Peking to Paris: The Original ‘Amazing Race’.

25 Feb

Arm-wrestling, thumb-wars, Naughts and Crosses, Snakes and Ladders, Chess and Monopoly, all games of competition, skill, cunning and perseverence. But the ultimate game to mankind is racing. Racing bicycles, horses, snails, huskies, cars, boats and in the world of The Simpsons…Fruit. But in today’s world of racing, where we have the Tour de France, the television show The Amazing Race, the Sydney to Hobart yacht-race and the Melbourne Cup, how many remember a true grandfather of racing, which, by now, took place over a hundred years ago?

Real car nuts, historians or racing-enthusiasts may be aware of this event, but the likelihood of someone else knowing that it ever took place, is rather slim. I’m talking about the granddaddy of motor-racing, the original automotive endurance-test. Forget race-tracks and timers, flags, cheering crowds and the best of the best cars on the road. When this race took place, the car barely existed!…Until then.

Built in 1885, when the black cab of London was still a horse-drawn Hansom on two wheels, the Benz Motorwagen, created by Karl Benz (of ‘Mercedes-Benz’ fame), became the world’s first motor-car. It had seats, it had wheels, it had an internal combustion engine and it had a steering wheel. Or rather, a steering-tiller. Back then, nobody thought the car was anything more than a stupid toy. A giant version of idiotic, clockwork, wind-up tinpot pieces of junk that kids played with. But over the next twenty years, leading into the 20th century, the automobile began to drive a wedge into the world of transport, to proclaim to everyone that it was here to stay.

By the early 1900s, motor-cars were gradually becoming more common, but they were still expensive showpieces, affordable only to the wealthy. Car-manufacturers were few and far-between, but the public were amazed by these new machines and began to wonder if this was…the future? Had something come along that could finally replace the horse and cart? To find out, people decided to take this new toy and see what it could really do.

Le Matin newspaper

Le Matin was a French newspaper, which ran from 1883 to 1944. When it was still being printed, it was a popular, daily newspaper, rising up to 100,000 copies a day in 1900, increasing that sevenfold by 1910. In 1907, it ran the following challenge to anyone who would read it and accept it (translated into English):

    “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?”

French newspaper ‘Le Matin’; Thursday, 31st January, 1907. Note the title of the article on the top right of the front page

The challenge to drive from Peking, China (modern day Beijing) to Paris, France in 1907, using totally untested automobiles, was taken up by five men:

– Prince Scipione Borghese, accompanied by his mechanic Ettore Guizzardi. They were further accompanied by Italian journalist Luigi Barzini, Sr.
– Charles Goddard, accompanied by journalist Jean du Taillis.
– Auguste Pons and Octave Foucault, his mechanic.
– Georges Cormier.
– Victor Collignon.

Officially, eleven men in five cars started the race, however I wasn’t able to track down the names of everyone who participated. Each car had a driver (the actual contestant) and a journalist to ride as a passenger and media correspondent. The race was to start in Peking and go northwest and later southwest, through the Asian and European interiors. By following an established telegraph-cable route, the accompanying journalists would be able to send back telegraphed reports of the race to keep newspapers in Europe and elsewhere, informed of the race’s progress across Asia and Europe.

The Cars

Blah-blah-blah-blah-blah…five cars going across some dirt to some city somewhere…meh. What’s so special about that? Some endurance-test! Pfft!!

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Listen. Before you click that tantilising ‘Back’ button on your browser-window, hear me out here. While today something like this might not sound that amazing, five cars driving from China to France, one has to remember the context in which this race was run.

In 1907, cars were only just becoming common on our roads. They were flimsy, delicate machines, with frames made of metal and wood, wire-spoked wheels and delicate glass windscreens. They were started up by grabbing a crank-handle and winding it up until the engine caught on. They weren’t our modern racers that we have today. Half the time you were lucky that the car started at all! It was these, experiemental, new, fantastic horseless carriages that these brave pioneers of racing and consumer-confidence, that the eleven men in the race were attempting to use to cross a distance of…wait for it…9317 miles!…That’s just shy of 15,000km, folks. No mean feat for a machine that had only been invented a few years before and which was famous for breaking down every few miles. The point of the race was to show people that cars could, and would…do amazing things for society, and that if they could conquer this torturous trial by fire, they would have proved themselves worthy to replace the horse and carriage…plus, everyone would want a car! Now that they had proven themselves to be reliable machines.

But what cars were used in the race? Mercedes? Porsche? BMW? You wish.

The five cars used in the race were as follows:

A 1907 Itala. 7L engine with 40HP. That’s Ettore Guizzardi, Prince Scipione’s mechanic, sitting in the driver’s seat, just before the start in Peking. The car was stripped down to bare essentials to keep it light and fast. The weird-looking mudflaps are actually floorboards!

The very same Itala, 103 years later! Now in a museum in Italy

A 1907 Spyker. Actually, THE 1907 Spyker. This very car was used by Charles Goddard in the original race. It was used again in 2007, when a commemorative 100th anniversary rally of the race was held, along the same route

A Contal three-wheeler cyclecar, driven by Auguste Pons and his mechanic. This car was so unique and so obscure that a reproduction of it had to be manufactured from scratch for the 2007 anniversary race. Here it is:

This car was just hell on wheels. The power comes entirely from the back wheel. If the Contal went too fast, the entire thing could flip over backwards, if the front passenger area was not sufficiently weighed down. This caused all kinds of problems for the 2007 reenactors, and probably just as many problems for Pons and his companion, Foucault.

A pair of identical, 10HP, 1907 De Dions, donated by two French car-dealers, were also entered in the race. Here is a photograph of one of them

The Starting Line

The race’s start-date was June 10th, 1907. The contestants were warned beforehand that this race was not going to be a family drive in the countryside. Where the cars would be going, there would be no roads. At best, there were country lanes, furrowed dirt tracks and slippery, fine sand. The cars would have to drive across two deserts and several mountain ranges on their way to Paris, but the contestants were undeterred.

And so, with all this in mind, the race began! On the morning of the 10th of June, 1907…History would be made!…or not. Eleven men in five cars drove off from Paris, excited, eager, anxious and thinking of that big, fat, delicious prize at the end of the run…a magnum (that’s a 1.5 litre bottle, folks) of delicious French champagne! A band played music and Peking locals set off strings of loud, red Chinese firecrackers which exploded everywhere! Crowds cheered the men off on their epic and historic journey.

Peking, 1907. This photograph shows the five cars that participated in the race, driving off into history

The Original ‘Amazing Race’

If ‘Le Matin’s intention was to show the durability of the car and how it could be driven anywhere and do anything, its editors would have been biting off their fingernails like beavers when they saw the dreadful state the race was in, after just a few hours! Everything was going great for the competitors, if you discount the fact that once they got out of the Chinese capital, there was nothing but dirt roads…and the fact that it started raining…and the fact that there was a huge mountain range between China and Mongolia.

The route taken by the race’s competitors, from Peking, China, in the East, to Paris, France, in the West

This first mountain range was the death of almost everyone. The cars primative engines were too weak to power them up the steep and narrow mountain roads and men often had to push the cars up by hand, or get mules to pull on the cars with ropes. Going downhill was no fun either! Cars like these weren’t Humvees or Jeeps, they weren’t designed for cross-country, off-road driving! Their brakes, while sufficient on adequately paved roads, were unable to stop the automobiles on their harrowing downhill slides on the narrow and treacherous mountain passes! Prince Scipione’s Itala went sliding off down the mountain roads with his mechanic at the wheel, struggling to apply the brakes and keep the car on the road! An inch too far to the left or right and the car would go crashing down the side of the mountain!

After the mountains came the Gobi Desert. Here, Auguste Pons and his companion barely made it out alive. Their rickety and unpredictable automobile, which was little more than a tricycle with a gas-tank on it, ran out of go-juice! There were no Shell or Mobil gas-stations around and Pons hadn’t brought spare cans of petrol with him! Deciding that it was too dangerous to continue, Pons and his mechanic/co-driver left the race and headed back to China. On foot. Mind you, this was in the middle of a desert. If not for some wandering Mongolian gypsies, they would’ve died from dehydration! But what about their Contal? It was left to rust in the desert and was never recovered.

The other four racers kept right on truckin’. They knew where they were going because they were able to follow telegraph-wires through the desert, which was their plan, so that they wouldn’t get lost. At one of the checkpoints, a tiny village called Hong Pong in nothern Mongolia, Luigi Barzini, the Italian journalist, headed into the town’s only telegraph office to send his report back to Europe. He picked up the telegraph-form to fill out his message and noticed the number ‘1’ on the top of the sheet. He mistakenly assumed that he was the first person to send a telegram that day, from Hong Pong. In a way, he was correct. He was the very first person to send a telegram…FROM Hong Pong! This was the first time the telegraph had been used in the village since it had been introduced back in 1901!

The race was not all smooth sailing, as this photograph graphically illustrates:

That’s Prince Scipione’s Itala, which broke through the deck of a bridge while driving through Mongolia! Fortunately, the car’s well-inflated tyres prevented any serious damage. It took three hours to get the car out of the hole it made for itself, but once on four wheels again, the prince’s mechanic gave the crank a few turns and the car started right up again!

The race certainly took its toll on the cars. And not just by having them crash through bridges! There were flat tyres, engines overheating and a myriad of other problems. To prevent their cars from boiling over in the searing Gobi Desert heat, the contestants fed their cars their own drinking-water! Prince Scipione’s Itala lost a wheel in the race and had to have it remade by a Russian blacksmith halfway through the race! Using only a hatchet to shape the wood, the highly-skilled village wheelwright managed to build a new wheel from scratch for a machine he most likely, had never seen before in his life! Michelin, Dunlop and Pirelli, famous tyre-manufacturers, sponsered various race-competitors to use their tyres to prove their longevity.

But of course, cars can only drive so far before they run out of fuel. Fortunately, the race-planners had thought of this in advance. At each checkpoint along the race-track, apart from food, drink and a telegraph-key to send journalistic reports to Europe, there were also fuel-dumps so that the cars could top up on gas during the race.

So far, the cars had gone through everything imaginable. Rivers, blistering heat, flat tyres, overheating engines and now, freezing sub-artic temperatures as the race entered the unforgiving terrain of Siberia. Driving through the frigid air was tricky at best. Charles Goddard was lucky to know how to drive! He’d never been behind the wheel of one of these newfangled…motor-cars…before the race! He had to have lessons on how to drive before he entered!

On the 20th of July, well in the lead, Prince Scipione, his mechanic and their journalist travelling-companion arrived in Europe. They were winning and nothing could stop them! NOTHING!!…ahem…apart from a stubborn Belgian policeman. While passing through Belgium, a police-officer ordered Prince Scipione to pull over! He had stopped the prince for exceeding the speed-limit. The prince gave the officer a good talking-to, explaining that he was in the middle of a race! The officer, on learning that this car with all kinds of weird damage on it, had just driven from nothern China halfway around the world to Belgium, had to consult his superiors before allowing the prince to drive on in the race; he simply did not believe the prince, first time around. Fact is truly stranger than fiction!

On the 10th of August, 1907, the race was over. Triumphant and exhausted, Prince Scipione, Luigi the journalist and Ettore, their mechanic, drove into Paris, the winners! In his final article on the race, Luigi Barzini penned the following lines:

    “It all seems absurd and impossible; I cannot convince myself that we have come to the end, that we have really arrived!”

On the 30th of August, twenty days later, the Spyker, followed by the two De Dions, arrived in Paris. Charles Goddard wasn’t behind the wheel of the Spyker; due to money-troubles, he wasn’t able to finish the race! But his car won second place and that was probably good enough for him! Georges Cromier came third and in last place, Victor Collignon. As Monsieur Pons had never finished the race, he was disqualified and wasn’t offered an official place in the race’s end.

Of all the cars used in the race, the Spyker and the Itala still survive, restored and currently preserved in motoring museums. An interesting little story: Prince Scipione’s Itala, painted bright red for the race, fell into the harbour when it was being unloaded for the big event! To prevent rust, the car was repainted battleship grey…the only paint the harbour-workers had on hand at the time. If you’ve ever wondered why Italian race-cars are red today, it’s because after the Prince won the race aaaaall the way back in 1907, Italy adopted red as its official racing-colour and red remains that colour to this day.

The winning 1907 Itala, as it appears today

As a finishing point, this article was a fascinating bit of history to read, research and write about. Anyone wanting to know a bit more about this historic race can read about it below:

These two links were my main sources for this article and they provided invaluable little titbits and pieces of information while I was reading up on it.


Posted by on February 25, 2010 in History of Transport


3 responses to “Peking to Paris: The Original ‘Amazing Race’.

  1. John de Bry

    February 5, 2011 at 11:55 PM

    Very interesting article! My grandfather, August Pons, who drove the Contal, had told my grandmother and my mother and her sister Lily Pons, a lot about this fascinating adventure, including his experience and survival in the Gobi desert. Today, I have many of the original pictures of the race as well as my grandfather’s car racing permit. I have been dreaming, and actually seriously thinking, of going to China, retracing the route he and the other cars took, and attempting to collect stories from Mongol tribesmen who may have heard about the broken down Contal and the two Frenchmen from their grandfathers; it is conceivable that the Contal is still out there, buried under the sand.

    • scheong

      February 6, 2011 at 11:07 PM

      Hi John. I’m glad you liked the article. To my knowledge, the Contal was never recovered. It ran out of petrol and was left in the desert to rust. It’s probably still out there, buried under 104 years of sand!

  2. mmetalman

    July 14, 2011 at 7:31 PM

    The Spyker was one of very few Dutch cars ever made, I believe.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 270 other followers

%d bloggers like this: