September 22, 2019

Racing ‘Peking to Paris’ in Classic Cars: ‘The Best Part Is the Beer at Night’

Racing ‘Peking to Paris’ in Classic Cars: ‘The Best Part Is the Beer at Night’

Gerry Crown carefully maneuvered himself through the roll cage and into the driver’s seat of his 1974 Leyland and started the engine for the last time before arriving in Paris. Having traveled nearly 8,500 miles across Asia and Europe, only 177 more divided the 87-year-old Australian from victory.

Together with his co-driver, Matt Bryson, 38, Crown was competing in the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge. At 36 days on the road, it is regarded as the longest and toughest race for classic and collectible cars.

I signed up as a chronicler and participant, teaming up with my father, Mario, an automotive engine designer, to race in a 1955 Citroën Traction Avant. We finished in 49th place, but the satisfaction came in just making it to Paris, even though there were times we thought we wouldn’t.

First run in 1907, the Peking to Paris race was originally intended to test the endurance of the newly emerging automobile. The route between Beijing and Paris had never been driven before; a large chunk of the way was missing roads. Political obstacles made the race impossible in later years, though re-enactments and variations were held from time to time. The road rally enthusiast Philip Young revived the race in 1997, and since 2007 it has taken place every three years.

Among the 105 cars that started this year, near the Great Wall of China on June 2, was a 51-year-old Volvo Amazon belonging to Jo and Heather Worth, a mother-daughter team from New Zealand. They were competing in the Peking to Paris for the second time, hoping it would be a slightly less eventful experience than the last. In 2016, they rolled their car during a timed section in Mongolia, when they decided to drive over a hill rather than around it.

Jo Worth went into the 2019 race with the intention of not getting caught up in the adrenaline and excitement, which in racing is known as red mist. “My strategy was to drive to 80 percent of my ability,” she said.

Worth admits, however, that she was driving too fast on the very first timed section when she slid across the road and hit a wall, crumpling her car and with it her dreams of a top-10 finish. Although many thought the Volvo, which she named Xena, was beyond repair, Worth was determined to continue. After a night working on the car with a mechanic and then a full day of driving, an exhausted Worth managed to rejoin the rally in time to cross the border into Mongolia.

The participants this year raced through 12 countries, including Russia, Kazakhstan, Estonia and Poland. The route was set by the organization, and each day the competitors used a route book and a GPS device to navigate from start to finish. The teams encountered dirt tracks, river crossings and mountain passes intended to push them and their cars to the limit.

For racers like Manuel Dubs, the appeal of Peking to Paris lies in the challenge and the unpredictability of the event.

“We have to solve problems, which without the rally we wouldn’t have,” he said.

For Dubs, this included a wheel breaking off and disappearing into a Russian river, a collision in Kazakhstan with a car not in the race and an engine failure in Germany. Dubs was one of many participants who, in order to keep driving, had to fly someone in with spare parts.

Although Crown and Bryson also encountered problems, they made it to Paris and clinched their third win in the classics sector. In order to compete with the Datsuns, Porsches and a Ferrari 208 GT4, the Leyland was made as light and reliable as possible in the lead-up to the race.

Crown used to compete in professional rallies when he was in his 30s. While he enjoys the Peking to Paris’s competitive sections, which require a high level of concentration, he thinks that most of the driving is not fun and refers to it as a bit of a slog.

“The best part,’’ he said, “is the beer at night.”

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