Driving the impossible
A YEAR ON
REFLECTIONS ON ‘DRIVING THE IMPOSSIBLE’
PEKING TO PARIS
Justin Fleming OG 1968
Well that’s what they said and they were so nearly right! A rally over 13,000Kms in 36 days travelling through China, Mongolia, Russia, Belarus ,down to Italy and round to Paris. Bring your own tent as no hotels or campsites in the Gobi Desert, still only 8 nights under canvas and night time temperature rarely goes below -8 degrees C. they tell us at the briefing.
The Peking to Paris Rally had been on my bucket list for some years and has only been run every 3 years in recent times. So having reached 3 score years and 6 I reckoned if I didn’t do it in 2016 I never would. My co driver was to be my lucky son Kristian, 24, a good father and son ‘Bonding’ experience, we thought!
So why was I so hooked on doing it? Looking back to my early years I remember a time of ‘adventure’, climbing trees, homemade soap boxes, crashing them actually getting hurt, bicycles with no brakes or helmets and more, much of it at St George’s and Barrow Hills ! I am sure you too can recall those care free times. So much of those experiences have disappeared from modern life so the idea of a real ‘Adventure’ really appealed. The opportunity to raise substantial funds for a charity I supported was also a goal I had wanted to achieve for some years. Yes I had never been on a Rally before so a big learning curve was to follow.
So what car should we attempt the Rally in? The rules allow cars from 1907, the date the first Rally was run, through to classics up to 1974. The oldest car entered was a 1915 American La France. We choose a Ford Capri a car that had never competed in the Rally before. I found a suitable sound donor car at auction, 1972, 1.6L, Mk 1 face lift, Ghia, automatic for £5k two years before the start of the rally. Rules are clear that the car must be kept close to original, no fibreglass panels or fancy suspension mods but can be strengthened and safety mods added such as roll cages.
Lea and Thomas of Atkins Motorsport well known for their Rally Ford Escort preparation took the task on in September 14 and after stripping the car back to a bare shell and many months of detailed work I collected it in November 15 to drive to the weekend briefing for the rally in Oxford. 50 miles into the journey on the M25 the engine failed due to the oil pressure relief valve sticking open! Better then than in the Gobi dessert. Finally in March 16 the car was well sorted, loaded and we delivered it to the shippers with a day to spare next to be seen in Beijing we hoped.
So we now had a very, very expensive Capri, 2l Pinto, roll caged, 130l fuel tank and too many strengthening modifications to count. The killer for the rally is weight, but you had to carry 2 spare wheels and tyres, essential spares, tools, jack, spare fuel, tent, camping gear, first aid kit, Sat phone and personnel effects for 6 weeks so not an easy task. In the end space dictated what had to be left behind with no room left to pack a sixpence.
We were lucky to meet 3 crews who had competed in the P2P before, David who also had a rally Capri and put me in touch with our preparer Atkins Motorsport. His help and advice proved invaluable. The other two crews both said ‘we can talk to you all day but until you do it you won’t realise how hard it is’ Oh how true those words were to be proved right!
One of them started our meeting with now the most important thing you need to take is…Door Stops…we looked at him somewhat miffed, door stops we said, Yes door stops to stop the ladies of the night entering your hotel rooms in Russia!
Before the Capri left the UK we had done 800 miles, shaking it down, 2 days at a rally school near Silverstone, a day’s navigation teaching on the roads round Oxford. Yes I had never taken part in a Rally of any kind before.
Finally the day arrived and Kristian and I boarded our flight to Dubai where we had decided to break our journey for a few days before arriving in Beijing. Kristian had spent 6 weeks on an internship a few years before there so knew the Chinese ways, people, people, cars, cars and bicycles.
Over the next few days the rest of the crews started to arrive and introductions were made. Although there were many who had rallied together before we were relieved to see some were first timers. Kristian had been looking forward to meeting the girls of the father and daughter crews, even a mother and daughter team as well! Looking back it was natural that with so many entrants, 100 plus cars, we would start to gel with those crews during the days to come.
The excitement and anticipation began to increase as we boarded the coaches to take us to reclaim our cars from the customs house and drive them back to the hotel. Seeing the Capri standing there after its sea journey from home to China was a great sight, especially when it started first turn. Only 2 cars broke down but were soon fixed.
The next day was busy packing in the last minute gear, and luggage brought from the UK, scrutineering, collecting route books, maps, loading way points into the Garmin and final briefings. A compulsory briefing was given by the chief of the traffic Police on how to drive in China including, a red light means stop! We had been issued with a temporary Chinese driving licence but one of the previous winners had now turned 80 and over 80s are not allowed to drive in China so his co-driver had to drive till we got to Mongolia!
In all 115 cars from 21 countries were lined up for the start ranging from 1915 La France, 1923 Vauxhall, 1930 Model A Ford through the 30s/40s Chevrolet Coupes, Bentleys and the Classic cars up to 1974, of Datsun 240Zs, Mercs, Alfas even a DB6 Aston.
Final night dinner with an early start to the Great Wall and our send off to the music and dancing of the colourful Chinese Dragons. So how did the rally work? No night driving unless you got lost or delayed. The longest day was about 690 Kms with some days around 350. Navigation was by a standard rally Tulip book used in conjunction with a trip meter distance measuring device for road sections. In the desert it was by pre-loaded way points using the Garmin GPS as there were no roads or tracks as such. Cars were waved off at one minute intervals each morning starting at 07.00 to 09.00, vintage cars first classics last. We had to check in at several points on the route each day on or ahead of our designated time or penalties applied to keeping a gold, silver or bronze finishers medal.
The real competitive element was the time trials, held in the desert section and through Russia and onwards to Italy ranging from 25 to 10 minute durations. Cars were fitted with a GPS tracker device which enabled our progress to be followed at home on the internet together with an emergency beacon which could be activated in order to find us if we got lost .A mandatory Sat Phone and extensive First aid kit also had to be carried. Accommodation was in hotels of varying standards and for 8 nights in tents in Mongolia, where we had to bring our own tents and sleeping bags; there are of course no camp sites in the Gobi Desert!
The first few days were uneventful, driving north through China to the border with Mongolia, apart from the hotels and food. Unfortunately we lost 4 cars out of the rally with terminal mechanical problems.
Our Gps Garmin packed up just before we got into Mongolia but another driver lent us his spare one for a few days until we were able to borrow another one from a driver whose car could go no further. First lesson learned bring 2 of everything you cannot do without!
First night camping, golden rule we had been told in the UK was try everything out before you leave, so far so good our 2 one man tents go up just as they did at home, then my one luxury, a collapsible camp bed instead of a thin air mattress, won’t fit in the tent! Left outside overnight only to find next morning a group of locals just waiting for us to drive off and the fastest runner claims the bed.
Excitement increased on anticipation of our first time trails, exhilarating driving on sand/gravel using waypoints and zig zagging round telegraph poles, one car rolls, all ok, Pierre quickest at the end of the day in the Classics. Next day more fun but Pierre has electrical problems and has to be flat bedded to Ulaam Baatar .We find ourselves top of the Classics and next day is a rest day in Ulaam Baatar, well a day to spanner check car, repair dented wheels after pounding in the desert. Some cars are in the local workshops having more serious attention but only a few unable to continue the next day and will catch us up in a few days time by taking a shorter route.
How about support in the rally? Well we were accompanied by 4 teams of sweep mechanics, 8 fantastic guys in 4 Toyota 4 x 4s and a medical team of 3 doctors. The ‘Sweeps’ could help you at a breakdown; try to fix you if possible if not you had to get a flatbed to take you to the nearest town for repairs. They would work all night to try and get you fixed at the overnight stop but if you could not leave next morning they had to leave with the rally and you were left on your own to find help with a local garage.
So day 7 started with chaotic traffic in Ulaam Baatar and our trip meter not working, we made the midday check point with 3 minutes to spare.
Shortly afterwards we went off road into the Gobi for a time trial, I was driving and disaster struck, an unseen 15ins deep rut across the apex of a sweeping long bend launched us into the air and we rolled coming to rest on 4 wheels but with serious impact damage. See U tube P2P Capri roll captured on our Go Pro.
Thankfully we were both OK, just a bump on the side of my head, no helmets allowed on P2P, Capri not Ok. 2 wrecked wheels, no windscreen, side window, broken TCA on front suspension, bonnet broken off, no front lights and interior resembling a sandy Caribbean beach! Medics and Sweeps arrive within half an hour and together we replace TCA as I had a spare, fit our 2 spare wheels and strap the bonnet on. Engine seems fine but medics won’t let me carry on so Kristian armed with a pair of goggles sets off to head for overnight camp site while I travel with Medics.
Willing hands clear out sand, wire up indicators and bring beers. Kristian instructed by medics to wake me at 03.00 to check I am still alive! Next day using a second pair of goggles we set off and thankfully no rain as we have no screen, all going well as engine, box and brakes all working even if car ‘crabbing’ a bit. Then bonnet flies off into desert ,takes 20 mins to find it and as we are the last car in the snake the tail end Charlie Sweep vehicle arrives and straps our bonnet to their 4 x 4 to take to next camp site. That night we work with sweeps to bash out front of car to secure bonnet safely with pegs and split pins. A kind driver gives us a fold up emergency windscreen which we fit.
Next morning radiator springs a big leak so we remove and solder up and have to cut a ‘port hole’ in temporary screen as impossible to see through it as has gone opaque .Well we somehow kept going into Russia 6 days later in spite of a complete battery failure ,due to impact of accident? Having to put back one of our wrecked wheels due to a puncture and wobbling 130kms at 20 mph, to add insult to injury having our bonnet driven over whilst on the ground by our tent one evening whilst queuing up for refuelling at the tanker brought into camp. Next morning turned it over, jumped on it a few times and it fitted good as new!
Once in Russia and our final night camping we made a decision to head straight to Novosibirsk, 2nd largest city in Russia, where a rest day was scheduled, missing out one night on route. This would give us 2 days to try and get repairs done to the Capri. We set off at 04.00 just as it was getting light to drive 1000 kms to a prearranged body shop, well chicken shed as it turned out, we got there by 18.00 using GPS coordinates to find it, only having to stop once and remove the engine thermostat which had refused to open after setting off and engine temp had reached 120.
Greeted by 3 Russians who spoke no English and with the help of someone they had found who did a little, we left the car with them in despair rather than hope and went to our first hotel night, shower and shave for 8 days. Next morning I returned to find the Capri was nowhere to be seen and a man working on the bonnet with an air hammer who with the help of sign language explained that it had been taken to have a new windscreen made. Whilst this sounded too good to be true at least there was a chance of it actually being so. Later that morning it returned and I could see that during the night a lot of progress had been made in reshaping the bodywork.
The next morning when I arrived there it was with a new safety glass windscreen and side window all in 24 hours! Work continued unabated, new wheels and tyres, Lada headlights, indicator lights bolted on the front bumper, more filler than metal now in the bodywork and later in the day they sprayed it.
When I drove it back into the rally parking area no one could believe it, in fact they said I had found another Capri in Russia.
From then on apart from a few minor if not time consuming mechanical problems, wheel bearings, clutch cables, punctures, electrical fire, fuel tank leak, wipers, rear axle oil seals to name a few the engine never missed a beat, thank you Scholar Engineering. We made it to Paris, got a Silver Medal, and came 3rd in the European Time trials for Classics under 2 L, out of 28 cars. 95 cars made it to Paris although some were out of the rally for several days having repairs and then caught up by taking a shorter route.
So would I do it again……No, once was enough for me and my wallet! We made it against all odds after the roll, it really did recreate that distant memory of real adventure, we made great friends, it was brutal with no down time really, dawn till bed time most days, amazing scenery especially Mongolia , raised £25,000 for various charities including over £5,000 for St Joseph’s African Aid run by Fr. Robert, bonded and unbonded at times with each other. Laughed a lot, nearly cried at times, left 2 people badly hospitalised after rolls in open cars but above all we were never towed or flat bedded for 9,500 miles across half the World and we were so privileged and lucky to have had the opportunity and experience.
As the rally Director said to me a few days after the roll ‘You have done well to keep going but this car will never be allowed on the roads in Europe’ ……..Then he didn’t know what the Russians could do for $1,300
The Capri should have been scrapped but I just couldn’t do it, so back to Lea and Thomas she went in September 16 to be collected in July this year looking better than ever after a new bonnet, front, lights and all, passenger door, 2 front wings, inner wing and more to boot.
Hopefully I will do another ‘softer’ rally one day to do her full justice, we shall see.
Justin Fleming OG 1968