To the Ends of the Earth
Written by Matthew Hocker
When the French newspaper Le Matin beckoned adventurous automobilists to travel from Peking (present-day Beijing) to Paris in 1907, few thought such an undertaking possible. Peter Raleigh of the Steam and Electric Car Review claimed, “…what [Marco Polo] could do trudging from monastery to monastery is quite other than can be done, even after the lapse of centuries, in a motor car.” Such sentiments failed to dissuade the most cunning of drivers, and four cars would compete in this Herculean trip.
The first to complete the journey was Italian Prince Scipione Borghese, armed with his trusty 1907 Itala. Borghese’s wealth was definitely an asset to his victory, as he hired a group of Chinese coolies to get the car out of tight spots in the trip’s early stages. However, intense planning likely played a greater role in his success. Before starting, he spent six days on horseback scouting out the terrain surrounding Beijing, going so far as to measure the narrowest points the car would need to pass through.
If Borghese was the strategist, then his driver and mechanic Ettore Guizzardi was his right-hand man. Ten years before the motor challenge, a train derailment injured Guizzardi and claimed the life of his father. Soon after, Borghese took the fifteen year old boy in as his own, nursed him back to health, and eventually trained and made Guizzardi his personal chauffeur.
Accompanying these two contestants was Luigi Barzini, a well-respected Italian journalist tasked with documenting the entire trip. Published in 1908, the culmination of his work was the book, La Metà Del Mondo Vista Da Un’automobile (English translation version is titled Pekin to Paris: An Account of Prince Borghese’s Journey across two Continents in a Motor-Car). With 645 pages and one hundred illustrations, the book chronicles the trio’s journey in exhaustive detail, including insights on cultures encountered, descriptions of terrain, and resourceful solutions to motoring troubles experienced along the way.
Of particular interest are Barzini’s accounts of reactions to the Itala throughout their travels. As they ventured into more remote locations, they came across peoples who often had never heard of a car, let alone seen one. While the Chinese appeared indifferent to what they termed the “chi-cho,” (fuel chariots) the most common reactions were a mix of fear and wonderment. For anxious individuals, closer inspection sometimes gave way to the latter.
In one case, a group of Mongolians warned of the Itala’s arrival overcame their worries and approached the car. A thorough examination of the vehicle left them convinced its source of power could only come from an invisible winged horse. On this, Barzini remarked, “they believe in the existence of a winged horse, but cannot believe in a complicated creation of the human intellect.” The Italian journalist’s reaction reflected the prevailing attitudes of his day; that nomadic peoples were primitive and inferior when stacked against the industrialized countries of western civilization.
Though repeatedly warned of bandits, poor and often non-existent roads posed the greatest threat to Borghese and crew. Driving through the Mongolian Steppes, they avoided losing their route by following telegraph poles. In Siberia, they took to traveling on railroad tracks despite concerns regarding inevitable wear to the Itala’s tires. While the rugged wooden ties proved formidable, bridges along the rail lines were often the safest bet for crossing rivers surrounding Lake Baikal.
Eventually, a stationmaster urged them to return to the main road because of a train headed their way. While they heeded this warning, fate dealt a critical blow when a rickety wooden bridge collapsed underneath the weight of their car, flipping it nearly upside down. Armed with ropes and hatchets, a team of locals worked together to free the battle-scarred vehicle from its awkward position. Remarkably, Borghese and his men avoided serious injury and, after some initial coaxing, Guizzardi had the engine up and running.
Following their misfortune with the bridge, a broken wheel created an additional setback. Salvation arrived in the form of a burly Russian wagon builder named Nikolai Petrovitch, who furnished a replacement. Middle-aged with years of experience, Petrovitch was the master of his craft and created a near replica from simply eyeballing the originals.
As frustrating as the bridge and wheel troubles were frequent rains, including those from China’s monsoon season, proved a greater headache. Under such circumstances, dirt roads required for travel often became muddied obstacles. Barzini referenced at least seven times whereby the Itala became dangerously entrenched in mud. Fortunately, locals were often more than willing to help, along with the occasional added strength of their horses and even oxen.
Relief was finally found in the paved roads of Europe, which allowed for smooth sailing in the final leg of the trip. After covering over 8,000 miles in little more than sixty-two days, the battered Itala rolled down the streets of Paris to thunderous applause from crowds of onlookers. They had completed that which had been previously thought impossible and, consequently, revealed the future potential of the automobile.
Interested in learning more about the 1907 Peking to Paris motor challenge? The library possesses the English and German translations of Barzini’s book, as well period trade journals with articles on the event. The motor challenge is also well-documented in several of our racing history books. Be sure to contact the library or pay us a visit to find out more.
Note: Pekin to Paris can be viewed online via the Internet Archive. Click here to read it.