The Paris to Peking Challenge

Project Proposal

The 2002 Paris to Peking Challenge
e-mail:    Tel: 07789 674167     Fax: 0208 699 3238

The 1907 Peking To Paris Rally:

In March 1907, Le Matin printed a challenge, "Will any one agree to go, this summer, from Peking to Paris by motor-car", so recorded Luigi Barzini (1874-1947), a well-known Italian newspaper reporter. Shortly afterwards, Prince Scipione Borghese (1871-1927) replied to Le Matin's challenge "I hereby enter my name for the Peking to Paris race in an Itala motor car. ...". Barzini was directed to cover the race by his newspaper, travelling to China via the USA, and was granted permission to accompany the Prince in his motor car. He sent back reports of the trip by telegraph and wrote a popular book of the adventure, Peking to Paris, at the trip's end. The third occupant of the Itala was Ettore Guizzardi, the Prince's mechanic and chauffeur, who had the heavy responsibility of repairing and maintaining the car, and who shared the driving.

Barzini's book was published in Italian and several other languages and quickly became popular reading; for example it gets a mention in Wanda Newby's autobiography, Peace and War (1991), about growing up in pre-war Italy. A 1972 edition (right) has an introduction by the author's son, Luigi Barzini jr., and contains additional photographs taken on the trip.

Itala was an Italian car maker. The 1907 model had a 4-cylinder engine of 7.4 litres (bore 130mm, stroke 140mm). Power passed through a disc clutch, a four-speed gearbox (plus reverse), and a propeller shaft to the rear wheels. Fuel consumption was reported as approximately 33L/100km (9mpg). The chassis was made of steel and suspension was by semi-elliptical springs front and rear. The brakes acted only on the rear wheels - as was usual for the day.

Bodywork was rudimentary, containing two front seats and a rear seat flanked by twin 150 litre petrol tanks. All could be removed to lighten the car when extricating it from a bog. The rear seat was often filled with luggage, the 3rd man then sitting on the front floor with feet on the running board. Initially, the mudguards (wings) consisted of four "iron planks" which could be removed quickly to aid in crossing obstacles. However, these were discarded soon after the start as part of what became a continuing process of weight reduction and the majority of the trip was completed in an open-wheeler; imagine the dust and mud!

Four other cars showed up at the start in Peking: a 6hp Contal tricycle (French), two 10hp de Dion-Boutons (French) and a 25hp Spyker (Dutch). The "race" was actually conducted more in the spirit of a rally, as befits gentlemen. Beginning on 10 June 1907, the cars left the capital on roads cleared of other traffic. At Nankow they had to be hauled over the mountains by mules and men. Later, after Kalgan they attained speeds of 60mph in the Gobi desert. The Itala soon drew ahead.

China treated the motorists with some suspicion, but the reception was enthusiastic in Russia. Permission was granted to use railway bridges in traversing the southern edge of Lake Baikal rather than taking the ferry. In this region a road bridge collapsed under the Itala, nearly spelling disaster; it lodged on its rear, just past the vertical. The mud of eastern Russia was the greatest obstacle, boggings being frequent, but the going improved after the Ural mountains. One of the wheels collapsed soon after the Urals and a local blacksmith replaced the wooden spokes. The Itala headed north-west from Moscow, to St. Petersburg whose motorists had been helpful in planning the race, and where a welcoming ball was staged. Indeed lavish hospitality was a hazard to rapid progress throughout Russia and Europe. The car was escorted with pomp and efficiency, of course, into Germany. Finally, the Itala with Prince Borghese at the wheel made a triumphant entrance into Paris on 10 August 1907, exactly two months after the start. The book is a joy to read although now only (?) available in second-hand bookshops. It is easy to see why it would have been popular from its first date of publication, throughout the 1910s, the 1920s and beyond. The hardships of the trip are understated - consider the Gobi desert in summer, dust and then mud, rain throughout much of Russia, all in an open car. Recall also that Benz's motor tricycle of 1885 is commonly held to be the first "successful" vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine. The race still comes across as a very modern type of adventure, something of a "jape".

Introduction     Itinerary     Costs/Paperwork

Route map    CitroŽn Traction Avant    

The 2002 Paris to Peking Challenge
e-mail:    Tel: 07789 674167     Fax: 0208 699 3238