tallinn was a chance for everyone to rest, many teams still worked away on their classics to ensure they would make it to France. Some crew members actually prefer to spend their evenings this way.
Ten or so cars parked next to the hotel, the crews brought some beer out, and the waiter turned up with some snacks – now the car maintenance could start.
While it was only maintenance for some, others had more serious issues to contend with. Team #2 was swapping the steam engine in their 1910 White MM Pullman – the oldest car in the event (not counting the 1907 Contal Mototri Tricycle). Bits of the vintage Pullman were strewn all over the place. The guys replaced some bent rods with the last of their spares, and mated the bottom end of one engine to the top half of another.
Those teams confident of their cars’ abilities without the need for any service work, drove them straight to the underground parking lot for the night.
By this point in the rally, some of the cars were getting really tired. Bungee straps held doors closed, gaffer tape was used to seal windows, and tires were worn. There were oil and fluid spills everywhere too, although most of the participants had a cloth ready to put under their car.
Looking at the cars, some had obviously seen a lot of prep-work and modification before the event, while others were almost stock. At this point in the event, only 10 cars had broken down and were unable to rejoin the rally.
While many competitors are just out to enjoy the experience, the Peking to Paris is a timed competition event, so there are those who are constantly fighting for the lead. In the Vintage category, six cars are currently within 10 minutes of each other. In the Classic category, the top three are within three minutes of each other.
The following morning, the cars headed to the Laitse Rally Park. Here, competitors enjoyed the classic venue with its crossover tunnel and flyover. Whatever they were driving, everyone gave it their all. Once a team had finished their run, they had time to sit in the grandstand with the locals and watch the rest of the speed test.
After the lunch, competitors took a longer scenic drive through a dense Baltic forest alongside the Baltic Sea, and this is where I left the Peking to Paris rally. In just a few days time, they’ll be at the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France.
Great coverage and pictures of an epic adventure, Vladimir. I love how the cars wear their scuffs and scratches to tell the story of crossing two continents. I would love to join this adventure one day, but it's way out of budget unfortunately.
They're stopping in Ypres (Belgium) tomorrow, and was already planning to check it out. Seeing your article now only makes me want to go more. Lovely coverage man!
Are the two 'bentleyesque' cars running on Guernsey plates? If so I would love to make contact. I am from the beautiful island and am looking to the next running for my triumph tr4. Would love to hear their experiences and perhaps some tips.
I think I know one of the drivers.
There's "Doktor Brandenburg", a German doctor known for collecting rally-converted Porsche 911.
The Martini-one could be his....
amazing. seeing such a variety of old cars actually being driven long and hard just feels proper.