Outside magazine, September 1997
'In Nepal there are 13 rivers to cross in one day — without bridges," Bristles Rally director Philip Young at the suggestion that his Peking to Paris Motor Challenge is anything but an audacious test of endurance and fortitude. "The cars are old, and yet they have to cross deserts without satellite navigation or electronic equipment."
Still, the world's longest classic-car rally may be stacking up to be as much Barnum and Bailey as it is Baja 1000. Beginning on the sixth of this month and ending (hopefully) 45 days and 12,000 miles later, nearly 100 pre-1968 cars, ranging from a 1928 Rolls-Royce Phantom I to a 1960 Volkswagen Beetle, will race across 12 countries, including China, Tibet, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey. Among the characters who have ponied up the $35,000 entry fee are a British duke, a Malaysian prince, a Greek cement magnate, and the curator of Sweden's Volvo Truck Museum. Enthuses John Jung, a 56-year-old retired electronics retailer from Dallas driving a 1950 Ford Club Coupe, and one of 13 American entries, "We're going to bring trading cards with pictures of ourselves to hand out along the way."
The event commemorates the 90th anniversary of the world's first intercontinental motor rally, a 1907 winner-take-all race from Beijing to Paris. During that five-car duel, a reporter for the London Daily Telegraph rode shotgun atop the toolbox on an Itala driven by Prince Borghese, and in the Gobi Desert one car sparked a massive grass fire that took 200 miles to outrun. Without maps or even roads for much of the journey, three out of five finished, the winner taking home a magnum of Mumm champagne.
This time first prize is a gold medal — and conditions, despite Young's prickly assertions, won't be so tough. All the cars have beefed-up suspensions, oversize fuel tanks and cooling systems, and four-wheel disc brakes. Fuel and press trucks will follow along much of the route, competitors will sleep in hotels all but five of the nights, and seven days will be scheduled for rest. Still, says Ned Thompson, a 42-year-old canvas company owner from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, who will be driving an open-design 1928 Bentley, "the temperature will range from 110 to minus ten, and we'll be driving at elevations up to 17,600 feet. That's hard on man and machine. I've been running and lifting weights every day to get ready." And though detailed route directions will be given to each competitor and two to three checkpoints will be set up each day, "there are still thousands of opportunities to miss something," says Thompson. Adds Young, his voice dropping a half-octave to convey the situation's gravity, "In China and Tibet, all the signs are in Chinese."
Of course, such obstacles may well prove troublesome for the less, um, professional drivers — such as Charles and Arlene Kleptz, elderly Ohio retirees who'll be competing in a 1919 Marmon. "They're a lovely couple," says Jung, "but when the American teams had a meeting not long ago, the Kleptzes got lost looking for the Holiday Inn at O'Hare. Call me a pessimist,