In the opening months of 1907, the French newspaper Le Matin de Paris issued a challenge to the infant auto industry: "Is there anybody willing to go from Peking to Paris by car next summer? It would be the greatest endurance test that a motor car has ever been subjected to, over a route of 16,000 kilometers." Five teams picked up the gauntlet—three from France and one each from Italy and Holland—and on June 10 of that year set off westward from Peking.
The team in the 40-hp Itala, led by Prince Scipione Borghese and including his chauffeur and a journalist, quickly leaped into the lead. Soon the going got rough, very rough. The Itala had to be towed up China's rugged Kalgan Road by mules. Hundreds of miles were driven on railroad tracks instead of the impassable roads. The prince and his crew, to whom he rarely spoke during the trip because of their inferior social standing, pushed the car through flooded rice fields surrounding the Hunho River. Fifteen oxen were required to pull the Itala out of quicksand in Mongolia. In Russia a wooden bridge collapsed when the car was at midspan. Fortunately the chauffeur, Ettore Guizzardi, was able to get the Itala back on the road within two hours. Sixty days after setting out from Peking, the Itala arrived in a profoundly disappointed Paris. The second-place team, driving a French-made De Dion, would not arrive for another three weeks.
The "great race," so called, has become part of automotive legend, largely because it was never repeated. "And people have tried," says Philip Morrell, chairman of the Voyages Jules Verne (VJV) travel agency. "It seems someone's tried almost every other year to stage a Peking-to-Paris or a Paris-to-Peking. But it has just never come off. If the Chinese government agreed to allow the race one year, the Soviets didn't agree, or the other way round. The biggest physical obstacle was Mongolia—you just couldn't get permission to travel through there.
"So what we did was, we chose a route that skirts Mongolia," adds Morrell. "And in the age of glasnost, we got all the go-aheads we needed."
Last year, VJV offered an extraordinary vacation package—a two-month road rally, the London to Beijing Motor Challenge, in reverse approximation of the original route. The tour attracted some 120 participants and was deemed such a success that it will be repeated in 1992—there is even talk of a Paris-Moscow-Beijing race being held this year.
The inaugural VJV event drew a mixed bag of thrill seekers. They came from several continents and—like the 1907 winners—from every sector of society. "We had the rich man in his Lamborghini and we had the humble man in his Morris Minor," says Morrell. "We had a baron from France and a guy who's on the dole here in England." The Times of London put it this way: "A sprinkling of European nobility and American new money [were] among the nine nations represented."
Presumably in the last category were three Yanks from Pennsylvania, traveling together: Tom Troxell, an importer-dealer of classic antique cars; Jack Mesch, a manufacturer's rep for a giftware company; and Larry Geist, who runs a spray-foam insulation business. All are members of the Lehigh Valley Model A Club. Just before the Beijing-bound caravan departed from London's Marble Arch on the brisk, sunny morning of April 7, 1990, this trio, who would be driving the 9,162-mile route, insisted that they were reasonable men in their everyday U.S. lives. But they also admitted that, yes, this was a bit of a lark, taking eight weeks off to drive a four-cylinder 1929 Model A station wagon across Europe and much of Asia.
"There was an effort made about seven years ago to do Beijing-to-Paris," Troxell tried to explain. "We signed on. We got this car all ready to go. But then the guy who was organizing the trip wasn't able to pull it off. We were pretty disappointed, so when we heard about this expedition, we signed right on."
Did this go down well with the families back in the Lehigh Valley?
"No!" said Troxell.