In 1907, when the automobile had yet to establish itself as a reliable means of transport, the Peking-Paris race was held, one of the most challenging long-distance races of all time. There were no roads and no petrol stations. With only five vehicles entered, the original competition was won by the huge Itala of Scipione Borghese, the Prince of Sulmona.

Since 1997, this motorsport milestone has been revived by groups of classic car enthusiasts in events that are a mixture of road rallies and endurance challenges.

Borghese and his Itala won the 1907 race (1)

After a five-year hiatus caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the Ukrainian War, Peking-Paris is back in 2024 with no less than 80 vintage cars entered and competitors from 26 countries. Organised by the British group ERA (Endurance Rally Association), the event is billed as "the greatest motoring adventure" and "the most extraordinary journey possible in a car". And that's no exaggeration.

Over the course of 37 days, the rally literally crosses half the world: 14,250 kilometres (8,855 miles), starting in China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. From there, it crosses the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan. The challenge continues through Georgia, Turkey and Greece. The final stretch passes through Italy and San Marino, until it reaches France.

Beijing-Paris 2024 - No support car

Devastating stretches and no support cars

There are no professional drivers. Many of the pairs are made up of husband and wife, or father and son, and escape the stereotype of flannelled collectors. With mechanical talent and a lot of courage, the Peking-Paris participants cover an average of 385 kilometres (240 miles) a day, almost all of it on dirt roads and with some devastating stretches along the way.

The start of the eighth edition took place on 18 May, near the section of the Great Wall closest to Beijing. The hope of all the participants is to arrive in Paris on 23 June, travelling by their own means. The maintenance of the cars throughout the rally depends solely on their drivers and navigators, as the teams are not allowed to rely on support cars. In previous editions, most of the cars managed to complete the race.

Beijing-Paris 2024 - American La France 1914, the oldest car in the race

Beijing-Paris 2024 - American La France 1914, the oldest car in the race

From fire engine to rally car

The age of the cars entered is striking (the youngest model is from 1975), as is the variety of makes. The oldest car in the competition is, once again, a centenary American La France. Born in the USA as a fire truck in 1914, it was recently transformed into a titanic 1920s-style speedster. Imagine how much petrol its 14.5-litre engine will consume to cross half the planet.

Also among the pre-war models are five Bentleys, a Cadillac "racer", as well as sports cars from brands that are little remembered today, such as Alvis and Lagonda. Robust Argentinian-inspired carreteras, made from Chevrolet coupés from the 1930s, always feature prominently in the race. On the 12th day of the competition, at the time of writing this article, the leading car in Peking-Paris was a 1939 Chevrolet coupé crewed by British duo Richard Walker/Faith Douglas.

Pequim-Paris 2024 - Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow 1968 levanta poeira

Pequim-Paris 2024 - Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow 1968 levanta poeira

Of the post-war models, it's worth mentioning a Citroën DS 1973, a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow 1968, a handful of Ford Escort Mk I and Mk II from the 60s and 70s and even a 1974 Anadol STC-16, a Turkish-built sports car that is very little known in the West. And what about couples who have decided to cross two continents, crossing mudflats and rivers in some of the least populated areas on the planet, aboard a Sunbeam or a Bristol, for example? What a Peking-Paris lacks in suitability, it makes up for in charm and enthusiasm.

The Peking-Paris of 1907

On 31 January 1907, the Parisian newspaper Le Matin issued the challenge: "We need to prove that a man with a car can now do anything and go anywhere. Will anyone commit to travelling from Peking to Paris by car this summer?"

Of the 40 teams that announced their participation in the race, only five turned up for the start on 10 June 1907 in front of the French embassy in Peking. The prize for the winner was simply a Magnum bottle of Mumm Champagne.

With the exception of the Italian prince Scipione Borghese and his co-driver Ettore Guizzardi, in the 7-litre Itala 35/45 HP, all the other racers were French: Charles Godard and Jean du Tallis, with a Spyker car, Georges Cormier and Victor Collignon, each with his De Dion-Bouton, as well as Aguste Pons and Oscar Foucauld, with a Contal Mototri tricycle.

These intrepid drivers had to cover almost 15,000 kilometres (9,320 miles) over the longest stretch of land in the world. There were no rules: the winner would be the first to reach Paris and that would be that. The route included unmapped territories and all kinds of dangers, including bandits. In the absence of roads, the competitors crossed deserts and wildernesses without any support team apart from the camels that carried the fuel and established refuelling points in the backwaters of Asia.

The kind of difficulty Borghese faced in the 1907 race

The kind of difficulty Borghese faced in the 1907 race

To allow the Western press to follow the adventure, a journalist accompanied each team. The route loosely followed telegraph lines that stretched along caravan routes.

There was a lot of cheating and sabotage during the race, in plots worthy of Dick the Trickster from "Mad Race". Pons and Foucauld were given the wrong information about where one of the refuelling points would be. With no petrol and little water, they had to abandon their Contal tricycle in the Gobi Desert, between China and Mongolia. They were about to die of thirst when they were rescued - with yak's milk - by a local tribe. They returned to Paris by ship in time to see the arrival of the victors.

The Itala 35/45 HP, which could sometimes reach 100 km/h (62 mph), proved to be far superior to the other cars. The confidence was such that Prince Borghese allowed himself a diversion of more than 700 km (435 miles) between Moscow and St Petersburg to attend a dinner in his honour. On 10 August 1907, the Italian nobleman crossed the finish line in Paris to win the first Peking-Paris challenge, after covering 14,994 km (9,317 miles) in exactly two months.

It wasn't until 20 days later that the runner-up appeared: Charles Godard with Spyker. From the start in Peking, Godard was practically out of money and had to ask the other teams to supply him with fuel. The Spyker didn't even belong to him - it had just been borrowed. At the end of the race, Godard was arrested for fraud. Comier and Collignon also managed to make it to Paris, finishing third and fourth respectively.

Gallery: Paris-Beijing Rally 2024