Michelle Jana Chan, The Daily Telegraph, May 30, 2013
It was one of those signature murky days in Beijing. As we headed down to the hotel car park it started to drizzle. In the flat grey light of dawn, among the row of vintage Bentleys and classic Mercedes, was our car, a 1940 Ford Coupe nicknamed Shiner, ready for a journey of nearly 8,000 miles to Paris.
We loaded the last of the luggage, turned the key, pressed the starter button and headed north to the rally start at the Juyongguan section of the Great Wall of China. We had plenty of admirers en route. Taxis slowed down and gave us the thumbs-up. Commuters took photographs with their phones. Children waved. We tooted our horn.
The Great Wall car park was swirling with petrol fumes, giggling spectators and highly strung drivers. There were drummers, dragon dances and a brass band playing Lady Gaga. Various media buzzed about with cameras.
In spite of the fanfare I felt pensive. Sixteen years ago, when I was working as a news journalist in Beijing, I heard about the Peking-to-Paris Motor Challenge, one of the longest and toughest rallies undertaken in a classic car. After years of dreaming, and more than a year spent planning and building a car, I had finally made it to the start line.
“Remember this,” I said to my co-driver, Mike Reeves: “never again will we have the whole stretch of road before us.”
Around us were great vehicles from 100 years of automobile history. For many the star was Car 1, a 1917 La France Tourer with a huge 14.5-litre engine and driven by an intimidatingly competent Austrian team.
We especially want to beat the Chevrolets given the long-standing Ford-Chevy rivalry and Chevy’s excellent run in the Peking-to-Paris (they have won the past two rallies). There are two Canadians, Len and Kim, driving a 1960 Chevy Impala, the so-called “Cowboy Cadillac”. They have been continuously baiting us, making the most of cracking open another cold beer. “We spent $4,000 just on beer while doing up the car,” Len told me. They have a cooler in their car, of course.
One of my favourites is Car 16, a 1929 Rolls-Royce 20, driven by two Swiss watchmakers. The workmanship on their vehicle, from the handmade bodywork to the wooden storage trunks, is enviably refined. With their pedigree, they will also no doubt be on time. Another favourite is a 1929 Ford Model A, which looks more like a rollerskate than a car and has barely enough space for a spare spark plug. It is driven by two charming Britons, Bill and Mark, who keep running off to have a roll-up cigarette.
There are plenty of personalities on the rally but perhaps even more character in the line-up of vintage and classic cars: the bug-eyes of the cute VW Beetles; the playful Renault 4; the Mustangs with their brash stance and deep-set headlights, as if they are frowning; the aloof Bentleys; and a Citroen DS with all its avant-garde Gallic flair.
The cars were revving up at the start to depart at thirty-second intervals. The steward counted down to our time and, at 08:19am precisely, I pressed down hard on the accelerator and sounded the horn. We were off.
Sleek expressways and toll roads soon gave way to rough roads and processions of lumbering trucks. We traversed deep mud and buckled Tarmac. A Jaguar encountered trouble after crossing floodwater. The Australians in Car 5, a 1927 Vauxhall 14/40, had to be loaded on to a truck within a few hours of the start. “That’s a record,” the rally organiser, Philip Young, told me. Car 7, a 1928 Ford Phaeton, did not even reach the start: its Canadian team got lost driving from the hotel to the Great Wall.
Shiner did us proud that first day. But we had been through a gruelling week in the run-up to the rally, which was mostly self-inflicted. Incredibly and embarrassingly, we had left the car keys back in Britain (and confess we had to ask our mums to find them and rush them to the rally organisers at Heathrow).
On top of that, when we picked up Shiner at the bonded warehouse in Beijing, we found one of the leaf springs bent and our beloved car lopsided. We tweaked the suspension with a spanner but remain worried that it is only a temporary fix.
We also had to borrow money for fuel from a fellow competitor, Lutz from Germany, in a 1967 Ford Mustang Fastback, after our credit card was rejected at a petrol station. The cash mashine then ate our credit card. Finally, we realised we had left our essential Ford Flathead V8 Builder’s Handbook 1932-1953 by the bedside table in London.
When the flag dropped, however, all this became immaterial. We were on the road with a rally to win. Anyone who says they are here for the ride is lying. See you in Paris on June 29.
* Michelle Jana Chan flew with British Airways (0844 4930787; ba.com ) which operates a daily service from Heathrow to Beijing seven times a week: from £701.25 return, including taxes and fees.
Abercrombie & Kent (0845 485 1142; abercrombiekent.co.uk ) can organise a five-night stay at the Four Seasons Beijing from £1,225 per person based on two people sharing, including return economy flight on British Airways and private transfers.
*The race happens every three years. To join the 2016 event, see endurorally.com .