Itala driven by Prince Borghese from Peking to Paris. Copyright
André Ritzinger. Courtesy of www.ritzsite.net
In 1907 eleven men set out to take the newly-born
automobile on an adventure across two continents and over deserts
and through swamps. Would it be up to the challenge?
In a article in the French newspaper Le Martin
in January of 1907, the editors raised a challenge to the world:
...We ask this question of car manufacturese
in France and abroad: Is there anyone who will undertake to travel
this summer from Paris to Peking by automobile? Whoever he is,
this tough and daring man, whose gallant car will have a dozen
nations watching its progress, he will certainly deserve to have
his name spoken as a byword in the four quarters of the earth...
Not only did one man take on this impossible challenge,
eleven men did. It became not only a difficult course to drive,
but a race. Probably the most incredible automobile race of all
In 1907 the automobile had only been around for
a little more than twenty years. The vehicles were under-powered
and unreliable compared to modern standards. Many people thought
these temperamental machines would never replace the horse. Still,
there was an enthusiasm about this new invention that is difficult
for us to grasp today. If they could be driven the 10,000 miles
from the capital of France to the capital of China, perhaps they
were more than mere toys for the rich.
The contestants consisted of eleven men driving
five cars: Charles Godard and Jean du Taillis (a correspondent
for the Le Matin) would drive a 15-horsepower (HP) Dutch Spyker.
A pair of French auto dealers sponsored matching 10HP De Dion
Boutons. Another Frenchman named Auguste Pons would try his luck
with a tiny three-wheeled 6HP Contal. The final, and most powerful
car, was a 40HP Itala driven by Prince Scipio Borghese.
Borghese was an Italian aristocrat, but his family
had lost much of its money and he had opted for a career in the
army. By age 36 Borghese had learned to be a consummate planner
and had traveled extensively before the Le Matin challenge appeared.
Driving with him would be two more Italians: Ettore Guizzardi,
Borghese's mechanic, and Luigu Barzini, a journalist.
It was decided that to avoid the monsoon rains,
the race would be reversed and start in Peking in May with the
cars driving westward to Paris. The course would take the contestants
over numerous mountain ranges and two major deserts. In many cases
there would be no real roads, but forest paths and caravan trails.
Dutch Spyker similar to the car driven by Godard.Copyright
André Ritzinger. Courtesy of www.ritzsite.net
Prince Borghese used all his planning skills to
give his team the best chance of winning the race. He arranged
for extra fuel and spare parts to be cached along the route. Before
the race started, he took a three-hundred mile ride on horseback
to the mountain passes north of Peking carrying a bamboo pole
cut to the width of his car to see if the Itala could squeeze
through the tight trails. Where the way was too narrow, Borghese
found an alternate route or hired troops of coolies to widen the
Godard, driving the Spyker, was perhaps the exact
opposite of the Prince. A bit of a con-man, Godard did a minimal
amount of planning and sold most of his spare parts to purchase
his first-class passage to Peking. He would be dead-broke when
he arrived. His partner on the trip protested his lack of foresight,
but Godard replied. "Either I shall never see Paris again
or I shall come back to it in my Spyker, hot from Peking!"
The start of the race was set for June 10th. The
only problem was that the Chinese government, after first authorizing
the race, refused to provide the racers with papers to travel
through Mongolia. As the race day approached, both Godard and
Borghese decided to start on time, papers or not, and risk the
ire of the government. After they declared their intentions, the
rest of the group decided to join them.
A French military band led the cars out of the city
on the appointed day as the crowds around them cheered and celebrated
with firecrackers. It wasn't long before the group began to have
problems, though. A hard rain soaked the crews in the open cars
and turned the road muddy.
Italia is pushed over a mountain pass.
Soon they approached the Western mountains that
separated northern China from the Mongolian plains. The paths
were narrow. In some places the trail was cut out of a cliff with
a shear drop into a gorge only inches from the car's tires. Much
of the road was too steep for the car's little engines, and mules
or men pulling ropes hitched to the cars were needed to drag them
through the mountain passes. Once the Itala got away on a downhill
slope with Guizzardi at the wheel. The brakes could not hold the
vehicle on the steep grade. The mechanic spun the wheel wildly,
trying to keep the car from driving off the narrow road into the
gorge beside the trail. By some miracle he brought the Itala to
a stop at the bottom safely.
After the mountains the next obstacle for the racers
was the forbidding Gobi Desert. Pons quickly ran out of gas and
he and his co-driver found themselves stranded. They began walking
back to civilization, but they had almost no water. Fortunately
nomadic Mongolians found the pair before the heat killed them.
Pons, having narrowly escaped with his life, decided to give up
the race, leaving only the four remaining teams to trek across
the hot, sandy wastes. His little three-wheeled car was left to
rust in the desert.
The racers kept on track through the desert by following
the telegraph line. The engines on their cars were not built with
such intense heat in mind and quickly started boiling over. This
meant the teams were forced to feed the radiators their own reserves
of drinking water to keep them running. A dangerous practice.
Barzini used the telegraph to report back to his
newspaper as often as he could. At the tiny village of Hong-Pong,
Barzini strode into the telegraph office to send that day's report.
He noticed that his telegram was marked as "No. 1" At
first Barzini thought that meant it was the first telegraph sent
that day. He was amazed to find out it meant that his was the
first telegraph to originate from Hong-Pong in the six years the
station had been there.
Travel in the desert, as it turned out, was faster
than the mountains. It had taken five days to get over the mountains,
much slower than a camel caravan. The Itala only took four days
to cross the desert, however, something that a caravan did in
seventeen days. As the race left the Mongolian plain to enter
the mountains at the Russian border, Prince Borghese's team (in
the Itala) was in the lead at least a half-day in front of the
Wilderness of Siberia
Borghese hoped that he would make good time traveling
through Siberia. The maps showed a military road stretching across
the wilderness. What the maps did not show was that the road had
been abandoned when the Trans-Siberian Railway had been completed
four years before. The forest had reclaimed much of the road and
many bridges had been washed away. Others were in bad shape. Borghese
took to running at them at full throttle trying to get across
before they collapsed completely.
The race nearly ended for the Itala when it tried
to cross one bridge. Guizzardi was at the wheel and Borghese ordered
him to drive slowing across the rickety structure. They'd gotten
more than halfway when suddenly the planks under the Itala's rear
wheels gave way. The back of the car plunged through the bridge
as the vehicle did a backwards somersault. Barzini, the reporter,
fell the farthest. He found himself under the bridge with a rain
of broken planks and debris falling on him. Borghese found himself
hanging under the car covered with oil. Guizzardi, who was thrown
from his seat in the fall, managed to extract the Prince and the
reporter from the wreckage. It was a miracle that all three survived
without major injury.
Italia and the failed bridge.
The Itala was in good shape, also. A heavy beam
had slowed the fall of the front of the car and spare tires had
cushioned the impact of the rear. It took three hours to pull
the car from the wreckage of the bridge and get it back on to
the road, but when Guizzardi cranked the handle, the machine started
right up. "She seems quite safe," he said with a smile.
Occasionally the racers would use the railway tracks
for a road. Two planks would be used to allow the car to mount
the track with one set of wheels riding on the outside of the
rails and one on the inside. At first the tracks seemed a great
relief after fighting their way through waist-deep mud and ruts.
After a while, though, the jarring and jerking of the auto along
the sleepers became quite nerve-racking. The motorists called
the movement a "horrible dance."
Once the Itala got stuck on the tracks before an
oncoming train. The crew worked furiously trying to get it loose
with levers. They got it safely off just in time.
They had been having trouble with the Itala's wheels
all through Siberia. In order to cope with the mud, Prince Borghese
had wrapped chains round the wheels to give them traction. This
worked well but put stress on the wooden spokes making them crack.
Temporary repairs were made but the problem continued to worsen.
Finally the left-front wheel splintered into pieces leaving the
Itala stuck, unable to move another foot.
Fortunately the nearest village contained a cartwright
of considerable skill. He managed to chop a new wheel for Borghese
out of aged pinewood using only a hatchet. "The hatchet becomes
in the hands of the Russian peasant a wonderfully exact tool,"
observed Barzini. In only a few hours after this major problem
occurred it had been solved and the Itala was on its way again.
On July 20th the Itala passed a marble signpost designating the
line between Asia and Europe. The Itala rolled in to Moscow a
week later ahead of the competition by almost seventeen days.
From that point on the trip became comparatively
uneventful. Only one incident caused any problem for the Prince.
A policeman in Belgium stopped the Itala for going over the speed
limit. When the policeman asked for identification, the Prince
announced, "I am Prince Borghese - we have just driven from
Peking, China." There was a delay as the policeman confirmed
this incredible tale.
On August 10th, 1907, the Itala entered Paris winning
the race. It had taken sixty-one days to drive from Peking to
Paris. Crowds cheered and lined the streets into the city. "It
all seems absurd and impossible; I cannot convince myself that
we have come to the end, that we have really arrived," wrote
The pair of De Dion-Burtons and the Spyker arrived
in Paris 20 days later. Godard, who had been removed as the driver
in Berlin over a money dispute with Le Martin, never completed
the trip and a driver from Spyker had to steer the car into Paris.
Prince Borghese and the other drivers had proved
that the car was here to stay. Others have attempted to trace
Prince Borghese's trail, but with limited success. In 1957 Luigi
Barzini Jr. asked clearance from the Russians to retrace his father's
route, but they would not give him permission. In 1997 a road
rally was held to commemorate the race, but the route did not
pass through Siberia.
So 1907 race has never quite been repeated. The
racers' feat stands alone as one of the most sensational achievements,
unequaled, in automobile history.
race route from Peking, China, to Paris, France.
A Partial Bibliography
Peking to Paris: Prince Borghese's Journey Across Two Continents
in 1907, by Luigu Barzini, Translation by L.P. DE Castelvecchio,
Library Press, 1973.
Prince Borghese's Trail, by Genevieve Obert, Council Oak
Copyright 2003, Lee Krystek.
All Rights Reserved.